14 June 2023

Systems and Sanity promises to squeeze 'plenty of theatrical juice' from mental health theme

| Travis Radford
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Systems and Sanity is the culmination of a two-year program featuring about 20 participants (from left to right, Liz Drysdale, Grant McLindon, Sam Floyd and Fi Peel). Photo: Rebus Theatre.

Rebus Theatre’s Systems and Sanity has weathered a COVID lockdown to confront mental ill health and Australia’s mental health system.

While audiences will only see the polished final production, the show, which runs from Thursday to Saturday (15 to 17 June), is the end-point of a similarly named two-year-long program, Systems of Sanity.

The program brought together about 20 Canberrans with lived experience of mental ill health for what artistic director Robin Davidson describes as a process of “intellectual inquiry”, where they were asked to reflect on their interactions with the systems around them.

The process began online in 2021 (“a very strange way to start a play,” Robin admits) after the Delta-strain COVID lockdown was imposed during the same week as the show’s first rehearsal.

“On those early Zoom sessions, while we tried to do some physical work as best one can through that medium … the process was largely about talking and writing,” Robin explains.

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Two shows were initially planned, but Robin says the decision was made after the COVID disruption to devote all energy and resources to a single blockbuster performance.

“We spent time looking at the kind of language used around mental health [and] the relationship between someone seeking a service and someone providing that service,” he says.

“Then we started looking at systems theory, social determinants of health and co-design, and all of those concepts became a part of the process of improvising scenes and coming up with ideas.

“That intellectual side may not be obvious to an audience, but it was very much a part of our process of thinking about ideas, how systems will operate and how individuals interact with those systems.”

But Robin says the performance is anything but dry despite its lofty foundations. He says audiences can expect very funny and playful moments alongside touching and moving moments as the cast explores themes of being on the receiving end of mental health services, the importance of remembering people who don’t survive mental ill health and the importance of the relationships between people with similar experiences.

“The project itself is a beautiful example of that [last theme],” Robin says.

“One of the things which I find most rewarding at this point, before we’ve actually got on stage, is just that the depth of connection that has happened between people in the group and the fact that people are meeting up for coffees and going out to shows together … and that there are friendships and relationships that are clearly going to endure.”

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Robin says the show also asks philosophical questions about the origins of powerful emotions and how much we trust our thoughts and political questions about power and oppression in our society.

“There’s certainly plenty of theatrical juice in mental health as a theme,” he says.

Although the show is supported by the ACT Government’s health promotion grants program, Robin says he is “quite amazed” a tri-partisan group of five Legislative Assembly members have RSVP’d.

“I certainly hope they will come away with both a sense of the emotional impact and the impact on people’s lives of policy and legislation and some specific insights about things which are not working well,” he says.

Robin also invited people with lived experience of mental ill health and anyone who enjoys a “a fun night out at the theatre” to come along and watch the show.

Systems and Sanity will be performed at Gorman Arts Centre in Braddon from Thursday, 15 June, to Saturday, 17 June. The show will feature Auslan interpreted and audio description sessions. It will also be filmed and made available for a discounted post-production streaming season from Monday, 19 June, to Sunday, 2 July. To purchase tickets or learn more, visit Rebus Theatre’s website.

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