I write a short column in this space every month or so. It’s a privilege – I have a thousand thoughts about theatre each week and rarely struggle to find a subject. This week, I wasn’t sure I could string a single idea together. The problem is that I’ve had a recurrence of severe depression: proper, medical, can’t-get-out-of-bed, brain-like-storm-darkness depression.
Like many people reading this, a primary focus of my depression is the tragedy unfolding in our arts industries. All the political noises are bad; there seems little point writing another column about how to engage with a government that seems oblivious to the needs of a sector it is sending to the wall. Instead of having a thousand things to say, the thought of writing anything about the current crisis just makes me start to cry. At times like this, depression seems an entirely rational response.
I know many of us are feeling like this. I’ve had several emails from friends in the performance industry apologising for being out of touch for a few weeks – they simply haven’t been able to face the world. It’s particularly painful for our sector to see the opening of pubs being touted as a ‘back to normal’. When I watch politicians tell me that society is functioning again, what I hear is that the live arts never featured in their conception of society. Again, who wouldn’t be depressed?
You can’t medicate away the closure of an arts venue, but a doctor or therapist can help with strategies to cope
But since I know that many readers of The Stage will be feeling the same, here’s what I’ve learned. First off, no matter how factually horrible the external circumstances, if you’re too depressed to function normally, you’re not well. It’s always a good idea to get professional help. You can’t medicate away the closure of an arts venue, but a doctor or therapist can help with strategies to cope. Finding one can be an effort in itself, but to take hold of your personal finances or to join the sector fightback, you need to invest in getting yourself healthy and functional.
Secondly, we really are all enduring this together. Actors, musicians, producers, critics – you name ’em. If you’re a member of the live-arts sector who’s ill with depression, you’re not alone. And for a sector that likes to joke about its feuds and egos, there’s been a noticeable burying of the hatchets as we all recognise the interdependence of our ecosystem.
Thirdly, routines help. So does seeking out collective experiences. One thing that’s helped me most has been the little group of friends who simultaneously watch a culture broadcast together each week – with a Zoom drinks interval and a WhatsApp running commentary. We can debate forever whether this is ‘theatre’, but it’s a little nugget of shared experience in my week when I’m aching for sociability of a night in the stalls. A big part of working in the live arts is the feeling of working in a team on a collective endeavour, so finding team projects to achieve together might also help.
There are platitudes I can come up with about theatre’s inevitable recovery. But for that to have a chance, we as individuals need to recover too. Look after yourselves.