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Alys Williams - interview

TW: mentions of suicide


Heading to the Park Theatre for its London premiere this month, The Light House is the product of Alys Williams, the writer and star of the life-affirming solo piece. As a personal discussion of love and life, it's a reflection of the all-consuming darkness that some may find themselves in and the impact we can have as connecting humans in bringing back that light.


Eloquently explaining more, Alys has answered a few questions about her work.

 

What was the inspiration behind creating this production?


A few years ago, my partner experienced a mental health breakdown which included severe depression, chronic insomnia and suicidal thoughts alongside various other symptoms. He came extremely close to taking his own life and spent time receiving both inpatient (residential) and outpatient care.


Sometime later, I was talking about our experience and someone referred to me as a ‘carer’. It had never occurred to me that I might have been a carer and I found the label bizarre and unsettling. Had I been a carer, or simply a partner who cares? At what moment had I become a carer, and was I still one or had I stopped being one at some point? It was certainly true that for a while there I’d decentred myself from my own life. It occurred to me that so many people out there must have experienced something similar.


I’ve had some amazing conversations with carers while developing the show and it’s extraordinary how much the frustrations, anxieties and little wins resonate. I’d like to think that we are honouring that experience on stage. In the end though, The Light House isn’t about mental health. It’s about love, and hope, and the way human beings hold onto each other when things get tough. It’s about getting through this messy, beautiful thing called life, together.




Promising to evoke hopefulness, what makes the message so important?


Our society is getting so much better at talking about mental health and suicide but I still don’t think we hear many stories about the care involved or the possibility of recovery. Suicide only really hits the news when somebody has died so there's a risk that we approach thoughts or conversations about suicide with a kind of hopeless inevitability. When my partner was so ill, someone encouraged me to distance myself, remarking that “some people are just always sad”. I don't accept that. I think a lot of people have stories like ours, where someone has ‘gone to the brink’ as it were but has found their way back into the light, perhaps over and over again through the years. I wanted to tell that story, to insist upon hope. In the end, that’s all hope is.




Being a solo piece and a true story, how do you manage the emotions behind The Light House?


Really it’s incredibly cathartic. I feel a huge sense of release after the final sequence. It’s also been quite liberating for me as an actor, working with a narrative voice that is so authentically mine and moments that feel so familiar.


As a team, we were concerned about whether it would feel overwhelming for me to connect with audiences after the show, particularly if people want to share their own lived experiences. I have to be careful with my emotional energy certainly, but it also feels very true to the play to have those conversations. The Light House is all about connection and trying to worry less about saying or doing ‘the right thing’ in difficult circumstances and focusing on just being a human connecting authentically with another human. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes there is no ‘right way’.




How does The Light House connect with those watching, and use some humour in the mix?


Theatre is always a kind of alchemy, I think. There’s no specific formula for making something that connects with people. You just have to find the truth in what you’re doing. In parts of the play, we wrap truth in metaphor because sometimes the truths of little everyday human lives can be just as epic and cosmic as raging storms at sea and battles between life and death, light and dark. I find parts of the play funny and very fun to perform but we haven’t consciously tried to make it funny. The truth is that challenging and difficult parts of life often do bring their own dark humour and absurdity. The play charts a time in my life which was very painful but in the moments when laughter felt possible, I laughed from my belly. My body needed to laugh.


The Light House also has moments of gentle audience participation and I think audiences have been surprised by their own responses. So many people have told me afterwards that they usually hate audience participation but on this occasion found themselves almost hoping to be chosen. I think it's because everyone who participates gets to play a really meaningful part in the story. They might be my mum or my dad, my best friend or my friendly postman. It's remarkable to me how many people have been willing to participate and it's a privilege for me to share those moments with them. It's vulnerable for audience members to participate but I think they respond to my vulnerability during the show. That's the key, I think - we never ask anybody to make themselves more vulnerable than I am.




How do you feel the effects of mental health struggles like those you describe in the piece would be better presented in society?


I’m an artist, not a mental health professional so I don’t know how qualified I am to answer that. What I will say is that we have this amazing language to talk about mental health now but when you or your loved ones are right in the thick of it, that language can feel pretty flimsy and empty. In many ways, mental health remains such a mystery to us and the play has a kind of peace with that.


Conversations about suicide can feel incredibly heavy and huge, but perhaps that’s because most of us spend our lives on a kind of auto-pilot, resisting the big questions until they’re forced upon us. When individuals experience a breakdown in their mental health, we tend to assume it’s due to their own personal difficulties and prescribe all sorts of individual effort like exercise, getting fresh air, taking medication and going to therapy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning the value of those things but truthfully I think the mental health crisis we’re having in this country is a political issue, not an individual one. When so many individuals are struggling you have to zoom out and look at the bigger picture and the structures you’re living in. There are plenty of places elsewhere in the world where mental health is not the phenomenon it is here and perhaps that’s because other societies are better at giving space to the things that we neglect or rush through: ritual, grief, rest, communal living, spirituality, sexuality, nature, sadness.




What draws you to being part of the theatre industry?


It’s a strange time to be making theatre. We’re in a golden age of TV and can enjoy incredible stories from the comfort of our sofas. But I think theatre has something very special to offer because it brings people together in a space, something the pandemic taught us not to take for granted. Theatre should smell like bodies and buzz with the strange, silly discomfort of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers in the dark. It's the liveness of theatre that excites me - every performance feels slightly different. This feels particularly true of The Light House where audience participants vary so much that every show feels fresh and unique. I remember each performance and every individual participant so vividly. It's very exciting to me.




After such a successful reception previously, how has this influenced bringing the show back, and where would you most like to take it next?


The responses from audiences have been pretty staggering from the outset which has felt incredibly special. I’m particularly excited that we’re able to bring it to Park Theatre as the Park90 space is so intimate - it’s perfect for The Light House. I think the tour has shown us that the play can expand or contract to work in different kinds of spaces but it’s the intimate spaces that I really love. Beyond our 2023/24 tour, who knows? After one of our shows last autumn, an audience member told me that The Light House had been “quite life-changing” for her. I think if this play can continue to do that for people, it’s worth continuing to share it. We’re also very excited to be releasing a digital version of the play this spring so keep an eye out for that!


 

Such an incredible outlook, sure to inspire anyone- huge thanks to Alys for sharing such profound and beautifully articulated answers about your show. I wish you every success in spreading hope about such an important and resonating topic.


Get your tickets to The Light House at Park Theatre here:


Image by Ant Robling.

Additional thanks to Matthew Parker for coordinating this interview.

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