I am about to start rehearsals for my first production when my body stops working. It is 2016; I am an MFA playwriting student at Yale, and my muscles have seized up so intensely that I can no longer sit in a chair. I’m in the middle of a class trying to listen to the content of the presentation. I slide off my chair to the carpet and pretend to stretch, unsure what is happening.
The rehearsals we are about to begin are for a play called Tiny, which I have written after conversations with the drama school administration about their policy of accepting 60 percent men, 40 and percent women (and no openly non-binary or trans people) into the acting program. But that’s the breakdown of the canon, we are told when we protest. It’s tradition. It’s necessary. It has always been this way.
If we can’t get the school to understand this intellectually, I think, I am going to do it emotionally. That’s why I wanted to write, isn’t it? To move people to action? And so I write a play about the voices we silence by gender, about stillbirth and the Northwest Passage, and the stories I never see told. It is the most personal thing I have ever shared. It is a play about trauma that I am creating in a place that cannot yet hold what I need to say. I do it anyway, but I am not okay.
We love trauma onstage. There is something profound about feeling hard things in a room full of other people. When I think about the plays that have changed my DNA, they include Skeleton Crew, How I Learned to Drive, Fairview, An Octoroon, Eurydice, Proof, Endlings, Too Heavy for Your Pocket—all plays that confront the impossibly hard parts of being human. Plays that touch the kind of wound most people spend their lives trying to keep hidden, often even from themselves, and expose the wound to the light where it can begin to heal.
We love trauma onstage. But while we have long understood that expertise is necessary to keep performers physically safe, the mental aspects of our craft have been largely unsupported. Fight choreographers are trained to ensure that the illusion of combat is not causing real harm. But in a profession that prides itself on unprecedented emotional feats, we have yet to apply this same principle to the mental health of our artists.
When Dear Evan Hansen hit Broadway, so much of the buzz around the production was about how far into emotional and physical extremes Ben Platt had to push himself to deliver that performance. This was not only accepted but actively glorified, without addressing the kinds of mental health care that would make that emotional dexterity sustainable, not just for Platt, but for all artists taking on these kind of demanding roles.
I am writing this article as Simone Biles pulls out of the 2021 Olympic Games and the internet explodes with the newness of what she’s done. What she knows at the age of 24, which I didn’t learn until I was a decade older, is this: Mental health is physical health. You cannot land a triple-double safely when your brain will not cooperate. And you cannot write or perform or design stories about trauma without meeting your own trauma head on—especially in a field where the dynamics of institutions so often echo the shape of that harm.
This is the great beauty of what we do, the emotional Olympics. But the process of telling a story with our whole selves is also a high-risk sport. And we in the theatre have never wanted to deal with the complications of the bodies and minds that carry those stories—that perform them, stage-manage them, light them, direct them, metabolize them. This oversight is not sustainable or humane. Expert support for putting trauma onstage is, in short, as crucial to our field as safety cables and fight choreography.
My body didn’t recover after that first graduate school production. My symptoms started getting worse. It wasn’t until three years later, when I stumbled on a Netflix documentary late one night and heard someone else describe my symptoms, that I recognized them as a complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD, response to a lifetime of gendered silencing and violence, and began to look for new kinds of help.
Here’s the thing about seeking help that I don’t want to admit to you. I believe the same things the profession does, somewhere deep in an unbudgeable part of my brain: that truly brilliant work is the work it harms us to make. That care is the opposite of rigor. That I make my best work when I am at my worst. I have written plays I am deeply proud of during periods of constant pain, and there is a part of me that believes my skill is somehow tied to that suffering. A playwright once told me that he heard a more established writer tell a room full of younger artists, “Don’t get therapy. Then what would you write about?” It was shocking to hear someone say that out loud, but if I’m honest, I have been taught that implicitly since childhood. How do I turn around now and try to heal, trusting that I will still be able to do this work that I love?
I don’t have that trust, but I find help anyway: Somatic Experiencing Therapy, which retrains the body’s wiring; Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which retrains the brain; a million baths; antidepressants. I try to treat myself better in my work life too. To go where I am respected and valued. I pull a commission from a theatre that steals the grant money I was awarded and get it reassigned to a theatre I trust. I speak publicly about abuses at PlayPenn. I try to avoid spaces where I am not seen or heard. I begin to heal.
