By Rachel Hogan
It’s premiere deliberately coincides with mental health awareness week, but it is perhaps misleading to describe Maura Pierlot’s play Fragments as a work about mental health. Though that is how it was conceived over two years ago when she first applied for funding to write it.
“It felt almost like channelling when I wrote the application. It felt that automatic, almost inevitable,” she says. “I proposed a series of monologues on mental health issues for young people, looking at how they’re coping or not with the stresses in their lives.”
But for Pierlot, labels are problematic.
“When we think of mental health, we tend to think of it in negative terms, or in binary terms. In fact, we all live in a mesh of up and down. There are days when you’re riding high, things hit you when you least expect it.”
It is no secret that this is a difficult landscape. And even something like the R U OK? movement, which Pierrot says is a wonderful and important initiative, can run the risk of simplifying things.
“It’s like, you’re mentally well [or] you’re not mentally well. But issues are complex. Causes are complex. Manifestations vary. Severity varies. Issues can be circumstantial or innate.”
Even imagining that someone has the courage to answer the RUOK question honestly, what would such an answer mean? Answers for those who experience mental illness can be relative or belie the real feelings of the sufferer.
It’s the nuances and vulnerabilities of “OK-ness” that Pierlot explores in Fragments.
Its characters, all students at the same high school, are not showing dramatic signs of mental illness. They are, more or less, keeping it together as they address the demands of school, family and peer relationships. Yet each of them wrestles, in total isolation, with the same fundamental problem - the divide, potentially chasmic, between their authentic self and the self of public image.
One character, a transgender female, could be seen to wear that problem on her sleeve. In her understanding, she is quite OK. Suffering arises when others suppose she is not, and seek to fix or resist the fact of her femaleness. Gender identity, though, is only one facet of personal authenticity, and the character is, no more or less than her fellows, only taking the first frightening steps towards it.
Another character presents in the opposite way. He is, to all appearances, OK. And more – he popular, accomplished, academically successful. But he nurses a secret despair made all the more overwhelming by the fact that nobody around him imagines he could be in pain.
On the face of it, the characters, their traits and situations, could have been lifted from a teen drama series. The stereotyping, though, is neither accidental nor lazy. “Adolescence is a time of self-absorption on a good day, but it’s also so much about identifying outwards, grasping over there somewhere for a sense of what you are.”
Pierlot sees a trope as an attractive fast-track towards identity – and the fast track is usually perilous.
“In life, everyone has to move towards their own truth, and how you do that in a world of many people with truths that are sometimes incompatible with yours or collide with yours is very difficult.”
At no time are we more vulnerable to this than in adolescence. Pierlot ascribes this not only to the major physical and neurological changes that take place, but to pressures from a society that is fundamentally uncomfortable with unformed, or still-forming, people.
“Everything’s so focused on a destination, even if that destination is being happy. Whatever that is. Career, relationship, not everyone is wired that way. How do you make your mark on the world if you don’t follow the straight arrow?”
All this is writ large in the fora of social media. “Social media puts a lot of pressure on people, especially youth. It’s relentless, it’s ubiquitous. It’s all smoke and mirrors. I feel like our lives are curated now, and we present our best selves, our airbrushed censored photo-perfect selves, every day. But in doing that, we are fictionalising ourselves, and getting further and further from our own truths, our own reality, our own potential. And also, further from each other.”
The painful irony at the heart of Fragments is the isolation of individuals. This is reflected in the structure of the work, in which an overarching narrative is punctuated by monologues. “The characters know each other, to varying degrees. They are struggling with what you could call complimentary problems – but none of them sees themselves in the others. There’s this heightened sense of uniqueness,” says Pierrot.
“All of the characters in the show feel like a piece of themselves, searching for wholeness and connectedness. They feel, for various reasons, like they’re operating at a deficiency, missing pieces, struggling internally trying to find them. The premise that I’m working from is that those pieces come from within, but also link irrevocably with others. There has to be a sense of otherness and connection to make that whole. There are no simple solutions, but I think we do need to push beyond tick-the -box questions, have the conversations, share the stories. That’s how we move forward.”
Fragments by Maura Pierlot is playing at The Street Theatre 23 - 27 October. For details go to thestreet.org.au.