#SuchStuff S8 E1: The feeling brain
In the new series of our podcast, Michelle Terry speaks to Psychotherapist Rachael Williams about how the arts can support our mental health
SEASON 8 EPISODE 1
The feeling brain
In a new series dedicated to the connection between the arts and wellbeing, we explore the many ways in which the arts enrich our lives. As we head out of lockdown and back into our beautiful theatres, what role can the arts and theatre play in helping us to tackle mental health issues, in restoring wellbeing, and to help us find expression and connection again after a year of isolation? We’ll be speaking to drama therapists, to psychologists, to artists and creatives, to dig deeper into the links between the arts and wellbeing and to think about some of the practical ways that the arts can play a part in a sort of collective healing.
First up, in this episode, Artistic Director Michelle Terry speaks to Psychotherapist Rachael Williams about how creativity, vulnerability, and engaging with the arts can help us to work through the mental health problems we experience.
This episode contains discussions of mental health, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.
SUPPORT FROM MIND
We don’t really talk about this circular economy of the work that we do which also has an impact on wellbeing and mental health, and the work that we do and the plays that we do are rooted in feelings, thoughts, psychologies of people. It’s the most human art form, fundamentally built around a human psyche.
— Michelle Terry
You can download the episode transcript or read it below.
Rachel Williams: So much of lockdown has been about stay in. And so much around the arts is around expression and moving out. So you know, there’s kind of containment, and there’s expression. So for me, in my job, I’m so used to asking people, you know, what’s the matter? And in actual fact in lockdown instead of asking them, what’s the matter? I’ve been asking them, what matters? And what you get back is something entirely different.
So this concept of actually the things and the people that really matter to us, and creativity is something that matters to so many people that I work with. And if we can focus instead of fixing what’s the matter, instead if we can focus on what really matters, then we can help people move from inwards and internal to outwards and external.
Imogen Greenberg: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Such Stuff, the podcast from Shakespeare’s Globe. Today, we’re launching a new series of the podcast. As we head out of lockdown and back into our beautiful theatres, we’ve been thinking about the role that the arts can play as part of our collective recovery. In this series, we’ll take a look at the connection between the arts and well-being and explore the many ways in which the arts enrich our lives.
So, as we find our way back to some kind of normality, we ask what role can the arts and theatres play in helping us to tackle mental health issues, in restoring well-being, and to help us find expression and connection again, after a year of isolation? In this series, we’ll be speaking to drama therapists, to psychologists, to artists and to creatives to dig deeper into the links between the arts and well-being and to think about some of the practical ways that the arts can play a part in a sort of collective healing. Here’s Michelle with the timely words of Virginia Woolf, and some reflections on a year without theatre, and what it means to be opening our doors again.
Listen not to the bark of the guns, and the bray of the gramophones, but to the voices of the poet’s answering each other, assuring us of a unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalk marks only; to discuss with you the capacity of the human spirit to overflow boundaries and make unity out of multiplicity. But that would be to dream – to dream the recurring dream that has haunted the human mind since the beginning of time; the dream of peace, the dream of freedom.
What is the function of the work that we do? We don’t really talk about this circular economy of the work that we do, which also has an impact on wellbeing and mental health and the work that we do and the plays that we do are rooted in feelings, thoughts, psychologies of people. It’s the most human art form, fundamentally built around the human psyche. But yet, certainly throughout lockdown, so much of the chat has been what’s quantifiable, and what we contribute X billion pounds to the economy, but there’s also something else that we contribute.
And the only reason I think maybe we notice it now is because we also feel the lack of it, I definitely feel the lack of self-expression because well for me, it’s being onstage or reading a poem, or reading a book or reading a play. And there’s something about the mental lethargy of not even being able to do that, at the moment haven’t got the capacity to even read a book.
Yes, there’s the practical thing of making something together, like what it is to create together within a classroom or onstage or in a lecture room. There is something about that human creation that happens when you’re together. But there’s also something about the fact that when you read a story, the oxytocin kicks in to the point that you’re actually experiencing, what that person is either writing about, or what that person is feeling on stage.