In May 2021, I step into a workshop and encounter something new. I have come to Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., with a play called Fight Call, which I’ve been trying to workshop with a fight choreographer for years, certain that this will change the dramaturgy. It does, but what I do not expect is that another new resource will change the play as well.
On the first day, Artist Rep’s managing director, Kisha Jarrett, tells a Zoom room full of collaborators that she took a look at the 21 projects slated for development, realized how many of them were about trauma, and launched a pilot project. The theatre is now offering Artist Resilience Services, with Somatic Experiencing Therapist Mindy Nettifee, to anyone who wants to make use of them during the workshops. I have worked with a lot of theatres and new-play organizations—first as an intern, then as a dramaturg, and now as a playwright—and I have never encountered this kind of understanding before. It took me years of searching and determination to find somatic therapy on my own and here it is just…being offered to us.
Nettifee’s work, informed by traumatology and neurobiology, has been breaking new ground at the intersection of trauma-informed care and trauma-propelled art.
“It puts me in a unique position to serve performance artists because I am one,” she tells me. “There’s a level of embodied empathy that can’t be manufactured. I have a sense of what goes on in someone who’s an artist, who’s using their own personal life material to write and then is having to literally use their voice as a channel—the unique creative injuries that happen on that path.”
“Somatic trauma therapy,” she continues, “cannot heal the systemic conditions that are part of the root cause of so much of our stress and illness. But even under the pervasively stressful and threatening conditions of late-stage capitalism and the white supremacist patriarchy, we can build resilience through warm, attuned connection and knowing a thing or two about how our bodies work under stress. My hope is that artists leave these sessions feeling like something that needed to be seen and heard was seen and heard, so that at the very least, this risky work of making the art they are here to make feels a little less lonely. My more ambitious aim for these sessions is to support artists in restoring or strengthening of their connection with themselves, so they are getting good information from their own system and bodily intelligence about what they need. The opposite of trauma states might be states of relaxed but alert presence, connectedness, curiosity, playfulness, an eagerness to experiment. If any of that is more accessible after a session, that’s a huge success.”
Kisha Jarrett now says, “I don’t want to do a show and not have that anymore. It’s important, even if nobody uses it. It’s important for us to be like, this exists for you.”
Artists Rep isn’t alone in recognizing this need. I spoke with London-based director Sarah Bedi about her work around artist resilience as well. She had known creative arts therapist Annemarie Gaillard as an actor before they connected about the need for enhanced well-being in the artistic process. They began offering voluntary group sessions outside of Bedi’s rehearsals.
Recalled Bedi, “Just watching this group transform in a way that I’ve never seen any group, professionals or students, release— some of the work that came out of that was breathtaking.” The two collaborators have found that the form has evolved with the needs of each organization they’ve worked with. They have also done sessions specifically with groups of directors, noting how much that role parallels the role of the therapist, as directors are charged with holding space not only for the content and shape of a production but also for the group dynamics and external pressures on the process.
“As therapists, we have supervisors, we have our own therapists, we have peer supervision,” Gaillard said. “We have a kind of support network that is set up in place to help us manage the load of what comes with being in this field. Directors don’t.”
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, the play that is reopening Broadway this coming weekend, is breaking new ground as well. According to a recent article by Diep Tran, the actors are receiving a $250 weekly stipend on top of their salary, “because dramatizing racism and violence eight times a week can take a heavy toll on an actor.” Even talking about mental health on Broadway is revolutionary, and it is high-profile examples like this one that can lead to broader cultural understanding.
The production is also working with Ann James, founder of Intimacy Directors of Color, whose work goes beyond choreography of intimate scenes to encompass the actor’s consent and boundaries around all aspects of their identity throughout the rehearsal process. In an interview with JACK co-artistic director Jordana De La Cruz earlier this year, Ann spoke about the importance of, and differences among, intimacy directors, sensitivity specialists, and therapeutic practitioners. She also consults with producers regarding which specialists can best serve each season or process. As De La Cruz put it in their conversation, “Ann is a pioneer.”
Changes are happening at Yale as well. There is a social worker who does artist resilience work with the drama school now (in partnership with the schools of architecture and art). There is new funding for health leave—something I never would have thought to ask for in my time there. Our fight for better representation in terms of gender, race, and disability began the process of shifting the school’s demographics and pedagogy. Perhaps the biggest difference is that that evolution now lives at the center of the school’s work. It will always be our job as artists to tell whatever stories aren’t yet being told. When I see my classmates now, I tell them this is the first time they’ve seen me when I wasn’t having a panic attack. I’m not sure what three straight years of that does to a body, but I hope I’m one of the last people to find that out without access to effective resources. The fellow artists I talk to all seem to have related experiences. My story is personal but it’s also systemic.
