EDITOR'S NOTE: Welcome to the fifth episode of TeaTalks. In this monthly column, Seth Johnson and Olivia Grace Murphy, the founders of Flexible Grey Theatre Company and guests discuss issues important to the LGBTQ+ and other under-represented communities in the performing arts world. Excerpts from the conversation appear in print, with links to the audio files below.
TeaTalks runs in the last week of the month.
In this episode, Murphy and Johnson chat with local artists Nicole Neely and Kelsey Buckley on the topic of mental illness.
Welcome to TeaTalks, a monthly interview series where we, Seth Johnson and Olivia Grace Murphy from Flexible Grey Theatre Company, dig into the hot topics in the DFW theatre community and spill the tea. Usually these topics will revolve around the LGBTQ+ community or other marginalized groups in the arts. In this inaugural TeaTalks, we discussed the inclusion of gender fluid and nonbinary individuals in the arts, specifically in theatre.
Disclaimer: This article and podcast discusses depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia.
Note: These are just excerpts from the conversation. For the full TeaTalks experience, please listen using of the links below.
Sitting down and writing this article was difficult. Mental illness among artists is something that we don’t hesitate to make quips about, but no one really seems to seriously talk about it and how it affects so many people within the community. Some seek professional help, but some just seem to grit through it. I’ve even heard people say that they don’t want to seek professional help for depression because it “makes them a better artist.”
Let me tell you right now that if you truly think that, your brain is lying to you.
TeaTalk’s Olivia Grace Murphy notes that “Taking control over my illness was the best thing I did as an artist. It’s still a journey, but my ability to say no has given me more energy to devote to projects I genuinely care about. Not having panic attacks every day frees up a surprising amount of time to do literally anything else. Taking my medication regulates my depression, so I can see a dramatic play without spiraling into a pit of despair.”
There are quite a few articles we could find with a quick Google search about drama therapy and how the arts help people with mental illness, but it took some digging to find anything regarding the people actually creating the art. It’s definitely clear that the mental state of the theatre community is not being talked about. What makes it worse is that the unique constraints and dynamics of our field are not helping. Jacob Juntunen of Howlround had an interesting observation on this. He said, “Different mental illnesses require different care, but the majority are exacerbated by lack of routine, insufficient sleep, alcohol use, lack of access to health care, and undue stress—all elements of most theatre careers.”
Sound familiar? That article also delves into many of the topics we discussed in our TeaTalk and can be found at https://howlround.com/crazy-theatre.
I also wanted to go ahead and give some local resources for therapists. These are all local to the Dallas area and have been recommended to me from local artists.
- Kristin Warren: http://www.kw-counseling.com/
- Nydra Turner: https://www.turnertherapyservices.com/index.html
- Lester Bloomenstiel: http://www.healingcounselingcenter.com/
- Terra Wagner: https://www.smu.edu/simmons/AboutUs/Directory/Counseling/Wagner
- Camille Bradley: https://www.bswhealth.com/physician/camille-bradley
If you are not local or if you prefer to not see someone in person, I know quite a few people who have found success with Talkspace online therapy: https://www.talkspace.com/
Now let’s get into the meat of this. We sat down with Nicole Neely and Kelsey Buckley on a lovely Saturday morning to spill some tea on our own mental illnesses. Teas of choice included Moroccan Mint and Ginger Peach. Depression and anxiety medications of choice (and by choice we mean prescription) included Wellbutrin, Pristiq, Lexapro, and Clonazepam. #EndtheStigma
We also just launched our Patreon! Flexible Grey Patreon subscribers will have special access to our exclusive conversation, “go nuts for donuts.
OLIVIA: Nicole, you are a playwright (and a damn good one at that). Most of your plays revolve around mental illness. Why do you use theatre as a platform for that and what made you decide to include mental illness as a major theme in your work?
NICOLE: I’ve always been told to write what you know. And so the thing that I know is how hard it is to talk about and how painful it can be, but also, you know, how funny it can be. A lot of my plays have come out of a place of depression and anxiety. Um, when I first started writing plays, I needed to write something funny because of that stuff. I was in a bad relationship and that of course can lead to depression and anxiety and stuff. And so I wrote a play called “I am Drunk and You are a Sandwich” which was just a ridiculous little five minute play. And the of course “Sauced” which is about a girl contemplating suicide and a pizza box comes to save her.
