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Theatre can be a tough industry, we need to look out for each other

Paul Bhattacharjee (right), whose suicide has prompted a new initiative to raise awareness of mental health problems in the industry. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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On July 12, leading British actor Paul Bhattacharjee was found dead near cliffs in East Sussex.

Last week, Matthew Hemley wrote an excellent article about the loneliness of being an actor.

It’s important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

Ruby Wax recently contributed to the programme notes of the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet writing of her own experience of depression:

“Here’s something you get absolutely free with this illness: a real sense of shame. It comes with the package. I have friends who say, ‘I know people with real diseases so show me an x-ray’.”

What concerns me especially is that, in many cases where behaviour such as drink or substance abuse occurs, this often becomes the subject of theatrical anecdote. Stories abound in theatre of the behaviour of drunken actors or producers causing backstage mayhem that have, over time, become the stuff of legend and which many of us gleefully tell.

This is a tough and, on occasion, cruel business with enormous levels of rejection and high pressure that even the most experienced can frequently struggle to cope with

But, when actually considered in context, nobody in life ever set out to become an addict, and this kind of behaviour in not often recognised as possibly a cry for help. In the case of Stephen Fry’s 1995 breakdown and disappearance during the West End run of Simon Gray’s play Cell Mates, Gray subsequently wrote the book Fat Chance – a bitter tirade about the departure of his star and the play’s subsequent closure, showing little regard towards the condition that Fry was obviously experiencing at the time.

For those of us fortunate not to have experienced depression on such scale, it can seem unreal and impossible to comprehend that someone who had appeared so “normal” and “happy” – remarks often reported in the aftermath of such circumstances – could have in fact been so ill.

The theatre can seem to many a haven – a world within a world with its own reality. Its all-inclusive attitude can appear an attractive, inviting place of work for the vulnerable or the outsider. The reality is that this is a tough and, on occasion, cruel business with enormous levels of rejection and high pressure that even the most experienced can frequently struggle to cope with.

Similarly, in TV, the rise of reality talent and game shows raise questions of the stability of certain individuals, as their participation is often paraded mockingly before us. It is no one’s right to stop anyone chasing a dream but the industry also needs to ensure a continued pragmatic, moral responsibility in the duty of care that is shown towards these participants both during and, critically, afterwards, in its quest for our “viewing entertainment”.

The sad and shocking news of Paul Bhattacharjee’s sudden and untimely death serves to remind me that in this precious profession we need to keep looking out for each other as much as ourselves.

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