India Theatre Guide: Review of 'Unravel', An Improv Play about Mental Health by Kaivalya Plays
Our newest production Unravel was reviewed by Delhi Theatre Guide (now known as India Theatre Guide) when it was performed at The Blank Canvas, Little Theatre Group (LTG Auditorium) in April 2019.
The review is reproduced below in full, with no edits or changes:
Our review of 'Unravel: An Improv Play about Mental Health' by Kaivalya Plays, directed by Varoon P Anand, performed this April in the new 'Blank Canvas' space in The Little Theatre Group Auditorium. Written by Monika Gupta.
According to World Health Organization, over 5 crore Indians suffer from depression and over 3 crore others from anxiety disorders. That makes up around 4% of total Indian population. Depression is the leading cause of suicide in India and elsewhere. Although it affects everyone from children to the elderly, most people are still unaware of its severity. Its not uncommon for people to feel shame and fear in admitting their mental health issues, even if internally they are bearing extreme levels of pain and distress.
Recent series of improv performances of ‘Unravel’ in Delhi is a laudable attempt that manages to provoke discussions and spread awareness around the issue of mental health. As WHO’s 2017 theme ‘Depression : Let’s talk’ suggests, speaking up about it is the first step towards dealing with mental health issues. This performance does exactly that while busting erroneous or simplistic notions around mental health - like depression is something that can be cured by yoga/gym. In a country like ours where mental health education is neglected and stigmatized, even more than sex education, accessible performances like Unravel are needed to change our approach towards this rather complex issue, as explaining feelings like depression is never easy.
Being an improv (improvisational) performance, the performers create entire plots, characters and dialogues on the spot, often from prompts from the audience. The group of players work as a team, helping each other along uninhibitedly to create hilarious (though not always) situations. While comedy is a powerful tool, amply harnessed by the group, some more attention could have been paid to making the scenes more contextual to the theme.
Improv theatre provides some great rules and a strong framework that pushes the team to work collaboratively. Here the responsibility of each member to affirm the inputs creates an atmosphere of positivity that helps in narrative creation. In improv, there are no failures, only opportunities to be explored.
Can improv help in fighting depression? Yes ! How?
Apart from this atmosphere of positivity that the audience can bathe in, improv helps performers by facilitating team-work, allowing safe and trustworthy human contact, essential for mental health. Psychologically, it urges the mind to quit over-thinking, over-intellectualization of situations, helping ease the despressive feelings. It teaches us to be in the moment, build from whatever we have, trust our intuition and to let the magic happen.
UNIQUE SPATIAL ORGANIZATION IN UNRAVEL
The audience were seated unconventionally on two sides of the performers. The smart and intimate seating arrangement in a new space in LTG allowed for successful human connections to be forged. Only that the people on the mattresses could have felt a little overwhelmed by the action happening right on top of their heads. But it was not a major issue as the actors were not voicing as loud as in a conventional performance due to the smaller space.
The lighting setup was modest but was used effectively. An innovative lighting trick is played at the end as an interactive activity where the lights are put off and audience are encouraged to share their own experience with mental health with simple affirmations. This neat trick at the end made sure that everybody was on the same page by the end of the performance.
The director of the performance Varoon p. Anand was performing as well. His training and talent in the form was clearly visible. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance, even those where the actors got stuck or struggled to develop some scene. The team stood out for one another exemplifying the beauty and basic principle of improv - making your partner look good. A part where some actors used their personal experience of anxiety and depression to build the performance made quite an impact. This form of theatre might expose some vulnerability of the actors but to be able to share it for a noble case like ‘Unravel’, choosing empowerment over shame, shows their strength and fortitude - making them real performance artists in most responsible sense of the word.
PASSIVE AUDIENCE NO MORE
The interactive nature of the performance made possible for audience to participate with their inputs. As the fourth wall lay in shambles, performers improvised scenes based on suggestions of the audience. ‘Providing hands to the body’ was an interesting and hilarious game played by them where two volunteers provide hands to the body of actors and the narrative can go both ways - either actors improvising according to the way hands are moving or the hands can move according to what the actor is saying. Another participative game was played where actors improvised in contradiction to the answers of the audience on the question- "when you will be happy?". This exercise made us realise that happiness is not a final destination but a journey.
Movements and formations of the performers were were free flowing and open, utilizing the whole space. While the play focuses successfully on the need to prioritise exploring the issue of mental health, a discussion on the solution-oriented approaches could have made the performance even better, like some discussions around medication, secretive self-stigmatisation and use of insensitive language by people unknowingly for patients suffering from mental health. Just like any other physical illness, mental illness needs to be treated rationally. Its high time to eradicate the myths, shame and stigma attached to mental illness. Unravel is an important step in this direction.
We thank Delhi Theatre Review for their continued efforts to bring more visibility and representation to theatre in the capital of India. Read more about Unravel here.