Crazy for Theatre

Mental Illness and Theatremaking

This summer I attended a playwriting conference, where, at the end of every day, I skipped the evening of drinking, socializing, and networking. I’d return to my room to write and go to bed early. On the last night, I decided to go to the bar for a bit. One of the friends I’d made over the last few days saw me and joked, “Hey! You didn’t go home to take your meds tonight!” I tried to smile and laugh it off, but the joke hit me hard.

My friend had no idea that I have bipolar disorder, nor of the fear and shame that their words would cause me. I’m not sure why they made this joke, but in the moment I was not brave enough to admit to my mental illness and call out the inappropriateness of the comment. I certainly did not have the presence of mind to explain that to avoid manic episodes I have to end evenings early enough to go home, take my medication, and get a good night’s sleep.

Being a mentally ill theatremaker comes with its own specific challenges. Different mental illnesses require different care, but the majority are exacerbated by lack of routine, insufficient sleep, alcohol use, lack of access to health care, and undue stress—all elements of most theatre careers. Mental illnesses are chronic, requiring a redefinition of self after diagnosis, a lifetime of management, and the navigation of a complicated healthcare system—many of the same factors discussed in HowlRound’s series Chronic Theatremakers. Mental illnesses are also rarely talked about in our field, though a wonderful exception is the roundtable on the topic at The Interval.

There are many reasons people may be hesitant to talk about something as personal as mental illness, but one common fear is a stigma—particularly for women and people of color—of appearing “weak” or “unstable,” which the label “mentally ill” calls up. It was no surprise to me that the majority of people I interviewed for this article wanted to remain anonymous. My own ability to be “out” about my mental illness is buttressed by the fact that I have tenure at an academic institution.

person leans against a wall near a guitar

Ian Westerfer in Baal at Tuta Theatre Chicago. Directed by Zeljko Djukic, scenic design by Brandon Wardell, lighting design by Keith Parham, costume design by Natasha Djukic.

Another male tenured professor of theatre, the lighting and scenic designer Brandon Wardell, is also “out” about his depression and anxiety, but he still experiences issues with networking. “Even with more design offers than I can possibly take and a tenured university job, it’s hard to stay positive much of the time,” he says.

Nothing is ever enough to overcome [the depression and anxiety]. Primarily this has affected my career in terms of limiting or preventing my access to certain opportunities. It doesn’t matter how good I am at my craft, I’ll never be that gregarious, outgoing, drinking buddy that most directors prefer.

Nearly all the artists I spoke with who self-identify as mentally ill described something similar: that the anxiety and self-monitoring we feel in social settings drastically limits our ability to be a “drinking buddy” kind of collaborator. San Francisco playwright and director Stuart Bousel explains that the one of the effects of his OCD is that he has to limit the amount of time he spends making and watching theatre. An actor with PTSD I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous, described feeling like their career is not growing at the same rate as their peers’ because they can’t attend as many plays and networking events. This, then, sparks a cycle where they audition for a ton of shows and take on too many roles, which leads to an anxiety that sets off their PTSD symptoms. They try to power through, but at the end feel exhausted and unhappy, so they stop attending shows and networking events, until the cycle begins again. They don’t tell their colleagues about these issues for fear of being labeled as whiny and hard to work with.

Different mental illnesses require different care, but the majority are exacerbated by lack of routine, insufficient sleep, alcohol use, lack of access to health care, and undue stress—all elements of most theatre careers.

This fear of stigma was pretty common among those I spoke to, and I certainly feel it myself. A director who did not wish to be named said that they, particularly as a female, did not want to appear “weak in a male-dominated field.”

To take an example from my own career, I wrote my play Joan’s Laughter about Joan of Arc specifically to address the question of whether mental illness and divine inspiration can coexist. But when the play was produced, I struggled to discuss my own hallucinatory experiences that cropped up during manic episodes, which I took to be religious. I thought speaking openly about these experiences would keep artists from wanting to work with me and universities from hiring me. This was despite the fact that my illness is medicated and under control, like any other chronic illness.

two performers onstage, one in chains and yelling

Matlyn Rybak and Mitchell Connolly in Joan's Laughter at Southern Illinois University. Written by Jacob Juntunen, directed by Megan Smith McGuane, scenic and lighting design by Jake Josef, costumes by Lauren Josef, props by M.K. Hughes. Photo by Robert Holcomb.

Katie Otten, an actor in Omaha, describes not wanting to tell anyone of her anorexia:

In the past I never told people in the theatre world because eating disorders seem to have a stigma attached to them still, and people generally don’t understand much about them.

Despite aspects of acting, like costume fittings, being extremely difficult for her, Otten did not discuss her illness with her collaborators for fear they would not understand. People can underestimate mental illness, thinking, say, that depression is simply feeling sad, or that if someone is depressed, all it takes is a certain amount of willpower to get them out of the “funk.” Instead, of course, depression—and all mental illness—is a medical condition that requires treatment, just like any other illness. That lack of understanding, and the fear that people won’t understand, keeps many of us from speaking freely about our mental illnesses.

