Theatre As Therapy Is Not Therapy As Theatre

Just as there are better roles in life to play than that of loser or victim, there are also better roles in life to play than that of mental patient. Duh! “Gee. I could be an ex-patient, too, if I really wanted to do so.” Some consumers of mental health services can be pretty dense, and it may take them a long time to get it. We have a word for putting the mental patient experience behind a person, and that word is recovery.

I just came across an article on using theater as therapy on the MSN health section, Taking to the Stage to Battle Mental Illness. It is very important to note that this heading isn’t Taking to the Stage to Battle For Mental Illness.

Again, sometimes it takes some people a little longer than it takes other people to figure out that there are other roles in life to play beside the one a person is presently playing. Usually such a realization involves a job (or game or script if you prefer) search.

“Theater arts can really give patients a very valuable additional opportunity to piece their lives back together,” said David A. Faigin, department of psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. He believes the approach works by “focusing on the same things that standard interventions focus on: community reintegration and social reintegration.”

“Community reintegration and social reintegration”, should one use one’s noggin, are answers to social withdrawal, social isolation, and the mental health ghetto itself–aspects of contemporary existence we have come to associate with the “mental illness” label. Theater is a very social endeavor, and in so being, it is at odds with withdrawal and isolation. The development of so called “social skills” can help achieve the kind of gainful employment that will get a person out of the mental health ghetto. “Social skills” are, hey, acceptable ways of acting in public.

It just takes a little insight to realize that you don’t have to act crazy if you can act rationally and responsibly. Hmmm. Responsibility and rationality are acts, too.

Stars of Light has had a 15-year partnership with the Wattles Center, putting on productions using amateur actors diagnosed with a wide range of mental health problems. Faigin described the effort as “an exciting exemplar of a grass-roots, community-based theater setting devoted to involving and helping people with psychiatric disabilities.”

I have a little problem with this approach, but it’s only a little problem. Acting can be fun. Amateur actors don’t have to be mental health consumers, and mental health consumers don’t have to be amateur actors. We could say the same thing about professional actors only you seldom find a large number of psychiatrically labeled professional actors sharing the same stage. I figure it’s an ego thing.

He estimates there are about 20 similar groups scattered across the country in places like Chicago, Memphis and Connecticut. In these programs, artistic directors work with mental health staff to help bring structure to an environment where patients are free to generate the artistic content necessary to stage theatrical productions. That means everything from script development (often involving autobiographical content) to final performances at churches and community centers.

Just think…part of acting “well” might come with the realization that you don’t have to act “sick”.

I find the approach a little worrisome; there is that matter of “community reintegration and social reintegration” after all. I’m thinking it would really be interesting to put together a theatre troupe comprised of 50% mental health consumers, and 50% non-patients. The members of such a troupe might keep their audience guessing long after the curtain has come down.

A lot of non-patients could use a little therapy. Heck! Let me rephrase that statement as nobody needs the kind of therapy I have received. Everybody could use a little TLC.

2 Responses

  1. Unsurprisingly, MH workers are blind when it comes to literature and drama. I’ve watched movies with them either socially, as a patient or as a worker myself. They are unable to deduce the motivations of the characters much beyond “he wants money”, “he wants to kill” or “he wants sex”. If the character in a movie is acting as a real person might in a complex situation he’s diagnosed with a mental illness.

    • Well, yes. “He wants money”, obviously he must have some pathological condition that prevents him from maintaining a steady job. “He wants to kill”, he must be a “psychopath” or a “sociopath”; at the very least, he has “anger management issues”. “He wants sex”, he must be a “sex addict”, or the subject of some other sort of “sick” “perversion”. The difference between the labeled individual and anybody else is only in the tag.

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