‘I Had a Black Dog’ is a comic, fun and heart wrenching story about one man called Joe and his own struggle with the multifaceted entity known as depressive disorder. Originally written by Matthew Johnstone, an artist, writer and photographer, the book is a radical and humane departure from the traditional self help format of many books about mental health and illness. Sometimes we need to NOT be advised in an overt manner; rather we need to walk alongside somebody who just ‘knows’ and this book (alongside the theatrical version in development) is just that. Acknowledging that depression can mess with a persons ability to ingest and digest information-although intellect is left intact- the book offers non patronising and intelligent pictorial depictions of the ways in which thought, affect and feeling can all be warped by the illness. This is as important for carers, friends and relatives to understand as it is for the ill person to know he has been understood.
Small Nose Productions is developing The Black Dog Project via a series of research and development sessions (a total of 3) held at local theatres and arts centres in front of small audiences. The New Wolsey hosted one of them under its #Scratch banner at their High St Gallery venue in Ipswich, a beautiful multi -use art gallery. Mark Curtis from Small Nose, in a previous interview, told Stage Review: “The project is about trying to raise awareness about Mental Health issues – and begins with this first 30 mins (a scratch production) of the best selling book. The company hope to take it to a full length version later this year”.
Watching the project in its rough format followed by a Talk Out/question & answer session provided us and the cast with a valuable opportunity to pool knowledge both lived and learned, offer feedback and share our experiences about an illness that has no definitive truth or any one narrative. Mirroring the book, the Scratch production clearly values that lived experience and the intra-personal above others and gains emotional resonance with its audience as a result. Spending time talking with audiences helps them manage powerful feelings brought back into now by what they have seen; shows such as this can be cathartic but only if one is given the space to make sense of what has been felt and thought.
Developing a theatrical production from such a simple book contains its own challenges – reflecting the evidence base, keeping the simplicity of the concept which was consistently cited as one of THE main points of success whilst layering in subjective and individual experiences. Building in humour was vital too. Outreach work conducted by Small Nose Productions told them that their initial audiences needed their experiences acknowledged; they had to see themselves in the main character but how to avoid building a composite that ended up reflecting nobody? Audiences do not want a’ Greatest Hits of Depression’. The work of Doctor Stuart Brown into the neuro-psychological effects of laughter was another important building block. Alongside the plain old enjoyment of a good laugh, the humour here has a more vital role- there needs to be a leavening too without making the laughed with, laughed AT. Our own experiences of a former career in mental health alongside living with PTSD shows us that the dark humour of staff and service users needs to be celebrated; it is dry, observational, political and astute.
Said Johnstone of Small Nose: “Their chaotic approach, constant search for the correct balance between laughter and something more poignant and their audacity for things that are silly and at the heart of us all, makes this company the perfect eclectic mix for dealing with the dark world of the Black Dog.”
The uses of comedy in the early production was multi-faceted. It lightened, it played with our feelings of inclusion and exclusion and it played with the characters inclusion and isolation. At times the humour tangibly pushed Joe aside and at other times it united us. Should the literal depiction of the metaphorical ‘Black Dog’ be less comedic? Some feedback suggested the dog lacked the overtly oppressive nature of depression, that it was too approachable or not ‘nasty’ enough or that it needed to be approachable and comforting because the heavy blanket of depression can in itself be a comfort. Hard for non sufferers to sometimes grasp, people speak of depression as an identity with gains at times; provision of a ‘get out’ clause for everything they find too difficult or taxing, hence the feelings of apprehension and even fear at thoughts of recovery and all that this entails. At least Depression is known. There is a difficult kind of solace in that and so we have a furry, cuddly playful dog leaping into the lap of Joe, throwing its arms around him and draped all over him, limbs splayed and not quite under its control, a playful clown mitigating the oppressiveness of the illness. Think Boxer or Spaniel rather than lupine and dark.
