Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On issues-based theatre, creative challenges & aftermaths

Amongst the other things I do to make money and live a satisfying life - writing,  office working, part-time armchair activism - I am an actor. I have done plenty of different things in my acting life, from musical theatre through to standing in the background in period costume while people who get paid big money talk in front of me to a camera. Most recently, however, I have been involved with issues-based theatre.

For those who don't know what that means, it's pretty simple. Issues-based theatre uses drama techniques to look at things that affect people's lives. Some people call this Applied Theatre and it's used for all kinds of things from communication workshops that use role-play to help people to learn how to talk to people all the way through to drama therapy used to help survivors of awful experiences such as torture or genocide to find a way to externalise their feelings and move on to live a more comfortable life.

The issues-based work that I've been doing is with a company that has worked all over the world with such politically- and emotionally-charged subjects. This includes working in African refugee camps with former child soldiers and witnesses of mass-murder through to people in South America who've been victims and perpetrators of torture. 

The issue that I'm currently working with them about is domestic abuse1. Unlike any other kind of project that attempts to work with people who've experienced domestic abuse, the one I'm involved with uses the same starting point - a short play on the subject - and the same methods to work with both those who have been on the receiving end of abuse and those who perpetrate abuse against others.

Last week, I participated as an actor in a series of three workshops with men who are either perpetrators of domestic abuse or have been identified as being at risk of entering into abusive relationships. Once the men had seen the play, which is two-person piece that tells the story of an abusive relationship from both sides, as actors we are then asked to take part in a number of exercises that enable the workshop facilitators to explore relationship issues with the participants. This could include forum theatre, exercises where the workshop participants are able to control the characters and their reactions and direct questioning of the characters by the workshop participants about their lives and their options and choices.

Last week's three sessions didn't seem at the time to be particularly challenging for me. At the end of each session I was full of energy and because I was still doing my "day job" in the afternoons I noticed that I was getting huge amounts of stuff done with almost unshakeable focus and drive. By the end of the week, with three sessions under my belt, I was effervescent with enthusiasm and could barely stop talking about what I'd been involved with on Friday or through the weekend.

Then this week came. On Sunday I started to feel slightly coldy and out of sorts. By Monday I had a headache and Tuesday it just got worse. Today, I got up and spent about 45 minutes before I had to leave the house to go to work literally just staring into space. I'm achy, exhausted and my mind feels like it's totally blank. I can't concentrate, can't read anything from end to end and work has been pretty much a total bust this week to date. I don't feel as though I have anything to give.

I would compare the way I feel to depression. I have recently come out the other side (fingers crossed) of a particularly severe and prolonged bout of depression and many of the things I'm experiencing this week - the exhaustion, the inability to concentrate, the lack of appetite, the physical aches and pains of no specific origin - are not unlike my depressive symptoms. The only things that are missing are the constant mental chatter and  personal smack-talking and the overwhelming urge to cry.

I've never experienced anything quite like this. I've had post-show blues before now, but not in this way. That's been about missing the people that I've been working with and missing the activity. For this, I'm not missing the activity or the people because I'm doing it all again in a week or so's time for a public performance and meeting with the team I've been working with at least once a week. This just feels like someone's pulled the stuffing out of me, and it's something for which I was completely unprepared.

I wonder whether anyone else has experienced anything similar? Is there any way I can either prepare for or minimise this post-hoc exhaustion so I can carry on with my life in the aftermath of such work without it being such a struggle? I was warned not to underestimate the amount that this process would take out of me physically and emotionally but I wasn't quite prepared for this. I don't feel depressed, but these ailments for want of a better word feel frighteningly analogous to my experience of depression and I have no desire to slide back down that particular slope. How does one inure oneself against this unwanted consequence of an otherwise rewarding and incredible process?

1I am using the term "domestic abuse to encapsulate physical violence; sexual assault; psychological abuse such as undermining, isolating or coercing someone; financial abuse through the removal of money or creation of financial dependency; and emotional abuse, such as guilt-tripping, manipulation or creating emotional dependence.

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