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Hold the space, I’ll be back

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on September 17, 2020 Published on September 17, 2020

Prop me up: Like many activities in life, theatre, too, is not a solo process. It thrives on teamwork   -  SHASHI ASHIWAL

Theatre doesn’t just heal those in the audience. It is also therapy for the ones who practise it

Drama is applied as a form of therapy in many ways, benefiting a wide range of people — in schools, in prisons, the workplace, in dealing with childhood trauma and so on. But, as with most drama practitioners, we do what we want to do to the best of our abilities, without thinking of our psychological well-being. People involved in the performing arts are the most resilient to adversity. We practise against many odds, sometimes wondering where the next cheque is coming from. And yet we drive on because it is not the dangling carrot of fame or fortune that drives us on. It is a way for us to be happy. The process makes us as happy as the product. The objective of creating something together and sharing it with a small but interested audience is simple. In a world driven by results flagged by symbols of success, this objective may be deemed unambitious. And yet it makes us come alive.

The toolkit of skills employed for practising a performing art such as drama is a copious one. In many ways, it is similar to the toolkit one needs to function in society. At the top of the skill set is the ability to empathise. The intention to be in someone else’s situation is hardly ever discussed in a drama rehearsal because it is understood without deliberation. Empathy is a natural state. Feeling disconnected from others is not.

So what’s the connection between empathy and depression? When in a state of depression, one is unable to process feelings. Empathic behaviour compels one to acknowledge the feelings of others, and, in the process, also acknowledge one’s own feelings.

I asked a few colleagues in theatre what they thought of drama as a back door to therapy. Almost immediately, my mailbox was flooded with positive responses.

Hina Siddiqui, a playwright and theatre-maker, experienced chronic depression after surviving an accident in 2013. She writes to me. “Depression, like diabetes, is a condition that doesn’t just go away. I experienced a weakening of memory, little desire to move, and a disconnect between my behaviour and feelings.” She found solace in her chosen vocation. “Theatre is not a solo process. Working with a team of people you trust can be a big help during a depressive cycle. We learned from each other. There was no one telling me to snap out of it, or presenting solutions. We focused on holding space for each other. And that is something I have never found in any other space.”

Deshik Vansadia, an actor and Shakespeare coach, emphasised the need to discuss the application of drama in these times. “Yes, I was very down in the second period of the lockdown and had conducted a session called Shakespeare for Therapy, where people read out an excerpt of Shakespearean text that expressed their feelings. I had personally picked a passage from Hamlet, ‘I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air — look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire — why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’.” Deshik adds, “I felt a release, some tears flowed, and I felt lighter.”

Shakespeare lost his only son, Hamnet, to the Bubonic plague. The “foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” he talks about could be a direct reference to the plague, and also the disease festering within Hamnet. Perhaps writing Hamlet gave him the much-needed succour from his tragic loss. Centuries later, his creations offer solace and comfort to others.

Geetanjali Kulkarni, an award-winning theatre and film actor, stresses upon her own natural state of being an extrovert and how being a stage actor helped counter that. “Drama has helped me think inwards and reflect,” she says. It is a perfect balance between the outer and the inner world. “Drama requires you to be in sync with your body and mind... It gives me a cohesive experience.”

Even part-time practitioners have felt the immense release and outflow of energy in anticipation of the event to come. Actor-singer Naushad Buchia avers, “When a performance/gig is brewing, the ink to write the D of Depression is nowhere to be found!”

If you extend the definition of performing arts to include culture and participation, there are rituals that involve community involvement in almost all traditional societies. At many weddings, people are encouraged to join the song and dance. The ritual keening of women at a funeral gives them a pathway to understanding their own grief. In expressing it physically, they are also offering an atmosphere of bereavement. If a person in a traditional society feels disconnected, it won’t be for long. Their friends or family will ensure their participation in marriages, births, deaths, the passing of seasons, the harvesting of crops, thus creating a cycle of connection that, if at all severed, cannot stay so for long. As Siddiqui puts it succinctly, we must hold the space for each other.

Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on September 17, 2020
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