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Must the Show Go On? Theatre Societies and Mental Health

How joining King's Musical Theatre Society changed my mental attitude.

25% of university students are reported to suffer from mental health difficulties, and a further 60% report increased stress and anxiety levels during their time studying. These are some troubling statistics, but they begin to show the extent to which a student's mental wellbeing suffers whilst in such a uniquely high-stakes environment. So, how do we combat this? I’m not sure that there is one way to fix it, or if it’s even possible, but I think I might have cracked at least part of the shell to heal my own mental health, and maybe yours too… Theatre.

Students of King's Musical Theatre Society. Photo by Gaia Locatelli

Now, I want you to put away all your preconceptions about theatre and the people involved with it. You may think being in a theatre society would worsen anxiety, add to stress and workload, potentially expose you to harsh criticism, and leave you feeling vulnerable. I am here to bust these myths and show you what theatre at King’s can really be about, and hopefully show you the (spot)light at the end of the tunnel.

Having suffered from anxiety and depression for the past decade, starting university was already a difficult decision. Leaving behind my very comforting small Northern village was a huge deal for me. I felt very stressed, like a fish out of water, and in the summer holidays before joining Kings I followed KMT’s instagram and began to casually interact with the account, dipping my toe in the water, so to speak, of the university theatre world. Almost immediately, several of the 2nd and 3rd year students messaged, encouraging me to participate in the Fresher’s week socials and generally trying to make me feel at ease and welcomed. Over six months on, I can safely say KMT saved my life, and have stayed true to their word in providing a community to be relied upon.

King’s Musical Theatre is a thriving society and has a membership of over one hundred. I surveyed just a few members to get a more rounded view of how the society impacts others' well being, not just my own. The rest of this article consists of mostly verbatim quotes from various responses to my survey, that I have meshed together to try and get a balanced review of the true experience at KMT.

Students of King's Musical Theatre Society. Photo by Gaia Locatelli.

When you think of musical theatre societies, the first thought is productions, and the glitz and glamour of show week. This seemed a good place to start, looking into what the society was actually created for: producing theatre. Members admit rehearsing for a show comes with a little bit of stress, but the general consensus is that performances have a positive impact on their lives. People really value the social element of rehearsals, giving them time which they know they will be spending with friends, which some more solitary degrees struggle to allow for. From a long term perspective, members found that seeing the shows come together week by week is really rewarding. Each show is a physical manifestation of all the time and effort put into it, that could be easily tracked from run to run, seeing numbers get ticked off and striving to be even better for the next rehearsal. This leads to a habit of self bettering, but also of self congratulating, and feeling proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Show week is always a whirlwind, where it can be a little difficult to focus on other areas of your life, but it was regarded as a really happy time by everyone that I spoke to. There is a general view that you can feel a level of pressure to do well for yourself, but also for the other cast members. However, it was also noted that the joy of the performance completely overpowers the stress that comes with it. One member said show week was the time she felt least anxious at university, contrasting to what you may assume, as she felt her everyday anxieties were overwhelmed by the adrenaline, as well as the passion and joy of the rest of the company. Something that members really value about the performances is the feeling of being part of something bigger, both in terms of the actual show and also the cast and society as a whole. My interviewees repeatedly said that they never want show week to end.

Having a creative outlet is another great way to heal one’s mental health. KMT provides somewhere to express yourself, through singing, dancing and acting, but also gives people a chance to choreograph, produce, direct, design, create, photograph and more. It creates a space to gain creative experience and push yourself to the next level in the industry. This can be really useful for future endeavours , but also as something to contrast the perhaps more academically challenging parts of your degree.

In terms of academics, you might think that doing theatre detracts from the time spent on your degree, but members actually thought it helped with the organisation of the day. Having a rehearsal in the evening helps you be more productive in the daytime, because you can’t rely on having time to do the work later on. One member said it encourages them to remain in university all day, as they might have gone home instead of attending a late afternoon seminar but having late rehearsals encouraged them to stay in all day, improving their attendance.

Students of King's Musical Theatre Society. Photo by Gaia Locatelli.

Friendship kept appearing in responses. Everyone reiterated that they loved the community and people that they discovered. Everyone really does just want the best for each other. Even outside of the society, when you bump into people, they tend to stop and chat around campus or even on the street. It is so lovely to have such a range of friendly faces in different years and courses. When I asked what the best thing about KMT was, truly every person said “the people”.

This article really does appear to be obsessing over Kings Musical Theatre specifically, but after asking friends at other universities and similar King's societies, everyone seems to have had a similarly wonderful experience with the performing arts community. It is a place where people feel safe and happy… and everyone feels better when they’re singing right?

So, why not try it out? Be brave. Step up. Try new things, or get the confidence to rekindle your abandoned passion. I promise, you won’t regret it. And maybe it’ll save you, like it saved me.

Students of King's Musical Theatre Society. Photo by Gaia Locatelli.

Author's Notes:

With thanks to King’s Musical Theatre, Madeleine English, Dyfan Evans, Marie Hofer Tillyer, Issy Guilar, Emmy Oughton, Rachel Tudor, Matilda Shapland, Maisie Spauls and Melissa Stewart.

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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