I did not go boldly into the theater when I went to see Vernal & Sere’s production of 4.48 Psychosis. I walked in slowly with my husband, David, choosing the seats closest to the door in case I needed to make a quick exit.
The four actors in the play were already on stage performing an unsettling pre-show routine that combined movement and sound.
“This show has already exceeded my expectations,” David said to me as we sat down.
It was David’s first Vernal & Sere show, and I knew he was in for an experience. This theater company’s productions always inspire me as an artist. The talent and commitment of the actors, their use of movement, the immersive nature of the technical elements, and their willingness to take on bold AF material are just some of the things I admire about them. Their shows always challenge me.
In the case of 4.48 Psychosis, I was worried that the challenge might be too much. The play, written by Sarah Kane, centers on a person’s struggle with severe depression. Kane herself committed suicide shortly after completing the play and before it premiered.
Given the material, I knew the show would bring me head to head with my own mental health challenges. These tend to lean more toward anxiety than depression, but I find my anxious mind is aspirational. It’s always looking for more despairing ways to worry. In attending 4.48 Psychosis, I was concerned I’d learn something new that would cause me significant distress.
This didn’t happen. My unease at the start of the play was replaced with a calm collectedness about midway through. I thought I’d be looking into a mirror, seeing a reflection of the war that happens in my mind. Instead, what I saw on stage was much worse than what I usually experience. If 4.48 Psychosis depicts a full on battle, what happens in my mind, at least currently, is more of a skirmish (limited engagement, some casualties, no clear winner or loser).
The onstage battle was difficult to watch, but for me there was still something hopeful about the portrayal–namely the supportive and cohesive nature of the ensemble. As loosely defined characters, the performers fought with each other but also comforted each other. As actors, they supported the shit out of each other in every moment. This reminded me of the people who have been willing to help me over the years. It also reminded me of how I’ve stepped up and helped myself.
One of the ways I’ve helped myself recently is adopting a mindfulness based approach to dealing with my anxiety. I’m practicing recognizing thoughts as thoughts and not a definition of reality (i.e., just because I think it, doesn’t make it true although my body may react as such). In moments where the 4.48 Psychosis production became intense, I adopted a similar approach breaking down the experience into its component parts: actors moving across the stage, lights turning on and off, words being spoken from a script, etc.
Theatre allows us to engage topics that are difficult to broach like depression and suicide. It gives us access to a space where we can navigate emotionally challenging territory and then leave afterwards. I’ve always considered the benefit of theater to be preparation for real life or to help process what’s happened in real life. With 4.48 Psychosis, seeing it made me question the reality of real life. Is what I think true? Are my thoughts me?
What is true and tragic about this play is that its author did commit suicide. Knowing a real person went through what you’re seeing on stage makes for a harrowing viewing but an important one. Globally 800,000 people die each year from suicide according to the World Health Organization. Many more attempt. Shame keeps people silent on mental health issues. I appreciate Vernal & Sere for bringing these experiences to light and reminding me and many others that we are not alone in our struggles.