Editor’s Note: Mental health education need not be dry and boring. And the restaging of this in-house play was proof of that. Read on to discover the powerful impact of combining the arts with advocacy in our interview with the director of the 8-5.
Theatre Production: 8-5, by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH)
Show dates: 29-30 August 2015
Director: Dr Chris Tan, Department of Community Psychiatry, IMH
“You’re gonna like the show,” she whispered to me, with a smile. The kindly stranger next to me had no idea I was about to write a review on the play. Turns out, she was a staff and this was her second time catching the IMH fundraiser, 8-5.
I had my reservations as always, but was thrilled to see the stage production so well-received by their own.
The new cast, save for three returning actors, elicited plenty of tears and laughter from its audience. I was caught off guard at how emotionally engaging the 90min play was.
Making its debut in 2013, 8-5 featured three types of mental illnesses–Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Schizophrenia and Dementia—as experienced in the daily lives of ordinary people
Aside from the vivid portrayal of the illnesses’ symptoms such as the personified voices in an episode of psychosis, the inner tug of war, the constant obsession over accuracy and cleanliness, the volatile facets of dementia—one thing that stood out for me was the emphasis on a caregiver’s emotional turmoil, alongside the persons suffering from these disorders.
Dr Chris Tan, director of 8-5, shares that in addition to improving the technical and artistic elements of this year’s play, they “have revised the script to portray more of the characters’ emotions–to show the audience what they experience and feel.
This helps to improve understanding and awareness of how it feels to be suffering from mental health issues, and also to remind audience that they are no different from any of us.”
“We wanted to portray what it is like to be someone with mental illness, and also how it is to be a caregiver for someone with mental illness. At the same time we do not want to stereotype mental illness to be just about schizophrenia and depression hence we decided to showcase OCD and dementia as well,” he adds.
As with some of us wondering, why is it called 8-5?
“8-5 was deliberately kept ambiguous to allow audience to have their own interpretation. Some may see it as working hours from 8am to 5pm; some may understand it as time ticking away.
Even so, different people would have different thoughts about what working hours or time means to them. Eventually, the understanding of the title will depend on an individual’s perception.“
This is something that we hope to bring to people’s awareness. Mental illness and its related stigma is also all about an individual’s perception and understanding.”
I was particularly moved by a scene on dementia, because it reminded me so much of my grandmother who suffers from it.
In a poignant monologue, the jaunty character “Granddad” conversed with his late wife—he knew “there’s something wrong in (his) head”; he fears losing his memories of his beloved; he doesn’t understand why his granddaughter wants to put him in a home; he feels unwanted, unappreciated, lost.
As the emotionally charged scene unfolded, there was an undeniable rustling of tissue paper packets and subtle sniffles all around me.
I can appreciate how such a play, riddled with emotional highs and lows, requires that delicate balance between theatre and reality. Especially since mental illnesses are multifaceted and not as straightforward as one may think.
“Many movies and productions stereotype certain presentations of mental illnesses because it appeals more to the audience. At the same time audience can relate more when they see something similar to what they have seen previously. Most of the time, these stereotyping involves playing up of the symptoms and exaggerating the behaviour.
Our script is developed to depict scenarios as close as possible to real life situations to avoid exaggerating them.”
Juggling between rehearsals and their full-time work commitments was a challenge to the team, with auditions beginning in March and having a finalized cast within that very month.
Despite being untrained in theatre, the preparations and stage set-up were no different from a professional production, with the likes of The Necessary Stage.
Like the rest of the crew, Dr Tan is thankful for the hospital’s support and the sheer dedication displayed by everyone involved in the play which made the restaging possible, and thanks donors for generously supporting their cause.
“It is always very fulfilling for a director to see his or her work materialising on stage. But it is far more fulfilling to know that everyone who participated in this play had enjoyed themselves and that the audience had also enjoyed the show.”
I mulled over the play long after it was over.
Personally, I’d have preferred it if there was more time allocated to describing the recovery process towards the end, such as presenting a lessening of symptoms, be it in frequency or intensity. But perhaps due to time constraints, the conclusion of the three stories was a simple version of getting treated and becoming better over a brief period.
However, the key message was clear: Mental health stigma is real and it affects everyone in the family and community. It also prevents people from seeking help in the first place.
“Confucius says: the man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones…We can’t change the public’s perception in one day but I hope to start by doing something small.
I think having a better understanding of mental illness and the people who suffer from them is an important first step. However what may be more important is what comes after the understanding. Acceptance, support, empathy and reintegration,” concludes Dr Tan.
Overall, it was a good outreach production that highlighted the realities of living with mental illnesses, in a light-hearted fashion that can be easily understood by the public without compromising depth and accuracy.
Kudos to the cast and crew who put together such an outstanding performance! And my heartfelt thanks to IMH for the invitation and opportunity to interview Dr Chris Tan for this article.
If you’d like to make a donation to the Woodbridge Hospital Charity Fund, please visit https://www.imh.com.sg/page.aspx?id=120