21 October 2014

Bertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players

by Kirk Woodward

[Frequent guest-blogger Kirk Woodward keeps contributing the most fascinating articles on theater and several other topics.  This time around, he’s reporting on a group that uses theater “to depict realistic scenarios involving mental health issues,” according to its website (http://www.mhanj.org/mental-health-players/).  It’s an education outreach program intended to teach audiences about mental illness in a dynamic and direct way that bypasses the clinical jargon and academic atmosphere of lectures, texts, and even documentary films.  Kirk got to know the program’s director and got involved with the group and felt that it was an experience worth writing about and disseminating on ROT.  But leave it to Kirk to find a unique take on the experience: he sees it as profoundly Brechtian.  I’ll let him explain that, but I’ll add that it adds a dimension to what was in any case an unusual encounter.]

“I’m not asking you to sit back in your chairs and enjoy the show. I’m asking you to sit on the edge of your chairs and think about what you’re seeing.”

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), the German playwright and director, could easily have spoken those very words as a summary of his theories about plays and how he wanted audiences to experience them. However, the words were spoken instead in August 2014, in a recreational room at a New Jersey YMHA, by a man named John Rogers, then the Interim Director of the New Jersey Mental Health Players (MHP).

John Rogers is a retired high school guidance counselor and a fine actor. I have seen him in several plays at the Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey; I wrote about one of those plays, Paul Claudel’s The Tidings Brought to Mary, in this blog (see “Religious Drama,” 19 January 2014). I knew him slightly, and our sons know each other. 

When John sat next to me at a production in the same church of five Chekhov one-act plays, he mentioned that he was leading a group that performs short improvised plays on mental health subjects. He invited me to talk with him further about it, and I met with him a few days later. The upshot was that both my friend Martha Day and I signed up for the program, which began with two training sessions.

According to a history provided by the group, the Mental Health Players began in Elmira, New York, in 1978, and members of that group created eleven troupes in New Jersey. Predictably, as the structure and approach of mental health organizations changed, so did the Mental Health Players. Their numbers shrank in the late 1990s, as responsibilities of their parent organizations increased; eventually there was only one group left in New Jersey, in Somerset County.  

However, starting in 2002 the entire program was refunded and reconceived to “focus entirely on presenting real life accounts of individuals showing the signs and symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses and disorders.” Its aim became to have at least fifty trained players, giving at least five community educational performances per month. The presentations are given at no cost to the host organizations at such locations as universities, hospitals, assisted living residences, and community centers.

Here’s how the MHP works. When an organization signs up for a performance, it indicates what topics might interest its audience the most. The performance might be for “consumers” – persons who have, and/or may have been treated for, mental health issues – or for more general audiences. In either case, John Rogers creates two scenarios for the event, each for two actors, each intended to last about six to eight minutes, followed by a discussion period with the audience. The entire presentation, with both scenes and both discussion periods, takes about an hour.

John writes a new scenario for each event; he doesn’t recycle earlier ones, although he may modify scenes from past performances that have worked well. Each scenario dramatizes at least one mental health issue; often, because of the complexities of life, it actually will dramatize two or more. The two actors in each scene discuss the scene on the phone in advance, making sure they’re focused on the issues and in agreement on the logistics of the scene, like where it’s taking place and what objects it might require. There is no rehearsal except that the actors meet to run through the scenarios right before the event, and then they perform them for the audience. A scenario may have actual lines in it, but they are meant to be suggestions indicating points to be made, rather than things the actors must say.

The scenarios are structured, John says, like a three act play – except that he “interrupts” the actors after the “second act,” at a logical stopping point in the action, and in “Act Three” the performers, still in character, discuss with the audience what the audience members have seen, what they think about it, and what they recommend to the “characters” to do. Not until the end of the evening do the actors introduce their “real” selves.

Martha and I found John’s training sessions for the program challenging and interesting. The scenes, obviously, are improvised, but they have definite points to get across. In fact each actor is instructed to identify at least three symptoms appropriate for the character’s mental state, and to make sure these are clearly presented in the play. (For example, a character in a scene about depression might demonstrate frequent tiredness, loss of interest in activities, and too much or too little sleep.) The entire performance has two aims: to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, and to help people think about steps that they themselves could take toward recovery.

