A Roundtable Conversation: Alicia Ramírez talks to Dr. Alisa Hurwitz and Jesús Dávila as Empty Theaters Breed Mental Health Concerns
Good physical health includes rigorously working towards optimal mental wellness.
Concerned about the mental health of theater artists and their audiences during this debilitating pandemic, Dr. Hurwitz launched the free “Musicals & Mental Health” series on Instagram Live. Alisa Hurwitz PsyD, or Dr. Drama as she’s more widely known on social media, sits at the intersection of mental health and theater. Prompted by the reality that COVID-19 could shutter some productions for good, and the shutdown could extend indefinitely, arts workers like Hailey Kilgore, Ann Harada, and Nik Walker shared their mental health challenges and coping strategies with Dr. Hurwitz. These conversations showed that the industry is ripe for change in how it addresses the mental health of the artists who keep the business running.
While social influences like the performing arts and environmental factors play a role in our overall health, people who rely on live theater for support feel like closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have left a missing piece out of their healthcare puzzle. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in five adults in the US lives with a mental illness, and the effects of COVID-19 have made the struggle much more complex. Professionals have been outspoken about the pandemic’s potential to trigger mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders. The numbers speak for themselves. What happens when the industry as we know it collapses and leaves people who use the art to cope and survive without the community they yearn?
Dr. Hurwitz offered insight to Jesús Dávila, a voracious theatergoer, middle-school theater educator, and artist in Puerto Rico. Dávila said his mental health was affected by the lack of in-person theater. He was initially concerned about making virtual lessons meaningful since schools shut down before his theater group cancelled rehearsals and performances soon after. The isolation and restructuring brought about by the pandemic left him feeling unsure about the arts’ overall future of commercial theater in Puerto Rico, and patrons often underestimate the legitimacy of street theater, though street theater is the most common and accessible. He wanted to take this opportunity to spotlight the intricacies of theater in Puerto Rico, the perception of mental health on the island, and how they connect. Dr. Hurwitz, Dávila, and I unpack it all over a Zoom roundtable.
Alicia Ramírez: Let’s begin with introducing ourselves. I’m an entertainment journalist and avid theatergoer based in New York City. Dr. Hurwitz, I know you from Twitter and have admired your work from a distance, so I am excited to participate in this discussion. I follow Jesús’s work with Jóvenes del 98, a theater group in Puerto Rico, where I’m from. I think this is a great combination and that you’ll learn a lot from each other. I’ll be here to observe or redirect as needed.
Dr. Alisa Hurwitz: I’m a clinical psychologist in New Hampshire. At some point in my career, I had an epiphany. I asked myself, “Why don’t I do something with my passion for theater, but bring in my knowledge as a psychologist?” No one was doing it. I started Dr. Drama a few years ago, and that’s morphed into writing pieces about specific shows, and offering insight into those shows from the point-of-view of a psychologist, in addition to facilitating interviews. I’ve hosted the “Mental Health” series throughout the pandemic on my Instagram Live, and have consulted for specific shows.
Jesús Dávila: I’m an educator and artist in Puerto Rico. I teach theater to middle school students at the local lab school and other public schools in the metropolitan area.
Ramírez: Dr. Hurwitz, which shows have you consulted for?
Dr. Hurwitz: A couple of regional productions of Next to Normal and their post-show talkbacks. I wrote the questions, structured the talkbacks, and moderated them. I was the mental health consultant for a new play called Indoor Person that premiered off-Broadway right before the pandemic shut everything down. That was the last live in-person show I saw.
Ramírez: What role does mental health play for you in your daily life, and how has that changed since the start of the pandemic?
Dr. Hurwitz: Through my “Mental Health” series, I’ve provided a space where Broadway performers can discuss healthy coping skills, self-care, and how they can prioritize their emotional health during the pandemic. These conversations have been of great help to me too.