One aspect of mental illness and art that is frequently and dangerously misunderstood is that mental illness is good for creating art. The “crazy genius” label can be romanticized as the brilliant Hannah Gadsby describes in her show Nanette. When I first got treatment seventeen years ago, I worried whether taking drugs to control my illness would harm my art. As it turns out, my writing is far more clear when my thinking is not racing at supersonic speeds or crawling under the weight of depression.

Playwright Lesley Scammell describes the relationship between her writing and her depression this way:

Having come through it, I might say that my struggles helped make me the person and writer I am today, but who can tell? I can only say maybe it was worth it because I’m through it. At the time I would’ve given all that up for relief. I think it’s sometimes romanticized, the tortured artist, suffering makes art. No. Suffering makes suffering and if you’re dead you can’t make art.

Similarly, Otten says

My eating disorder used to take up about 75 percent of my thoughts at all times, so I wasn’t able to really dive into theatre at the capacity I wanted to. As I’ve recovered, I’ve learned that I’m capable of so much more when not consumed by my disorder.

This makes sense, when you think about it: art requires precision, concentration, and craft. If your mind isn’t functioning at its highest capacity, of course your art won’t reach its potential. But the myth of mental illness benefitting art is so strong that when I recently saw a new general practitioner and I mentioned my illness and profession, even this excellent doctor said to me, “Did treating your mental illness hurt your writing?” No doubt some of this myth is perpetuated by the shows created by theatre itself—thanks, Hamlet!

One aspect of mental illness and art that is frequently and dangerously misunderstood is that mental illness is good for creating art.

actor kneeling while another actor hovers behind

Peter Oyloe, Lindsey Gavel in Baal at Tuta Theatre Chicago. Directed by Zeljko Djukic, scenic design by Brandon Wardell, lighting design by Keith Parham, costume design by Natasha Djukic.

In fact, the theatre often seems better at depicting mental illness than offering mentally ill artists what we need. People I spoke with for this article mentioned Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, and Marsha Norman’s ’night, Mother as important scripts for them. Wardell said that

As an industry I think we are quite tolerant of those with mental illnesses, but there also comes a point where the show will not go on unless everyone pulls their weight. It is at those times that I see the business of theatre push those people out.

But what is the alternative? With dwindling audiences and razor thin margins to keep companies going, how can things be improved?

One strategy that many people suggested was a greater openness in listening to artists with mental illnesses. Designer and puppet maker Essie Windham said,

There is a lot of feeling and a lot of stress in the theatre. People feel impassioned, anxious, disempowered, and confused during the creation process, and being able to recognize what feelings were not mine and give someone space to feel what they needed to without taking it on myself has been valuable.

Wardell similarly states that by being open and honest with his students, he can create a space where they can come to him—sometimes even as alumni—to discuss their own journeys with mental illness and theatre. One director, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that their own struggles with mental illness allowed them to recognize a similar struggle in a student, which led to getting the student help.

These stories point to a twofold suggestion about practical actions that can be taken to improve the position of the mentally ill in theatre: those of us who have some power need to be brave enough to be “out” about our mental illnesses, since we face fewer consequences, and everyone who is mentally ill in the theatre needs to be given the space by those in power to express their fears, conditions, and needs. In essence, an open dialogue needs to be encouraged and made safe.

This summer, when my friend from the playwriting conference said they were glad I’d stayed out drinking instead of “going home to take my meds,” I should have spoken up. I should have used the moment to explain my situation. I know they would have been mortified at their unintentional insult. But I was scared, as many of us with mental illness dread being “out,” for fear of losing work and hurting our reputations. My fear stemmed from a belief that my friend would look at my bipolar disorder as something other than what it is: a managed, chronic illness. I hope the conversations that are beginning around this topic in our industry lead to a time when no one feels afraid to reveal a mental illness.

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Anyone willing to improve their awareness of how to recognize and work with people who experience mental illness can start this process by taking a simple workshop. Here is an example, sponsored by a Canadian Health and Safety consultant. Sellery Health + Safety [janet@selleryhealthandsafety.com]

Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) teaches skills to non-professionals. You will learn how to:

  • Identify when a person may be a danger to themself or others - and what to do
  • Recognize the signs of mental health problems and provide help to prevent more serious problems or avoid a crisis
  • Provide comfort to someone with a mental health problem and support them in recovery of their mental health
  • Guide a person toward appropriate professional help
  • Improve your own mental health
  • Contribute to a mentally healthy workplace

or interested persons can seek resources like Mental Health First Aid based in 21 countries: e.g.  https://www.mhfa.ca/en/find-instructor 

Thanks, Peter, for these resources!

It makes me think of the "Safe Space" training that most campuses in the USA have to help train faculty and staff on LGBTQ+ issues. I wonder if making available a similar mental health "safe space" training from campus counseling and psychiatric services would help the issue in higher ed? And perhaps, if that became a standard type of training in higher ed, it would filter out into the industry as well?

Yes!! thank you for sharing and for opening the conversation. There is so little awareness training given to (or sought by) educators, let alone "people with power" (and hence responsibility) in professional arts organizations (not just theatre) or their unions & associations to enable artists, artisans and facilitators to include people with mental illness in their process and to benefit from their insights.