I'll start at the beginning. As mentioned in the previous blog post (please see In between a workshop... below) , in September we performed two scratch performances of Little Cuts, our work in progress, that we aim to take into schools, which explores self harm. We will be combining the play with a workshop which will allow us to give students a chance to explore the difficult themes raised by the piece
The feedback was mostly informal, although we did receive some good written feedback. The topic of suggested age group was, again, hotly contested. Some of us began to notice that, while on board with the idea of getting feedback to better improve and direct the piece, we were bristling slightly at any actual criticism, however constructively meant. Perhaps this should have been a warning. The performance itself had gone well. There were a sprinkling of minor deviations from the usual course of dialogue and events, as there often are in our performances. It is both the joy and the horror of improvisation. What makes the performance a success is the incorporation of these blips seamlessly into the narrative. I think we managed this well on Tuesday. We were well received and both moved the audience and got them thinking. Success surely?
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It's not that I'm secure in my acting skills... but when I look at 'Nuts I know we are good. I know our authenticity, the relevance of our message and the effort and work we all put in. There has been blood and sweat, but the tears would wash them all away and we are still here! It's true that I worry about aspects of my performance and I know we are all prone to thinking "everybody else is good and it's just me that's rubbish - I'm dragging everyone else down!" and, sadly, some of us have received feedback from family members that seems to endorse such paranoia. But the pride I have in my 'Nuts (you've got to admit they're mighty fine nuts... ;) ), the honour I feel to work within this company, with these people, on these subjects, fortuitously trumps my Englishness and urge to be self-deprecating. So yeah, I'm not naturally boasty, and every time Gerald praises us I want to think "yeah well he would say that, he's just being nice. It's like your Mum calling you pretty". I'm starting to trust his assessment of us, however. Other people, who are not in any surrogate parent role whatsoever, seem to keep repeating his sentiments. Plus, he tells us when we are rubbish. In a nice way, obvs.
OK, I think all my "not boastful but genuinely proud of May Contain Nuts" cards are on the table. The post show buzz was fantastic. Briefly. The feedback ranged from "speak up" (thanks Mum) to a distressing repetition of the huge "responsibility" that the company were shouldering in taking such subject matter into schools. None of us said: No $#!^, Sherlock. Weren't we good? Concern was also expressed, again, over the age of the intended audience.
I cannot overstate this: WE KNOW how distressing the subject matter is. We are fully aware of the responsibility. We are not making this stuff up because we think the subject is trendy and we think it will be nice if we help. THESE ARE OUR OWN LIVED EXPERIENCES. Don't get me wrong, we are acting out fictional characters. But I know Cary's disgust and shame with her need to resort to cutting because I experience that shame and that disgust. I'm not going to go through all the places in the performance where Cary's, or any other characters', stories come from the experiences of the actors because it is not my place and I doubt I even know all the places where we speak our own truths though our characters mouths. But, please believe me, we know what we are talking about.
At times it felt like some of the feedback we were getting was (please read the following in the voice of Dug from Up!)
"Here is my job title. I am providing this to prove that what I say carries weight because I am a professional. I am marking my territory. I am a good and kind person because I work with the mentally ill. What you are doing and saying is threatening to me because I like to feel in control of the situation when I work with the mentally ill. I am doing help and kindness to them and they should be grateful. I think you should not take alarming subject matter into schools as this has not been done before and it is alarming to me."
Yes, that is probably just my crazy person reading of the situation... probably. But we all noticed some of the feedback Small Nose got when we went to see Black Dog was similar. "I have been a [whatever] therapist for [years] and I think..." Yeah well, ask us how long we've been crazy. Bet we've got you beat.
Apparently there are many professional actors who wouldn't even try to receive feedback face to face like that. It is a difficult thing to do. We got weirdly territorial, dire warnings, that I personally believe came more from the speakers' fears than their desire to help us make a better piece. None of those nice, sane grown ups who were there to be in charge of us poor "vulnerable adults" (*sarcasm*) saw it coming. The helpful feedback about pacing and technique? That was expected and we are very grateful that people took the time and effort to come and see us. It was, we thought, clearly spelled out that the work is "in progress" and that the workshop that we will give in schools after the performance will be ready to address questions and issues raised. But it feels like some "professionals" were too threatened by us and our message to want others to see it.