I am so full of feeling at the moment that I can’t feel anything, because my body doesn’t know how to absorb all of these feelings that are happening. And I almost can’t read the poem because I don’t want to feel the grief or I can’t read the book because I don’t want to feel the loneliness, or how as we reemerge, what is the place of the thing that is fundamentally built on feeling and human connection that also has its place in the economy, but also this place in the health as well as the wealth of our country, whatever we choose to call them, audience, witness, participants, like that’s theatre is about congregation.
And we’ve not been able to do that, we’ve done the best we can. We’ve done storytelling, theatrical forms of storytelling, but I suppose as well there’s something about… The arts is forever having to justify its existence [laughs], the question that will always sit alongside the arts is yeah but really, when you could be funding a hospital, or really when you could be funding a children’s home, or really when you can… And we’re not very good at articulating the civic responsibility, or the social impact or the public benefit of arts and I suppose specifically theatre, “why theatre?” will always be the question that theatre has to keep asking itself, because it’s always got to be in response to human beings.
So I think it’s no bad thing for us to have had a year where we’ve gone “why theatre?”, why does it actually matter? What is its purpose? And I was going to say beyond entertainment, but also entertainment is also really important. That has benefit, to go over three hours, you’re not going to have to question your… It’s not going to be an existential crisis, it’s not going to be… You’re just going to go and have a lovely time for a few hours, that has benefit.
And then there’s theatre that will challenge you, take you out of your comfort zone, then there’s theatre that just is like with the glow, where all you’re doing right in that moment is together going, what does it mean to be alive? Someone has offered this as a possibility. I hope… It’s something I’ve identified in me. I noticed in me that I sort of hope is true for others is that when I’m engaged in something creative the rest of the world stops. What I have really missed is that being on stage… And I think maybe it’s why I’m drawn to theatre more than TV or film because once a play starts, no one can stop it.
And for three hours, you’re just thinking about that one thing, I’m allowed to be present without the rest of the noise happening. And I hope that when we come back, we have created work that gives permission for that. There is so much noise and there is so much anxiety and there’s so much real things to worry about. I hope that we give permission for people for two hours, two and a half hours, three hours to just be present, and let the rest of the world fall away for a bit.
Imogen Greenberg: Next up psychotherapist Rachel Williams. We first met Rachel last year when she worked with our acting company for Romeo and Juliet. Rachel works extensively with adolescents. And as well as her practice as a therapist Rachel speaks regularly in schools and other organisations on adolescent mental health. She worked with our Romeo and Juliet company, on how engaging with the play can help young people better understand suffering, both their own and others.
So when the question of well-being in the arts came up, we turned to Rachel to get a better insight into how the arts and creative practices factor into the work she does with clients every day, and what patterns she’s seen emerging in the last year. So here’s Michelle and Rachel discussing how creativity, vulnerability, and engaging with the arts can help us to work through the mental health problems we experience. This interview does contain discussion around mental health, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.
Michelle Terry: There’s a very real crisis that is emerging, beyond the pandemic, beyond COVID. This mental health crisis that I know you touched on when we met way back in June, July, I think last year, and one thing that’s emerged in this time is we still have a very reductive way of talking about mental health, well-being and where art fits into that conversation as a very human, particularly theatre, that is something that’s so built around a human and feelings and catharsis and expression and emotion. The best rhetoric we could come up with in lockdown is or we contribute X amount of money to the economy. And what we’re not very good at is talking about where mental health sits… where are we talking about mental health? And where are we crucially not talking about it? And just what that means as we emerge in this crisis? Where can the arts start to support this crisis?
Rachel Williams: So much of lockdown has been about stay in and so much around the arts is around expression and moving out. So this kind of containment, and there’s expression. So much of lockdown has been about containment, about moving inwards, and so much about being creative in the arts is around moving out and expression. So for me, in my job, I’m so used to asking people: ‘what’s the matter’? And in actual fact, in lockdown instead of asking them, ‘what’s the matter’? I’ve been asking them, what matters and what you get back is something entirely different.
So this concept of actually the things and the people that really matter to us, and creativity is something that matters to so many people that I work with. And if we can focus instead of fixing what’s the matter, instead of we can focus on what really matters, then we can help people move from inwards and internal to outwards and external. So it’s about embracing suffering as being a normal natural part of living.
