Regular readers will know that currently I am living with anxiety, stress and depression, which had restricted my ability to engage in my working life and left me taking each day at a time until I get back to my full strength again. I have written about it here and here.
However, I am also a blogger and one of my primary interests is the theatre.
From my first trips with school to the Oldham Coliseum, through years living in Yorkshire and taking advantage of theatres across the North, I have always loved the escapism of the footlights (but as an observer, never a performer).
I’m lucky enough to live in London, which has over two hundred theatres, West End, off-West End, fringe and pop-up. Whether your taste is the big, tourist-trap musical or the above-the-pub experimental, the huge organisations (National, Old Vic, Barbican) or the exciting stuff in the smaller houses, there is something here for you. London is also home to several suburban theatres in its surrounding towns, which host travelling tours.
This is not the post where I will discuss theatre pricing, although that may be something I return to at a later date.
No, this is about how going to the theatre has had a positive effect on my mental health. How seeing others performing in something created for the masses lifts my spirits and keeps me calm and relaxed. How having an hour, two, three, to think about something else other than the triggers that make me jumpy and unhappy, is the best non-medical intervention money can buy.
For me, live performance – and I will stretch this to concerts to some extent, although sometimes they are too crowded and noisy for me – is an escape, and in building this blog over the past few years I have been able to concentrate for short periods to review and reflect on what I have seen. Even shows which are dark and challenging can offer something to a brain which is slightly off-kilter; it doesn’t have to be something silly which brings nothing but laughter.
I do plan my visits, though. I usually attend theatres I have been to before, or stick to the centre of the city. If I do venture further out I plan my journey, make sure I know where I am going, and always get there at least half an hour before so I can get my bearings, take a deep breath, and get settled.
If I can, and I’m on my own, I try to talk to people around me in the auditorium, although being in London that’s not always an option, and I have become acutely aware that there may be other people in attendance who are just as anxious as me. So sitting in silence and just looking around the place is fine. Now and again my lovely husband comes along with me, and then I’m a bit braver, maybe going to somewhere without all that double-checking, and just purely enjoying myself.
I love the atmosphere of a theatre. What the outside looks like, how the show is promoted on the frontage. The lights in the evening, the bustle outside in the day. The foyers, the staff, the pictures, the programme. How people act before the house is open. How everyone always grumbles about the loos even when they are fairly palatial (ENO Coliseum, take a bow). The nooks and crannies of larger venues – the thrill of finding a new corner of a new level at the National, the weird little rooms around the basement stalls of Victorian buildings.
Once you’re in the auditorium: sneaking a peak at the set on stage, watching as the levels fill up, the scents and sounds and sights of a unique new audience, checking out the seat and the leg-room, the arm-rests, the strangers who will be neighbours for however long the magic lasts, the busy ushers who have eyes like hawks. The half-darkness in many houses well before the show gets going.
What’s the stage like? A traditional proscenium? A thrust stage? In the round? What props are visible? What’s the lighting like? Is anyone on the stage already, and what are they doing? Is there music playing before the show starts? Working out the sight-line (especially if a larger head is directly in front!). Putting the baggage of life out in the real world away under the seat, working out where to put the programme, having a quick check for the nearest exit at the end of the show.
All this helps to calm the anxious mind and push any difficult thoughts away. For the next hour, two, three, my reality is what’s showing on that stage in front of me, and those people who are performing are not the people who are listed in the programme, but characters who are taking this journey with us and for us. I have always been fascinated by actors and that ability to inhabit another body and soul. Actors I have followed for years across different roles and shows, or those I am seeing for the first time, and there is always the chance that one of them will settle in the memory forever, for what they do on the stage, now.
Some shows leave you laughing, some leave you crying, and some have a touch of both. When you’re unwell, and your emotions have been squashed a bit by medication or by something that really doesn’t feel quite right, being able to connect on whatever level with the theatre is invaluable. Thinking, talking, reading and writing about it later helps that feeling even more.
If something is rattling around in my mind, the best way to stop it for me is watching a play or musical on the stage (I also watch lots of films too, and they have the advantage of being able to revisit as often as you want, for far less than the outlay for two visits to the theatre), but the theatre has an immediacy and is being shared, just that one time, by those who are present at that time, on that day.
Without the escape and cocoon of the stage I would be far further back along the road to recovery. Even if I have to take that two steps back now and again, the show pulls me back and gives me strength. And that’s why it is special, and valuable, and essential, for me.