A Brazilian doctor thinks it can, which is why he started “Madness Hotel,” a collective made up of his own patients. The heightened reality of mutable identity inherent in theatric performance can help who with mental illnesses find a healing release.
Beth McLoughlin writes for Aeon:
Theatre provides a rare stimulus for psychotic, schizophrenic and depressed patients, giving them an opportunity to communicate and interact constructively with others. ‘We are all actors; we take on our identity, we take on our culture,’ Pordeus says. Released from their fixed roles as catatonic, belligerent or withdrawn patients, his actors – Pordeus calls them clients rather than patients – are free to don different masks as characters from Shakespeare, and to live out a different reality for a few hours. In the safe, performative setting, new things can be said or tried out. As the circle moves round, it breaks at times for people to hug each other, for spats to be heard then ironed out, and for each player to start new chants which the others then follow.
Pordeus says that the success of his work can be seen clearly in the thousands of films and photographs he records of the performances, both beachside and in the ‘Madness Hotel and Spa’ at the Nise da Silveira Mental Health Institute in Rio de Janeiro. When the patients review these later on, they can see the progress they’ve made, but also better understand their own behaviour and interactions with others. He claims that patients who never spoke before joining the Madness Hotel and who now smile or spontaneously interact with others are proof of the healing power of theatre.
The project has attracted a wave of publicity in Brazil, and an artists’ residence now takes place once a year at the Madness Hotel hospital unit. Yet Pordeus is not without his critics. Funding for the project through the municipal authority is an ongoing challenge, and there is a clash between the Madness Hotel and those in charge of other units in the hospital.
‘There is a lot of conflict between us and the other doctors,’ Pordeus admits. ‘They attack us, they say it agitates the patients. They say the basis of therapy is drugs, and that’s not true.’ Pordeus’s critics say that the emphasis on freedom of expression away from the clear doctor-patient hierarchy creates insecurity and confusion among patients rather than providing a healthy outlet. Yet this is to miss the point, since Pordeus is an activist as much as a doctor; he seeks to challenge mainstream ideas about illness and treatment, and that is bound to stir protest.
In wider perspective, the Madness Hotel performances, with their songs and costumes, can be seen as a continuation of Brazilian cultural traditions. Samba, for example, has always brought people together to seek redemption through collective remembrances of past suffering.
During carnival in Rio, the streets are filled with people singing songs such as Agoniza Mas Não Morre: ‘Samba: agoniza mas não morre/ Alguém sempre te socorre/ Antes de suspiro derradeiro’ (Samba: agonise but don’t die/ Someone will always rescue you/ Before the final breath). Lyrics recall the shared traumas of slavery and the massacres of the poor by colonial authorities, while the powerful rhythms restore the African culture from which many of Brazil’s people were once violently removed. Crucially, this redemption is often to be found collectively and not individually in Brazilian culture – collectivism, of course, being a strong element of theatre.
The idea of using theatre as a tool for change was pioneered in Brazil by the late director and activist Augusto Boal who in the 1950s created the Theatre of the Oppressed, now world-renowned. In the Theatre of the Oppressed, drama became a framework in which people could visualise and understand the power dynamics at work in society and explore new possibilities through role play. These Boal-inspired ‘dress rehearsals for real life’ have been used in strife-torn locations such as Israel and Palestine, as well as all over Latin America and Europe. Boal believed that everyone is a self-contained spectator, actor and theatre in one; if we start by observing our actions and interactions, we can then go on to do things differently in the future.