Examining mental health in theatre

Former University of Otago theatre student Dan Goodwin will Zoom into Dunedin at the New Zealand Young Writers Festival to pass on some advice on writing about mental health in a safe way.  Rebecca Fox takes a closer look.

Auckland playwright Dan Goodwin performs Breathe. He will hold his Dunedin workshop online for NZ...
Auckland playwright Dan Goodwin performs Breathe. He will hold his Dunedin workshop online for NZ Young Writers Festival. PHOTOS: DEZHOU LI

Walking through a park near Wilsden Green in London, Dan Goodwin was mugged.

Goodwin was in London halfway through studying for their master’s at their dream school, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), but that day changed everything.

‘‘It set off a range of distress experiences for me, including psychosis, paranoia, delusion. It kind of set off this whirlwind trajectory.’’

On the advice of an ambulance driver, Goodwin saw a doctor and that led to another doctor, and another.

Two months and four or five medical professional visits later, Goodwin had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

‘‘It sucked for three years, pretty much. At the same time I wasn’t presented with an ultimatum, but it felt like one, where I was given the choice to step out of university to focus on rest and care and specifically being cared for. It felt like a lot of my agency was being taken away. Or do the only thing I knew how to do - [which] was to make theatre and try and make sense of what was going on.’’

Goodwin struggled to find much information about schizophrenia online, stories about it, or content in theatre or films, except those that highlighted the violent stereotypes.

‘‘I decided to make my own story. So I swapped my master’s which was focusing on queer theatre over to representation of psychosis in the arts.’’

And so Goodwin completed an MA and made Breathe, a solo show about diagnosis and experiences with psychosis, which scored that year’s top mark for the practical component of the degree.

‘‘I found walking into spaces a lot of time the reaction, especially when the word schizophrenia came up, was silence and then a real curiosity, an inquisitiveness about it.’’

From there it has unfolded.

‘‘It was an interesting shift, not just for me personally in my work but also noticing how mental health is navigated in the industry - it’s often not, it’s often swept under the rug in theatre and different arts sectors, I’ve found.’’

Goodwin came to New Zealand at about 12 years old from Scotland with their mother and grandmother and settled in North Harbour, Auckland.

‘‘I didn’t have much say in the matter.’’

After leaving high school Goodwin headed to Dunedin, studying theatre and sociology for four years.

After graduation, Goodwin and some friends ran theatre company Counterpoint.

‘‘I jumped around a little bit from then.’’

San Francisco in the United States was the next stop to do some acting training before returning to New Zealand for a couple of years.

Then London called. The aim was to do a master’s and they got into RADA - the rest, as they say, is history.

Goodwin then did a dramaturgy course called text and performance. It was about the writing and editing of dramatic texts and analysing theatre.

Back in New Zealand since 2016, Goodwin has been continuing to write plays and work as a dramaturge.

Goodwin found with their own work that spaces they had worked in previously quite freely became more restrictive, or they felt more anxious or cautious about the subject matter.

‘‘It took a while to realise it was the world was shifting around me and how I was presenting myself. Really, I think that kind of subtle shift that happens when you start dealing with mental health - whether it’s a diagnosis, a label or the theme of a theatre show - I think people often change their behaviour unconsciously without realising the shift is happening.’’

So a lot of the dramaturgical work Goodwin does is about making those shifts conscious, and highlighting how and why people adapt and change to mental health when it becomes this ‘‘conscious thing in the room’’.

Mostly the work is just questions and discussions and work with young writers who may have written a narrative based on unconscious or subconscious ideas around mental health.

‘‘You ask questions about why characters do certain things at certain points. It highlights assumptions writers have about their own experiences or how the world reacts to those experiences.’’

 

GOODWIN believes there has been a shift in how mental health is perceived as people generally become more accepting of each other.

‘‘There are specific conversations in mental health that do not exist yet, outside of the mental health community, which will happen in the next decade or so that I’m quite excited for.’’

While it has become more common to talk about depression or anxiety, less familiar psychoses have been left out of the dialogue.

‘‘That will be an interesting shift but I do think we are getting there. The more people start engaging in those discourses the more specific questions will be asked and more experiences will be able to support and understand.

‘‘Once it starts it will only get better and faster.’’

Breathe also developed further in New Zealand, becoming more of an ensemble piece. It toured around New Zealand and was performed at Basement Theatre in Auckland and BATS in Wellington.

Goodwin’s personal journey also continued back in New Zealand when it was discovered they had been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, and instead they were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

‘‘Some of the experiences I had - delusions, paranoia - do kind of match with both descriptions. So the question of how schizophrenia is as a diagnosis is under question a lot.’’

Goodwin says they are now ‘‘flourishing’’ with weekly support from a psychotherapist. They are now working to cope with social settings, anxiety and their ‘‘triggers’’.

‘‘I’m in a position now where I can not only incorporate this into my work but be put in a position to work with other people’s stories and experiences and get to share what I’ve learnt which I also end up learning from as well.’’

They also enjoy being able to do some peer support work with people just beginning their mental health journey.

‘‘I do feel that shift which is nice, a real positive.’’

Goodwin has a couple of shows in production at the moment and is back studying again, this time sign language interpreting.

At the Young Writers Festival, Goodwin will teach a workshop on mental health barriers, in particular mental health barriers in theatre, predominantly for writers approaching the topic for the first time. Due to Covid restrictions, it will be online.

‘‘Really, what we are going to be looking at are the preconceptions we hold about mental health. The narratives that exist currently and decoding them, what we like and what we don’t like.’’

Hopefully, they will also talk about when their stories collide with the world and theatre.

‘‘What challenges come up when that happens?

‘‘Theatre is interesting as it is essentially historically based on the idea of conflict to make an interesting story.

‘‘That is [a] really tricky one when you start talking about ethically responsible mental health narratives because if you introduce a character such as a therapist into the story, the goal of those services is to reduce tension, to reduce conflict and clarify tension.

‘‘If you introduce a therapist character to Othello it’s over in 15 minutes. Othello talks to his therapist, the therapist tells him to talk to his wife, done, boom.

‘‘Given that is the real-world context we are trying to work towards to normalise mental health support services or healthy and ethical depictions of mental health experiences, how do you balance that with an art form which is at times deliberately trying to make things as conflict-heavy as possible?

‘‘That is the real dilemma we fall into a lot.’’

To see

• Dan Goodwin, Authentic and Accessible, online, October 30, 12.30, Writers Block 53 Castle Street.

• NZ Young Writers Festival 2021: Collapsing the Conventional, Thursday, October 28 to Sunday, October 31, various venues.

 
 

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