In his show Vertical Dreaming, actor and director Andrew Henry opens up the conversation on mental health in the arts sector.
It’s a conversation many are reluctant to have.
Even after the release of the 2015 Victoria University report Working in the Entertainment Industry spot-lit the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the arts and culture sector, and sparked a series of articles and radio programs, many feel unwilling or unable to acknowledge or relate their experiences.
“I knew mental health in the arts was a huge problem,” says Henry. “I always felt it was kept secret by individuals affected, for some terrible fear that it might make then appear weak, different or unreliable.”
Henry, the artistic director of Redline Productions at the Old Fitzroy Theatre in Woolloomooloo, says he’s “a lucky boy”. “I have a great career, great friends, great family but despite all of the things in the ‘pro’ column’, the ‘con’ column had one simple listing that was in a bigger font than anything else: ‘I hate my own company’.”
That banner headline was something Henry laboured under for years, he says, and long before he became a full-time artist.
“I had a very successful career as a basketball referee,” Henry explains. “I had been involved in the sport since the age of 12 and rose to referee the elite level of the Australian game.” When Henry’s first bout of severe depression hit, he spoke candidly about it with the senior national referee coordinators.
“I made a request for a single room at a national tournament because I was taking a mild sleeping tablet to help me sleep,” he says. “That was the first time I spoke honestly about my mental health.”
His openness cost him his refereeing career, Henry believes. “It was used against me as if I was a liability. I have always been incredibly high functioning, and my work has never suffered because of my mental health. My mask is solid. But there I was, aged 25, made to feel like a broken human by a community I had dedicated the majority of my life to. So I never spoke about my mental health again. Until this year.”
Henry spent some time in a mental health facility early in 2017 and now sees a therapist two or three times a week. That process changed his perspective completely, he says. “When I came out of hospital I decided to be honest about how I was feeling and at work I would speak candidly to other artists about it. I was struck by the almost one hundred per cent response of shared experience I got back.”
Claudia Barrie, actor and artistic director of Mad March Hare Theatre Company knows the territory. “Anxiety and depression has been something I’ve battled with in varying degrees since I was quite young,” she says. “It became more pronounced in my early twenties, which was when I also developed insomnia. By nature I’m quite highly strung and extremely high-functioning, which lends itself to both conditions.”
Barrie’s anxiety and depression reached a peak in late 2016, she says. “I tried to dismiss it to a degree, or at least keep it to myself and shut myself away for days at a time. But it became overwhelming and got to the point I was breaking down every time I sat with one of my friends. I was completely inconsolable.”
She likens her condition to “a constant spreading of scar tissue” that leaves her unable to receive or enjoy moments fully. “I found myself in a state earlier this year where I was unable to see real positivity in any of my achievements,” says Barrie.
“It didn’t matter how hard I worked, or how the audience responded, or what reviews I got, how intensely I trained [Barrie is a roller derby competitor], or what tournaments I won. I just felt empty about it all. I’d have days where I couldn’t bear to do anything. Sometimes I’d just take a sleeping pill to sleep all day so I didn’t have to face life.”
Working in the entertainment industry often amplifies negative mental health, says producer-director Dino Dimitriadis, whose next production, Metamorphoses (for his company Apocalypse Theatre Company) opens at the Old Fitzroy in February. “It’s one of the few businesses where being great at your job doesn’t mean you’re going to get work,” he says.
“Talented actors can miss out on the gig because they ‘don’t look right’. People are subsidising their art with other income and playing other people can take actors into some pretty rough territory. And then they’re encouraged to go to the bar and drink alcohol with their audiences and friends. “People can easily feel that they are failing if they don’t have a project when someone asks, ‘What’s next?’”
Alcohol as a contributing factor towards depression among arts workers was explored in this story in ArtsHub by Richard Watts. Mental health problems facing performing artists are also hitting backstage workers and technicians.
Dimitriadis says he has been through rounds of depression and anxiety for more than 10 years. “During periods of anxiety, my mind races uncontrollably. I become fixated on what I haven’t done or achieved rather than seeing the successes,” he says. “During periods of a heavier depression, which fortunately don’t happen as often, I can only describe it as falling into a hole. You can feel incapable of doing anything. Sending an email can take five hours.”
