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I was 18 when a friend from my theatre studies class told me how a play he had just watched, on battling mental illness and all the prejudices surrounding it, was the “best piece of theatre he had seen”. Looking back on that remark from the distance of middle age, I understand it, not literally—how could we have seen enough then to really know what “best” means—but that he had experienced something life-changing and transformative.
Fourteen years later, I saw that very play, Off Centre by Singapore’s The Necessary Stage, and felt its power. From fieldwork with mental health patients and professionals and through improvised dialogue created by playwright Haresh Sharma, director Alvin Tan and the cast, it drew you into the interior lives of its fictional characters and refused to allow you to look away. Protagonists Vinod and Saloma, who grapple with schizophrenia and depression, form a bond that is tender and affecting in a very innocent, ‘90s way—he makes late-night song dedications to her on the radio using fake names known only to them—even as they are shut out by a world that continues to measure individuals through their productivity and achievements. The winding journey of the play’s reception only deepened its impact, from having its funding in 1993 withdrawn by commissioning body the Ministry of Health for not dialling down on what their spokesperson called a “prejudiced view of mental disorder”, to becoming the first Singaporean play in 2007 to be selected by the Ministry of Education as a GCE ‘O’ and ‘N’ Level literature text.
As a tentpole work from a company known for devising socially-conscious theatre through research and improvisation, Off Centre felt to me, as someone who has written about theatre for over two decades, as the definitive Singapore work on mental illness. So it surprised me, when I went to The Necessary Stage’s online archives and watched a video-on-demand recording of the 2019 work-in-progress showing of Acting Mad, that a relatively recent work going over similar terrain could be as harrowing and revealing of gaps in how we understand and care for those with precarious mental states.
A new and updated iteration of Acting Mad will be staged from 25-28 August, commissioned for Esplanade’s The Studios 2022. In terms of form, it is different from Off Centre in that it’s a verbatim play incorporating text from interviews with 20 unidentified Singapore actors who have wrestled with mental health issues. It reflects on one particular industry—theatre—and its characters and situations are composites of what actual people have gone through. The perspective of what it is like to live with and care for someone with mental illness figures more strongly than in Off Centre. Yet both plays are contiguous in the huge gulf between those whose mental well-being is fraying and the people around them, and the crippling sense of isolation and even abuse they face.
It got me asking: Why? Why aren’t more people better sensitised towards mental health issues, given its greater visibility with the pandemic, representation in popular culture through movies such as Silver Linings Playbook and TV series like HBO’s Sharp Objects, and more open discussion of it in public fora such as workplaces, schools and the media? Perhaps such awareness is only skin deep, making us feel progressive but not actually coming to terms with how these conditions play out in real life. What has and hasn’t changed in 30 years, which Acting Mad lays bare?
I talk to Haresh, who is both writer and director for Acting Mad, about how the vocabulary around the subject may have gotten more refined—we now have words in common currency like “triggers”, “panic attacks”, “self harm” and “suicidal ideation” to describe specific aspects of that vast and debilitating condition that is mental illness. When Off Centre was created in 1993, there were the medical words like “schizophrenia”, the derogatory slang like “xiao”, “cuckoo” and “crazy”, and hardly anything in between.
One side effect of contemporary “wokeness”, however, is that it alienates those who only see the words as just that, or “a generational thing”. Haresh recalls how one of his interviewees for Acting Mad mentioned they had gone to see a doctor and “discovered they had generalised anxiety disorder. And when I talked to some people about it, they just scoffed at it. They said, ‘like that everything also anxiety one, I also don’t want to work (because of) anxiety’.”
It is difficult to grasp the self-flagellating complexity of mental illness. Haresh points out that “it’s not one thing but many things”, and that it remains extremely difficult for an actor or anyone with mental health conditions to talk about what they are going through. Another person “might just think, you look fine, why can’t you just come to rehearsal? Whereas the complexity is that sometimes people can't even get out of bed, or sometimes the negative voice is so strong and they beat themselves up over it, to the point of not being able to do anything”.
There are various ways to approach verbatim theatre, a form which Haresh as resident playwright of The Necessary Stage has explored selectively since the late 1990s. His approach is to balance fidelity to the interview transcripts with the freedom to edit and restructure. For Acting Mad, he says, “what's interesting is that you're asking 20 different people more or less similar questions. And after a while, you see overlaps. Those points of views that are overlapping are the ones that will get into the script more than other points because that means those are the more serious kind of issues”.
For the play’s latest iteration, Haresh spoke to seven of the original 20 interviewees again to get their perspectives on the last two years, when Covid-19 put a pause on live performances and had a major impact on mental well-being for so many, not just those in theatre. Statistics like these, widely reported in the media, are sobering: a 2021 survey of 1,000 Singaporeans by a marketing communications agency found that nearly four in 10 had considered suicide at some point, with 13 per cent thinking about it at least once a week.
The fact that mental health as a topic has gone mainstream does not make it easier to understand, says Haresh, who has worked closely with social workers and counsellors for the various restagings of Off Centre (the most recent was in 2019) and now Acting Mad. He explains:
When we think about the fact that suicide was only decriminalised in Singapore in 2019, it’s all the more important to have safe spaces to talk openly yet constructively about such a fraught and difficult topic as mental health. Social media, which was not available to the Vinods and Salomas in the world of Off Centre, has certainly amplified their voices but is far from a safe space, as at least one scene in Acting Mad makes clear.