When I did some work for the Globe last year on Romeo and Juliet, and we were looking at the themes in the play. They’re the same themes that run through our lives now, I specialize with adolescents and I see Romeo’s and I see Juliet’s and I see wise sages, I see all of these characters still being as relevant now today, as they were to audiences back in Shakespeare’s time.
So can we use that as a tool to help normalize suffering? Can we introduce to younger audiences the concept of actually struggling to live well with our brains. That is not just something that we are experiencing now in this century, this is something that’s been around for such a long time. And to me, the trick is to try and help young people in particular learn to relate to the plays, the music, the art that surrounds them so that they can create their own.
To me creativity is how can we create the life that we want to live and we can only really do that when we focus on the things that really matter to us. Because if we can focus on the things that really matter to us, then we’re far more willing to make room for the difficulty and the struggle that comes along for the ride. Without tapping into our values, we feel lost and art is such a wonderful way to tap into those things that are so often hidden, and try and drag them out, sometimes kicking and screaming, because it requires an element of courage too, to kind of learn and to help people express themselves.
Because so much of this is about being heard, seen and being understood, and what lockdown has done is we’ve had to rely so much on our own wise sage in our mind, and very often that wise sage doesn’t have our best interests at heart, our self-critics job is not to make us happy, it’s to keep us safe at all costs and art brings us out of that.
Michelle Terry: What’s been interesting during lockdown is the absence of expression. So you suddenly realise how full of feeling you are because you have no expression. And it’s not just necessarily you as a performer but also when you go to the theatre or you go and listen to a concert, part of your body goes a percent of the way there to feel the feelings that are being expressed. So your empathic responses are always kicking in. But what I find amazing is often with kids when they go to the theatre, the question is always what did you think? Not what did you feel?
Rachel Williams: Absolutely. It’s really interesting because we don’t teach young people that emotions are a guide to our values. We’ve kind of grown up with this concept that the emotion we feel when we watch our favourite band play, listen to a great piece of music or go to the theatre, we’ve kind of raised people to think that kind of emotions are something that need controlling, we label them as good or bad emotions. And as soon as they become a bad emotion like shame, or anger or frustration, or sadness even then we tend to encourage people to try and sort of get out of that.
Whereas art is around actually how can I use, how can I have this moment of emotion to ask myself what is this telling me about me and my life? If this really hits a raw nerve with me is that because this play is depicting something about freedom maybe or agency or autonomy or whatever or compassion or kindness, how can I use that? How can I tap in and say what does buy emotions, this energy, emotion in my body, which of course is why we go to the theatre to experience that energy and motion.
How can we get young people to be able to ride the waves of that energy rather than try and stop it. Emotions are to be experienced, if we let them they will come into our body and leave it in a matter of minutes. But because so many people act on their emotions, and see them as something to be manipulated or eradicated even worse, that’s when we see the increased level of self-harming behaviours amongst young people and adults in lockdown.
Michelle Terry: I was reading the other day because I’ve got a four-year-old and I remember when we were talking, when we were talking about Romeo and Juliet and that thing about the thinking brain, like getting stuff in the thinking brain, if you can find release through emotion, you’ll probably get close to what’s going on. And when my four-year-old was in her thinking brain she was going, “I’m rubbish, I keep getting things wrong, I ruin things.” I thought, “Here we go. She’s full of something.” But I remember what you said about trying to get them into their feeling brain, or their thinking brain. But as soon as you let out this cry, it was just this howl from her soul. And she went, “I don’t want to grow up.” There we go.
And now we can deal with that, that’s what she was feeling but because it manifests into thought, it became self-harm, she’s a rubbish daughter, she ruins everything and suddenly got that trapped feeling, even in a four-year-old how that can manifest into damaging thought.
Rachel Williams: And again, there’s something there about how difficult it is to get our needs met when fear has shown up, and we kind of move to that very reptilian, that very lowest part of ourselves, which is around sort of safety and survival, not about getting our needs met. But it’s about communication as well, isn’t it? Because when an emotion is labeled, it becomes a feeling. And we can express a feeling, we can say I feel sad, we can express I feel angry, very often we see young people in a high state of emotional arousal, but without the language to enable them to express how they feel.
