Written by Cheryl Tan
With texts by Haresh Sharma, Harris Albar and Maryam Noorhilmi and directed by Sharma himself, Acting Mad was one of two productions (the other being We Were So Hopeful Then, written by Ellison Tan, directed by Alvin Tan) that fall under The Necessary Stage’s (TNS) The Orange Production — a new exploratory platform started in 2017 to offer new artists opportunities to collaborate with the company in creating relatively smaller, more portable works to be presented in the their resident blackbox space.
In the creation of this piece, twenty actors with experiences with mental illness were interviewed individually by writers Harris Albar and Maryam Noorhimli. After numerous edits and collective input from the cast and crew, these interview transcripts were strung together into the final narrative that was presented. Acting Mad explores the possibilities of how mental illness might manifest and affect the lives of individuals — in this case, actors — and friends and family around them.
In recent years, conversations around mental health have burgeoned into vast support networks and more readily accessible resources due to its alarming prevalence today. We have also seen several different portrayals of mental health in the media. Yet, mental illness continues to be talked about today because of the continued misconception and misunderstanding. It is thus worth acknowledging that mental illness is one of the most difficult topics to deal with especially through consumable media sources that yield the power to inform and influence audiences in myriad ways — sometimes not in ways initially intended.
Citing 13 Reasons Why as an example of how not to portray the topic, I have since learnt to consume shows that deal with mental illness by having no expectations because what these experiences and topics need, in whatever form they are conveyed in, is simply an open heart ready to listen. And listening is exactly what Acting Mad invites us to do.
The cast of Acting Mad welcomed the audience into their theatre space with a pre-show segment. The actors invited audience members to sit on the several mats sprawled across the performance space and chat with them. I was also graciously offered a cup of tea by Masturah Oli, a friend and actor in this show, before the show started.
The warmth and effort taken to welcome audiences into the space was felt, I imagine, not only by those who sat to chat but also by those who chose to remain in their seats as these conversations were taking place on stage. Because of the possibly triggering and extremely personal narratives that would soon unfold in the course of the play, I believe that many of us appreciated this warm opening, through which the artists took the time and effort to bridge what would have been the conventional (and sometimes, somewhat estranging) social distance between performer and audience member.
After the stage was cleared and all audiences were seated, we were introduced to theatre veteran and director Kate Lim (Karen Tan). We find ourselves thrown into a meta-theatrical scenario in which Kate opens the show by welcoming younger actors Au Weijie (Andre Chong) and Liz Rajoo (Masturah Oli) to the audition for Acting Mad. Here, Kate also recruits her personal friend and industry professional Zac Osman (Al-Matin Yatim). As their auditions and subsequent rehearsal sessions unfold onstage, we see each character reveal their individual experiences with mental illness and how it inevitably affects their personal and professional lives.
Maybe I’ve lost it at last
Maybe my last lucid moment has passed
The presented narratives were highly sensitive material often streaked with violence and trauma. The team found themselves concerned with how they were going to make it as ‘watchable’ as possible for the audience, who must sit through the entire course of the play consisting of several traumatising situations portrayed on stage in quick succession. Directorial choices included the use of movement and physicality as devices to convey sexual violence, as well as a certain ‘warped’, dark humour carefully threaded into several scenes.
For example, there was a scene in which one of the characters, Au Weijie (Chong), takes us through an experiential recollection of having sliced open his arm with a kitchen knife and his struggle kneeling at the lift lobby of his void deck trying desperately to bandage his arms dripping with blood. Au darts across the stage frantically, recounting his experience in rapid-fire speech. While laughter (most likely uncomfortable laughter) rang softly from the audience, this scene was – for lack of a better description, strangely graphic without actually being graphic. This show had trigger warnings for a reason, and this scene was probably one of them. There could not have been a more inconvenient time but I think it was at this point that my brain decided to momentarily check out via a dissociative episode, because I could not really remember what happened in the scene immediately after.
I’m dancing with death, I suppose
In another scene, we sit through a patient’s turbulent 90-day experience in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) going through treatment for what seemed to me (based on the many illusory experiences depicted onstage) a case of schizophrenia. At breakneck speech speed and with swift movements, the cast of four worked seamlessly as an ensemble to transport us through a very surreal 90-day experience in the IMH — one that made me extremely uncomfortable and left me very shocked that this was a real experience someone had had, yet thankful that this very person had survived all this way and made it here to tell her/his story to us through the interview.
But really who knows?
While this was a verbatim piece, I must admit that there were some ways in which the content was dramatised that did disturb me quite a bit not because it was traumatic to watch, but because of the way the characters’ situations and mental illness was talked about and dealt with in the play.
For example, in one scene, theatre veteran Kate was telling the two younger actors how she had not missed a single rehearsal nor bailed out of any productions due to an inability to cope. As a young practitioner myself, this is an all-too familiar dilemma faced by myself and my peers. At the end of the scene, the four characters still seemed split on whether mental health was a valid reason to let go of productions or not. While I found myself desperate for a straight answer in that moment as the scene wrapped, these are perhaps questions that can only be answered by ourselves informed by our individual mental wellbeing (or un-wellbeing, for that matter).
Other scenes I found slightly unnerving included characters breaking down almost everywhere. While (very public and often very embarrassing) breakdowns are readily familiar to individuals with mental illness, I personally would have liked to see how these individuals dealt with their conditions in the little ways. How would these characters have to deal with the manifestation of their mental illness as it creeps in slowly as they go about their daily activities? Often the hardest parts about mental illness are not so much the constant breakdowns which are comparatively quantifiable, but the little ways in which it impedes us from functioning as human beings, making even the smallest tasks feel impossible.
