Zoetrope by Rebecca Manley
Zoetrope is the story of seven very different young people taking part in group counselling. As a system in crisis struggles to diagnose, treat or support them, they begin to rely on each other to make it through. The play also features a chorus of mental health professionals, other characters from their past and the ghosts of their own minds.
Specially commissioned for West Yorkshire Playhouse, Zoetrope is a timely exploration of the mental health of our young people and the resources afforded to them. Though uncompromising in presenting the struggles of young people, the play is also funny, satirical and nevertheless hopeful.
“To move along through, to go up or down. You need to give it time, wait for the levels, matching them up in the chambers that sit side by side. And you can only open one, let the water in, when the time is right. Otherwise it’ll flood. It’s quicker going down than up, but either way it needs holding, waiting until the time is right, to pass through, safely, smoothly, up or down the stairs, to the next level.” Taken from Zoetrope script.
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What was the R&D process to create Zoetrope?
After meeting Gemma Woffinden and the rest of the team at West Yorkshire Playhouse to talk through ideas and find out a little about the young people inthe youth theatre, I did lots of reading and talking to people. It was an area Ihad some experience in from my work with different youth and community organisations. I had run the young women’s programme at Clean Break (a theatre company working with women with experience of the Criminal Justice System), for a couple of years and have worked a lot with National Youth Theatre, so I’ve come into contact with many young people with mental health challenges. I’ve also run projects in prisons where mental health is a real issue. I read as much as I could about it including historical/socio-cultural analyses of “madness” and its treatment. I was interested in artists who had experienced challenges with their mental health and delved into some fiction and poetry that explored this area and revisited some I’d enjoyed in the past (Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte, Anne Sexton, Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickenson). It felt useful to have a rich cultural context to frame some of our work and I invited the cast to bring in music, plays, poems and fiction that they thought offered some interesting reflections of mental health.
I spoke at length to some professionals working with young people – a psychiatrist, a probation officer, staff at CAMHS and a mental health nurse working in the community - and most importantly, young people themselves, with a range of mental health problems. I then ran a series of workshops with the cast at the Playhouse, heard what their experiences were and together we explored what questions and themes we might want the play to interrogate. After that I went away and developed some ideas and characters and brought those back to the group to flesh them out before writing a first draft.
The play features 7 different young people with very different backgrounds, challenges and needs, how might a group approach exploring these characters?
I settled on seven because of some spurious connection (that probably felt relevant at the time!) to the notion of purgatory which mental illness felt akin to. So each of the specific mental health challenges that my characters were facing relates to a misconception of that condition as connected to one of the seven sins – lust, greed etc. But that’s almost certainly of no use to anyone and is just one of the strange games we play with ourselves as writers! Because young people struggling with their mental health come from all backgrounds it felt right that our characters did too. I wanted to try and show the range and complexity of young people’s mental health needs, the factors that contribute to and intensify them, and the challenges of meeting those needs. It would be helpful for a company to have some understanding of the subject at the beginning of the process. Some of that can come from the group, taking care that this happens in a sensitive and safe way. It would be useful to know a bit about services like CAMHS and the political and economic climate that these services are operating in. Plays are about people’s lives and those lives are unavoidably shaped by politics so I think it is always important to have discussions about how the policies of government affect us all. Cuts to mental health services in recent years for example, have increased pressure on those providing them and had a damaging effect on young people and I think it’s important to talk about those things too so there is a context.
Then of course I would do the things you would always do in terms of getting to know the characters, so that you are thinking of them as real people, not just their diagnoses/conditions. So looking for clues about them in what they say and don’t say, what they do, what other characters say about them etc. And then some research about their specific mental health challenges and how that might affect those particular individuals given what you know about them and their circumstances. There are some brilliant online resources. We compiled a list of good ones for us to refer to through the writing and rehearsal process, which included Young Minds, Mind, Barnados, Rethink and then ones specific to specific conditions like Talk to Frank,
Why did you make the decision to present Doctors/nurses as a chorus?
I wanted this play to be about the young people experiencing problems with their mental health and although these may be alleviated or exacerbated by interactions and relationships with parents nurses, doctors, psychologists etc, I didn’t want the play to be about those adults. Lots of young people I spoke to identified a sense of not being heard, so this felt like a very simple nod to making the young people the centre of the piece, the fleshed-out, complex humans that we were getting to know. Many of the young people talked about being moved around in the system, with their counsellors/doctors/nurses changing frequently. Many of them said this was one of the biggest challenges and left them feeling confused, unsettled and unimportant. Presenting the professionals in the piece as an almost faceless mass was a way to represent this. I’m also a big fan of ensemble work in young people’s theatre and a chorus is a good way of developing those techniques which I think serve actors well throughout their careers.
The play takes the audience to some dark places, but also has a message of community & hope, what would you like a cast of young people to take away from being part of this production?
I think making a play together can be a wonderful experience even, or maybe sometimes especially, if the subject matter is challenging. Working together, listening to each other, exploring your own and your collective creativity, supporting and challenging each other and then inviting audiences to a shared experience where stories are told and questions are raised can be a fantastic antidote to the darker aspects of our modern lives.
I always think my plays have more laughs and hope in them than is immediately obvious (!) and I think humour is really important, especially in a piece that does deal with difficult or sad things, so I would encourage a spirit of fun and play in the rehearsal room. As is so often the case when I work with people who have had a really hard time, I was amazed during research and in the development of this play by the resilience of young people. I am always humbled by their openness, their readiness to challenge and push themselves and I think the process of making and sharing the play offers opportunities to discuss, debate to affect change. Good productions keep you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre and a good rehearsal process can change you as a person and the way you want to live. It may sound ambitious but I really believe this, and it’s why I love working with young people in theatre. In terms of the content of the play itself, I hope there are lots of reasons to feel hopeful, in particular the strength of friendships that are often in place of things missing in our families. There is a lot of love and kindness in the piece too, in all its forms, and I think that is ultimately the most important thing for a cast of young people to take away.