Exemplary, no holds barred look at mental health in the theatre industry.
As much as mental health has entered common conversation these days, it remains one of the most misunderstood conditions in the workplace, seen as some kind of weakness, a burden to employers or worse, a fake excuse to get out of work. But what about in the theatre industry, where actors are constantly shifting in and out of different characters, putting their bodies and minds through extreme changes, before sloughing it off when going back to their normal lives? How does an actor with a mental condition then survive in the industry?
Based off verbatim texts of interviews done with 20 local actors with experience of mental health issues, Acting Mad follows on from last week’s We Were So Hopeful Then as companion pieces in The Necessary Stage’s The Orange Production 2019, focusing on the unseen issues and people within the theatre industry. Directed by Haresh Sharma, who also collaborated with Harris Albar and Maryam Noorhilmi on piecing together the transcripts into a play, Acting Mad follows four performers as they work together on putting on a new play about mental health issues (obviously, titled Acting Mad). We meet theatre veteran and director Kate Lim (Karen Tan), younger actors Liz Rajoo (Masturah Oli) and Au Weijie (Andre Chong), and industry mainstay Zac Osman (Al-Matin Yatim), each coming with their own set of issues they must shoulder over the course of production, and differing perceptions and experiences of mental health that cause conflict when pit against each other in the rehearsal room.
The set of Acting Mad is sparse and stripped down, realistically depicting a rehearsal space as racks of clothing hang at the back, while props used are limited to just a couple of white tables and chairs. Most significantly, the floor has been painted with a network of red and blue ‘veins’, seemingly representative of how the theatre itself is a delicate circulatory system, blood coursing through its vessels towards the most important part of any theatrical production: the heart, something we can always use more of both onstage and behind-the-scenes.
Prior to the play beginning, actors mill about the space, inviting audience members to come and share a cup of tea while conversing with them, in an act of realness and perhaps, an act of breaking the boundaries between the real and imagined world of Acting Mad. Over the course of the production, we’re then introduced to each character’s backstory and struggles with mental health: Liz swings between anxiety attacks and crippling depression; Weijie has a history of cutting; Zac is pressured to stop sharing his condition on social media by family members; while Kate has always learnt to suppress and paint a smile on her face and heading for rehearsals even at her lowest. In between, we bear witness to some of their ‘rehearsal processes’, ranging from an improv exercise where a patient is constantly referred to new doctors, to a downright harrowing scene where Liz creates a backstory for her character, resulting in a chilling, all-too-real story of being sexually assaulted.
While all of this does seem to make for rather dark material, what Acting Mad does successfully is to ensure that the weight of all these issues never gets too heavy for audience members to bear. As bleak as it gets, scenes are tempered with moments of dark humour, such as violent scene played to hyperbole, each actor playing up their characters to caricature-like extremes, or quite simply, the resonance of each issue hits so close to home, one can’t help but laugh sadly at the absurdism of the society we live in.
Most powerfully though, amidst the doom and gloom, there are so many moments of hope that present themselves throughout Acting Mad, coming in the form of family and friends. Particularly powerful is a scene with Weijie and his mother (Karen Tan), in which the two share a formerly close-knit relationship frayed by Weijie’s condition, with his mother insisting he is simply being lazy, and Weijie calling for a timeout. Yet by the end of the scene, they share a moment where despite knowing that they cannot change anything, choose to quietly simply accept each other’s position. As much as these loved ones may not understand what the actors are going through, expressing their frustration and disappointment in various ways, at the end of the day, they never choose to leave – only stay, listen, and pray that they don’t go over the edge.
At Acting Mad’s climax, director Kate deals with a sudden outburst from Liz as her direction pushes her to the point of discomfort, leading to a frank, all-around discussion from the entire cast with each other as they duke out their differences in understanding of how they expect to be treated or treat others in terms of care during rehearsals. It’s a particularly powerful scene that not only gives Karen Tan her most emotionally poignant moment in the show as Kate wrestles with her own repressed mental issues from the years gone by, but also a reflective one that raises the issue if intergenerational misunderstandings between artists in the same space, encouraging a spirit of openness to foster that safe space all actors need.
By the time we reach our final scene, we’re presented with the culmination of the in-play version of Acting Mad – a terrifying, lengthy scene recalling a person’s fever dream-like experience of spending 90 days in the Institute of Mental Health following a suicide attempt, showcasing smooth direction and on point-chemistry from the entire cast as they work together to bring us into this surreal world.
While there are no easy solutions to the issue of mental health, what Acting Mad does is shine a spotlight on the presence of such issues and the difficult task of understanding or dealing with them, regardless of being in the theatre industry or not. With its no holds barred approach to tackling these issues head on, Acting Mad is quintessential TNS fare that leaves us shaken by reality but hopeful for a better future as we join hands in the end, and take comfort in knowing that we face the prejudice and misunderstandings of mental health not alone, but as one community.
Photo Credit: Gabriel Chia
Performance attended 8/8/19
Acting Mad plays from 7th to 11th August 2019 at The Necessary Stage Black Box. Tickets available from SISTIC