So much of this is also about somebody hearing, somebody seeing you, but also somebody hearing what it is that you have to say. And they don’t need to do that verbally, they can see that through a piece of art, some poetry, a piece of creative writing, it doesn’t need to be a verbal conversation, we know that those self-harming behaviours start as young as four or five, where young people are growing up with this thought that emotions are something to avoid, and to move away from. So if we can get young people to kind of explore creatively the emotions and how they’re mapped in the body, then we start to have that conversation with a young person.
That is so rewarding, because we can meet them where they’re at. So that’s how art can bring us out of ourselves and locked down has kind of meant that we’ve had to have same as your daughter was doing this conversation with ourselves, because we’re lacking the individuals and the stimulus and the arousal around us. And if you imagine your daughter having that conversation just with herself, “But I want to do this, but I’m really scared I cant.” And that dialogue then becomes quite damaging.
So what we’re trying to do is to sort of move that conversation away from the self-critic, and instead move that conversation by expressing ourselves and being seen and heard by another human being because we need that collaboration. You are actors, you’re all about performance, you’re all about connection and collaboration. And you haven’t been able to collaborate in the same way and nor of our children, and nor have we as adults. So we’ve ended up having this epidemic of loneliness in lockdown too, and loss. And those are two themes that come up time and time again.
We’re hardwired to want to be part of something bigger than ourselves and we need to have social contact in order to thrive. We forget sometimes that if we’re on our own, even watching a television program allows us to connect on some level with a group, with other people as is reading a piece of poetry, as is listening to a piece of music, we become a little bit part of something bigger than ourselves. And that is where art and mental health have this wonderful moment of kind of crossing over and becoming such a creative space.
Michelle Terry: I think I’ve felt, but I don’t think I’ve heard it named in the way that you have to actually reading a poem, reading a book, watching a play, those pieces of art can bear witness to your feeling.
Rachel Williams: Absolutely. And that is really important. I mean, I’ve had to become more creative in lockdown in terms of how I relate to my clients. Normally I sit face to face with them, I have body language, I have all of those things that I can bear witness to. And instead, I’m having to do that on a Zoom platform, that has been a real challenge for me, and for my clients too.
Michelle Terry: As somebody that picks up on so much sensory data, and not just what people are saying, but body language, the hormones that pass between us as we’re in contact, like what that has felt for you in your practice, how that’s affected you, I suppose.
Rachel Williams: For some of my clients working on Zoom has allowed them to be way more open in the therapeutic process. And for lots of my clients, it has been incredibly unhelpful as a platform. And I think that’s partly because there’s no oxytocin production on Zoom. If I look into your eyes, as I am doing now, it’s so lovely to see you and I can feel an emotional shift. But my brain doesn’t get the same reward as if I were seeing you in person. And it’s much harder to actually read those bodily cues, and the body posture that of course accompanies mental distress in particular, emotions follow posture, posture follows emotions.
I think what I’ve learned from this is that vulnerability, and being vulnerable with another human being doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be sitting opposite each other or side by side, in the same way as a piece of theatre touches me. It’s about can you see me? Can you hear me? Can we create something together? When a piece of art or theatre or music embraces vulnerability as part of its script, it’s so helpful to us as human beings to connect on that level of vulnerability.
As Brené Brown says, vulnerability is the thing that we most don’t want in ourselves, but it’s the quality that we search for the most in others. In other words, vulnerability is the key to connection, not success, not being good at everything. Another thing that she said that I really love in her book, Daring Bravely, she said, art is the whole path out of perfectionism, that art allows you to be so beautifully imperfect. And in fact, it’s the imperfections that people are searching for. Because when we see someone else’s imperfections, we can relate to that.
We can’t relate to their outward expression of perfection, I’ve got this sorted. There isn’t such a thing as a perfect anything. The bigger question is, how did it feel to be a part of that collaboration? How did it feel to bear witness to somebody else’s honesty and vulnerability, because the reality is, we are all of us a little bit broken. And if we can just embrace that and do that through art, through performance, through collaboration, through connection, then we get the opportunity to do something really, really, really powerful, which is help people relate on that level, rather than the thinking level.