A few technical details: 

  • The troupe discourages yelling and screaming as a part of scenes; those may grab attention, but the scenes aim to demonstrate behavior, not to carry the audience away emotionally. 

  • During the question-and-answer period, the actors are not supposed to “continue the scene” with each other, although they stay in character; they are urged to direct their responses to the audience members, not to each other. (The temptation for actors to keep on acting with their partners is very strong.) It is the audience that needs to change, not the actors-as-characters. 

  • Actors are requested not to take part in scenes that represent mental health challenges they themselves are currently facing. A sufferer from severe depression should not do a scene about it.

  • Given the opportunity to have the lights in the auditorium turned off so the audience can focus on the actors, John says no. We’re not doing conventional theater, he says; we’re giving a presentation. (See below for more on this very Brechtian approach.)

If I may put it this way, the aim of the Mental Health Players is realism but not reality. Another way to say this is that what the MHP does is not the same as psychodrama. Eric Bentley, in his book Thinking  About the Playwright (1987) gives a fascinating account of the theatrical techniques that the late Dr. Jacob Levy Mareno used in group therapy, with actual patients conceiving of scenes and participating in them (sometimes assisted by professionals), in front of an audience. The primary aim of Dr. Mareno’s work was the healing of the patient, but of course the audience was invited to grow too. Bentley suggests that the central purpose of the experience was education. Although a performance by the MHP’s may not necessarily be immediately therapeutic, it does share with psychodrama the purpose of educating its audience, and thereby of changing it.

A few days after our first training session Martha and I went to see the performance of the MHP that I described at the beginning of this piece. There were a table and chairs for the actors in the front of the good-sized recreation room; those pieces made up the entire set. John Rogers began and ended the evening for the audience of perhaps thirty people by ringing a small bell and explaining that it symbolizes the Mental Health Bell, weighing 300 pounds and on display in Virginia, forged in 1953 from chains and shackles that mental patients had worn in “insane asylums” in the 1800s.  

Then John invited the audience to watch the play, as described above, and the actors began.

About three minutes into the first scene, an audience member began, too – she began to comment on and respond to just about every line the actors spoke, and she continued for the rest of the evening. Participatory theater! The actors incorporated what she said as best they could, but she was overwhelming, and she was equally active during the discussion periods that followed each of the two scenes. John Rogers did his best to give others a chance to talk, and of course then the lady talked to them. John told us afterwards, both amazed and amused, that in his thirty-five years in the program, that had never happened before.

John brought two people in to watch the scene Martha and I brought to our second and final training session. The theme of the scene was depression, and Martha managed to represent just about the most depressed person I’d ever seen – very effective. Afterwards John led the discussion in the direction of steps for recovery – how could Martha be helped in her situation? Alone with us again, he pointed out that I had left out anything that would help the audience realize the relationship in the scene – that we were supposed to be brother and sister, not, say, a married but separated couple. (John’s critiques were always generous but accurate.) I also realized that I had been vague in my own mind about which symptoms we wanted to demonstrate, and that I would have to spend more time becoming familiar with the facts about different kinds of mental illness.

Notes on my first three performances:

Martha and I both presented our first scene – not the “depression” scene - to the public, along with four other actors in two other scenes, at a center for developmental disabilities, where an audience of 35 to 40 patients ranged from high-functioning to the extremely disabled. Throw out that idea that this is not psychodrama – the plan was, this time only, for us to present the scenes, then for members of the audience to participate in “replays” of them. This worked about as well as one would expect – not very well – but John used every strategy in his arsenal to get the varied audience members to join the scenes, and to get value out of them.

A week later, Martha and I repeated the “depression” scene for a crowd of 200 at a conference on church and mental health in a large Baptist church. One of the speakers had written a book suggesting that church isn’t enough for dealing with mental illness – you wouldn’t expect a preacher to heal your broken leg! John wrote that thought into the scene, and Martha, who in real life is a preacher, walloped it with such force that it left me, at least, stunned. I imagine she gave the conference something to think about. 

