Wednesday, 14 November 2012

CONFINED SPACES: Considering performance, madness and psychiatry

This was a day of contrasts – from the old fashioned retro medical model keynote speech from Kay Redfield Jamison (USA) to a one person installation come play come medical note that was Dylan Tighe (Antic imposition: Acting Mad(ness).

Madness and theatre are high on my list of preoccupations and I was chuffed to see a whole two day conference jointly organized by lecturers from Cambridge and Exeter Unis 
First up the famous KRJamison – who wrote The Unquiet Mind and grabbed a slice of public attention. As time has passed I have realized how faulty her thoughts on mental distress are – she has had severe bipolar disorder for a long time and ascribes to the lithium/ECT school of ‘treatment’ . Admittedly the fact that she has been suicidal and has been a counselor to the suicidal too may inform her affection for pharms, but her presentation stuck very closely to a very neuroscientific and non holistic script.

She is literary and artistic and speckled her talk with quotes from Robert Lowell
‘Where you’re going, Professor you won’t need your Dante’. (ie the nearest asylum). She also speckled it with words such as disease, biological, genetic, clinical, etc – setting out her stall as a pretty medical one. She talked of heredity (the gene has never been found, and intergenerational heredity – apart from new work on epigenetics – is unproven. She brushed over the fact that a lot of her literary and artistic subjects may have been syphilitic (van Gogh etc)  and was very keen to prove their  bloodlines were full of inherited madness.

She claimed that each psychotic episode would take a chink of the brain – hmmm what about the harm done by drugs to the brain? She glossed over any evidence that suicidal ideation may be increased by some drug treatments and was hugely keen on the  ‘illness of the brain’ model. 
Other presentations included a look at drama within old asylums, annual shows, etc – all seen by the presenter in a slightly distant and anthropological way.  And a dramaturg from the Young Vic production of the Changeling spoke of how they rendered Middleton/Rowley for the 21st c.  A woman from the US spoke of working within the Clubhouse system and running movement classes. They subverted (in a way) their drug regime by putting on a pageant wearing sashes marked Thorazine and Lithium…

Dylan Tighe a theatre practitioner in his 30s from Dublin presented a one man medley of his medical notes, his theatre reviews, a Youtube vid of his play and his next album. Brave and very affecting. 

Dylan Tighe
The best bits of any conference are the 0-60 conversations had in lobbies and on the way to meals. I bonded in seconds with a historian of the emotions (speciality: PTSD, flinching and mimicry) and a Professor of Medical Ethics with a love of theatre.  

The afternoon brought smaller group sessions – great work being done in York with performers with distress and those without and audience assumptions.  Two speech therapists working with children with a diagnosis of AHDD spoke of a drama intervention improving the kids’ lives, and a bunch of anthropologists explained how they had ‘become’ healthcare assistants on a ward with Alzheimer patients and created a drama. I was not so sure of the ethics of this – if the patients had not had Alzheimers and been able to express themselves more lucidly how would they feel?

Felt knackered at the end and slipped back home but it had been a fabulous mix of angles, thoughts, emphases and ideas for the future. I now hope to be part of a special interest group on healthcare and theatre.

As the conference organisers said:
‘As the old asylums are being demolished, left derelict, or transformed into flats, and the survivors of the system pass away, it is vital that we document this vanishing theatrical past and chart its development in the contemporary psychiatric landscape.’

Polly Mortimer

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