Michelle Terry: And something else you said about relating. And in that moment, not about the moment that might come because when it’s truly vulnerable, it can only be now.
Rachel Williams: Absolutely, and of course, what theatre does in particular, it brings us into the now in the same way that our breath does. If we bring the full focus of our awareness to a performance, then we are in the now and we spend the vast majority of our time lost in thought. We spend the vast majority of our time on yesterday, and on tomorrow. And actually, the only bit that we get to control is this breath and this moment. And there is something about any task any creative task, painting, writing, watching a performance, listening to music, when we bring the full focus of our awareness to now our brains reward us hugely for that. Because when we spend our minds in the past that’s where depression seeps in.
And when our minds are always on the future, that’s where anxiety which of course, we’ve seen a huge rise in anxiety amongst people from all ages during lockdown. And that’s where we see that rise in anxiety too. So, our brains are desperate to be creative and yet very often, it’s our brains that are the barrier to us tapping into our creativity.
Michelle Terry: I just wanted to pick up on something you said, really early on, mentioned about letting ourself feel because we’re so used to wanting as you say, especially if the feelings are negative, we want to control them, and we want to get rid of them. And I feel like this time as usual there’s been so many negative feelings, grief, loneliness, loss, feeling out of control. I was reading somewhere that there’s a mental lethargy, there’s also this physical tiredness. And someone said, it was just a kind of passing thing, but going, is it because we’re spending so much time trying to control our feelings?
Rachel Williams: Absolutely. And most of us put all of our energy into trying to control not just our emotions, but also our feelings, and also our thoughts. So much of our energy, especially when we’re young, goes into believing everything our mind tells us and trying to control our thoughts and control our emotions. Sometimes they can feel like unwanted house guests. I get that. But it’s about as Rumi’s poem The Guest House says it’s about inviting all of these emotions in because actually they really show you what matters.
And if you bring curiosity to your internal worlds, this is what I teach about how do you bring curiosity to what is going on internally, if you shine some light in those dark areas, not only do you get the most beautiful insight into what really matters to you as a human being, but you also learn that rather than for being controlling, they’re actually there for you to experience, you will find that they come and pass through you.
We are not our emotions. Sometimes they linger in our bodies for far longer than is good for us. Very often they linger because nobody has heard the message that they bring, they stay until you’ve clocked it. So rather than veer away from, if you can lean into the difficulty remembering that everything that we do carries risk, everything we do carries the option of it working and not working, success and failure. And if we can sort of like embrace failure as being on the other side of success, and that if we throw away our ability to feel anger and frustration, we also numb our ability to experience joy and pride they are two sides to the same coin.
And that’s why we can’t eliminate distress, suffering, vulnerability, failure, sadness, what we can do is learn to get out of the habit of labelling thoughts as being negative or positive, and learn that our thoughts are not facts, that actually most of what our mind comes up with is just our mind’s way of trying to keep us safe at all costs.
And if that means that it’s going to beat me up all day, so I stay in bed, so I’m safe. It’s going to do that. I need to learn how to relate to that, not getting rid of it. Because I still need a self-critic to tell me that I don’t see the colour purple. And not to go to Waitrose in a bikini. I still need to have that part of my brain that says Rachel don’t do that stuff. But can I cultivate some kindness in the way that I respond into my thoughts and feelings? Can I actually become a more compassionate friend to myself? And that’s why that point of externalizing.
So it’s been curious about what’s going on inside and then expressing it and being heard externally. And when we see self-harming behaviours with people, our brains reward us in that moment for experiencing that physical pain as opposed to that emotional pain. But we then end up with this really unhealthy relationship that says when I’m stressed, I do this and my brain rewards me. And so what do I do again, I get stressed again, so my brain rewards me so I’m effectively rewarding myself for being stressed. We have to try and break that cycle. Can I be with this?
Michelle Terry: Those mechanisms for coping that you talk about they’re lonely acts. And you’re just making me think more and more about the importance of congregation when we come out the other side of this, that there are lonely acts of creativity, whether it’s colouring in or knitting or whatever it is, but something about that communal act of being in that, participating in something created together, because it makes me think about we know that Shakespeare wrote so many plays during these lockdowns or when the plagues would come. He wrote Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, he wrote three tragedies, because he knew that the audience would need catharsis for all of those feelings, those big epic feelings.
