Mental health: Let's understand it more through a unique theatre work

  • Arts
  • Monday, 22 Jan 2018

Performer Waslie Duby narrates a story in near darkness in one of the stories in 'The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth'. Photos: The Star/Sam Tham

A  visit to the Twenty20Two theatre studio in Petaling Jaya during its latest show rehearsals might prove to be a little unnerving. The normally cheery space is dimly lit now, with a guide to take you around. Performers stand in certain corners of the space. Some are speaking, some moving, while the others apparently lost in their own world. Every one of them with their own stories to be told, if you would stop to listen.

Welcome to The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth, an upcoming production by I’M Entertainment, which opens at Twenty20Two on Jan 25.

“It’s like a fine art gallery, but with people instead. Instead of looking at paintings and sculptures, you see people performing physical theatre, poetry, monologues and so on. Each performer represents (a story on) mental health, or a struggle with it,” says Ian Abel Nathaniel, the show’s co-producer.

The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth, co-curated by Nathaniel and Dhinesha Karthigesu, is an interactive, immersive theatrical experience which explores various mental health conditions, including depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Melissa Kong takes on the challenge of a monologue in The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth.

The show features some 20 performers, who are mostly not conventional theatre practitioners. They include Ashvinder Kaur, Azam Rais, Nisya Aziz, Nik Waheeda, Timmy Ong and Helena Foo.

“We have people like poets, carnival performers and more collaborating with us. For this show, we’re not so much directors. We are more like curators, in putting the show together. We try to incorporate as many different elements as possible,” says Nathaniel.

“It’s like a community arts project. It’s not the same thing each time you walk through the theatre space. There’s a constantly changing energy, a constantly changing vibe with each performer,” elaborates Dhinesha.

The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth is divided into four 60min cycles. One cycle can fit about 15 viewers. During the show, a guide will then viewers around Twenty20Two’s space, showing them the various performers.

Timmy Ong is 'triggered' to perform an intense scene in this theatre work.

“The pieces will be performed in every part of the place, including the kitchen, bathroom and pantry. Each piece takes no longer than 10 minutes,” says Nathaniel.

“For example, there’s a theatrical performance based on bulimia nervosa (a potentially life-threatening eating disorder), which takes place in the toilet. There’s one about substance abuse, a spoken word performance, which happens in the kitchen. Just give the performer a particular object, that will trigger a performance,” he adds.

The idea for the show, the duo reveal, comes directly from I’M Entertainment’s previous production Silk And Strings last November, which explored the theme of bullying.

In exploring such a theme, it was natural to speak about mental health.

In a broader sense, producers Dhinesha (left) and Nathaniel want the show to help spark conversations about mental health issues.

“We also wanted to create something different. How do we break out of the norm? Last year, there were a lot of experimental works, like the VSC Project’s Duality. I thought of pushing things further and the idea of the gallery came about,” says Nathaniel.

The duo hope to adapt The Human Exhibit show for future performances.

“The show’s unique, rather open format, after all, can allow it to be adapted to cover many different topics,” says Dhinesha.

For the upcoming show, however, the two producers hope The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth can help raise awareness about the need to talk and understand the issues surrounding mental health.

Ashwinder Kaur looking to rewrite the script when it comes to misconceptions about mental health.

“Even though some viewers may not suffer from these issues, they may know someone who does, and we hope that this will help them understand what it feels like,” says Nathaniel.

“It’s about changing conversations about mental health. What we talk about, who we have these conversations with. We hope that audience members will take back something personal from the show, and they can go home and talk about their own mental health. Most people never talk about this. We hope this allows the audience to be open about what they may be going through,” concludes Dhinesha.

'The Human Exhibit: Mentalhealth' is on at Twenty20Two, 20 and 22 Jalan SS4D/14, Taman People’s Park, Petaling Jaya in Selangor from Jan 25-Feb 4. No shows on Jan 29-30. Showtime is 7pm every night, with additional matinee shows at noon on Jan 25-26 and Feb 1-2. Tickets at RM35 can be purchased at For mature audiences only. FB: I’M Entertainment.

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