Like Henry and Barrie, Dimitriadis regards himself as “high-functioning”. That is an issue in itself, he says. “I juggle a lot of projects while working full time. I have big responsibilities, manage people and I work on tight deadlines and timeframes. I don’t get many opportunities to take the day off, let alone the week. A hole can hit at the worst possible time. “It can be difficult to say to people, ‘sorry, I’m just dealing day by day now and am trying my best to get to that thing I need to do’. You become deadline-based rather than proactive in those moments because even hitting the deadlines is a small miracle.”
Everyone, regardless of the industry they work in, can suffer poor mental health, says Barrie. But the arts sector can be particularly debilitating. “For me, the biggest industry factors are the constant rejection, lack of structure and just general lack of income. I surround myself with wonderful people and can seek out my close friends when I need them. But they are all dealing with the same lack of job security, difficult financial situations, rejection and for women, the total humiliation brought upon us by the gross sexism of the advertising industry. But hey, we gotta pay the rent, right?”
The idea that any job is better than no job amplifies negative self-talk, Barrie says. “When you look around the waiting room and see fellow artists who you admire waiting to go into a studio to be told how high to jump for some soul crushing commercial, it’s hard not to feel like you are fighting a losing battle.”
Raise your head over the parapet and the view is no better, Barrie adds. “Living in a country led by a government that has absolutely no respect for the arts is deeply affecting. It trickles down and trickles down. How can it not?”
Henry, Dimitriadis and Barrie have their strategies to deal with the blues when they come knocking.
For Dimitriadis, it begins with the language itself. “I don’t struggle with it [mental health], I wrestle with it. I prefer that word because it’s empowering and most people I know who wrestle with mental health have found strategies to empower their control over the dark hole.
“I’ve become good at noticing the signs. And when I feel I’m starting to fall into a hole, I address it straight away. I decelerate a little, I don’t push myself to the point of exhaustion, I eat well and I cut down alcohol. I’m honest when my friends ask how I am. And learning from experience means I’m able to have more power over it. It happens less often.”
Mental health needs “top-down mindfulness”, Dimitriadis adds. “Those of us in directing, producing and programming positions need to create a culture of openness where our artists know its OK to occasionally not be OK and feel supported. We need to create the channels of support and communication. We need to make it clear that it’s not a failure in any way to be open about it.”
For Barrie, relief comes in the form of physical exercise. “One of the best things I have ever done is join a sports team. I am evangelical about this shit. I know it isn’t necessarily for everyone but being part of something that requires you to turn up three times a week and push your body to its limits and surrounds you with a huge range of wonderfully diverse people that have nothing to do with the industry is one of the greatest things I have done. Physical exercise helps me a lot. It also stops me drinking as much.”
Not sporty? “Find yourself a dog to cuddle,” advises Barrie. “Dogs will give you so much love. Unconditional love. And joy. And force you outside to sit in the park and soak up the sunshine. Dogs have saved my life. Literally.”
For Henry, the process of creating and performing Vertical Dreaming has been intensely therapeutic in itself. “I am using the platform available to me (a 60 seat theatre) to stand tall, stand proud, and share the simple message through wonderful poems that it is OK not to be so and that nobody should feel alone. By the end of the show, it is as if everyone watching is on stage with me.”
Dimitriadis and Barrie have seen the show.
“I adored Vertical Dreaming,” Barrie says. “It felt like someone had taken some of my own deepest fears and put them on stage. For me it became a celebration of life and lessons learned and it resonated deeply. I hope Vertical Dreaming gives people the permission or encouragement that they might be searching for to seek help or start a conversation.”
Dimitriadis found the show to be “human and untethered”. “It’s a love letter to theatre and its potential. It’s a safe space, which the theatre should be. It celebrates that there can be an OK after the not OK. And that power lies in community.”
Read Audrey’s review of Vertical Dreaming here.
For someone to talk to, contact Beyond Blue.