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Theatre and Mental Health: Why I am Worried to Talk

theatre and mental health
By Ross Collins Mackay

Last year I wrote a blog about my mental health and how it is tied to my work as a theatre maker. I think it generated a lot of discussion, and it was also a great help for me, as many people reached out with kind words and boosted my self-esteem when it was at its lowest.

The blog undoubtedly was a useful stage in my recovery so it would make sense that I write another while I’m struggling again. But this time it has been much harder. I have tried to type some words every day for about three weeks and I haven’t been able to until maybe this moment. We will soon see… this might be deleted or if you are reading this now, then it might just be that I’ve manged to scramble something together. Thank you, I hope it is a worthwhile read.

The last few months have been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I have been signed off again after having a big dip in my mental health.

I had to leave a production I cared deeply about and was really excited to work on. To top it off, with my actions, I scared a lot of people whom I love and respect. This has naturally come with lots of mixed up feelings, guilt, helplessness, vulnerability and huge amounts of regret. I am getting lots of support and help to deal with it. My family are caring for me on an hour to hour basis and supporting me in particularly low ‘can’t get out of bed days.’ The NHS mental health team and doctors in Fife are working with me to try and make this a long-lasting recovery. My industry peers have picked up and carried on what I had to leave behind.

One of the ways this was achieved was by putting the standard out of office on my email. My colleagues picked up any emails coming my way and spoke to contacts, carefully explaining that I was taking some time off and they would deal with things in my absence. This is of course absolutely the right protocol. Standard procedure, I would imagine, for any sickness. My team mates were stepping in and stepping up to ensure that I could step away. This meant I should not stress over work and focus on my recovery.

The only thing was, this is incredibly difficult. As difficult as it is to write this blog. As difficult as it is to write in a tweet that I’ve been unwell. As difficult as it is to mention to friends and colleagues when I see them face to face.

This is for one simple reason, I am scared of letting people know. I’m scared that ‘everyone gets one’ is the way we might look at the world. Ross was unwell but now he’s better. But if he’s ill again, not even one year after the last time, then maybe, he’s not getting better. Maybe the unconscious bias is that I have just put myself in the unreliable zone. There is a truth in that. I have dropped the ball on things, twice. That’s hard to say but maybe that’s what other people might think.

I worry a lot about what the narrative of having a consistent mental health problem might do in an industry where work can ebb and flow and there is no shortage of artistic talent who can do what I do, reliably.

I also worry about what that means as a director who is looking to take on more demanding projects with greater strains and stresses. Does it seem like I can’t cope?

I also worry about my role within the room. If the director is anxious, that can feed into the room and affect the process. Even if the anxiety is medical and unrelated to the strength of the project. No one wants that director in their rehearsal rooms.

I’m unsure how many of these worries are well-founded and how many are fed by my current high level of anxiety.

What I do know is that so far, the industry has been incredibly supportive and open.

Amazing podcasts like ‘Don’t Speak’ by Mim Attwood and Amy Taylor, and ‘Putting It Together’ by Brian O’Sullivan are opening up debate about mental health. Activists like Drew Taylor, Cultured Mongrel’s Emma Jayne Park and FST’s recent training programme highlight our growing awareness in Scotland to consider mental health in an industry that can sometimes be very exposing.

However, my recent bout of mental health has made me wonder What Can We Do Better?

I am a heterosexual white middle-class who has the wide support of family and friends. I am incredibly privileged and yet I have been knocked by the pressure of our industry. Mental health affects us all so we need to ensure that our industry can protect those less well supported by our society. We need to make space for more diverse voices, so we need to do more for well-being in our industry.

For instance, we need to create opportunities for people to talk about mental health not just at external training events but when they are right in the midst of productions. Can we make people aware of who they can check in with throughout the process without feeling embarrassed or stigmatised?

We need to examine how the rehearsal process works. I love a tech week. Love it. But recently as I was signed back into work my doctor recommended me working only 37 hours. I completely ignored this. Production weeks are not scheduled this way and I didn’t feel empowered to have the conversation.

Schedules are in place and the show has to work to the deadline of opening night. So, I ignored the advice and I worked. And this has arguably had an impact. It was my own decision and I take this on but could an actor or a stage manager really feel supported to ask for reduced hours on production week? Would it be allowed. Maybe we need to start thinking differently to ensure that we can support a neurodiverse team to work in new ways to make exciting new work.

Is there that space when you have a cup of tea with a new theatre or producer or company where we can ask each other not just what do we want to make but how we can support each other in the best ways to do it? Each artist might have different invisible needs. Is there a way we can make the conversation easier and not necessarily rest on the shoulders of the freelance artist pitching for work?

‘I would love to direct a show for you, can I get some extra time to stretch out the tech weeks?’

I’m not even sure I could say that right now. I need to get better at figuring out what I need and talking up front about it. But if there is an early career artist struggling like I have; can we find a way to make those questions and conversations easier for them?

This has been a hard blog to write and I don’t have any answers (evidently, I’m bloody sick again) but I’m heartened by the support I have been given. I know there are wonderful artists, producers and theatres working hard to figure this out. I hope my experience might help a little.


Also by Ross Collins Mackay:

Anxiety And Theatre: Must The Show Go On?

Freelance Life: Bumps In the Road

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