Mental health issues have been a concern since time immemorial, but it is only in more contemporary times that they have finally been taken seriously, with proper psychiatric treatment and medication used to curb the symptoms and cure patients. But with the rise of treatment comes the controversy of side effects and criticism from older generations – is there such a thing as a ‘medication epidemic’? How is it that all of a sudden, everyone seems to be diagnosed with some kind of mental health issue?
Rounding off Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) 2022 season, in Kendall Feaver’s play The Almighty Sometimes, the issue of long-term effects of psychotropic medication is explored, alongside the effects it has not just on the patient, but the family, friends and relationships she might have as well. The play follows Anna, a 21-year old who has been on medication for so long she can’t remember who she is without it. Deciding to go off her medication in search of her childhood writing talent, what fate will she face as she puts the pills aside?
Starring as Anna is rising talent Arielle Jasmine Van Zuijlen, alongside an ensemble cast comprising Salif Hardie, Shona Benson, and Karen Tan, who plays Anna’s mother Renee. In the lead-up to the play’s opening this week, we spoke to Arielle, as well as The Almighty Sometimes director Daniel Jenkins (also Associate Artistic Director at SRT), and found out more about the process of preparing for such a production, and the state of mental health today.
“This was a very personal play for me, because I’ve got two kids of my own, with my older child having just gone to Bristol for university,” says Daniel, on the mindset he had going in. “As much as I trust my son, the whole process of letting go was surprisingly difficult and emotional, and I related a lot to Anna’s mother Renee in struggling to give their child the freedom to leave and care for themselves.”
Daniel goes on to talk about how much pain he felt from Renee, relating to her struggle of watching her own daughter’s life decimated through illness and medication from the age of 7, and the helplessness felt. “It’s heartbreaking because as a parent, we don’t know how best to help them, and even with medication, it’s an action that literally changes their brains,” says Daniel. “Medication to this date remains a matter of trial and error, and while there are clear positive outcomes, you really don’t know what long term effects there can be or worse, that it responds to a wrong diagnosis.”
“Karen and I talked a lot from our positions as parents in real life, how we treat our own children, and compared that a lot to how Arielle felt towards her own parents, and these differences in mindset,” he adds. “Back in our time, issues like depression and ADHD were practically unheard of, and even today, much of this is still brushed under the carpet and kept hidden, with accessibility to help and ready resources still requiring some research to get to.”
There is hope however, based on how the new generation of parents are opening themselves up to the existence of mental health conditions and becoming increasingly willing to talk and find out more about it instead of simply dismissing it. “Sometimes you see people with problems going through some difficult times, but you have to remember that they’re just like us – only human, and it’s the mental illness that’s causing them to lose control, and as scary as that can be, we need to learn to be bold and listen, instead of simply avoiding or steering clear of them, because that connection and understanding is so important,” says Arielle.
“In my own home, I do see similarities between Anna and Renee’s interactions, where I do have open conversations with my own mother, what we’ve gone through and how we can support each other,” says Arielle. “Even in the rehearsal space, the team has been very involved in making sure we all are ok, and are able to distinguish between performance and reality – my co-actors Salif and Shona have both been very kind when talking to each other during breaks or checking in on each other, like an equal even though I’m much newer to the industry. The production side also made sure that I was taken care of, especially at the start when I was very stressed out and had trouble eating properly, and I do try to take time to go on walks in the sun, away from the windowless rehearsal space, and talk to friends to decompress.”
“We really want to provide a safe space during rehearsals, such that everyone feels comfortable enough to talk or raise when they need to take a break,” adds Daniel. “Sometimes that can be tricky as a director, learning these new ways of working, because a play still has to get done, and there are some horrifically challenging scenes to get through, sometimes repeating it and changing it over and over. But I try to be sensitive and listen to offer as much support as possible, and to remember that as much as we do want to put on a quality production, this is not a life or death situation, and just to make sure we’re putting in our best.”
On the topic of how SRT even found Arielle as their Anna, Daniel explains the audition process and their requirements. “We needed somebody new, and we wanted to cast someone who was relatable and not someone the general public really recognises yet from previous work,” he says. “We saw quite a few people, and had already cast Karen, Salif and Shona, and when we were down to the last few girls, they came in and read various scenes with the other cast. Arielle had already done great over the initial Zoom audition, and when she came in, she brought such an honesty and truthfulness to her read, finding nuances and depths to the script, and had such a good work ethic, always coming in prepared and knowing that it’s a great opportunity, but also a tough one.”
“I was notified of the audition through Sim Yan Ying, SRT’s director in residence, who I had previously worked with on (un)becoming, and I thought it would be a great opportunity for someone of my age to try,” says Arielle, who is still relatively fresh from school, having graduated from the School Of The Arts, Singapore, in 2020. “When I got the role, I knew it was important to really dedicate myself to learning the lines to focus on the rehearsal flow, as well as do enough research in preparation, so I would go online to watch videos about bipolar disorder, as well as exercising more, and changing up my diet to make sure I was also physically at my best.”
Daniel Jenkins is no stranger to working with younger theatremakers, having led SRT’s Young Company programme for several years now, and seeing batch after batch of hopeful actors and would-be thespians pass through KC Arts Centre’s doors. “For me I think it’s important to be honest, and there’s no point flattering people or stroking egos, and tell them if it’s working,” comments Daniel, on how he prepares the next generation for the industry. “I try to build a professional environment for them, while also hearing out their opinions and perspectives, because a director is not a dictator, and it’s really about building relationships with each other.”
“The theatre industry is a difficult one, and a lot of my friends who graduated from SOTA no longer pursue the arts full time,” adds Arielle. “But the few who do, we still continue to support each other and be there for each other in our projects. If there is a toxic side to the local industry, I haven’t had the misfortune to experience it yet, and even if I did, I wouldn’t spend energy dealing with it, and it’s been a very pleasant experience working with my co-actors who’ve been teaching me so much.”
“I’ve always believe that in Singapore, if you want to do something, you can make it happen, even more so than in the UK, and I really hope people come back to see theatre as a viable career option,” says Daniel. “The future is bright, with so many people interested in the arts, and there’s a lot more support and structure to training now that makes it more viable than ever. Couple that with the energy and gung-ho attitude that they bring to the space, it fills me with optimism, to see them filled with so much desire and passion to move forward. Now, it’s about making sure we give them the chance.”
“I do have some friends venturing back into theatre again, and personally, I think there still need to be more opportunities to enter the professional space, join companies, and learn from there,” says Arielle. “Sometimes it’s hard because companies already decide on who they want to work with, and it ends up being the same people time and again. But there are an increasing number of open auditions I see nowadays, and I look forward to seeing that trend continue.”
“It’s been a really tough time for everyone over the pandemic, and this play represents a conversation that needs to happen. The quality of the writing is that good, alongside excellent chars, a gripping emotional arc, and original story,” concludes Daniel. “At the heart of it is this story of a mother-daughter relationship, and while it may be a tough play, it’s also an exciting and dynamic one for an audience to watch, with a weighty issue we treat with respect and will tell properly onstage.”
The Almighty Sometimes plays from 8th November 2022 at KC Arts Centre. Tickets available here