Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Art has long been an avenue to present divergent points of view, provoke questions and raise awareness about sensitive or controversial topics. Mixed Company Theatre (MCT) goes a step further by providing audiences the means to turn from spectators into change agents. MCT’s production of Half Full, an interactive play by Catherine Frid, addresses the adverse effect of social media on teen mental health. The result is a compelling way for youth to interact with a topic that is as recognizable as it is prevalent.
This spring, Half Full will again play to teen audiences at various schools across the GTA. The play centres on high-school student Josh (played by Alex Clay) a genial guy who likes to tease his friends, mess with their Facebook posts, and rib Saffy, the girl he likes (played by Sherman Tsang). One day, Josh learns that someone has started an anonymous social-media campaign against him. That’s when things begin to unravel, and the stresses of school and family life become overwhelming. Josh’s anxiety (Anx, played by Tony Babcock) increases, and things that he used to be able to cope with now seem unmanageable. Worse, Josh can’t talk to his parents and doesn’t know who to turn to. The play poses and ponders, “how can Josh regain control of his life?”
Given that anxiety is the most prevalent mental illness among teenagers, the play provides a welcome opportunity to discuss it openly, as well as to explore ways to counter its stigma. Babcock was gratified by the overwhelming response of audiences during the show’s first tour last year; clearly, they found it timely and resonant. “The great thing about Half Full is that is creates awareness in a way that is unassuming,” he observes. “The discussions that broke out last year (mainly from students) were inspiring and important.”
Anxiety is widespread and insidious, which makes such discussions especially important. Young people can be easily overwhelmed by their emotions, the intensity of which can be confusing and scary. However, when we can speak something – put feelings into words – we can also begin to manage it. For adolescents, this means availing themselves of any opportunity to gain an expressive vocabulary for their feelings, a nurturing environment to discuss them, and ways to access needed support.
Half Full‘s strives to depict a “universal feeling of youth anxiety, since we all have different ways of coping,” which also catalyzes intense student dialogue and analysis in the facilitated post-show discussion. MCT and director of Half Full Simon Malbogat hopes that youth understand that in order to overcome their anxiety, they have to find someone they can talk to, and that need not be a parent. He points out that in Half Full, Josh cannot talk to his parents or his friends. However, he discovers his teacher/coach suffers from anxiety as well, and talks to her. After the show, students continue to talk about the things which cause anxiety in them – and they share what can be done. Malbogat recalls that the company’s early workshops with students revealed that many of them did not realize that they suffered from anxiety. By contrast, during the show’s tour, MCT’s evaluations showed that 84% of the students understood anxiety and were learning how to cope with it.
Today’s teens must negotiate the complexities of adolescence, balance school pressures with social and family life, and navigate their need for belonging and acceptance. They can all use a supportive forum – whether they realize it or not. “Youth are at a certain stage in their life where they want to belong, conform and be appreciated,” observes Malbogat. “Half Full asks, ‘why do we need to know what others say and why is it so important.?’ What can we do to recognize that this is happening?”
Social media (ubiquitous in teen culture) has been directly linked to mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression. Yet the smartphone is widely hailed as a near-mandatory digital tool. Many schools use Twitter for mass promotion, and require students to use apps like Facebook Messenger to communicate – which makes it impossible for many young people to avoid an online presence. Mix this with most adolescents’ need for belonging and acceptance, and “likes” and “shares” become symbols of social endorsement tied to self-confidence and popularity.
“I think we all have an underlying desire for validation,” Babcock posits. “It stems from our insecurities and fears as we navigate this tricky thing called life. Social media offers an allure that is irresistible. It allows us to curate our ideal lives and share them with the world.” He understands how this can be a tempting idea for teens who are struggling with self-identity, alienation and social hierarchy. “Half Full unapologetically gives an insight into the other side of social media,” he avers: “the way that it enhances social pressures and hot-button issues such as bullying.” Last year, post-performance discussions prompted many students to talk openly about how “social media can be addictive and the desire to know what people are saying and liking is soooo important to them,” Malbogat adds.
These are serious themes, to be sure. And for youth fortunate enough to experience Half Full, Babcock hopes that the show inspires and moves them to make change. “I want them to identify with parts of Josh, and realize that they do have people they can reach out to for help.” Malbogat adds that, as the director, hearing students talk about and identify with the Josh character is immensely rewarding. He always wants the discussion to continue after the presentation: “Knowing that this is happening is very satisfying.”
News You Can Use
What: Half Full by Catherine Frid; featuring Tony Babcock, Alex Clay and Sherman Tsang; directed by Simon Malbogat
Who: Audiences 12 years (grade 7) and older
When: March 31-April 7, 2017 and Mental Health Week May 1-9, 2017
Explore and Learn: Half Full Study Guide
Related Info: Child, Youth and Emerging Adult Service on camh.ca
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya