Santé Theatre’s new ethnodrama is a collaboration which brings together a poet, a playwright, a producer and a team of psychiatrists.

 

The voices warn, ‘They’re coming soon.
They’ll come by the light of a silvery moon.
Coming soon… coming soon.

Talking about mental illness is difficult. It is frightening and hard to understand, for the people involved and for those people who care for them. It is difficult to know what to do and what to say, and it is difficult to find the words to say it. Like other topics society has historically preferred to avoid discussing, we don’t know how to talk about it.

Take care using language about mental health issues (Guardian Style Guide).

The Applied Theatre Research Group at Warwick Medical School uses ethnodrama to stimulate and inform debate about medical issues: the latest project Cracked explores psychosis.   This new performance is being created by theatre artists Claudette Bryanston, Santé Theatre Warwick, Mike Kenny playwright and Julie Boden poet, in collaboration with research psychiatrists, Professors Swaran Singh, Michael Broome, Gillian Hundt from the Universities of Warwick and Oxford.

The performance tells of the frightening experience of emerging psychosis and the reaction of carers from different cultures to seeking help.  It is drawn directly from research interviews of patients and their families, giving voice to the stories of carers, and the people they care for.

Voices are calling up
Out of the cracks
Voices are calling up
Out of the cracks
Out of the cracks
Out of the cracks
Step on the pavement
Avoid the cracks

The piece has its origin in a study of psychosis undertaken at the Warwick Medical School. The research focused on the prodromal phase, when the illness first manifests itself. Psychosis typically has its first onset in young people in their mid-teens to late twenties, so there is a period where the line between wellness and illness is uncertain.  The family too experience a period of uncertainty, for it is they who generally tend to make the transition to Carers, just as their son or daughter, their brother or sister becomes the Patient or Service User.   The language used in the care of mental illness has attempted to design out some of the prejudice and stigma, but has become so clunky as to be almost unusable in everyday conversation. Equally the medical terminology remains the special domain of experts.

Cracks in pavement
Cracks on road
Crack on, crack on,
Crack the code.

It is in the liminal space between wellness and illness, between the world of objective reality and the world of hallucinations and delusions that the play is set. Mike Kenny has been working on a script based on the part of the study that focused on carers. His three characters are drawn from different ethnic backgrounds, with their voices drawn verbatim from the research interviews.  Mike, Claudette and Julie wrestled with the question of how to develop a play about psychosis that does not sensationalise, trivialise, or traumatise by acting out a psychotic episode. Instead the carers tell their stories of how it was, how it felt for them to observe the person they cared about go through the experience. Their voices, use the everyday words of everyday people, weaving together in a plait as we journey through the play.

TWO: That person is watching me. Why is that person watching me?
THREE: Who? I can’t see anyone.
TWO: He’s saying something about me. Why’s he saying something about me?
THREE: Who? What’s he saying?
TWO: (Winds down the window) You! What are you looking at?
THREE: Who are you shouting at?
TWO: Him. Over there. Him by the red car.
THREE: There’s nobody. There’s nobody there.

He thought next door were listening to his conversations.

There was one time when I came home and all the lights were off. Nothing worked. He’d taken all the fuses out. What was that about? Me and my husband, we sat in the dark. We were in the dark.

Mike and Claudette have collaborated previously in another Santé Theatre production: Passing On. The play explored the dilemmas and issues facing both relatives and health professionals during end of life care by juxtaposing powerful testimony with puppetry. The play was created from real life stories of the ordinary extraordinary reality of dying in hospital. It was potent theatre – a spoken meditation set against a surreal movement backdrop on a person’s last hours of life in hospital.  This time for Cracked they are using not puppetry but poetry.  Julie and Claudette have also collaborated recently on the production, Islands Apart. This performed installation piece, highly praised at its premiere in Ireland this year, was written in the form of a sequence of triolets which worked as a script for the films directed by Claudette.

In Cracked the play uses a chorus to voice the words of psychosis. The choruses for each location where Cracked will be performed will be made up of young people between the ages of 14 and 35, reflecting the age of onset. This participatory engagement ensures that not only the audience but each chorus cohort come away with an improved understanding of the illness, and how to support and care for a person who becomes ill.

When thunder rumbles in to rock our dreams
and monsters hang from door pegs in the dark
as lightning shocks the room with fevered beams
and quilts are islands circled by the shark
we curl in foetal form within each bed
to wrestle with the nightmares of our head.
When storm clouds form we take ourselves inside
to dive beneath a table’s solid wood
and pulling plugs from sockets as we hide,
we count. Yes, count. For counting can be good.
Miles are seconds, measured one by one,
from flash to roar, until each storm has gone.