One scene did try to illustrate this, in which a woman lies in bed the entire day trying to hold her pee, while her husband returns home to find her incapable of even showering. At the end of this scene, audiences see this woman spring out of bed in the end after a few minutes talking to her concerned husband. While the truth of this scenario could have been based on what was shared during an interview, it somehow felt that the truth of the actual struggle to harness the necessary energy to move out of bed — that could have well lasted for days on end — was lost in the dramatisation and sheer brevity of the scene.
THERE’S A WORLD
The set was a simple one, with costume racks lining the back wall, accommodating quick changes in between scenes. Several white tables and chairs were manoeuvred by the actors and used as rostra throughout the ‘rehearsal’ play, as one would in a typical rehearsal room. While we might see minimal spikes across the floors of some rehearsal rooms however, this one differed. The stage floor was painted with a sprawling web of red and blue lines resemblant of veins — almost like a neural network. It leaves us to interpret it for ourselves, all the while suggesting a vast and complex neural network — perhaps an innocent-looking site in which, if one takes a closer look, chemicals spill over in imbalance.
SONG(S) OF FORGETTING
Another thing I found interesting was that the sound for this show consisted mainly of pop/indie songs played during scene transitions, the selection of which included the very apt Death Cab For Cutie’s ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’, covered and sung gently by Chong on a ukelele. Other tracks included flora cash’s ‘You’re Somebody Else’ and Twenty One Pilot’s ‘Truce’ — all songs that talk about mental illness to varying degrees of explicitness. While I might have appreciated if original tracks and sound design had been used to aurally construct and transport us to a world in which these characters lived, the use of contemporary songs familiar to us was an element that also had the effect of grounding these characters in our own world, adding another dimension on which these characters and their experiences were made once again relatable to us.
EVEN WHEN THE DARK COMES CRASHING THROUGH
One thing of particular interest to me was the demographic of audience members who turned up for this show. There were audience members of all ages, races, and walks of life, and while there were some familiar faces, something inside me could not help but leap for joy when I realised I could not recognise half the people in the room.
Conversations during the post-show dialogue I stayed for showed that the team’s premise for creating Acting Mad was not just about telling these stories, but telling these stories with care and compassion — that ultimately, providing support and help for individuals with mental health struggles was not just about identifying what mental health condition an individual may have, but also about being aware of how the people around them respond to these conditions and how they manifest in that individual’s life.
Many a time we find ourselves desperate to offer our loved ones solutions in an attempt to ‘fix’ things for them, but perhaps it is worth considering that some things in life are not even problems for us to solve to begin with. Yes, there might be a struggle, but just because we struggle with something does not mean it is a problem, and by extension not every unpleasant experience can be ‘solved’. Sometimes our loved ones are more than aware that these issues are not meant to be ‘fixed’ — instead, they simply might just need us to be there for them.
It was no wonder that there was a particular interest in how Acting Mad came about. The idea of Acting Mad stemmed from the feedback preceded by the re-staging of Off Centre earlier this year, a play written by Haresh Sharma that similarly dealt with mental illness. In response to the show, several people got in touch with Sharma to share their thoughts and personal experiences with mental illness and, according to Sharma, it concerned him that many of them were actors. He then started to explore mental illness in our local theatre community, and how it might affect actors in particular.
WHEN YOU NEED A FRIEND TO CARRY YOU
Audiences were interested to know if there there any emotional ‘safeguarding’ practices that the team took for themselves while embarking on such an emotionally-challenging journey. In the same spirit of this show, it was immediately apparent that the starting of conversations and fostering of community were some of the ways that proved useful for the team. For writers Maryane and Harris, this involved talking to each other after post-interview and processing the many stories their interviewers had shared. As personal practices of emotional grounding Andre and Matin turned to music and faith respectively, but overall the actors too found solace in talking sharing their own experiences and thoughts about the day’s rehearsal with one another.
In the event of a situation in which audience members had to stop out after finding the piece too triggering and emotionally challenging to deal with, the team had prepared a ‘safe room’, a quiet space in which audiences were welcome to enter for momentary emotional and mental refuge. The team also openly acknowledged that while they would do their best to help, they were by no means professionals. This was further indicated in the provision of professional mental health helplines in the programme booklet, as well as the inclusion of a small segment titled ‘Mental Health Emotional Support Group for Performers starting September 2019’, describing a new initiative to create a safe space for performers to learn how to better manage our mental wellbeing using a mixture of creative and cognitive tools.
& WHEN YOU’RE BROKEN ON THE GROUND
While I personally had a mild dissociative episode for half of the play because I found it rather triggering, I really appreciated the painstakingly-curated platform upon which actors with mental illness had the opportunity to anonymously contribute their stories. Acting Mad the different facets and possible manifestations and affectation of mental illness on actors in their professional and personal lives. this was perhaps a good production in opening doors to a world that people outside of our acting scene may not have previously known, or doors to gaining some insight into what possibly goes on in the lives of their loved ones with mental illness. For some of us however, it was a little harrowing seeing ourselves on stage and (here I would like to declare again that I do not speak for everyone) it would have been helpful if we knew why, in relation to the overall vision of the piece, we found ourselves sitting through rather triggering content.
YOU WILL BE FOUND
In raising awareness of how mental illness might manifest in certain individuals’ lives, this play undoubtedly hit right home. Just as it had opened, Acting Mad also ended on a warm note, with actors inviting audience members to form a large circle around the performance space in which a few words were said about how we are all in this together supporting one another. This show, coupled with these pre- and post-show communal acts of solidarity fostered a sense of togetherness and community for a few hours, reminding all present that we do not have to suffer alone. For audience members to whom mental illness and its different facets are unfamiliar, I strongly believe this show raised awareness. For some of us, it is with genuine hope that this play only opens more doors to much-needed platforms upon which we can share our experiences freely and without shame.
Photography credits to Gabriel Chia