It’s also important to remember that untreated trauma plus power is a dangerous equation. So many of the people who dominate our cultural stories traumatized the people around them rather than seeking care themselves. We could all name dozens of artists who are known for this. Our cultural archetype of brilliance is inextricable from suffering but it is also inextricable from abuse. That harm is cyclical until we break the cycle.
I enter the rehearsal process for Fight Call at Artists Rep. The play takes place during the fight calls for all of Shakespeare’s female death scenes—a slow accumulation of violence. The characters have been written to Tetris into those roles: Someone who plays the ingénues, someone who plays the older female roles, a young male lead, an older Black male lead who can play Othello and Aaron, a stage manager, and the Anonymous Intern (who plays the role of every intern on every production). Between these six characters, with the stage manager often filling in for anyone who is “late,” we are able to play out all of the death scenes. Near the end of the first rehearsal, actor William (Bill) Earl Ray asks me, point blank, “Am I just here to play Othello?” That rehearsal was recorded but I haven’t looked back at it—I’m afraid I’ll see my face freeze. He has named my worst fear about the play exactly: that his character is still only here to play Othello, and that in trying to upend the canon’s harm when it comes to gender I will just perpetuate it when it comes to race.
An earlier version of me, still in extreme physical and mental pain, might have run from that fear and found some other way to flesh out the role. But here is the thing about writing that I have had to learn over and over: My greatest fear about the play is the thing that belongs at the very center of it.
Why aren’t there Black characters in Shakespeare who get to hold the beauty? Why aren’t there non-male characters who get to hold the anger? I’ve seen actors stuff themselves into roles that can’t hold the wild, extraordinary bigness of who they are in order to act out these same old harmful ideas over and over. The stories we tell make all the difference. I don’t want to perpetuate that harm, I want to upend it.
And this is the gift of having Artist Resilience Services, beyond even the sessions themselves. It is the knowledge that the organization cares enough to offer it. That this isn’t a place where my artistry will be put in some kind of imaginary opposition with my humanity. So I take three days before I rewrite. I take time to feel all of my fear and shame and the long history of the canon and its decades of harm. And I know that if I can’t hold those things alone, there is now somewhere I can go so that I don’t have to.
Then I gather all of that into my chest—the characters, the actors whose voices now live in my head, and so much history, I hold all of that in my body—and then I use my fear as a bridge into the character. I write my fear and Bill’s question right into the center of the play.
I bring the pages into rehearsal and the actors read them aloud. Then Bill looks up from the pages and says, “How did you know?” The answer to that question is: “Because you told me what the play needed.” But so many of us are in too much pain to give these kinds of gifts or to receive them. Holding both your own trauma and that of the person you are embodying is a feat with no parallels outside the field of acting. Holding the trauma of many characters at once long enough to write them into being is work that writers learn to do without support for the size of that lift. But there is science and methodology and practice that can make our work deeper and stronger. There are artists and therapeutic practitioners paving the way. Why on earth would we not follow their lead?
“Making art should not hurt you,” casting director Charlie Hano said on a panel with Backstage and Ring of Keys earlier this year. “If you were told to suffer for your art, you were lied to.” I practically fell out of my chair when he said it.
The work is scary. It should be scary. It is scary to share the vulnerable things that are necessary to make it. It is scary to share this. But what is harder is being alone with that fear. I have finally given up on the idea that I can hide behind my work rather than being revealed by it. I don’t want to feel alone about any of this anymore. I want to change it.
Healing has not hurt my work—it has only helped. My job as a writer is to touch the wound, but not to live there. To visit that place and then return to another place of care and connectedness. We need, more than anything, the ability to be connected to our collaborators, our communities, and our own bodies.
This is what makes the work healing in the way it was always meant to be.
Sarah Mantell (she/they) is a playwright whose plays include Everything That Never Happened, The Good Guys, Tiny, and Fight Call.
Creative credits for production photo at top: Everything That Never Happened, written by Sarah Mantell, directed by Jesse Rasmussen, costume design by Sarah Nietfeld, set design by Joo Hyun Kim, lighting design by Krista Smith, projection design by Wladimiro A. Woyno R., also featuring actors Patrick Foley and Stephen Cefalu
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!