At times the laughs of the audience at the boisterous expressiveness of the Black Dog and its total unawareness and lack of control of its own corporeal body was unbearably poignant in that it highlighted the essential disconnect that lies at the centre of the world of the person with depression. On stage all was busy and social (in the restaurant) as life and the world moved and morphed around Joe. The audience seemed to be in collusion with the Dog against him and he was at a still point outwardly whilst his mind was clearly in turmoil. Disconnected from the world, from his own body (he did not inhabit it comfortably), from other people, his only consistency to be found was in his own intrapersonal relationship- the one with himself and his depression. We found it very hard to look at Joe as he sat there because he inspired feelings of guilt in us that we had laughed in the face of such inner turmoil.
We saw the beautiful subtlety of a facial expression that was really a non expression, a terrifying combination of both blankness and inner confusion. No confusion on his face but we knew it was there. Exacerbating this even more was the dogs vital engagement with us, playing to the crowd, prancing, clowning and making us feel uncomfortably disregarding and dismissive of Joe’s alienation. The dog was like a black hole, drawing all attention and life towards it. We were in the moment and Joe was not. He was scarcely in the play. The dog became less a reflection of his feelings, more a case of reflecting all that he was not and no longer acting as metaphor for his illness. We wondered then ‘should the dog be just a dog and if so, should it be more dog like?’ Using a more lifelike mask (with a better budget maybe?) might help us manage the conflicting feelings about what the dog is but on the other hand, this uncertainty accurately mirrors the larger questions about what depression actually is and what it is not. Indeed is that something we should even need to delineate? Managing dissonance in an audience is tricky and we will be interested to see how this plays out as the project develops.
The use of space and props has huge potential and already encapsulates some of the Depressive imagery and metaphor. Kicking off with Joe having a restless night, we see the lights go up on a sparsely inhabited set; bed, a set of drawers, a wardrobe, a bathroom, a desk for work, a kitchen table / restaurant table….Illuminating the different room spaces and activities sparely and sparsely draws us into Joe’s inner life and the subsequent terrifying lack of. Having Joe and his Dog move the set around is part reflection of budgetary constraints and a deliberate feature. The actor playing the dog morphs into the waiter, the secretary and Joe’s girlfriend with his/her costume changes contributing to the comedy and Joe’s disconnect from it and our reactions. We laugh at the ill fitting wig, the crooked moustache, and throughout this Joe remains painfully and terrifyingly removed from it all. It is not that depression = feeling miserable. In fact depression can mean = feeling nothing at all. What on earth must it be like feeling nothing at all?
One problem we could see with the idea of Joe and the Dog having to do the set changes themselves is that we lose some of the chronology of his illness. One of the ways in which depression affects a person is by changing the way they move, speak, think and act. The biological signs of a depressive disorder can include changes in sleep, appetite, sex drive and how we move- do we slow down (retarded movements) or do we speed up and become more agitated? Joe wound down like an old clock; he became less purposeful, less methodical despite trying to cling to routines and to us, this appeared commensurate with what we know to be the symptoms of some types of depression. Seeing Joe move the set around to reconfigure the furniture in a fast, strong and purposeful way (because of time constraints) interrupted this progression and we suggested that the company employ theatre students as interns dressed in the customary black to act as stagehands. Having Joe lost and still in the midst of a set change might enhance our sense of his life unfolding and renegotiating apparently without his consent or understanding. Or Joe could be more ineffectual at set changes which would reflect the unravelling of his life- the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, the changes in his job that he found so hard having previously arranged work to best suit his nature. He is not managing these well so he should not manage the set changes well either.
As the play approached its conclusion we were apprehensive that Joe’s final wresting with his illness, the all at sea analogy was actually leading towards suicide and this was compounded by our obscured view of the scene- a problem of the venue, not the play. Unsure as to whether anybody else in the audience interpreted it in this way, we felt anxiety at how on earth the play could come back from this story development despite the fact that this is sadly not that far removed from reality for some people with mental health problems. The actual ending, Joe developing ways to live with his depression reflected the book but the lack of explanations as to how Joe achieved this left us feeling a little adrift. It risks being seen as a hasty ‘wrap up’ rather then the truth of the book that inspired this play. Finding ways to bridge this gap we feel, is important whether via play content, talk out or within the programme notes.
We are greatly looking forward to seeing the finished version of The Black Dog Project and are grateful for the opportunity to both see and contribute to the development of the show. Thanks to the New Wolsey Theatre and Small Nose Productions.
Visit http://www.smallnose.net/for more information on Small Nose Productions