Dávila: I mourn the joy of being in communion with strangers. Having our hearts lifted together. Technology in digital theater gets in the way of that personal connection. You will not leave unsatisfied, but audiences often don’t think about how emotionally and physically labor-intensive digital theater can be for a performer who isn’t used to digital theater. We need that physical affection or constant between us because it creates a kind of energy. When we started to have virtual classes where I teach, we immediately noticed that the energy was different. Every time we have a Zoom activity, I feel wilted. I feel more tired than I usually would. We can spend our in-person rehearsal hours rehearsing, and because the energy is there, and the physical connection is there, you don’t get as tired as you would in a Zoom rehearsal.
Dr. Hurwitz: Jesús, would you say that the lines between work and play are blurrier now?
Dávila: Yes, because I have to experience what I do for a living and my hobbies the same way. One positive aspect has been the opportunity to see shows produced outside of Puerto Rico via my computer.
Dr. Hurwitz: How are you taking care of your mental health, since what used to be a tool to manage your mental health for you is now deteriorating it?
Ramírez: Before Jesús responds, I must preface this by saying that therapy in Latin America carries a greater stigma than it does in the United States.
Dr. Hurwitz: Because of a greater lack of access, or because of Latin American culture?
Dávila: Culture! Health insurance is also more affordable here, but that doesn’t mean everyone can afford it. I’m in a privileged position because my family is open to the idea of therapy, if I wanted to explore that possibility. Many of my friends use theater as an outlet to talk about mental health in the shows they present, and in conversations amongst themselves.
Ramírez: Broadway tours don’t stop in Puerto Rico, with the exception of Hamilton in 2019 and In the Heights in 2010. Do you believe that theater will be prioritized more, regardless of how and where it’s presented?
Dávila: The theater concept in Puerto Rico is increasingly divided. There are two major areas: street theater, which I practice and teach, and traditional theater, where you pay and sit. The local government of San Juan owns the island’s biggest theater house. Street theater tends to be very open. We practice in open spaces where people can enjoy the show whenever. Both of them are fraught with the lockdown, but we have it better because we can socially distance outdoors, as venues are still closed.
Hurwitz: This shift in energy you mentioned earlier affects your theatergoing experiences too, right?
Dávila: We’re going to have to meet sooner or later, either as audience members or performers. It will take a while for in-person interactions to feel like they used to because not everyone has coped with the pandemic in the same way. I hope that when performances resume, especially on Broadway, shows are more financially accessible, and there’s room for new work.
Dr. Hurwitz: Broadway shows take care of physical health because of the big machine with the resources to offer physical therapy. What about performers’ emotional health? I’d love to see more attention and resources paid to that to also destigmatize talking about mental health.
Dávila: The fact that openings might be rushed concerns me. I don’t think I’ll be able to fully enjoy a show if there’s no certainty that I, as well as the performers, will be safe. Broadway theaters are old venues, and establishing safety protocols and setting up equipment takes time. I’d rather wait and see what happens, because I’d rather see shows where I know performers are given the resources they need to care for their mental health.
Ramírez: A production of In the Heights is opening in September in Puerto Rico’s biggest arena instead of the theater it was supposed to be in before the pandemic. That’s not only compliant with COVID-19 venue regulations but might be a compromise for you Jesús and something for producers on the mainland to consider.
Dávila: I’m still deciding if I’m going to see it, but it’s a bold move that only Lin-Manuel Miranda can pull off. [Laughs].
Dr. Hurwitz: Every venue is different and I hope things change for the better.
Ramírez: Beyond being located in America, what does the term “American theater” mean to you?
Dr. Hurwitz: Theater that’s a complete reflection of our society and culture.
Dávila: I agree! Hopefully this definition Dr. Hurwitz offers is more inclusive of non-white people onstage and off after the reckonings we’ve had. I want shows led by BIPOC performers and stories by Black and brown playwrights. I also want that behind the scenes. This way, theater can become the source of joy it once was for me. It’s a financial investment I’m willing to make again.
The pandemic has helped us examine our relationship with theater and its effects on our mental health. It can be equal parts empowering and exhausting to work through the implications that a year without live theater has had on performers and patrons and understand that something that brings us work and joy can have its flaws. Dávila is proof that these challenges affect theater communities beyond Broadway. Combined with Dr. Hurwitz’s expertise, it’s a call to turn self-care into community-care for deeper industry-wide healing, open ourselves to different forms of theater, and help them thrive. This is our “places” call.