‘PUTTING MY MENTAL HEALTH ON STAGE’
Talented student addresses the complexity of mental health in her play, Number Theory.
Written By Imogen Usherwood
“Anxiety is a horrible word, I’ve always thought… far too many harsh consonants.”
I can remember exactly when I decided that I was going to write a play about Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was attending a workshop on writing for theatre at Durham University in June 2019. Having just finished my first-year exams, the sudden lack of structure in my life – no lectures, no meetings, just the events and activities I had lined up for myself – had thrown me a bit. I had become so used to a busy student lifestyle that, suddenly, the complete lack of a timetable felt oddly daunting. I am fortunate not to suffer from diagnosed GAD, but I’ve never found managing my mental health very easy, and at that time I was particularly struggling.
So, when I arrived at the workshop, the topic of mental health was already playing on my thoughts. The instructor asked us first to create a protagonist, then work out what they wanted to achieve. My nameless heroine, I decided, wanted to overcome her mental health disorder. Then, he asked us to make an antagonist, a character who was stopping the protagonist from getting that thing that they wanted. Rather than opting for a controlling family member or partner, I chose something a little more abstract – my antagonist was literally going to be the protagonist’s mental health condition. From there began a writing process that would last until September, when I first showed the script to someone else, and has taken me to now – the finished play, Number Theory, will be presented at the Durham Drama Festival in February 2020.
The premise proved fairly simple, with just two characters: Evelyn, who has anxiety, and Stella, who is her anxiety. Evelyn likes maths; Stella thinks numbers are stupid. Evelyn is quiet and studious; Stella is loud, sarcastic and messy. Their relationship is a complex one – when I started writing, I was determined to say something more than ‘anxiety is awful and we’d be better off without it’. I made a list of ways that I think about mental health and feeling anxious, and a few different ideas came up: on one hand, it is awful, yes – but at the same time it provides me with a strange kind of motivation and, weirdly, a comfort. That is to say, when I don’t feel at least a bit stressed or worried, I get more worried that I’m not worried about anything. And so Stella, rather than being a pantomime villain who bullies Evelyn from start to finish, is funny, cynical, manipulative, obnoxious, charming and clever – she’s the cool girl that we love to hate. I really hope that this more complex portrayal of mental health opens up a conversation about anxiety and other disorders, beyond a simple discussion about how to ‘treat’ such conditions.
It’s been a delight to share the script with other people and hear them say how relatable they found it. When I gave it to my amazing Assistant Director, her first reaction was “I think Evelyn is me…?”. Well, Evelyn is definitely me, and she’s everyone else too (it’s since been pointed out that her name sounds similar to Everyman, which was not intentional at first but I’ve grown to love it), but in a way so is Stella; I hope everyone will see a bit of themselves somewhere in the play, whatever stage they are at with their mental health. I was keen to address as many elements of the current mental health discourse as I could, drawing on my own experiences and those of others. During the hour-long play, Evelyn and Stella discuss everything from failed relationships to childhood memories, exam pressure to medical diagnoses. I think talking about such loaded terms like ‘insanity’, ‘diagnosis, ‘symptoms’, ‘disorder’ and even the word ‘anxiety’ itself, in such an open environment is crucial. Indeed, during rehearsals, we often find ourselves divulging thoughts and ideas about our relationships with stress, panic and mental health, which I believe can only do us good.
It’s such a pleasure to be taking Number Theory to the Durham Drama Festival (DDF) in February. DDF, the biggest week in the Durham Student Theatre calendar, has been running for around four decades at Durham University, and every year it presents original, student-written plays on any and all topics, inviting such a range of statements, performances and creatives to collaborate across a week-long festival. Number Theory will be performed in the Assembly Rooms Theatre on 5th, 6th and 8th February, alongside eight other brilliant shows during the week.