Sometimes the chorus is one voice, sometimes several, other times a choric ensemble. Julie has chosen poetic forms such as sonnets, triolets, pantoums, chants and a paradelle which have a repetition and a resonance that reflect the inner voices of psychosis. In the research study, the patients struggled to articulate what was happening to them, but a characteristic of their experience is the requirement to practice telling their story as they bounce along through the system, and in that telling, trying to make sense of the world as they see it.

The lights were blue, like fire, like flame
My head banged on a metal cage.
A white bloused woman asked my name
The lights were blue, like fire, like flame.
My uncle shook his head in shame.
A white bloused woman asked my age.
The lights were blue, like fire, like flame
My head banged on a metal cage.

The poetic interruptions highlight the tension between outer lives and inner voices, emphasising the playing out of the drama on the cusp of the two worlds. The play is in the process of being worked up, so nothing of the script or staging is certain yet says Claudette, “It’s drama, and it has to make sense for the audience. Although there is image, this is a text-driven piece. At the moment, we are using dialogue to open our three stories into scenes”.

TWO: What?!
THREE: What?
TWO: You shouted me.
THREE: I didn’t.
TWO: You did.
THREE: I didn’t.
TWO: Yes you did, mum. You did.
THREE: What did I say?
TWO: You called my name.
THREE: Oh? You must be hearing things. (To audience) You say these things, don’t you? Then he was off back upstairs.

So how exactly do you make a play from a clinical study? Each of the three began by reading the accounts and interviews in the study.  Then they spent a day together, with a team of 14 people including medical professionals, researchers and service users, to talk through their initial ideas before a period of working individually on their own elements of the piece. When they came together again as the smaller creative writing team, Mike had his three characters and their stories, Julie had the poems for the choruses and Claudette had developed her approach to the images, direction and visual connections. After an intensive all-day collaboration workshop, they have now split off again to hone their material before the final version is agreed.

When I met Mike, Julie and Claudette over lunch on the workshop day, they were in good spirits, sparking off one another’s ideas as we spoke.  They were fascinated by the cross-cultural experiences the day was bringing them: the languages of medicine, the social care system and the daily poetry of the people in the study; the three different family backgrounds they were exploring, set against the universality of the experience. They spoke about positive creative tension, and their fascination with the way language can dance on the cusp of the real and hallucinatory worlds in a way that might be eloquent enough to take the audience to a new understanding and empathy. The day concluded with their considering turning the language of the play around by using poetry as the spine for the play  and weaving shorter and more frequent scenes of dialogue within it.  These are early days of a writing process which allows them to discuss, reflect and change.

Time To Change, the programme led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination, is supporting the play. Its oblique yet powerful approach to a topic so many people find difficult to understand and discuss opens up new ways of thinking about, and talking about, psychosis.  Several performances will be followed by discussions with the writers, cast, members of the Applied Theatre Research Group and mental health professionals. Tour dates will be released in February 2014, with the first production taking place in June.

We are no jury. Who knows what is true?
Yet we are here to watch… and we watch you.

 

******

MIKE KENNY is one of England’s leading writers. He was included in the Independent on Sunday’s list of Top Ten Living Playwrights and his plays are performed regularly throughout the UK and all over the world. In 2000, he was Arts Council England’s first recipient of The Children’s Award for Playwriting for Children and Young People. His innovative production of The Railway Children at the disused Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo won an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment.

DR CLAUDETTE BRYANSTON has been teaching and directing theatre for over thirty years and has directed more than fifty productions, many of which have toured nationally and internationally.  She is a senior research fellow at Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick, the home of Santé Theatre. She has co-ordinated the ‘Theatre in Education’ module for the Institute of Education and was founder and  co-artistic director of Classworks Theatre Company.  She has an MA in Contemporary Performance and has published several papers on her work in theatre in both health and education.

JULIE BODEN, a UK poet and Birmingham Poet Laureate, has been widely published and broadcast nationally and internationally.  She has been Poet in Residence at Symphony Hall, Birmingham since 2005. An ambassador for poetry, she has served as director for many poetry organisations and festivals. She writes sequences to accompany visual exhibitions, new works for voice and music and poetry scripts and verse drama for theatre and film. Julie was awarded a BAFTA nomination in 2012 for The Mechanical Musical Marvel.

 

Lucy Jeynes
This article first appeared in Issue 1 of Bare Fiction Magazine (December 2013)