The Wonderful World Of… sprang into life about 18 months ago when I heard the stories of two people, one a very old friend, and the other a musician and collaborator I have known for around four years, both of whom have experienced serious mental illness. The friend of many years told me about his depression, which he’d been living with for about two and a half years, and the musician friend described his very different experiences, of psychosis and hallucinations.
I sat silently as he recounted the details: at one point he described how he had become an ancient Chinese mystic; he hadn’t imagined it, in his mind he was Chinese. There was humour in his story, and we both laughed, but there was also something very powerful, moving and exhilarating, at the core of what he was saying: the loss of your grasp on who, what and where you are; the loss of connection with everyday life, with every human relationship; the impact of it on family, friends, loved ones. I remember getting quite emotional. I was also struck by something my other friend said, that dealing with mental illness isn’t just about dealing with extremes of psychosis, it’s sometimes just about functioning, the day to day things, being able to take your library books back on time, or managing to tie your shoelaces. That hit me just as powerfully.
When we, as a company, began to consider turning their stories into a piece of theatre, we were faced with an ethical question: how do you best transpose a real person’s first hand experience – and trauma – to the stage? What relationship would – and should – the finished piece of work have to the original experiences that inspired it? Should it try and be a faithful dramatisation of these people’s stories? How much creative licence can reasonably be taken? These questions and more have been a big part of the writing and development phases of the project. Having one of these two friends in the rehearsal room on a regular basis has helped us to ensure we are on the right track. The whole process has been highly cathartic for him; seeing his experiences played out by actors has really helped him to “let go of it”- his words not mine.
We’ve sought answers to some of these question through our research, which has served to send the piece in many different directions. Plays are living organisms; they have a tendency to evolve. In the end we have been able to use those first hand accounts as a kind of touchstone for the piece we wished to make, but it’s become something different, fiction not documentary (for example one of our two central characters is now female), and I feel that has been the best approach, the right approach. But at its heart this is a piece drawn from personal truths, from the stories that these two friends, each in their own different ways, shared with me and trusted me with.