Creating Ourselves Ill

"Adventures in Depression"

It has long been part of the social construct of Western society that those who identify as creative are likely to be mentally ill. The idea of the tortured artist initiated by Aristotle (“no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness”) and continually propagated through the years by numerous others, notably romantics such as Byron, has become so strong that many now feel they are not real artists without the torture. Our contemporary society has even provided us with a cheeky Wikihow page on “How to Act Like A Tortured Artist.” Such a lasting ideal has garnered its own harem of scientific studies, and yet there is still no definitive, scientifically proven answer, partly because it is difficult to discern what constitutes creativity. Much research has been conducted on artists of known creativity, but recently an Icelandic study has taken a different approach. It has instead examined how likely it is that those who have pursued a creative profession are to have a mental illness – in this case bipolar or schizophrenic disorders. The results? When they looked at “people who were members of arts societies, such as dancers, writers and artists, that group was 17% more likely to have a genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia and bipolar disorders than non-members of those kinds of groups.”

While this study has its problems, not least of which are the vaguely defined labels of “creative” versus “non-creative” professions, it does cause one to examine the effect our theatrical profession has on our mental health – and not only for those with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. If, indeed, as theater professionals we are more likely to have mental health challenges, how can we look after ourselves?

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Standard Googling (and advice from my personal health professionals) will tell you that the keys to treating and maintaining mental health and treating mental illness include: getting enough sleep, a strong network of relationships, eating well, regular exercise and, if you have a mental illness, avoiding triggers.

"Adventures in Depression"
“Adventures in Depression” (via Hyperbole and a Half)

Take the life of an average theater professional working in Chicago storefront – and dare I say – non-storefront theater. While hilarious, the truth of the Theater Commandment’s phrase on these t-shirts: “I can’t I have rehearsal,” says it all. Working a day job, and then rehearsing/performing in the evenings and on weekends not only inhibits regular and satisfactory sleep patterns and regular exercise, but also makes it difficult to maintain strong social connections. Eating well in any circumstance is hard for many of us, but add into it the stress of a time-poor, sleep-poor life, and it makes it near impossible. Additionally, regularly, sometimes daily, you watch/create/perform life events that are considered among the most stressful anyone could experience. If we look at the events that one would regularly watch and examine when directing a “Great American Play” such as Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire through the the lens of Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory test, we find the results:

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Marital separation from a mate: 65 points

Major personal illness or injury: 53 point

Marital reconciliation with a mate: 45 points

Gaining a new family member: 39 points

Major change in financial state: 38 points

Revision of personal habits: 24 points

Changing to a different line of work: 36 points

Total score: 300 points

What does the sum of these points mean? In this test, 150 – 300 points determines that the taker has a 50% chance of a mental health breakdown in the next two years, and 300+ points raises the odds to 80%. Now, obviously I am not one of the characters in this play, but this does provide a picture of the level of stress I would be repeatedly and intimately exposed to as a director – as part of my job, and without an off button. However, actors more directly experience such events, often with an artistic process that enables them to make such events seem as real as possible. I’m sure you’ve heard of such circumstances – those that drastically, dangerously change their weight, or place themselves in situations that are dangerous both to their physical and mental health. Let me be clear: I don’t stand in judgement of these actors’ processes, but I do question my undeniable artistic admiration of such extremes, with full awareness that should I follow this path it would be dangerous to my mental health. It seems that in such circumstances, our artistic echo chamber stoically responds, “We’re theatre professionals, and it’s our job.” But is it? Is the reason why studies find that we in creative professions have a higher rate of mental illness not necessarily because these illnesses already exist, but because we instead create, participate, perhaps even wallow in social constructs of theater that foster poor mental health?

I think that we do. However, the reality is that these constructs do have a large practical element. Many of us need other jobs to make ends meet, so while mentally taxing, the real joy of our lives comes through our place in the theater industry, telling stories as best as we can even if it means living through them ourselves. I don’t have a solution, but I know that what I want for myself and the greater theater community is for us to be able to create outstanding, life-changing and innovative theater without making ourselves ill.


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Bec Willett
Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director and designer. She has worked with an array of Chicago theatre companies including Prologue Theatre Company, where she is also an Artistic Associate; Pulse Theatre Company; Waltzing Mechanics; Chicago Dramatists; Actors’ Gymnasium and the OverUnder Collective – a theatre collective she co-founded with the goal of supporting young artists.