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Harriet Fitch Little

Spotlight on mental illness

A play written and performed by residents of Al Fanar Hospital

Residents rehearse on stage at Al Madina Theater.
Residents rehearse on stage at Al Madina Theater.

On the stage of Al Madina Theater, a woman wearing a flowing sequined jacket is belting the 1960s smash hit “Let’s Twist Again” into a microphone. The actors, the majority of which sport football shirts, dance around her. They are confident and seem relaxed at the front of the 450-seat auditorium, which is currently empty save for a few press photographers. It’s an ease which is surprising, because these aren’t professional actors, nor are they aspirational amateurs. None have been in a play before, and very few have visited a theater. One man hasn’t set foot in Beirut in 25 years.


In fact, From the Bottom of My Brain – the show currently being rehearsed – goes off-script across the board; it has been written, staged, and on July 6 will be performed by residents of the Al Fanar Psychiatric Hospital in Zahrani. Directed by Zeine Daccache and Sahar Assaf from drama therapy center Catharsis, this one-off performance is the public offshoot of a private project; three years of drama workshops conducted in the peaceful gardens of the family-run Al Fanar institution, with financial support from the Italian Embassy. All performers live with some form of mental illness, ranging from anorexia to schizophrenia. The vocal powerhouse whose Chubby Checker cover brought this rehearsal to a close once tried to set her family home on fire.


Short, simple, and with only rudimentary blocking, the show is made up of dramatic vignettes which convey the tumult of living with neuropsychiatric disorders. Florid prose is thin on the ground: “I wish I had cancer instead of having a mental illness,” one woman tells the audience. “At least if you have cancer you die once. But with mental illness we die a bit every day.” As well as monologues, there are short role-plays – often relived conversations with family. All scenes touch repeatedly on issues of abandonment. Lines have been learnt, and yet the show is organic. “Every single word you will hear came from them [the residents]” Assaf insists. “It is their story. We just organized scenes and decided who would speak first.”


The easy enthusiasm of the actors present is striking, and yet an evaluation of the Catharsis project based on the one performance scheduled would be incomplete – like a sailor forgetting that 90 percent of the iceberg they’re mapping is underwater. Although the government has neither the budget nor patience for drama therapy, ("They laugh at the idea," Assaf comments) the results it is producing at Al Fanar deserve attention.


Dr. Samar Labban, the unconventional governor of Al Fanar who made the Catharsis involvement possible, has witnessed the power of externalizing illness through acting over the last three years. “You reach a point where you control it,” she says. “You are able to explain what your illness is and you know what it means.” Are there particular examples which come to mind of how acting out anxieties has led to improvements? She mentions one woman with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who no longer reacts violently to disruptions in her routine, and a man with a crippling shyness of women who is now confident enough to speak in mixed company. Although it’s a handy narrative device to pick out particular success stories, the basic message is uniform: all patients involved in drama therapy have improved, and all have seen their medication decrease.


When she says "all," Labban is not simply referring to the dozen performers on stage, but also to the many residents not present who participated in the drama classes. Some eschewed the public show, and still others had the decision made for them; it was decided that individuals unaware of the fact they were performing in front of a live audience shouldn’t participate, and their stories were weaved into the narrative of those present instead.


The crew are keen to emphasize that, for residents, these few hours in the spotlight are only a small part of an on-going journey. For audiences, however, they hope it will be the start of an entirely new one. “The performers know they have a disorder and they are not ashamed of it. They know it is not stopping their lives, it is the barriers from others that are stopping them  families, and social acceptance,” insists Dr. Labban. “We’ve honestly had telephone calls from people asking, ‘Will they hurt us if we come to see the show?’” she adds with a dry laugh.

 
It is when conversation touches on such issues of social stigmatization that the underlying frustrations of this otherwise upbeat project become apparent, and when Dr. Labban describes the residents of Al Fanar as her "children," she conveys anger as well as obvious affection. In as many as 80 percent of cases, she believes it is social and financial considerations on the part of families that prevent the mentally ill from re-joining society: “Their parents are not interested in having them back home. It is the family which feels embarrassed, not the patients.” Does she cherish the hope that parents (the majority of whom have long stopped visiting Al Fanar) may attend the play and begin to reconcile themselves with their child’s illness? She raises her eyebrows, and mentions a big football game between hospital residents and the Italian Embassy that all families were invited to two weeks previously – but nobody came then, and she expects no different this weekend. "This is Hamra Street, not Hollywood after all."


That isn’t to say she anticipates silence. “I am sure someone is going to call me and ask me, ‘Why did my daughter appear in this play in a public place?’” Dr. Sannar reflects. “I hope they will do so, so I can tell them, ‘Come and take your child home. It’s about time.’”

 

Change doesn’t happen overnight, or indeed over the course of an evening at the theater, even if that theater is as packed as ticket reservations at Al Madina would seem to indicate. “This play would be a great awareness project for the whole population” Assaf insists. “But we need to tour with it ten times, or maybe twenty.” With future funding uncertain, and the government contributing the 'joke' sum of $12 USD per day for the food, accommodation, and medication of each resident, it’s a distant dream at present. The most the Catharsis team hope for is to spark the beginning of a better understanding of mental illness in those present, and that perhaps, out there in the audience on Saturday night will be someone with the capital to carry the momentum forward.

 

For more information about ‘From the Bottom of My Brain’ and Catharsis, visit the Facebook page.

 

Follow Harriet Fitch Little on Twitter @HarrietFL

Residents rehearse on stage at Al Madina Theater (Catharsis photo).

“'The performers know they have a disorder and they are not ashamed of it. They know it is not stopping their lives, it is the barriers from others that are stopping them - families, and social acceptance.'"