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The Theatres effect on Mental Health

I’m sure we’re all getting sick of the words ‘Covid’ and ‘Lockdown’. Finally the government are making steps in the right direction to address the issues of mental health and how this ludicrous pandemic has taken its toll on us all. But what about us regular theatre goers? Is there something about us being away from the theatre that is causing us to suffer?

From a personal perspective, being away from the theatre is having a negative effect on me! Performing was once my one and only emotional and physical outlet that helped me to cope. No 7pm Zoom quiz and 30 minuets of allotted exercise could ever replace the rush of endorphins you get from performing. Not only that; the social aspect of a group of like minded people getting together and working to a common goal felt liberating. Now we’re restrained to performance bondage, and not in a 50 shades kind of way!

For years acting and performance has helped people to channel their personal stresses and drama into an art form. In fact many mental health therapists use ‘Drama Therapy’ as a means to get their patients to emote more. Studies have shown that through improvised performances, people are more likely to find truth and new resolutions to their every day problems. Imagine projecting your obstacles onto a character, with no repercussions or showing your true colours through expressive movements and speech; People are more likely to project the truth.

These tried and tested methods can unlock a new world for sufferers of anxiety, introverts and isolated individuals who find it hard to ‘come out of their shell’. It’s certainly a technique I use while teaching drama to more vulnerable and shy students. This all brings to mind the age old saying “Fake it until you make it”.

Not everyone is a performer, some people simply love to sit in the plush seating of a grand theatre and watch actors bare their soul on stage. This too is proven to have positive effects on our mental health, of which the likes of even the greatest Netflix specials cannot match. Witnessing theatre changes you, not only emotionally but chemically. From strengthening the brains neurons through learning, to the relaxation you get from zoning out the world for 3 hours. A 2006 study shows that watching a Shakespeare play stimulated the brain and shows constant positive brain activity, whilst bursts of serotonin, the happiness hormone, are flooded into the body.

The ancient rules of the theatre give us a break from the modern world, putting your phones and tablets down, allowing yourself to concentrate and not become so easily distracted. Look around you now, the pile of washing, the dust on the TV cabinet, the cup you’ve been meaning to take into the kitchen for 2 days, but you can’t because level 756 on candy crush is reaching ever closer. All of these distractions heighten our natural worries, anxieties, thoughts of failure and shame - where the mysticism of a wonderful theatre allows all of that to disappear, as you are immersed into the world on stage. It allows the mind to take a step back and relax, properly!

But Tom, Why would I pay to go to the theatre, when I can watch Wonder-vision on Disney+ for less money, and I don’t have to get changed out of my embarrassing cow onsie. Elementary, my dear Watson, it’s proven science.

Studies show that compared to watching a TV show (or even a filmed version of the same stage show) Heart rate, brain functionality and chemical/hormone levels are intensified during a live theatre performance. Especially in immersive, epic theatre performances, Just like ETC!

Theatre is a wonderful outlet for writers and performers, and their respective audiences. I recall seeing a performance by Hoda Ali, A victim of FGM (female genital mutilation) during Nottinghams Puppet Festival. This performance told of her suffering and how she physically and emotionally healed and overcame this trauma, All performed through puppetry, amazing! It was touching, emotional, educational and inspiring. Sure this kind of theatre isn’t there to ‘relax’ the brain, but it allows the audience to understand and empathise with the performer - which promotes positive activity in your temporal lobe (Your brains ‘heart’).

It is a fantastic emotional outlet. An audiences connection with a plot or story line, routing for a character, or even a personal revelation; all from the actors on stage. Again, yes you can see these on TV in wonderful 4k, surround sound and CGI. But the act of buying a physical ticket, looking forward to something, physically turning up to the theatre to give the performers your undivided attention; psychologically you are more likely to focus, to listen, to try and understand and buy into the story. Your subconscious will thank you for this; even if you find the play boring, you’ve still managed to escape the world of your office, or classroom, or surgery.

Do you remember those cheesy embarrassing Theatre for School programs? A bunch of spotty 18 year old Drama students would come to your school hall, wear bright t-shirts, their caps slung backwards and sit incorrectly on a chair; all to tell you not to smoke, because ‘cool kids don’t smoke’. Well, there is actually some good to have come from them more recently.

In fact, there are some brilliant Theatre For Education programmes in the UK who are working hard to raise awareness of Mental Health in a range of school pupils. I know from being a teacher that many children live with parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles who are sufferers of mental illness. It is important to educate and explain that to be unwell in your mind, is okay. “This is why mummy cries sometimes”, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. I wish people started to embed the importance of looking after your mental health at a young age far sooner. In my experience the biggest hurdle for mental health, is being around people who do not understand it.

So I sit here waiting for the day I can jump back into rehearsal, or spend my hard earned furlough on a pair of tickets to the next big thing. For now I try to maintain my mental well being and offer out a hand to anyone suffering - we at ETC are always happy to listen or talk if you ever need someone.


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