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Health and wellness under the arc lights

Theatre makers are creating awareness about physical and mental health through sensitively crafted performances

'Cursed like Cupid' is a dark comedy by Gouri Bhuyan
'Cursed like Cupid' is a dark comedy by Gouri Bhuyan

When Vonita Singh, founder of Movement Mantra in Dubai, wanted to raise awareness about Parkinson’s disease and movement as therapy, she turned to theatre. In collaboration with Sanjeev Dixit of Third Half Theatre, also in Dubai, the play Still Dancing came into being in 2019. The play, which was staged in Mumbai on 11 and 13 April and will be performed on 20 April in Ahmedabad, uses dance, music, text and poetry to tell the story of Singh’s father, who had Parkinson’s.

Singh realised that few people understood the symptoms—especially the non-motor ones such as depression, anxiety and hallucinations—and treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Tremors are most commonly associated with it but her father didn’t have them. “Movement of larger and smaller muscles in the tongue, intestine, diaphragm and bladder becomes difficult. Even the muscles in the face become rigid,” she says.

In the play, the character playing Singh’s father talks about “seeing things”, a complaint that is quickly dismissed by his family, his caregivers. This is one of the many ways in which Singh relays the mistakes she made as a caregiver in the hope that others don’t repeat them. It is born of deep personal regret, which has informed her practice as a movement coordinator.

Though plays such as Still Dancing were conceptualised just before the covid-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in the frequency of performances in the past two-three years. In fact, there are studies about the role of theatre in wellness and health—both physical and mental. In 2021, Michelle Sherman, professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s department of family medicine and community health, co-authored a paper, Shining a spotlight on issues of mental health in musical theater and ways psychologists can help: Perspectives of theater professionals, on the website of the American Psychological Association.

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“Theoretically, theatre has the potential to help both the actors and audience by providing information about mental illness, challenging stereotypes, reducing stigma, decreasing the sense of isolation, providing role models and instilling hope,” states the study. It has been noted by theatre professionals that when audience members watch a performance about mental and physical health, they participate in a shared community experience. This leads to greater empathy, often followed by informed conversations after the show.

While grief, loneliness and loss have formed the backbone of scripts in the past, these themes have acquired a greater urgency following the personal tragedies people experienced during the pandemic. Plays are also focusing on specific ailments such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and the mental duress caused when people around don’t understand a physical or learning disability.

Street theatre has long been used as a tool of information dissemination and health activism at the grassroots, dealing with themes of mental health and addiction. It is now heartening to see plays, performed within the proscenium in urban pockets, follow suit as well. For instance, the play, Wildtrack, first written and performed by Mumbai-based director and lighting designer Arghya Lahiri in 2016, addresses memory and personal loss, drawing from Lahiri’s experience of his father’s dementia.

'Still Dancing' aims to raise awareness about Parkinson's
'Still Dancing' aims to raise awareness about Parkinson's

While the personal gives the narrative its shape, a theatre performance needs to tell a larger story. Dixit, who has written and directed Still Dancing, has achieved this by imagining the plight of a Parkinson’s patient as that of a being in a cage. “Due to the rigid face and limited movement, they can’t respond or move. We believe that they are not present but they are there and can process everything,” he says.

Gouri Bhuyan opened her one-woman show Cursed Like Cupid at Thespo 2022, the annual youth theatre festival in Mumbai. In this dark comedy, she spoke of living as a millennial woman with Stargardt disease, a rare genetic condition that results in gradual vision loss. The narrative was underlaid with the hypocrisies of 21st-century feminism and its lack of intersectionality. It also brought to fore the distress that comes with the lack of empathy for a physical condition or disability.

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It was a deeply felt piece and Bhuyan cleverly leaned on allegory and humour as devices to make her audience look inwards. “The primary intention was to evoke thought through humour. I firmly believe that laughter is a reaction, not an emotion. It’s often just how we process things,” she explains, “I didn’t want the performance to be preachy or didactic.”

When the performance stems from someone else’s lived experience, it often calls for sensitivity training for the cast and crew. While being respectful to patients and caregivers is primary, the process allows actors to dig deeper into the characters’ preoccupations. In Motley Theatre’s The Father, first staged in 2017, based on French playwright Florian Zeller’s Moliere Award-winning play Le Pere, an ageing Andre battles dementia. Naseeruddin Shah essayed the character with a certain delicacy.

Though the objective of the play wasn’t to raise awareness, actor and sound designer Sahil Vaid recalls the cast and crew having numerous conversations on sensitivity. “There were members of the cast who had been caregivers and brought a lot of insight and perspective to the process,” he says, adding that often there’s a thin line between being true to the character and playing to the gallery. “We chose the former,” he says.

In Mumbai-based theatre company QTP’s Every Brilliant Thing (2019), directed by Quasar Thakore Padamsee and based on Duncan Macmillan and Johnny Donahoe’s text, actor Vivek Madan tells the touching story of a child grappling with a parent’s mental health condition. He draws up a list of every brilliant thing he sees and experiences in a bid to make his mother “happy”.

The play was first staged in 2019. Since the pandemic, it has been performed regularly to packed audiences. It is now going to be staged across venues in Mumbai and Pune from 27 April-13 May. Every Brilliant Thing is an emotional journey for every audience member. The performance is followed by a Q&A session with a mental health professional. It allows members of the audience a safe space for a discussion about mental health issues.

Still Dancing uses a somewhat similar approach by opening up the room for questions about Parkinson’s disease and movement therapy after the performance. This is a common practice for theatre makers to balance fiction with the responsibility that comes with depicting physical and mental ailments on stage.

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However, Bhuyan believes that the only way to truly balance the two is to remain authentic to the experience. “With a hint of hyperbolic fiction, drama is essentially life summarised into as few words as possible,” she says.

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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