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Features Published 20 April 2016

Laura Jane Dean: Putting Your Hand Up

Ahead of her solo show 'This Room' at BAC, Laura Jane Dean talks about being open about mental illness, and why it's vital for performers to be able to say "I'm not okay".
Laura Jane Dean

Laura Jane Dean performs 'This Room'. Laura Jane Dean performs ‘This Room’.

Last year I did something I’ve never done before. A few days before heading into the production week for my solo performance This Room, I sent an email to all the people working with me on the show. It was a heads up really, a few notes to bear in mind about how I might need to alter things depending on whether I’m having a good day or a bad day. This Room, which follows on from my first solo show Head Hand Head, is about my experiences of living with obsessive compulsive disorder, undergoing therapy and trying to understand what it means to be ill and what it might mean to get better. I stand on stage and tell the audience my worst and darkest fears, and having worked closely with a creative team on making the show it seemed kind of silly not to acknowledge the effect my illness can have on what happens in the rehearsal room.

Yet, I was scared. I was much more apprehensive about sending this email than I was sending them the script which describes in detail my fear of killing myself in my sleep. This is a collaborative process but as a solo show I’m the lead artist. Without me functioning the show won’t go on. What if this admission about the day-to-day effects of my anxiety means they think I can’t cope? That I won’t be able to do what needs to be done? Are they going to be worried I’ll let them down? They know that I have a mental illness but there is a conscious distance between the person who sometimes struggles to get up in the morning and panics about getting through the day and the person who stands calmly on stage in front of an audience. There is a vulnerability in being honest in this way. It’s funny how sometimes, the day-to-day stuff can be so much harder to talk about.

It is my responsibility to bring everything together, to do justice to the direction, the sound design, the lighting, the set. To get up and perform. I want to do it, I want to do it well and I love doing it but often in the run-up to a performance my anxiety is at its most potent and the pressure to keep my shit together can be overwhelming. I didn’t want this email to be seen as a cry for help, but rather a way of holding up my hand to say ‘This is me, and this is what I might need’. Luckily, I realised it might be easier to say this beforehand rather than mid-meltdown in the fourth hour of a technical rehearsal.

I took a deep breath, hit send and within a couple of hours I received a flurry of lovely replies. My production manager thanked me for sharing, saying it was incredibly helpful to have this information beforehand. Chris Goode, who was the invaluable outside eye throughout the process of making This Room, said in his reply, “proper breaks and fresh air and understanding are good for all of us, so thank you for reminding us to pay careful attention to those good things”. Suddenly, a moment of elation and breathing a little slower. It was okay. They heard me and understood. The pressure to pretend I’m okay if I’m not was now somewhat relieved. I hope that I also opened the door for anyone else in the rehearsal room to say if they’re having a bad day and need to do things a little differently. This isn’t just about me, or even just about those of us with an ongoing illness (either mental or physical) but about all of us being kinder to ourselves and others and saying out loud the things we may need to make work (and life) a bit easier.

There has been an explosion of shows over the past few years about mental health which means vital conversations are being had. I wonder though how much we are saying about what we need (or don’t need) in the rehearsal room, in meetings, at events. “Mindfulness of neurodiversity: that’s all I’m asking for”, Harry Giles’ wrote in a blog post a few years ago where he talks about his own social anxiety, calling for venues and producers to not only consider the access needs of audiences but also of artists. More recently, Scottee wrote “I want space, an occasional check in, a bit of time to repair and the recognition I’m ill” in a piece about the difficulty in speaking up about mental illness. It isn’t easy, but we need to do what we can to make sure that these conversations are present off stage as well as on, and that we are listening as well as talking.

I am heading back into rehearsals this week. I have no idea how anxious I’ll be on any given day but I won’t hesitate re-sending that email and if necessary, putting my hand up and saying when I’m not okay.

‘This Room’ will be on at the OFS, Oxford on Fri 22 April, and at the Battersea Arts Centre, London on 25-27 April. For more information about Laura Jane Dean’s work, visit her website.

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Laura Jane Dean is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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