MY STORY Online drama that is a cry against homelessness and mental health ignorance

The actor and writer Nell Hardy is to perform her own powerful and disturbing one-character play, NoMad, which is based on her own experiences of homelessness and psychiatric hospitalisation, in a live stream from Greenwich Theatre on November 27, supported by Tramshed’s Progression Programme of Artist Development.

Congratulations, this must be a big moment for you both as actor and playwright as well as a challenging one.

Thank you! Yes, it feels momentous. It is the first play that I have written to be produced properly, in full. A few months ago I took part in the Virtual Collaborators Festival, set up by Danusia Samal, and I wrote a short piece for that, which then turned into three short pieces, that I was then asked to do as a single pop-up performance outside a church near Hyde Park last month, so I guess that was technically the first… But this is the first time I’ve been able to work with a director (Vicky Moran) and two designers (Ben Jacobs and Alice Boyd) instead of trying to do it all myself.

The simple one word title carries a load of meaning. Can you describe the play?

NoMad is a journey through a dissociated, post-traumatic mind that is trying to recover its grip on the present, while the present is obscured by confused reflections of the past. It takes some of my own experiences of homelessness and mental health care to draw attention to colossal flaws in the way our support systems treat, or don’t treat, people in need, and the long-term devastation that this can cause to social stability and mental health. It looks at homelessness as a mental state as much as a social one, and at “madness” as a social state as much as a mental one. I’ve written it in a semi-poetic, semi-naturalistic style that I hope will eradicate class assumptions and make the experiences communicated identifiable to everyone who watches it, whatever walk of life they are from (It’s also quite funny at times, I promise!).

What can you say about those experiences?

I became homeless after suffering a psychological breakdown. I was at drama school in my early 20s and the emotional opening that is so crucial to actor training led me to uncover memories and realisations of abuse from a family member. I tried to communicate about them with my family, but found them unresponsive, and when my mental state reached crisis point my abuser decided I was not welcome in their home any more. Without my student loan I could not afford to stay where I had been living, and I did not have medical permission to work, so I had to sofa surf for several months before eventually being admitted to inpatient psychiatric care. Honestly, I don’t think I ever would have become an inpatient if I had somewhere to live, but the strains of homelessness made it impossible to treat me effectively as an outpatient.

Unfortunately, it transpired it was pretty hard to treat me as an inpatient when I didn’t have social security in the outside world. I was there for 19 months, purely because the support systems in charge of me were not able to find me other housing. I was being treated in an acute way for far longer than I should have been, when the distress I was in was a healthy response to my desperate situation rather than a response to “madness”. Eventually, the hospital had to discharge me back to homelessness anyway. I was incredibly lucky to be put in an emergency hostel on the day of my discharge, but for the majority of that day it looked like I would have to sleep on the street.

The title has been brewing for a long time. My abuser said to me at one point when I was critically ill that he was frightened of me - then corrected himself, saying, “I’m afraid of madness”. But then every experience of therapy I have had has revolved around helping me to see that I am not mad, rather that I have experienced “mad” things, been forced to accept “mad” behaviour from others. I was always very aware that, though I was supposedly the one in the right, I was the one locked up in hospital, medicated up to the eyeballs. I was criticised for responding in distress to constant failures to house me, to secure benefits, to find my feet and regain my independence, as if that was an unreasonable reaction. The longer it went on, the greater was my fury at the gaping holes in our social support systems, the ignorance around mental health even from some of those employed in support sectors, and the more I saw the need for someone like me to expose the long-term damage that is done to individuals, socially and psychologically, as a result of these failures.

Given those experiences, how hard is it for you to perform the piece, and could anyone else do it?

It’s profoundly challenging, but also profoundly cathartic. So far I have been working on it on my own, and my days in a rehearsal space alone contained a lot of crying in corners and periods in which I could do nothing but pace the floor. But I allowed myself these, and they would always give way to me finding something valuable. This time, I’m so happy to have a wonderful director in Vicky and two brilliant designers (Ben and Alice) to support my vision and creation. It already feels so good to be able to pass some of the burden to them, to feel safe in their hands, and to see the new artistic life given to the piece from their input.

The piece tells my story, and I cannot speak for anyone else who has experienced any form of homelessness or mental health problem in as direct a way as I can for myself. But NoMad is a play, not a lecture or an interview or anything like that. I have tried to communicate my internal life as a result of my experiences in a way that opens it up to the empathy of audiences everywhere, so I hope it is also performable beyond me. Still, while I’m here, I’m not selfless enough to give the part to anyone else!

How have you been managing, personally and professionally, since the first lockdown in March?

Honestly, I feel I’ve been far luckier than an awful lot of other people in this time so I don’t feel I can complain much - but there’s no denying it’s been a shitter of a year on many levels. I was originally going to do a low-tech showing of NoMad at the beginning of April and was all ready to go with that when the lockdown was announced - the comedown of that was horrendous. My young company at Jacksons Lane, LAUNCH, had also been working since September on their first ever devised piece and were due to do a sharing of it in early April, which was scuppered as well. I went from being incredibly busy, and lots of things I had been working up to for years finally coming together, to it all falling from under my feet.

Social distancing and the “stay at home” restrictions were also hugely triggering for me: much of my trauma comes from feeling like my very existence puts other people in danger, and having my freedom to go where I need to when I need to in doubt brought back days of being a child in an abusive home, then having no control over my front door and strictly limited outside time as a psychiatric inpatient. I was really worried about my mum at the beginning, as she’s on her own, and her social contacts are so important to her wellbeing. I live with my partner now, thank goodness, and a saving grace has been how much time we have been able to spend together, even while we’ve been busy doing different things.

