Need a break from classroom stress? Try the theatre

Exposing yourself to theatre can be so much more than just a good night out, writes Sarah Simons

When you are struggling with your mental health, the theatre can offer a great escape

I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company have a crack at Measure for Measure in Stratford-upon-Avon last weekend. I’ve seen a few Shakey plays over the years and it’s always 50/50 whether I’ll have any clue as to what they’re all on about or if 20 minutes in, I’ll have thrown in the towel concentration-wise and be directing all my thoughts squarely at the half-time ice cream. This production was a triumph. I understood what was going on and even better, enjoyed it. Ooh, get her!

I get a lot out of going to the theatre. It adds value to my life in a way that’s hard to describe without sounding like a right old tosspot. And if you were thinking of judging me harshly for being a wafty theatrical (which I proudly am, so you can shove it), let me chuck in a bit of context as to why theatre matters so much to me. 


Background: UKFEchat: Everything you need to know

More on this: Mental health charter launched for college staff and students

Tes FE Podcast: Adult education and mental health


A shit day or something more serious

I’ve suffered with depression on and off throughout my whole life. Most of the time it’s something that I manage pretty well through a combination of medication, keeping an eye on it, and taking really good care of myself. I can go for days, months, even years at a time when the not-quite-right chemical make up of my brain gives me no bother at all. And I know the difference between having a shit day, or a shit couple of days (which everyone can have), and when something serious is moving into my head.

Having depression can feel like you’re viewing life from within a glass box. There is an invisible separation between what is going on around you and how you are experiencing it; an unavoidable distance is created. 

A while back, I had a serious onslaught of depression, which lasted for nearly two years. While I still functioned in most areas of my work and family life, my social life became untenable. That’s a bit tricky when some of my working life involves going to, and organising, a bit of a do. The thought of going to an event with lots of people whom I had to talk to on a one-to-one basis made me feel unsteady, light-headed and physically sick.

Standing on stage

For a long time, I turned down invitations for everything to which I was lucky enough to be invited. Though I was fine standing on a stage and talking to a load of strangers in a public speaking capacity – a scenario where the role which I was there to play was clear – having meaningful conversations with people I knew and I liked filled me with panicky dread. Admittedly, it’s weird and it doesn't make sense – the people I know and like are the very ones most likely to be kind and sympathetic when I’ve hit a rough patch. But I just couldn’t face it.

As a result, I didn't go out socially, and there were other implications too, for example, the UKFEchat conference went dormant for 2 years. I’m on good form now, so real-life UKFEchat is back on and I'm well up for all the FE adventures on offer.

The one social thing I could do during that period of serious mental illness was to go to the theatre. I would meet one of my close pals just before curtain up when there was only time for a short period of chat, and then we focused all our attention on the stage. The audience, and certainly the individuals in it, didn't really matter. Going to the theatre gave me a way to be semi-sociable, without having to interact with anyone else if I didn't want to. Essentially it was the one place where I was supposed to be at a contrived distance from what was going on around me.

Someone else's story

As well as providing a "social strategy" if you will, it also gave me a couple of hours to be absorbed in someone else’s story, not my own, so it gave me a bit of a holiday from myself. And all those stories…Well, it gives you all the benefits of reading, but sometimes there’s singing, dancing and laughter, too. What’s not to love?

Fair enough, it’s a dear do, especially when I try to see a couple of productions a month. But for the impact that the stories, the ideas, the whole theatrical experience makes on me, I can easily justify the expense to myself. It’s my medicine. Well, obviously it’s not my actual medicine, that’ll be the ol’ Fluoxetine, but it’s definitely what I would describe as therapy. Be nice if I could get it on prescription, though.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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