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The Healing Power of Theatre

The husband was in bed, and very medicated, so he was having trouble staying awake. The wife was at the bedside. I came in, and offered to perform a piece from the Tempest- Miranda’s monologue (“I do not know one of my sex…”). They accepted, and I went into it. By the time I had finished, the man had fallen asleep! I immediately fell silent and turned to leave, when I saw the woman. She had started crying and just said, “Thank you”.

shakespeareinhospitalVictoria Urquhart on Bringing Shakespeare to Hospitals

I’m not a psycho-dramatist. I have no qualifications in the medical field. So, I may not be necessarily the most qualified person to write on this subject. However, I have spent a few years now running Shakespeare in Hospitals and I can talk about what it does for communities, what it does for a person dealing with institutionalization, and even what I’ve seen happen in patient rooms.

That’s a large part of what our program (and Spur-Of-The-Moment Shakespeare Collective) is about: we are there to share what we do know, by sharing perspective as a means of stimulating growth in communities as much as we can. I think what makes the Shakespeare-In-Hospitals Project so powerful is that we are sharing what we know, and getting specific—going beyond sharing with the community, and getting right down to one-on-one experience.

Now, I don’t care what anyone says: an audience of one will always be more intimidating than an audience of one hundred. At least with an audience of one hundred I can bank on the fact that I am not going to please everyone, and use that to make mistakes proudly. With an audience of one, it suddenly becomes theatre of shared experience—and I have no idea what kind of big, beautiful life my audience has hidden behind their mask, but I have to hope that I’ve caught them on a good day. And in a hospital, the odds are not in my favour.

Luckily, there are a few things that we can always bank on in these situations as artists:

  1. Theatre itself creates (momentary) communities with two roles: audience, and storyteller. Although the idea of proper audience etiquette is quite often disputed (because who taught those kids the proper meaning of respect?), being an audience to an experience is quite often more universal than we think.

  2. Distraction is a great springboard for so many forms of personal development: reflection, a sense of control over one’s current situation (whatever it may be), providing catharsis, emotional distance, encouragement, inspiration…there are so many. However, one of the most important things that this can lead to is:

  3. It holds an invitation to engage with your surroundings: One of the most- and I emphasize MOST- rewarding experiences I have ever had through ALL of the projects that I have done with the SOTMSC (but especially with the Shakespeare-In-Hospitals Project) is watching two strangers form a bond off of a piece of theatre that they shared unexpectedly.

We have had quite a few alumni with the Shakespeare-In-Hospitals Program now, and the stories that keep coming back and hitting me are the ones where they tell me about interactions the patients have had with nurses or family members after the performance, and the actors are told afterwards “this person hasn’t spoken a peep since he/she arrived here!”

This is so important. I strongly believe that theatre- and good street theatre- presents the invitation to engage with others in a way that isn’t intrusive, but takes the space without apologizing. This harmonizes a community in a way that appeals to both introverts and extroverts. If we can present that invitation to others in a hospital environment we’ve done our job. What they do with that distraction is entirely up to them.

Now, it’s very easy to get sucked into the novelty of theatre as a healing experience. It often gets paired with the idea of “changing lives with our art”. Don’t get me wrong— I truly do believe that the impact that this work has is very empowering and can provide great experiences to us all, both as artists and audiences. But if we walk into this work as artists with a set idea or message that we want to give others, we are cutting ourselves off from the real impact that we may have. It’s so important, especially with hospitalized audiences, to let them take from the experience what THEY want. We have no idea, and no right to any idea of what they are going through, unless they want to tell us. That is a big part of this work that needs to be respected. That is also the part of the work where all of the magic happens.

To a certain extent, we don’t need to know what the patient is going through- at least not verbally. They will tell us what they are going through with their own interactions, responses, and general life that they share with us in the room. We don’t need to know much beyond that.

A great example of this is one of the first times that I performed in a patient room. It was for a husband and wife. The husband was in bed, and very medicated, so he was having trouble staying awake. The wife was at the bedside. I came in, and offered to perform a piece from the Tempest- Miranda’s monologue (“I do not know one of my sex…”). They accepted, and I went into it. By the time I had finished, the man had fallen asleep! I immediately fell silent and turned to leave, when I saw the woman. She had started crying and just said, “Thank you”. I still have no idea what the hell I did that day-and probably never will- but I got to know something about that husband and wife’s life, that I got to share in something with them that was very meaningful and brought some amount of joy to their lives.

Too often we want to give audiences a message, instead of exploring and asking questions alongside them. It’s scary to do. But that’s what makes it a community and a shared experience in its purest form: we don’t know the answers. We don’t have the answers. We don’t know our audiences inside and out. If we did, what would be the excitement in interacting and sharing? When we put this at the top of our experiences and expectations in theatre- based in healing or not- we achieve such powerful results that really give our work the ability to make a lasting impression, and provide perspective in others’ lives.

Want to learn more about this company? Check out: www.spurofthemomentshakespeare.weebly.com

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