Professionally, I was pleased at how many people I have worked with before reached out to me with digital projects that they wanted me to be involved in - it was still far less acting work than I normally do, and the impact is nowhere near the same, but it’s something. I’m particularly proud of a monologue by Rohan Candappa I performed for his Lockdown Theatre Company initiative - all the monologues from this can be found on YouTube. I’ve also had more time to read, learn, and especially WRITE, so the time has not been wasted.

Positives as well as negatives, where I’m aware that many people have had mostly negatives. What continues to frighten me is the state of the arts industries, especially since the government’s handling of support for them has exposed just how little they appreciate the value of the arts in a functional society. It also freezes my blood to think what it would be like to be homeless, or a victim of domestic violence, or in an already acute psychiatric state, right now. I’m afraid I can’t think about it too hard, it hurts too much. But I hope NoMad will help others appreciate some fraction of that experience.

You have been part of the Young Vic directors’ programme. How important has that been to you?

The Young Vic Directors’ Program is such a lifeline. It was before lockdown, and it especially was during. I had reached a point at which I was more or less ready to give up, and then I started a full week of workshops with them on Zoom (which had been scheduled to happen in person, but they amazingly managed to pull together online with nearly no warning). It gave me space to learn, to think, to experience the time we’re in with other emerging artists and with far more established ones. Throughout most of lockdown I was taking part in YVDP stuff for an hour or two on several days a week, and it really helped to keep me motivated, give me new tools, and most extraordinarily to make me feel like a crucial part of the theatre industry, and part of the change that will have to come to it as we recover from this blow. I cannot speak highly enough of it.

Describe LAUNCH, why did you found it and how it is doing now?

I set up LAUNCH back in 2015, pretty much as soon as I was put in emergency accommodation. I was working part-time with a youth media organisation at the time that made educational short films using their beneficiaries as performers, among other things. The young actors I came across were mostly from under-privileged backgrounds, some of them had never been on a stage before and barely ever been inside a theatre. But their creativity, their energy, their talent, was relentless, and I could see how important the stories they had to tell were - but also, that drama schools would have laughed them away, and the way they communicated would turn many of their most pertinent audiences right off. I was experiencing how difficult it was to start out in theatre from a place of disadvantage, but at least I had some training and experience behind me - so I decided it was my job to set up a space for 16-25 year olds in which they could experiment with their creative voices, start to find their artistic purposes, and pick up some practical and professional know-how on the way.

We took part in NT: Connections for three years running, and performed at the National Theatre itself in the third year - after which we decided we were ready to break out into devising their own work. The whole time we have relied on small grants here and there, there have been empty months in which we have not had the funds to work, and when lockdown hit our budget had to be absorbed for core costs. But I now have a little pot of money to offer them something short online, which I think will be a really healing thing for them after all this time. Jacksons Lane (the Harinegy venue devoted to contemporay theatre and circus) is currently undergoing refurbishment and a whole restructure, and the plan is to get the group into their core programme, so fingers crossed.

You work with at-risk people, including the disabled. Have you been able to this year?

Fortunately, I have been able to continue one-to-one teaching for a couple of young men with learning difficulties online - it’s not the same as in person, but their parents’ feed back to me shows that it’s a lifeline for them. One of the people I supported before lockdown, unfortunately, cannot tolerate classes through a screen, and since he is shielding I have not been able to see him this whole time. I still run errands for him and his mother so I hear about him from her, but he can’t even bear to come to his front door to say hello to me. It’s so hard to know how to help people in that situation. I just hope that, when people like him can reintegrate, it will be a joyous experience, not a disturbing one.

What effect to you hope NoMad will have, and is there any section of society that you particularly want it to speak to?

In my art as a whole, I want to communicate core themes of human experience in ways that will speak to everyone, no matter what walk of life they come from. Our society is obsessed with labels, with class systems, with telling people they couldn’t possibly understand this, aren’t eligible for that, with DIFFERENCES - but I think the way we can come to respect, celebrate and accommodate our differences is by finding what we all share. NoMad is a story about homelessness, abuse, social injustice, mental health trauma, but this is the surface, the framework. Really, it’s a story about feeling like you are dangerous to other people without being able to control it, about how hard it is to unlearn toxic lessons about yourself, how to trust your own view of the world and how to trust others with it, and with their own. Everyone has felt those things, on some level, at some point in their lives. If I can touch on that part of people’s humanity, perhaps I can lead people to make eye contact with the next homeless person they meet and see something they empathise with inside, or ask someone in psychiatric distress what they need rather than telling them to calm down. We really need that humility in our society, and that’s what I’m always working towards.

Has Covid and its social effects changed the work that you do, do you think this year’s crises will have changed theatre-making, and if so for the better or worse?

I’m kind of on tenterhooks to see what’s going to happen. On the one hand, everyone everywhere has lost money and that is going to be extremely difficult to overcome. Many people have had to leave the industry, and of course many of the less represented members of our society and our theatre culture have been hit the hardest, which could mean that theatre falls back into representing a very small elite. But on the other hand, even the wealthiest parts of our industry have suffered - and very possibly, those of us who have always had to find ways to make art on a shoestring are better placed to face the upcoming challenges than those who are used to bigger budgets.

I think there are also exciting opportunities for theatre in this. For a while I have been able to see key organisations trying hard to be more representative of marginalised communities, and great things have been achieved from that. But all efforts so far have happened from inside a structure that was built a long time ago, and that marginalised these groups in the first place. Those business models and working structures are hard to overturn without taking massive financial risks - but now the financial devastation has happened anyway, I can imagine better frameworks being built up around which to tell as many stories from as many different people as possible - so long as we can remember that purpose and work from it, rather than jumping into whatever structure will make the most money the quickest. I think that really remains to be seen.

To watch the free live-streamed performance of NoMad visit https://www.tramshed.org/whats-on

 

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