The last line of Lear is speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Everything you’re saying about how do we find ways to get people to reengage with arts because it’s something that’s healthy, it’s good for you to do? Because it as you say, externalises these things.
Rachel Williams: But I think it’s about how do we teach the practices as well, I mean, when I see, for example, art therapy programs running in schools, when I see that young people are encouraged to move their bodies through yoga, for example, in schools, when I see young people being engaged in creative writing exercises, for example, in school or emotions mapping, which is what I’ve done with quite a lot of young children, what it does is it starts a conversation about something that has for so long been shameful.
And the reality is, we’re all at some point in our lives going to have thoughts of not wanting to be here anymore, we need to have a conversation about that. And when you present something like a piece of theatre, if I can sit and watch somebody in that theatre, their lives kind of being played out in front of me, if I can connect with them on some level, then that’s the collaboration, I do feel part of something bigger, I feel less shrink wrapped in my own reality. And kind of loneliness is a subjective experience, isn’t it, you could be in a crowded room and still feel very alone.
So anything that can bring us out of ourselves, bring it out to play and see whether or not something that we can create could be understood by somebody else. And that somebody else may be able to meet us where we’re at? Well, those moments of connection are those moments of joy.
Michelle Terry: You just said that about shame. But even just at work or with friends, all I’ve been hearing a lot is the denial of feeling because someone else has got it much worse, this compared to where other people are in the crisis, people are denying their own place in the crisis, which is affecting everybody.
Rachel Williams: That is so true. And there’s the ubiquity of human suffering again. I think that’s where we confuse, for example, grief as being the loss of somebody through death. The grief that I’ve seen during this pandemic has been the loss of meaning, the loss of purpose, the loss of jobs, of income, the loss of company, losing the courage to do the things that we used to do. And when we put that in a hierarchy and say, “My loss is bigger than yours,” we instantly moved to that more shaming part that says, my emotions, I don’t have a right to those.
There’s this constant comparison and that’s why so much of our mindfulness is actually about letting go of those sorts of needs to care so much about what other people think, because we can’t control that. But actually bringing some curiosity to what is going on for us in this moment, and not judging the pain that we’re experiencing, but just bringing a compassionate mind towards it, which is why so many of the artistic practices that we do in therapy are about cultivating that kind of compassionate voice.
Would you speak to a friend like that? If the answer’s no, why do you speak to yourself like that? It’s kind of really trying to get people to look inwards, and then to express and that takes courage by the way, that takes real courage. And that’s why it’s so lovely when you see a Hamlet and you’re sitting in an audience, and you think, “Whoa, sometimes I feel like life is too much. It’s not just me that has thoughts of not wanting to be here anymore. It’s not just me that is grieving. It’s not just me that can’t make friends. It’s not just me.” And that is the collaboration. And that is extraordinary.
Michelle Terry: And it’s no surprise that the most famous six words in the English language is to be or not to be.
Rachel Williams: Yeah, we’re human beings, not human doings. And I think we forget that sometimes, we judge so much on what people do. And I think we do so much about what we do and what we produce. But fundamentally, it is about we need to focus on being as much as doing, emerging out of lockdown is going to be as hard for people as going in. As the arts come back, we can see more and experience more, we have a real responsibility there too, to make sure that what we put on that we don’t say this is perfect in any way. But this is us bringing this play to life. And some people will relate to this, and some people will think, “Well, I’ve seen it done a different way.” That’s okay, we can’t be perfect in art. It’s all about the expression and the perception.
Every single one of us has been impacted, having a global pandemic and expecting not to be impacted by it is like expecting somebody to walk through water and not get wet. But fundamentally, we’ve all had to challenge the relationship we have with our internal worlds. And we’ve all had to have honest conversations with ourselves about what we need more or less of what in our life has been nurturing and depleting. So as much as has been an obligation to stay indoors, it’s also been an opportunity for people to try new and creative ways of expressing themselves.