SETH: I’ve been saved by a couple pizza boxes in my life. #ThatsTheTea
NICOLE: And one of my plays “Marilyn Pursued by a Bear” is a companion piece to “The Winter’s Tale.”
TEATALKS: Just a note from us, Marilyn Pursued by a Bear is playing at the Festival of Independent Theatre this summer. Tickets are available here.
NICOLE: I think the way I’ve been figuring out my own mental health and my own coping mechanisms has been through writing. I would love to be able to write about something else. That would be fun.
KELSEY: And it’s important too. I feel like when you see something like that and it’s relatable you’re like “ohhhh, okay.” I actually have struggled with anxiety for pretty much my entire life… So as a kid any time I would have these feelings, the only thing I wanted to know, was I would just go to my mom, I would go to my sister and I would say “this is how I feel – is that normal? Do other people feel this way? Have you felt that way before?” And so any time I see a play or you know, read a book or consume any kind of art that I see myself in, it just kind of takes a certain weight off of all of the stuff that you have to carry around with you every day when you have anxiety.
SETH: I would definitely agree with that. I think a lot of the shows I choose to direct have some sort of through line with either depression or anxiety or some sort of aspect of whatever I’m dealing with in my personal life at the time. And just because I feel like when you’re doing art that has that connection to you it’s just like, that extra layer, that extra oomph to make sure it’s done right. And I think that’s just something as artists that we’re drawn to. It’s kind of beautiful creating something out of your depression.
TEATALKS: So how does your mental illness affect you creating in the theatre world?
NICOLE: Last year I went through a really strange period where I couldn’t memorize anything. And that was a point where I realized I needed to go get another doctor’s help. But, um, that was really, really terrible. There was a production… I don’t even want to talk about it. But I had one of those awful moments that you can only think about in your nightmares on stage in the middle of a Sondheim patter song where my mind just stopped. And that process had been pretty grueling, and my mental health was quite affected, and my weight was affected. Weight is one of my triggers. And so my mind just stopped in the middle of the patter song and the music just kept going and it was a night when like, all of my theatre friends had come to see the show, and people I admired and people that I just want to impress. And so I had to go back and just try to make it a bit… And so I tried and failed because I was mortified… And our accompanist was very gracious and very wonderful and she took it back to a place and I was able to finish the song... That was a moment I realized that something was wrong last year.
OLIVIA: So we’re all artists. I feel like we all know a lot of other artists who struggle with mental illnesses. It’s not really talked about in the theatre community, especially in regards to rehearsal spaces and making a safe and understanding space for people who have mental illnesses. How could we do anything better? What could the theatre community be doing? Is it just a matter of people understanding or is it providing allowances for missing rehearsals? Is it anything they could provide at the venue?
KELSEY: I once had a director who I was, for any number of reasons, comfortable enough with that I could tell her (and this was back in college) whenever I um, was like, panicking or extremely anxious and that was the reason that I couldn’t come to rehearsal. And that meant a lot to me that that was something that I didn’t have to make up like, “ohh, I’m throwing up…” You know? You can be upfront and that felt really good. That’s just one thing that’s not necessarily a sustainable solution… because you can’t stay home for the entire process.
NICOLE: I think the understanding is a big part of it. I’ve always grown up with the idea of “oh if you are not running a 100-degree fever, if you are not throwing up, you have to go.” And that’s been to like school, to anything. I’ve never missed a day of anything. And that’s not healthy, not good for the surroundings. But that’s just always how I’ve been. And so I think having the procedures in place and being upfront about it from the very beginning like, “this is how we handle a panic attack, if you are having a panic attack please feel free to call in, please feel free to let us know. We understand what that means.”
KELSEY: I also think that there are certain rehearsal processes that are really strenuous in a way that is like, really negative in a way that is just bad for people’s mental health and I think that isn’t good for anybody. Because if it’s impacting your mental health it’s also impacting your physical health… And something that has been a big realization for me is that you don’t have to be stressed to be working hard.
TEATALKS: Woah, that last line hit us hard. I think that’s the root of the heart of this conversation. You don’t have to be stressed to be working hard. We would like to thank Kelsey and Nicole for a tender, honest, and hilarious discussion. These two women had so much to say that we couldn’t possibly fit it all into the article. We hope you listen to the full interview and join us for next month’s TeaTalks, which will be on an entirely different topic. Until then, #ThatsTheTea.