A necessary production for a world in want of greater empathy.
Actors have a reputation for being dramatic. It’s their profession after all, to perform and to present people and situations that are often exaggerated and emotionally-charged, to entertain and evoke catharsis in paying audiences. But we often forget that actors are far more than just blank slates, morphing and becoming whatever role they’ve been given. They’re living, breathing humans too, and come with their own share of baggage they bring into and out of the rehearsal room.
In a clarion call for greater empathy within the industry and beyond, The Necessary Stage (TNS) brings verbatim play Acting Mad back to the stage, as part of the Esplanade’s 2022 The Studios series. Written and directed by Haresh Sharma, Acting Mad uses material from interviews with 20 actors who have experienced or are going through mental health issues, and brings it all together in a single, overarching story.
The majority of Acting Mad remains similar to its 2019 version, following a group of actors preparing to stage a new play (aptly titled Acting Mad). The first segment splits time across each of the four characters – Liz (Masturah Oli), Weijie (Lian Sutton), Zac (Ghafir Akbar) and director Kate (Karen Tan), delving into their initial audition process, their backstories, and how their mental health affects their performance during rehearsals and workshops. Over the course of the play, we unpack these characters beyond their role as performers, revealing their struggles with anxiety and depression, bloody coping mechanisms and frustrated venting. These are symptomatic of a society that is unable to speak freely about mental health issues, with such self-repression leading to increasingly damaging outcomes in each individual.
Because of the verbatim nature of the script, there is often a strong confessional element to the characters’ lines, bringing a raw undercurrent of emotion with every outburst, or a deeply affecting resonance as they express their cries for help. As four actors who are regular TNS collaborators, the ensemble exudes a very cohesive energy onstage, feeling like they’re on familiar ground, walking the ‘rehearsal’ space with confidence and strong rapport onstage. When playing members of the same family in their backstories, there is palpable tension in the hesitation and anxiety they feel towards each other in their darkest hours, while in the rehearsal room, there is an uneasy calm on the surface, with laughter and camaraderie on the surface constantly under threat of bursting due to each character’s underlying issues.
In spite of all the pain and sadness, Acting Mad still features plenty of black humour that both disturbs and provokes nervous laughter. A scene where Zac plays a character shunted from one doctor to another without proper handovers is frustrating and tragicomic to watch, as he continually restarts the process of therapy again, only to end up giving up. An over the top story where Weijie’s character recounts slashing his arm is both disturbing and verging on farcical, where no one seems to listen or care for his condition. The four actors, when not in rehearsals, share lighter moments on the second ‘floor’ of the two-tiered set (by Vincent Lim), a safe space where they can banter freely, cracking pitch black jokes and bonding over the absurdity of it all.
At the core of Acting Mad is a simple wish – to be understood and to be heard, one that comes out from the clash between generations. While Masturah and Lian, playing the younger actors, are more open to discussing their issues with each other, they also hold their colleagues to high expectations. This directly pits them against their director, Kate, who is accused of not looking out for them. Here, Karen does a brilliant job of portraying Kate in a sympathetic light, while Ghafir, as Zac attempts to be the voice of reason between them. It is this same scene as the 2019 version that still hits as hard in a rare moment of vulnerability between all four characters, as they let their guard down, allow themselves to talk about their fears and pain points, and in the process, leave them with the hope of a better work environment that cares for its people.
Where Acting Mad supersedes its previous version is in its new scenes, resulting in an elevated production that dares to take more risks and experiments in form and execution. While this is done to varying levels of success, there is often more good than bad, and feels like a return to more focused, postmodern visions signature to TNS. Throughout the play, TNS attempts to experiment with creative captioning, literally displaying lines as social media updates or text messages where appropriate, or colour-coding them according to characters’ clothing. While hit and miss, in a scene that depicts how actors were affected by the pandemic, Haresh Sharma decides to go against everything verbatim theatre is, and relegate the text to pure creative captioning onscreen, while the actors silently perform choreographed movements onstage (choreographed by Edith Podesta).
During this segment, we read of an actor whose mental health issues seem so small compared to when his grandmother passes on, while Te Hao Boon’s soundscape creates the space for reflection and Yo Shao Ann’s cool, blue lighting captures the downbeat atmosphere of the pandemic times. It is a quiet but affecting scene that elegantly and effectively captures the flood of confusion and sadness brought on by isolation and the pandemic itself, one where enough has been said and movements, rather than words, are what does justice to the mood it creates.
This segues nicely into its climax, where all four actors reunite after 2 years of the pandemic filled with cancelled shows and uncertainty, and the joy on their face is palpable as they embrace each other, ready to finally perform the play they prepared so long ago. The surreal, fever-dream like scene captures the experience of spending 90 days at the Institute of Mental Health, with fellow patients erupting into a primal state, and smooth direction that sees actors effortlessly transforming each moment into a new hellscape, bringing new fears and terrors to the fore. Cinematic and epic in scale, this is a sequence that leaves you shaking.
In its final scene, Acting Mad blurs the line between reality and fiction, as it bring out a real life guest to share their story of dealing with mental health issues in the industry. Here, the actors take a backseat as they give their guest full autonomy to speak and share their heartbreaking story, which dives into both the mental health of educators and their students. Because it is a real story, the guest speaks with gusto, with real emotion, and Acting Mad ends off on a powerful note, as we join hands and say a mantra together, reminding us all that we are loved.
Acting Mad provokes a raw, visceral reaction to its sincere and unabashed script, the stories of real people going through real problems told through an effectively woven narrative that captures more than its scope of the theatre industry. There will certainly be audience members who watch the play and feel alienated, especially if they are not part of the theatre scene. Yet if one takes a step back, one will recognises familiar facets across all four characters that apply to any community – there are times we have ‘off days’ like Kate, days when the anxiety collapses us like Liz, moments where all rational thought is lost like Weijie, and split seconds where social media feels like the only place we can vent like Zac.
We feel so immeasurably alone at times, both before and during the pandemic. But that is precisely why a show like Acting Mad is necessary – because it reminds us that we are not, and reminds us to work together towards a less lonely future. If we want to exist as a cohesive society, then we must recognise that no man is an island. It takes a village, and to make that start, what it takes is a moment of empathy and a willingness to open the channels of communication, to be present, listen, and tell each other ‘I am here’, solace and shelter amidst this mad world.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography
Acting Mad ran from 25th to 28th August 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here
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