The Show Must Go On: A Masquerade of Mental Illness

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Article/Graphic by Bri Schwartz: Editor in Chief

“The Show Must Go On.” It’s a common phrase that many young thespians learn. While things may be going on outside of your control, there is still a show to do and work that must be done. This true statement is why I think that experience in theatre at a young age breeds hard and dedicated workers. This statement also breeds stressed-out and anxious workers.

A study done in the The Indian Journal of Psychiatry titled “Creativity and mental health: A profile of writers and musicians” includes the following paragraph:

“Almost any extraordinary performance or creative achievement, then – whether it is in writing, music, poetry, philosophy, dance, art, sculpture or intellectual discovery – could be said to be the variants of the belief that there can be ‘no great genius without some touch of madness.’ References to famous, emotionally disturbed artists, writers, poets, composers, scientists and philosophers – Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka, Edward Munch, Ezra Pound, Delmore Schwartz, William Cowper, Ernest Hemingway, Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene O’Neill, Charles Darwin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and others are cited widely in the literature. Likewise, results of various studies and anecdotal reports suggest an increased rate of schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, depression, personality disorder or alcoholism in creative individuals. While it is quite clear that emotional instability is usually detrimental to creativity, it also may be advantageous. It may provide the intense motivation, the conviction, egocentrism, the unconventionality, the imagination and the inspiration so necessary for new discoveries and breakthroughs. It may also allow the artist, writer, poet, composer and scientist to escape the powerful social and cultural constraints that mostly favor conformity and convention.”

Another study done by Victoria University in 2015 found that “performing arts workers experience symptoms of anxiety ten times higher than the general population, and depression symptoms five times higher, saying that these statistics can be directly attributed to financial insecurity and poor working conditions.”

Warning: I’m about to get really candid, and I’m not sorry about it.

I have Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety, and am under observation by a psychiatrist on the possibility of a Manic Depression diagnosis (otherwise known as Bipolar Disorder). Two years ago, I could not even come to terms with myself that I had a diagnosis, let alone share it with the world.

Since coming to college, I have felt more secure in talking about my mental illness. One, because I am a firm believer in talking about something until it loses its power, and two, because everyone around me seems to be struggling with something. Transparency in others has contributed greatly in my own healing. In fact, I haven’t met one entirely emotionally secure person during my time in the arts. The study I mention above is confirmation as to why this may be.

Talking about my illnesses is great. Knowing that I am not alone in my struggles is great. Reading studies about mental health struggles among artists being normal is great. I also see a therapist weekly, and have found it extremely useful to dissect my daily routines and habits. Being able to type in a document that will later be published so openly and honestly is a healing step for me.

However, one hour every week and the knowledge that I am not alone isn’t enough. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. Sometimes I can’t walk through the lobby of the theatre school without having a moment of panic once I am alone in the elevator. Sometimes I have to develop motivation to get out of bed and make those moments of panic as small as possible because once I step out of that elevator I have to attend a four hour rehearsal.

Sometimes I’m not sure if those rehearsals are the best distraction or my worst enemy. I have absolutely bought into the romanization of being busy. On average, I take around eight classes and work on one to two shows per quarter. I work at a theater here in town and am booked with an internship for the summer. I don’t have a block of free time again until next summer. I cannot afford to slip up and have a bad day. If I do that, I leave a lot of very important people with a lot of power over me in a very compromising position.

Now, you can say: “Bri, just take some things off of your plate. You are working yourself into the ground.” You’d be right. I could turn down a gig or two. Those late nights I spend in rehearsals could be spent really digesting my homework and doing things for myself. However, my anxiety functions in a way where I thrive in being busy. If I have moments alone to myself, bad thoughts trickle in and the depression keeps me in bed and in tears for hours. Sometimes for days on end. I am always caught in this in between of not being able to pick which side is worse. I’ve started taking medication for my mental disorders, which minimize severity but make me very nauseous and sleepy.

I’ve showed up to my rehearsals as a nauseous and sleepy director and let me tell you, it shows. My thoughts are delayed, I can’t think straight, and sentences come out in what sound like riddles. Knowing this adds to the anxiety, thinking that the actors I work with leave rehearsal and talk about how spacey and ditsy I am, which continues the cycle of poor mental health. It feels like my mind as well as my body are telling me that I can’t win, but I can’t tell a director that. When I’m the director, I can’t cancel rehearsal because I’m in a depressive state or I’m too anxious to have a conversation with an actor. I can bring that into rehearsal, but the anxiety gets worse when I feel like my mental state is getting in the way to the point where I’m going to waste everyone’s time.

So what do I do? Am I as candid with the people in power or the people I am collaborating with as I am in this article? Tell them that i’m not doing great but also say “Don’t worry, we’re going to get through this?” or do I keep on trekking along? We still live in a world where we are shamed when talking about our mental states. Even as I sit here and write this article, I fear sounding like I want pity and being given an easier time than someone else because my productivity is being stunted and someone feels bad.

Writing this article is the first step. We will not get to a point of healing with mental illness in the arts until everyone owns transparency. That is not as easy for some, and I have a privilege in being able to do so. However, if I write and publish my diagnosis, maybe a future collaborator of mine will speak up at the start of a rehearsal. Maybe we can begin to create spaces with this honesty, and the acknowledgement of this honesty will make the work that much more fueled and powerful.

Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but living in an artistic world with transparency is one that sounds beneficial to all, even those without a mental disorder. Creating brave spaces is the only way we can continue to make art in a world where so many of us are so sad and stressed out.

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One response to “The Show Must Go On: A Masquerade of Mental Illness

  1. Thank you for sharing your life and thoughts with us! Courage is crucial for the creative life, eh? I often wonder whether adversity helps as well, only not too much of it.

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