Guest writer: Steven Strauss
Heaps of deserved praise has been showered on Jeremy Herrin’s production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things, with much directed at Denise Gough’s thrillingly committed performance of a struggling actor in rehab. Yet after seeing it at Wyndham’s Theatre in mid-2016 then its New York City run this year, it’s easy to see there’s more to it than Gough. A second, transatlantic viewing proves just how thoroughly the production theatricalises addicts’ experiences in order to generate audience empathy with the struggle to overcome addiction.
Early in the play, a clinician explains that the key to curing addicts does not reside in changing everyday behavior, but in altering their psychological approach to experiencing life. These factors that inspire a destructive reliance on narcotics will never go away. Rehab’s goal is to change their mentality so they no longer respond to life in the same destructive ways. To mirror this phenomenon for the audience, the creative team engineered an unusual seating arrangement. The differences between London and New York emphasize the extent to which the audience’s psychological experience changes how they understand it. If rehab strives to make life’s same old stimuli produce new behaviors in its patients, then so too should this rehab-centric production make the same play be understood in different ways, in the spaces in which it’s produced.
In the West End, a few rows of seats were located along the back wall of the Wyndham’s stage. This implies that she became an actor to receive validation from those outside her family, which is clearly an unsuccessful remedy – the pressure of always being watched may have resulted in her drug habit. Placing audiences on both sides of her story reinforces the importance of this. In addition, seeing audience members while watching her journey implicitly suggests that others among us may be undergoing similar trials and tribulations right now. Given the current opioid crisis, there’s a very good chance that some of the audience members in view could just as easily star in their own People, Places & Things. Hopefully this awareness that it could be any of us up on that stage prompts greater empathy for both her story, and each other. On a practical level, it’s disorienting to watch a production staged to two sides – most shows cater to a single, block perspective from the house. This disorientation mirrors rehab trying to cognitively reorient the abuser’s relationship to their reality.
At St Ann’s Warehouse, the production further amplifies this concept. St Ann’s is an endlessly malleable space; I’ve been there countless times, yet never entered the theatre in the same way I did for People, Places & Things. Before the first word of the text was uttered, theatregoers familiar with the venue would’ve be disorientated. This fits a play aiming to smack one’s normal senses out of comfortable recognition, similar to the role that drugs and the rehab process play. The production reverts to the seating arrangement of the National’s Dorfman Theatre, with aisles stretching from the stage into the house. If the onstage seats both conceptually and literally narrow the distance between the audience and the play’s world, then this achieves the same immediate effect for more people. The equal number of seats on either side of the playing space in St. Ann’s enhances the aforementioned notion of how many fellow audience members may be suffering from addiction; Wyndham’s mere handful could not properly communicate the magnitude of this disease.
Most of all, this symmetrical mirroring of the audience highlights the importance of doubling in People, Places & Things. More than just trippy visuals, this reflecting of selves is at the heart of the play and production values. Rehab as depicted here largely revolves around group therapy, in which both spectating and acting out the problems of others in a shared space can foster newfound revelations regarding our own lives. In this sense, live theatre like People, Places & Things is just another form of group therapy.
At the start of the play, Gough’s character treats the fictional characters that she plays on the stage – and the ones she’s asked to play during group therapy – as a futile escape. In the end, she understands that art can actually help her; she repeats an old monologue she memorized for work as a way to ground her in a healthier reality. This artistic mirroring is a version of self-reflection, in which your self is reflected back at you through others, facilitating greater comprehension and empathy for all. Once again, the relationship between the production and troubled audience members – and really, who isn’t one? – will ideally follow her same arc. They may start wishing to be transported but by the play’s conclusion, that artistic transportation can lead to more enlightened perspectives on the nature of existence. We should all take a page out of her book, and the play’s, by learning the necessity of group therapy in all its forms. Humans need to share – their spaces, their stories, their burdens, etc. – to truly progress, on both an individual and societal basis. To quote the play: “We’re only as sick as our secrets.”
Art can provide an easy way for all of us to come together and see each other, thus allowing us to truly see ourselves. In People, Places, & Things, seeing the audience on the other side of the theatre reminds us that though we’re only watching a play, it can still play a significant part in real life. Walking out of St. Ann’s Warehouse surrounded by fellow audience members, I couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment expressed in the play’s final line: ‘Thank you for seeing me.’