To put on stage the histrionics that exist in someone's head is one of theatre's greatest challenges. How do you show the inner workings of a person's psyche to an audience sitting 25 feet away in the dark? For theatre director David Woods, the solution is simple: get in a cardboard box.
Woods is the artistic director of experimental theatre company Ridiculusmus, which is knows for what he calls "serious comedy" – anarchic plays that tackle serious mental health issues via painstaking research that has taken him from from psychiatric hospitals in India to schizophrenia workshops in Lapland.
For Ridiculusmus's new show, Give Me Your Love, Woods and his partner Jon Haynes have turned their attention to MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress. In the play, Woods plays Zach – a war veteran who has retreated entirely from the world into a grubby cardboard box in a kitchen in Port Talbot.
It's the second part of a triptych of plays by Ridiculusmus which all focus on drugs, mental illness and the sometimes positive, sometimes grim relationship between the two. Their previous show, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland was a surreal and hilarious look at Open Dialogue - a radical treatment for psychosis that, if taken to its logical conclusion, could wipe out the need for pharmaceuticals altogether. Their next show, which currently has the working title of 'The Grief Play', will look at how the formal classification of grief as a mental illness in the DSM-IV will open the floodgates to billions of dollars worth of medical drug sales as we seek to swallow our way out of humanity's only inevitability.
We spoke to David Woods about anxiety, so-called "moral injury", and how MDMA can help us reach the darkest parts of our minds.
David: The show was about throwing down an invitation to the system to think about alternative forms of treatment. We haven't attempted to stage this therapy but have made a show in proximity to it; to show the culture that exists around veterans.
VICE: Hi David. MDMA-assisted therapy for post-traumatic stress seems a subject ripe for drama. Was that why you chose to do it?
Ultimately, our solution, as for most of these things, is social inclusion. So we've tried to create this form of extreme social exclusion on stage. The audience will just see a box on legs in a room, but inside that box I'm doing basically what Ryan Reynolds does in Buried.
How does MDMA help people with post-traumatic stress?
Therapists in the US like Michael and Annie Mithoefer, who deliver the treatment, look after the patient almost as a houseguest in this very comfortable suburban home. They're with them for over 24 hours, they lie on a futon bed with an eye-mask and these headphones playing quite trippy music. The treatment allows the person to calmly enjoy the chemical effects of the MDMA.
What supposedly is happening is that your pre-frontal cortex is being stimulated so you have increased reasoning. But at the same time the fear, fight and flight response in the amydgala is being suppressed. Your brain is also flooded with these very positive hormones like oxytocin – the attachment hormone you find in post-natal women – and serotonin, so you have this very quick feeling of bonding and connection with the therapist. All of that comes together to put you in the right context to receive psychotherapy. It's not so much about passive listening, it's more about meeting the voice of the trauma, in this case, and trying to understand or unpack it.
Is that voice of the trauma what you turned into the play?
Well, in some ways, yes. We didn't want to make a play that follows the format of a family drama where a big secret is revealed. So – and this is a plot spoiler – the character hasn't actually had any exposure to a traumatic event in our play. It's being surrounded by people who have been hurt that has traumatised him. It's a sort of secondary exposure. So he feels this pressure to pretend that he has experienced something that's worthy of his illness. He makes up stories but eventually he is exposed.
But it's not easy to respectfully stage this subject at all. MDMA therapy is so successful that what it does is actually quite undramatic – it neutralises conflict rather than creates it.
Do you ever take MDMA?
No. Never. I actually do athletics to quite a high level - I sprint 400 metres on a regular basis - and I know from my experience of other intoxicating substances that it's the most powerful thing I've ever come across.
Though when you do this level of research and watch people under the influence and talk to them at length, you get more than enough, as an actor, to portray that.
In your research for the show, you spoke to a lot of veterans who have been or are suffering from trauma. How did their experience influence the staging and plot of the play?
We met a number of war veterans through organisations like Save our Soldier and Poppy. We spoke to people that had been involved in different conflicts, including Northern Ireland and the Falklands.
One of the initial inspirations for the show was coming across this small box that had been attached to a warship to detect chemical and nuclear attack. It was a sealed box stuck on the side of a ship, so the person inside is simultaneously vulnerable and safe. We later spoke to a woman who had served in the Falklands on a ship. She said our confined staging was very close to her feeling of being "Spam in a can" during her time there.
I only know one person who served in the army – an old school friend of mine. I approached him when we were researching the play, but he very quickly pushed me away. He said that it was a bit of a sensitive topic; that nobody would want to talk about that.
It must have been challenging to get veterans who have suffered that kind of trauma to talk about it.
Of course veterans demand a certain delicacy because you don't really know what's going to come up. We're not therapists and often people get quite emotional. One of the guys I talked to in Salford was initially very angry because he felt that the way we were portraying the story wasn't violent enough and didn't represent his experience. Luckily we had a psychologist there who defended our choice to make the lead character quite blank – someone the audience could project on to.
A lot of modern conflict, including the current airstrikes in Syria, are carried out at a distance – either with drones or from the air. Does that create a different type of trauma than that found amongst ground troops?
The phrase 'moral injury' is used quite a lot in connection to this, and it's something being explored already in films like American Sniper and Good Kill. We train soldiers to respond to fearful situations in an aggressive way, but they're not trained in how to decompress and come back from that state. Even something like Homeland engages with this strange dichotomy; the buddy culture, celebrating soldiers, gathering in uniform, yet as soon as they get home they're expected to put all that away and behave like a civilian. We can't approach the subject in the same way as those big movies, so what we've done is present a sort of blank space where people can hopefully learn about this new therapeutic approach.
Making theatre about mental illness is a balance between communicating universal experience and reflecting quite specific anguish. Do you find it hard?
While post-traumatic stress has been our way in, that's a catch-all term for multiple ways of being unwell. Give Me Your Love has become a piece almost as much about anxiety as trauma. I suppose it's how we've articulated anxiety – a boxed life.
This play is probably the most disturbing thing we've ever done. It's a universal existential horror movie, on stage. But it's also the biggest journey one of our characters has ever been on. I hope it brings some chinks of light to this very dark situation.
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