In an email interview with me, mental health advocate Porsche Poh, counsellor and executive director of the charity Silver Ribbon (Singapore), highlights a recent viral video where a woman sporting a skincare face mask was filmed outside an MRT station in a confrontation with two livestreamers. Even though some commenters pointed out the insensitivity of uploading a video of someone who clearly had mental health issues, it spawned parodies such as a TikTok user adopting the original audio of the woman’s voice to promote his products. Says Porsche: “A few people including me spoke up, and a number of his followers commented that his clip was funny and accused us of being sensitive. My message to this user was – ‘Be kind. You wouldn’t have done this if she is your loved one.’” Social media has already come under fire in other areas, with platforms having to tighten their algorithms to protect the young from content glamourising self-harm and suicide. What about guidelines to protect the interest of persons with mental health conditions by preventing anyone from recording and sharing videos of their behaviour, says Porsche.
As an environment which is more controlled and intimate but also participatory, live theatre has been undergoing its own soul-searching about how to make a safe space safer, and to cater to the needs of vulnerable audience members. For the upcoming run of Acting Mad, The Necessary Stage, Esplanade and Silver Ribbon are working together to have trained first responders on standby to help audience members who need support processing the work’s difficult issues before, during and after the play at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. A calming space will be set up just outside the venue for these individuals to decompress.
The production will also use open captioning, where the text of dialogue and spoken sounds are projected in a way that is integrated with the set design, to give a fuller experience to audiences who are deaf or hard of hearing. This is part of a move towards greater accessibility in theatre in Singapore and elsewhere. An earlier production in The Studios 2022 season, Inconsequential Goddess, had sign language interpretation but Haresh says this was logistically difficult to do for Acting Mad, as the text is spoken by four different actors compared to only one for writer-performer Edith Podesta’s Inconsequential Goddess.
Edith is also the choreographer for Acting Mad. To break the talkiness of the earlier version, the new iteration has a segment where the text is projected rather than spoken, while the actors perform a series of movements, as a kind of gestural vocabulary evoking what everyday life and its sensations might be like for those with mental health issues. In a rehearsal at The Necessary Stage’s premises at Paya Lebar, an industrial-style space the size of a black box theatre, I watch actors Ghafir Akbar, Karen Tan, Masturah Oli and Tan Guo Lian Sutton as they study a video of the different gestures, numbered and filmed by Edith from each of their improvisations. These form the basis of the choreography, to be committed to muscle memory. The mood is focused and respectful; as Karen explains to the other actors the nuances of some the gestures she devised—one where her body dissolves into spasms, or another where it looks like she is tying a plastic bag around her neck and tightening it like a noose—there are no wisecracks, no clowning around, only questions and observations.
Haresh says that as a director, he does his best to create a rehearsal space that is sensitive to the needs of its members as well as the topic at hand. For Acting Mad, this ranged from telling the actors to be careful about the kinds of jokes they made, to creating an environment where they looked out for one another. “Previously, in rehearsals, we would be very product-oriented, we would get upset when people are late.” In recent years, he has devoted more attention to creating an environment where people feel good working with one another. Actress Masturah, whom everyone calls Mas, adds that because the production has potentially distressing content on sexual abuse, suicide and self-harm, the actors make sure that when they stop rehearsals for lunch, or after wrapping up at the end of each day, they take themselves out of their roles and check in on each other’s feelings.
To me, if Off Centre was a commentary on how Singapore society treats those on the margins, Acting Mad is more of a self-reflexive work about how theatre is the one place where people have the license to admit their vulnerability, but is also a space that can be very judgemental. This stress of putting yourself out there all the time, relatable to those in other professions, affects those who wrestle with their mental health.
The theatre space remains critical at a time where it is still hard to have an in-depth conversation on mental health, one which doesn’t sugarcoat its impact on individuals and those around them. Says Haresh: “You know, an advertisement on TV is not going to do it. A Zoom with your MP is not going to do it.” And even though schools were shaken by an incident in July 2021 when a River Valley High School student with mental health issues allegedly killed another student, Haresh says “a lot of schools, I find out, are not willing to talk in a deeper way about issues like this because they don't want to their students to be adversely affected”.
Over the years, the playwright has given many talks on Off Centre in schools. A teacher friend of his wanted to take students to watch Acting Mad. “But the higher-ups said no, because they don't want the students to be triggered. So their understanding is, you watch a play about mental illness, you will be triggered and that's going to be bad for you.”
Masturah, who has been in both the 2019 and 2022 productions of Acting Mad, says the experience has made her look at her peers in the theatre community with more compassion and gratitude. She teaches drama in schools and is co-artistic director of Buds Theatre Company, a youth drama group.
Over Zoom, she tells me: “Because I’m young and sort of fresh—I graduated not too long ago—in the beginning I was like, ooh actors, I can’t wait to work with them. But then these are all real people; as you understand the sort of things they’ve been through, it changed my perception for the better.”
During the play’s first iteration, a theatre practitioner she didn’t know personally came up to her after the performance, gave her a big hug and whispered softly into her ear, “That was me. That was my story.” Masturah had portrayed something she went through—they went out for dinner afterwards “and she just told me everything”.
Ultimately, what is put under the spotlight is our own capacity to care for others. The actress says: “There is a line in the play about how people can be so toxic. It spreads fast, the industry is so small. So I think one thing I've learned is to be genuinely interested in finding out about another person because everybody has issues—if only we all can just be a listening ear and be more empathetic.”
Acting Mad, part of The Studios 2022, is on at Esplanade Theatre Studio from 25 – 28 Aug 2022. Haresh Sharma’s talk, In Their Own Words: Writing Verbatim Plays, takes place on 27 Aug at 12pm.
Check out Haresh Sharma’s books: the published text of the play Off Centre, its companion education guide Off Centre: A Necessary Resource, and Reading the Room: A Playwright’s Devising Methodology.
Clarissa Oon is a writer and former journalist who has followed developments in the arts in Singapore for over two decades, and currently heads Esplanade’s communications and content team.
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