Being aware of mental health awareness week in the theatre industry
In the musical Hairspray, black kids are invited to appear on the Corny Collins TV show once a month only, on what's referred to as Negro Day. Tracy Turnblad, the show's heroine, proudly proclaims: "Negro Day's the best! I wish every day were Negro Day!" To which her black friend Seaweed replies, "At our house, it is."
Likewise, this week happens to be mental health awareness week; but in my house, it always is. I've lived my entire adult life - and some of my childhood, too - in the shadow of recurring depressions that I can first remember hitting me when I was around 14 (though I didn't have a name for it yet then, and the seeds for it were sown even younger).
Interestingly enough, I discovered theatre when I was that age, too, and the play that did it for me was being taken on a school trip in my birth town of Johannesburg, South Africa, to see (of all things!) a production of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea - a story about a woman who, in the grip of an addictive, unrequited love affair with a much younger man she has left her distinguished but dull judge of a husband for, attempts suicide.
I still wonder just how my 14-year-old self identified so fiercely with her predicament, since at that point I'd not suffered the pain of a non-reciprocal relationship or abandonment myself. Or maybe, deep in my subconscious, I had, with a father who was utterly incapable of showing love.
Anyway, I immediately woke up to the fact that theatre could help me not just make sense of my life, but would soon become my life. Around that time I saw the Broadway musical Pippin for the first time, also in Johannesburg, and again it spoke to me -- in ways that I didn't necessarily identify at the time, but which now has a remarkable resonance.
As I wrote in a review of the last London revival of the show at Southwark Playhouse, "Corner of the Sky, the song in which the title character poetically sets out the journey towards finding purpose, meaning and contentment in his life that the show then goes on to show his pursuit of, may just be my single favourite song from any musical ever."
And I went on to say, "As fun as the show is, it is also piercingly dark, too, as its hero deals with what is patently a depressive illness - and is advised on how to deal with it by his grandmother, who also openly admits to it. "When the drearies do attack/ And a siege of the sads begins," she sings; and then says, "I drop these regal shoulders back/ And lift this noble chins," determining that it's time to start living, "time to take a little from this world we're given/ Time to take time, for spring will turn to fall/ In just no time at all."
One of the sadder facts of that production was that one of its young cast members - who appeared in its earlier Manchester run at Hope Mill Theatre before it transferred to London - committed suicide between the two runs, aged just 19. Her family created the Olivia Faulkner Trust to raise awareness of mental illness in the dance and musical theatre industry.
Depression, as this demonstrates, can kill; but theatre has also helped me to find a way out of the darkness. Pippin dates from 1972; but two newer Broadway musicals this century have also cast an illuminating light on just how I've often felt. One is Next to Normal, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 - and is unaccountably yet to be seen in the UK - deals perceptively and poignantly with a mother who seeks treatment for bipolar illness and the grief over the loss of a son that exacerbates it.
As I've written elsewhere, with songs like 'My Psychopharmacologist and I' (about her treatment regime, which you can listen to here, "it’s not an obvious subject for musical theatre success, yet on each of the nine times I saw it on Broadway the show stunned its audience to rapt concentration and identification. We are not alone."
An all-consuming loneliness is, of course, a primary characteristic of depression. Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin's stunning musical version of the Rubin-scripted film Groundhog Day is, as I've also previously written, "a portrait of a man stuck in an all-consuming depression: when you are depressed, every day feels the same, that you are stuck in an endless cycle that you can’t escape and can’t change. Even his attempts to kill himself are thwarted. But he does eventually break free of it – partly through music, partly through selflessness and kindness, as he learns to help others, not just himself."
And that's a lesson I've learned for myself, after I joined a 12-step recovery programme for addiction: that we’re not alone on that journey and we can help ourselves by helping each other. My biggest breakthrough yet came about six months into joining the group: I was in New York over Christmas four and a half years ago, attending meetings every single day including on Christmas Day itself, when I felt the depression I was then in (which lasted 21 months), lifting in the rooms. I have been depression-free ever since: the longest period in my entire life.
That's not to say that bad stuff doesn't happen to me still, or worse feelings engulf me; in the last six months I've had to deal with the loss of my beloved mother and a professional situation. But I've also been able to not allow it to send me spiralling towards hopelessness.
Just as addicts are always in recovery, not recovered, and need to remember that recovery is one day at a time, I don't want to tempt fate by saying I've conquered my depressions; but my addictions - which are a way of numbing the pain and trying to escape it - have in fact helped me to understand myself better than ever before.