Michelle Terry: I feel so passionately about it, I feel so passionately about its place in our culture. And yet, because it’s unquantifiable, like I read something the other day about the fact that it’s really hard to put a value on it, like a cost value on it. So if you can’t put a value on it, its intrinsic value is therefore zero, and it doesn’t appear in a budget line. So if you don’t know what it appears as in a budget line, you don’t know how to invest in it. I thought, “My God we have such a long way to go to quantify the unquantifiable.” So we know how to properly invest not just money, but invest time, invest expertise, invest conversation.
I mean, we have literally been drenched and saturated in culture. And yet, we still don’t know how to talk about it. It’s the one thing we’ve all been doing is listening to the podcast, watching things on television, watching films, listening to music. And yet still, we don’t know how to intrinsically value it.
Rachel Williams: We don’t know how to calibrate the need that’s being met. I think that’s the difficulty. If you watch a performance, everybody in that audience, as you said earlier, will experience an emotional connection. We can’t measure that. And some people will relate to certain characters, and some people will relate to others. And we can’t measure that. We don’t ask them if they came out of the performance, how they feel when they leave? There’s no point in interviewing people when they come out of Romeo and Juliet saying, “Hey, do you feel better after…” That’s not the goal. The goal is for an audience of year 10s to go in and see that performance, relate on the level of suffering. Take a moment of embracing that connection with another human being’s difficulty and leaving feeling less alone.
So the question can’t be, are you feeling better, which of course, all advertising campaigns are based on that, aren’t they? Everything starts with putting you into threat mode first, so that you can be rescued from it. And performance may well challenge you, challenge the notion that you have about you, your place in the world, what matters to you, you might be moved by one story, you might be irritated by another. Why? What is it about that person’s expression that you find it hard to relate to? What is it about this person’s story that enables you to meet them where they’re at? We don’t ask those questions do we? We just say was it good and give it a star rating?
Michelle Terry: And there’s something about where our audience fit into this conversation? Because like you say, we don’t ask those questions. And I think we probably should, because I think then we start to reinvest in the audience as participant and witness to something rather than consumer of something.
Rachel Williams: Yeah. And that’s really interesting because I learned when I came to do the the behind the scenes talk last year, with a couple of the actors and the director about Romeo and Juliet. I learned so much from that, what I hadn’t realised is how unbelievably important it is for those actors. And I’d never even thought about it before last year, to feel a communication and a dialogue with their audience. Without the audience, it’s not a performance.
Michelle Terry: It’s not theatre.
Rachel Williams: It’s not theatre. And I really learned that from a couple of the actors in particular last year, who would just kind of say, when they’re looking at their audience, there is a dialogue that’s going on, they can see from body language and from eye contact, and from leaning in and from leaning out, we get so much attunement non-verbally. So it doesn’t need to be a verbal dialogue. It needs to be of can we show up? Can we be seen? Can you find something in this performance that actually enables you to live with your minds a little bit better? It’s not just me.
Michelle Terry: That’s right. That’s right. What’s interesting is when a new scenario about that oxytocin like looking in somebody’s eyes, what you do see is when you say to somebody directly into their eyes, to be or not to be, that’s the question. Some people absolutely lean into that and go, let’s be in dialogue with it. And some people will laugh at it, because it’s almost too big to cope with, protecting yourself and going I absolutely cannot ask myself that question right now.
Rachel Williams: But isn’t that interesting? Because sometimes as well working with young people, adolescents in particular, sometimes I can ask them when they’ve been to see a performance, what the storyline was, and they’re not able to tell me, when I ask them how it felt to be there, then I get a different answer. So Shakespeare isn’t always something that we can always sort of track ourselves dialogue with. But when you see it done well, like at the Globe, we’re seeing those actors and that sensory feast, it didn’t matter what they were saying. That teaching how to emote, we can always learn from performance, how to emote, and how to express ourselves.
In that sense, theatre is in a unique… It’s like a priceless piece of art. But that is the challenge, I guess, for the theatre world in particular to be able to measure and say with certainty that people are moved. And if they’re moved, that tells me that they’ve made a connection, if they’ve made a connection, there’s an opportunity to be curious. And if they’ve got an opportunity to be curious, yes they’re having a dialogue with themselves about what matters to them, what really matters to them and theatre has a wonderful way of evoking that.