And a week later found us at an assisted living community for an audience of fourteen. Since we presented three scenes this time, John plus the six actors meant that we were half the number of the audience. No matter – we got intelligent questions and suggestions, and that’s what we’re after.

What, now, do the Mental Health Players have to do with Bertolt Brecht? In the invaluable book Brecht on Theatre (1964), its editor John Willett includes a well-known chart that shows clearly how Brecht’s ideas of theater differed from conventional theatrical approaches. A few of the antonyms are that conventional theater “implicates the spectator in a stage situation” – it feels it has succeeded when the audience is “involved.” Conversely, Brecht’s theater, Brecht hoped, “turns the spectator into an observer,” which is the posture the MHP audience is invited to assume. Conventional theater “wears down [the audience member’s] capacity for action” – a really good play “puts us through the wringer.” Brecht, on the other hand, hoped his theater “arouses [its] capacity for action,” and the MHP troupe aims to bring its audience to take action, by changing attitudes toward mental health issues, by supporting treatment programs, or even by seeing a specialist.

Not all the comparisons on the chart apply to the Mental Health Players; one reason is that Brecht wasn’t thinking of short scenes but of full length plays. But is it possible for a full-length play to sustain Brecht’s approach? The jury is still out on that question, but the results are not promising. Mother Courage and Her Children, perhaps one of Brecht’s best-known play, is gripping, no matter how much it tries to keep us off balance in our responses. We participate in it emotionally. We follow Mother Courage, we get to know her family, we empathically share in her predicament. Brecht knew this; he himself noted that he had seldom seen his theories succeed in practice. 

But the MHP has achieved what he had difficulty achieving. “The spectator stands outside, studies . . . [is] made to face something, brought to the point of recognition… [the human being] is [seen by the audience as being] alterable and capable of being altered . . . .” This is not to say that audiences aren’t involved in the scenes the MHP present; they should be, and Brecht might not argue. He was perhaps really looking for an additional dimension in theater, and the MHP demonstrate that such a dimension is possible.

Would the technique that the Mental Health Players use work for other kinds of purposes – political, say, or religious? Probably so, in theory, but the difficulty is that there are numerous political and religious points of view, and therefore numerous potential kinds of audience, and, ordinarily, purpose-driven theater ends up being presented to an audience that’s already primed to agree with it. This is notoriously the limitation that political theater in particular faces. 

But the MHP has a subject that we all have in common and that we’re all interested in – ourselves. Most of us are concerned with our own mental health; most of us want to improve our own lives; some of us even want to help people who are close to us, who are struggling with mental health issues of their own. “The proper study of mankind is man,” Alexander Pope wrote, or, to put it another way, you can’t go wrong by talking to people about themselves. 

One final note: many of us now working in theater grew up in a generation that read Jerzy Grotowski’s book Towards a Poor Theatre (1968). The title, not to mention the book, serves as a reminder that no matter how complex other media become, theater is at its heart very simple: a couple of actors with a story worth telling, a space, and an audience do the job admirably – as I’ve seen in the MHP for myself.

[After I readBertolt Brecht and the Mental Health Players,” I remarked to Kirk that it was too bad MHP hadn’t been around when I appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in grad school and directed a stage adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Ward 6 Off-Off-Broadway in New York.  I could have used someone, I told Kirk, with knowledge of both theater and mental illnesses.  (It would also have been helpful back in college when Kirk’s and my university theater put on Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and I played one of the asylum inmates.)  For Cuckoo’s Nest, in which I played the doctor, the cast made a visit to a state psychiatric facility and later had a question-and-answer session with a mental-health professional; for Ward 6, I brought in a psychiatrist to talk to the actors and he tried to diagnose the illnesses of each patient and describe some typical behaviors.  But these pros, as generous and interested as they were, weren’t theater people and couldn’t really help us with stage behavior.  (For Marat/Sade, we essentially improvised our own disorders and developed behaviors with the help of the director.)  MHP, of course, wasn’t established to be a resource for actors and directors who are working on plays about mental illness, but they are nonetheless people with one foot in both camps: mental health and performance.]


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