Making Monsters: Mental health in theatre creation


Across acting methodologies there's an age-old, fork-in-the-road debate of whether it is wise to bring personal history into character creation or to develop from solely imagination/physical exploration. Actors are mosaics of past physical and emotional experiences so there is no denying your life will influence your work on stage. However, as with anything, there are degrees of sourcing influences from your personal life scaling from the mundane to the extreme.


By "bringing personal history" in, I mean, say, if you are playing a character who has their heart broken, you recall a moment in high-school when your crush chose to dance with another girl even though you asked him to the dance... and it shattered you... and affected your love life for years...and you wonder where he is now...



(I'll never forgive you Dylan.)




Personal memory in acting is a useful tool: I have definitely drawn from my life for work in the past and I absolutely will again, there's no doubt of that. I also don't judge actors who rely on this technique entirely. As long as you're a contributing member of your craft and your work supports the ensemble, power to you for any technique you utilize. But there are levels of human experience which if relived, can harm a person. There's a space where the discussion of bringing in mental health histories should be evaluated and not taken lightly.


Here's the impasse: there are stories about mental health that need to be told, that MUST be told, so my big question to myself was and is now to you, dear reader:


How do you navigate sensitive personal material with gentleness, but also an ability to grab the work by the horns and serve the public in boldly and entertainingly sharing your story?



Get that theatre! Get it!


WELL! LET'S DISCUSS SHALL WE?


My grad thesis, performed for a live audience (!!!) in September, 2021, was a 35min solo performance created and based on writing, poems, songs and imagery from my experiences with OCD. The show meant so much to me to make, it was an idea that had been percolating for nearly a decade and I didn't want to leave out anything crucial to the adventure of the heroine, but there was one part, one character introduction, that I couldn't get through without breaking down.


After one particularly challenging rehearsal, I confided in a very wise friend who said something to the effect of "if you are still struggling with it, there's something you haven't processed fully yet." And this was the truth. I STILL had fear of showing my dark side, of revealing the supposed vile-ness of my inner mind. I still had that terrible, awful, worst word of all... shame.


But I didn't want to give up, I couldn't and wouldn't give up, because it just meant too much to me to tell this story. It meant too much for me to finally share this journey. It would have broken my heart to leave anything out.


Facing the challenge, I had to find a way forward. In the past I would have barrelled through but something was different this time. I had grown, I had traveled across the world, I knew myself better, I was more loving to myself than before, I also knew I didn't have to do it alone. There had to be a gentler way than just suffering through for the sake of the piece but one that got the job DONE.


So I did what any mental health wise-ish human does, I dug into my self-care toolkit. I had an hour long video conversation with my sister about the work and how it was affecting me. Then I spoke with my boyfriend (also an actor) about the section that was triggering identity threatening thoughts (beginnings of dissociative episodes.) We came up with several ideas (sock puppets were discussed) to get through the section without me fully physically embodying the part. After a few days away from the material (and cuddles and movies and treats) I was able to dive back in to the studio with options to continue and clarity of why I had struggled.


As soon as there were ideas for a level of removal from the material, I had confidence I could make it through that portion of the show without losing the importance of the moment. I could use technique and creativity to circle the challenge.


In the end, after removing myself from the equation, I was able to perform the piece as originally intended, fully embodying the character that had scared the living daylights out of me previously. The how was that I A: identified with support from friends and my partner that I didn't need to force myself to do anything I didn't feel safe doing, and B: I focused on exploring the character physically instead of cerebrally and this made it less about me and entirely on the experience the audience would have of this character. I wasn't even part of the equation, I was just a vehicle for something I had imagined.



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In conclusion mis amores...


Using personal mental illness history to create a piece of art is potentially unsettling and should not be undertaken without a significant and well-informed support system.


There is no point, need or glory in re-traumatization.


I underestimated the material based on trauma but I guess you never stop learning when it comes to your brain and the choices you make to navigate it.


When encountering a concept or memory that causes distress, I urge the creator to understand they have no obligation to cause further trauma in the development of their art. It's never, ever worth it. The reality could be that you have not processed the experience fully and therefore may need to pause, reflect and only return when you are leading the process from a position of understanding and self-love, or not return at all and have the courage to walk away. There are limitless creative alternatives to theatrical moments and sharing with fellow creatives you trust and who know your history is another excellent resource to ensure you don’t force material when you could find an equally viable artistic option that does not cause harm.


Everybody needs a lift sometime.



I wouldn't change what happened. Work that exposes and explains mental illness is incredibly important and rewarding and it has the power to connect others with their own traumas in a revelatory and communal way: making others feel less alone.


One last serious thought, I promise. A very recent study that looked at the effects of re-traumatization in adolescents discovered that subjects who faced a collective traumatic experience who had previous trauma were more likely to have higher rates of depression and PTSD. “This evidence suggests re-traumatization is both longer-lasting and more widespread than might be predicted on a case-by-case basis... *(Pazderka, Brown et al 2021) There is no nobility in re-traumatization. There is no justification for causing further harm and the repercussions for doing so are real.




You are the primary advocate for your boundaries and well-being and it is no one else's responsibility but your own to be clear about them but that also means having boundaries with yourself. The work is the work and it's our job as actors to know technique so that if and when we encounter create with demanding personal material we can use our tool kit to tell the story, serve the story, give the audience what they paid for and get on with our lives after. It's a tightrope, one we're all walking and I am grateful that this experience taught me how to make and use a safety net.












*Source: Pazderka, H., Brown, M.R.G., Agyapong, V.I.O., Greenshaw, A.J., McDonald-Harker, C.B., Noble, S. and Mankowski, M. (2021) 'Collective Trauma and Mental Health in Adolescents: A Retrospective Cohort Study of the Effects of Retraumatization', Frontiers in Psychiatry, 25 June, NA, available: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A674950961/AONE?u=uce&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=f0aca 810 [accessed 23 Sep 2021].




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