We think practically everybody should see Little Cuts. I have a friend who decided not to come watch this as they were worried it would be triggering. As this friend is currently in a form of therapy where their self harm is being addressed, the causes treated and the alternatives explored, I think that their choice was absolutely fine and, probably wise. This and young children are the exception.
Show me someone working in Mental Health who wouldn't benefit from the insights this piece gives. Show me a teacher who knows so much about self harm and its manifestations that Little Cuts has nothing for them. Show me an adolescent who self harms who isn't already struggling with the feelings of either isolation, shame, confusion or helplessness that we're trying to address. Show me an adolescent, who doesn't self harm, who is already so well informed that they adequately understand what those who do self harm are going through, and how to help. For that matter show me an adult. Go on. I'll wait.
I'm not suggesting that mental illness always equates to self harm but please consider the following.
People with current mental health problems are 20 times more likely to report having harmed themselves.
1 in 4 of the population will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course on any given year.
In "children" (between the age of one and fifteen) 1 in 10 has a "mental health disorder".
1 in 5 will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of any given year.
1 in 10 at any time, will be experiencing mental health problems.
Unsurprisingly, "rates of mental health problems among children increase as they reach adolescence". Assuming that we perform to a class of thirty, that means that, statistically, at least 3 students will be struggling on that day.
I understand the urge to protect adolescents who have no experience of self harm, but I would argue that, realistically, there aren't as many of them as you would think and such ignorance is likely to be short lived, especially with internet access so ubiquitous. Surely it is better to try to reduce the stigma, open the discussion and begin to explore the alternatives, than to try to protect some ideal of innocence that, sadly, cannot last.
In case you are wondering 'how many of them will have self harmed though?' According to one Guardian article, last year the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) revealed that "of the 6,000 young people aged 11, 13 and 15 surveyed across England – up to
one in five 15-year-olds say they self-harm."
I'll leave you with that one for a little while...
Admittedly, it was a difficult experience on a number of levels. It apparently led some to question the wisdom of subjecting "vulnerable adults" (ie. us) to such "robust" feedback, but here's the good bit.
Yes, much as we'd like not to be, we are vulnerable adults. But we are not helpless. We have been through hell and we are damn well going to do everything in our power to prevent others doing so, and to help those who already are. We will fight the ignorance and stigma that has made our experiences so much worse. We raise the profile of mental health problems because the current awareness levels are absurd.
It's not nice but we are going to talk about it [Warning: more stat bombs ahead]
A person is more likely to suffer from mental illness in this year than they are to experience the following in their lifetime:
Right now, 1 in 5 of us will have dandruff. 1 in 5 of us have arthritis. 1 in 11 children and 1 in 12 adults have asthma and 1 in 10 carry meningococcal bacteria (although only 1 in 33,333 will have meningitus in any given year). These are common, everyday afflictions that nobody is trying to deny. But any given person is more likely to experience mental illness this year than be currently coping with asthma, arthritis or dandruff. It's here. It's real. It's horrible and we are going to talk about it because the more you shut it away the more the sufferers suffer. We can't sit quietly and patiently and wait for overworked, underpaid NHS staff to come and tell us how to address the issues nicely. We're not going to talk quietly any more just because it makes the "sane" people more comfortable. We are going to shout and we are going to be heard. So here's the headline:
'Nuts Get Some Questionable Feedback from Leery Professionals at
Scratch Performance. They Decide that they are Clearly Fighting a Battle
that Needs Fighting and get Even More Determined to do that!
The CommuniKatie Person Sucks at Short Pithy Headlines!
So put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Even if you were the most vulnerable type of smoker (male, heavy), you'd still be at more risk at joining us in the crazy camp this year, than you would be from getting lung cancer in your lifetime (24.9% or just shy of 1 in 4).
Further Reading ;)
Some very good points. Ours still stand. :p