Stage

An Interview with Laura Dean

laura dean
Image from 'Head Hand Head'

How did you first get involved in drama?

I studied drama and theatre at Kent; it was a four year course in contemporary performance practice, and we did lots of things, but towards the end I focused on making devised work. It was then that I started getting a real understanding of how drama works. I was figuring out what it meant to be an artist, and I decided this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. After university I joined a group called the Accidental Collective which was a group based in contemporary performance. We were together for four years, creating shows, but it was more live art and community based performances, and I really wanted to get back to stage work. I started living in London, and it was whilst I was there that I realised I wanted to start writing and creating my own pieces.

 

What attracts you to stage work?

I really enjoy the connection with an audience! Creating a show that feels like a complete piece of work that you share in a moment with a group of people, establishing a connection – there’s no comparison. Without the audience there is no reason to do what we as creative individuals do. I’m also interested in testing that relationship between audience and performer a bit, seeing how far I can push my work and what responses that will gain. There’s something so intense about the audience being sat in dark, with someone on stage working something out of the emotion in the theatre, generating something out of an audience reaction.

 

What have your personal experiences of mental health been like?

Well, I’ve always been someone who has been worried and anxious, ever since I was young. For years I didn’t truly understand what was happening to me, what was making me feel this way. It was confusing and made me feel alone, to not understand fully what was going on inside my own head. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started to read about OCD, and I really connected with the description. I realised that those symptoms described me. It was a sort of light bulb moment, a kind of ‘oh god why has no one told me about these things before’ feeling. It made me realise that I wasn’t isolated and alone in my experience, I wasn’t mad, that this was something identifiable. It was then that I spoke to a GP, and everything developed form there.

 

Why did you want to make this piece, and what have your inspirations for it been?

I wanted to make this piece because I was looking for inspiration during the period when I was going through a formal medical process of diagnosing the state of my mental health. I figured, why not write about what I know, about what is happening right now? I wanted to write about my thought processes, about the moments of worry or obsessiveness, the need to tap things or say certain stuff out loud. I wanted to document my experience. At first I thought that no one would want to hear about the stuff I was writing about, but its amazing how many people have connected to what I’m saying. I’ve been really struck by it.

 

What makes mental health such a compelling topic for drama?

As I was saying, I think a lot of people are really sympathetic to these issues, and many more actively experience some of the things I talk about. They share a feeling borne out of anxiety, and that’s a pretty powerful motivator.

We don’t really talk about mental health enough as a society, and I think it’s refreshing for someone to echo what you think is going on in your head, and also just share what’s going on in theirs. Having these fears and worries is such a common thing, and I think more people struggle with mental health than they’d ever let on. We’re all on some form of spectrum.

 

Do you think it’s hard to portray mental health issues?

I think it helps that I’ve got quite a different stage persona than who I am in real life. I did another show about what it was like growing up struggling with mental health, and that was tough, because I had to deal with problems that both felt too current and too distant. I’m quite calm on stage, even though I’m talking about anxiety, but this was something I put thought into; how much physical expression of what I’m feeling inside should go into the performance. I played around with my presence on stage, but at the end of the day, I’m not really acting so much as portraying a personal journey. I think trying to perform wouldn’t do the truth of what I’m talking about justice.

 

What do you think about the way mental health has been portrayed by actors recently?

I think the rise of how much theatre and drama and TV talking about people’s experiences is really good. Getting more of people’s experiences and of the different ways mental health can affect you is really important. It also helps other people not going through this stuff. I’ve found people are understanding things they wouldn’t have otherwise, and I think that’s partly because of how much more open we are about discussing these problems. Mental health isn’t something to hide in the dark and carry as a shame.

That being said I think we’ve still got a really long way to go. Mental illness still isn’t regarded as the same as physical illness. It’s still easier to say that you’re going to be unable to work because of a stomach ache rather than because you’re having a panic attack.

 

Any final comments?

It was really interesting working with some neuroscientists, with them showing me some of the research they’ve been doing on the physical indicators of mental health; brain scans show you what’s actually happening to my brain as I experience certain symptoms. It was reassuring, in a way, to be able to see on paper something that had always been so intangible and pervasive. It made me ask a lot of questions, why me, what does this actually mean, was I born with this or did I somehow make it happen. At the end of the day a physiological explanation isn’t going to change your emotional understanding of what’s happening to you.

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