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Theatre and World Mental Health Day

I am a person who enjoys structure. I like a good, solid plan designed with precision and little room for deviation. Stepping outside my home without an itinerary is that of nightmares.

Prior to leaving my home, I like to know the framework for the next few hours or days inside and out, written down – despite being etched into my memory – and followed. Waves crash against my stomach and pound in my head as I try to supress the notion of any type of deviation. A signal fail on the train, a friend who would like to pop into a shop for a coffee, a weather warning. These things out of my grasp, out of my control, are the things I desperately pre-empt and worry about.

Cue: sores around my finger nails from picking and biting, weak ankles causing me to topple over with wonky steps akin to a baby giraffe, migraines from grinding my teeth, words stumbling from my mouth as hot and frustrated as the patches of sweat aggressively appearing on my clothes. I’m a catch. Right?

Every year on the 10th October, people across the globe recognise World Mental Health Day. You do not need a post on a small-scale theatre blog to explain the obvious importance of such a day. Before your eyes had even opened to the world fully, you will have reached for your phone and seen the floods of encouraging Instagram posts and hashtag-ged tweets. Given the current state of affairs, poor mental health has become an ever more prominent talking point and has unfortunately made a poignant appearance in many people’s lives.

On this day, I sit back and recognise the impact that musical theatre has had on my mental health. I’d say my mental health journey, but for me that would require a solid plan that is within my control. I refer you to paragraph one and two. However, my experiences with poor mental health stretch back to early teenage-hood and have not followed the watertight schedule that I would have drafted, planned, and filed ready to report.

I often feel like I am Tom, and my struggles with mental health are Jerry. I cannot grab hold of them to claim any sort of control, and that fuels my obsessive hunger to do so. Thus, I take control of absolutely everything else around me executing every part of my life to perfect precision. Of course, this is not possible. But tell the chemical imbalance in my head that.

My love for theatre has been intertwined as part of my identity for as long as I can remember. As a child, I loved settling my bottom on a plush red velvet seat and being handed a food bag of Celebration chocolates by my mum to enjoy the local Christmas show. We mark birthdays, holidays and every sort of pseudo day with a family trip. It’s a ritual that I am accustomed to. A routine celebration that marks a passing of time and a celebration. The company is where I feel most comfortable.

You see, the act of purchasing a ticket to a show; weeks, months, sometimes a year in advance to viewing, sets off a process. It is marked on my calendar. I know where I will be sitting, and who shall be by my side. The start time is clear, and the structure of a musical theatre show is recognisable. A ticket to a theatre show is golden; safe, warm and mine to experience.

Then of course, there’s the escapism. There is a flood of relief when I settle into my seat, tow my bag at my feet and turn to my sister for light conversation about the show. Musical theatre is a topic I am well invested into. Bear in mind, you’re reading the words of a girl who passed her driving theory test without taking a lesson. I like to just know things.

Theatre with its rich history is a literary haven, it is a timeline of icons and idols, a visual feast and an audio wonderland to delve into at any time. Its fluidity has both mapped and shaped a timeline of events that do not only hold a mirror up to society but can predict the future in contemporary and exciting storytelling through movement and sound.

Being able to immerse fully, with no distraction, into a world that parallels your own reality, or your fantasies or your fears interchangeably is pure delight. It’s an all-consuming feeling that moves you from the second you feel it in your fingertips. One that flows through your veins, pulsing through your body until the final curtain close where it then pulls you up out of your seat for applause.

That moment, when you’re standing surrounded by an audience on their feet, each united with a shared appreciation of the adventure/quest/voyage/exploration, that we have been on together is where I find my strength. Overwhelming and breath-taking, the noise of applause and of knowing in some way you have been changed in the last 2.5 hours. That is respite I get only from theatre.

There is a divine commitment from every person involved in orchestrating a performance to bring justice to real emotions and challenges of humankind and depict it with rawness and sincerity. The characters we see on stage swell with their soul and energy from the energy of the people that bring them to life. From the writers, to the actors, to the designers to the audience.

Within the four walls of a theatre, there is a shared vulnerability that is kept sacred in a safe place. It is a place that I can simply, be, and where that is simply enough.