Michelle Terry: I know these plays inside out but I would find it very hard to tell you what the story is. He wasn’t really interested in story, he sort of knew they had to start and at some point, you’d have to end. But in between is these fragments of broken feelings that just feel this moment, this moment, this moment, this moment, and only retrospectively do you go, “There was a picture made there or a story told there.” We’re feeling creatures, not thinking creatures. And if actually, if we thought about anything, we wouldn’t stop people, we wouldn’t fall in love with people that we shouldn’t. It’s because we don’t think that first and foremost, because we do those terrible things that he writes about, or wonderful things that he writes about.
Rachel Williams: And they don’t all end on a perfect note, this isn’t about happy endings. And I guess that’s also lovely, and I think, I can’t remember which character it was. He said, “There’s nothing neither good or bad than thinking makes it.” We need to kind of move away from this idea of everything being perfect. But can we in the same way as we do with art, can we approach mental health in that way and embrace the flaws and the cracks? Can we see that somebody is more unique and stronger for their breakages? And that’s a real challenge and art shines that kind of light in the cracks, doesn’t it? And enables something beautiful to come out of it.
Michelle Terry: Oh, my gosh. Well, you are an artist. Thank you.
Rachel Williams: It is so nice to see you again.
Michelle Terry: Gosh and you. Is there anything else Rachel that you want to say?
Rachel Williams: I think there’s two things. The first one is that I think it will be incredibly difficult for people to emerge out of lockdown. And I just want to remind people that actually when it comes to real difficulty, it’s often in springtime that we feel that difficulty the most. For example, our suicide rates are highest in springtime, people have this notion that it’s in darkness and at Christmas time and in winter. In actual fact, it’s when there’s an incongruence between how we feel inside and what we see outside, that’s where the real difficulty kind of shows up.
In winter time, I can convince myself that everybody feels the way that I do. But when I see the crocus’s come up and the daffodils, and I see people emerging out of their homes, that in congruence that gap between how I feel, and what I see will be at its biggest. So being compassionate to ourselves emerging out of lockdown, not making any assumptions that we will feel better, because that’s not likely to happen for all of us, but also to maintain the levels of compassion that we’ve had for other people during this period of lockdown, not to let those practices rot, but to use lockdown not only as that obligation to stay in, but also that opportunity to reconnect.
And I would also invite anyone who’s listening to do two things if they want to in the mornings when they get up, the first one is to join me in making to-be statement, as opposed to a to-do list, maybe you want to do both. But my one today is I am courageous, and it’s really interesting by the way, what happens when you do this over a period of days, making that statement changes the relationship we have with ourselves and how courageous we feel.
So see if you can do that, and the other one is emerging out of lockdown, remember that the conversation that we have with ourselves about what we need. So every morning to kind of say, “What do I need more or less of today?” And just to ask yourself, “If I really loved myself…” which most of us don’t love ourselves. “But if I really loved myself, what would I do more of today? What would I do less of today?” And just notice so many things we do out of obligation.
So the next time you see someone struggle, rather than ask them what’s the matter? Maybe you could ask them what matters. And just kind of see what comes out of that conversation. Because it really helps us have a relationship with their feelings. It shifts the conversation, and it can be quite beautiful.
Michelle Terry: Well, you just shifted my day in the most beautiful way.
Rachel Williams: Well, it’s so nice to see you. Even if there’s no oxytocin production, there is a connection and that’s a real treat.
Michelle Terry: Thank you. I’ve appreciated this conversation and I know it will be of such value for anybody listening. And also please, let’s have more, more conversations.
Rachel Williams: I would love that. Really, really love that.
Imogen Greenberg: If you have struggled with any of the topics discussed in this podcast support can be found at mind.org.uk. Or you can call that info line on 03001233393 or text 86463.
That’s it from us, but we’ll be back with another episode on the arts and well-being next week, where we speak to director Sarah Betty and drama therapist Anne Marie Gaylord, who have been working on the link between vulnerability in the arts. We’ll chat to them about both the importance and the risks of vulnerability and expression through the arts.
You’ve been listening to Such Stuff with me Imogen Greenberg and Michelle Terry. To find out more about Shakespeare’s Globe and Watson. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’ll be back soon with more stories from Shakespeare’s Globe so subscribe wherever you get this podcast from.