‘There was a distinct lack of help’: can theatre clean up its act on mental health?

Raffaella Covino is leading the charge for change in an industry whose workers do unstable jobs under unprecedented pressure

It was the winter of 2017 when Raffaella Covino realised she was in the midst of an emotional breakdown. Despite living out her childhood dream as a professional stage actor – appearing in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights at Southwark Playhouse and On the Town at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre – Covino had reached a point where she was unable to function. “There was no real reason for how I was feeling,” she remembers. “I was really lucky and I’d always had the pang to perform. In so many ways, it didn’t make sense.”

Overwhelmed, Covino decided to take a year-long break from theatre. She went into therapy and was diagnosed with a dual mental health disorder. Six months into her recovery, she began to question why she’d had such limited access to mental health support while working in the arts. Born in Worthing, Covino got a scholarship to the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts at 14 before going on to train at the London School of Musical Theatre. She describes the four years spent working as an actor as being “fortunate, job-wise” but she remembers having very few conversations about her mental wellbeing. “There was a distinct lack of bespoke help in a career that has some very unique pressures,” she says. “So I decided to create a platform that could be a hub for people going through similar things to me.”

Covino created Applause for Thought in February 2019. Providing free and low-cost assistance, talks and workshops, as well as training and consultancy, Covino’s company was founded with the belief that proper education on mental health “can equal prevention”.

“Equipping people with the right knowledge both breaks the stigma and assists in stopping more serious conditions developing,” she says.

Starting with a one-off mental health awareness event at the Other Palace in London, Applause for Thought was not something Covino initially had long-term hopes for. But two years on, the company has trained more than 900 people from the arts and entertainment industry as mental health first aiders; it is currently working with seven West End productions and two UK tours, including Hamilton and Mary Poppins, to improve the support given to casts and crew.

“The aim is to create safer working environments,” Covino says. “We want mental health first aiders to always be in the rehearsal room – we train the company manager of the show, the stage managers and vocal coaches. We’ve created wellbeing questionnaires so we can review people’s mental health throughout their contracts. We write non-discrimination policies for each production, so there is no difference in how we treat mental and physical health.”

Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins is one of the productions working with Applause for Thought to support cast and crew. Photograph: Dan Wooller/Rex/Shutterstock

In a career that can at times be detrimental to self-esteem, Covino believes this is essential. Many actors face insecurities, which she blames on the tendency to glamourise working in theatre, combined with the financial instability, regular rejection, competitive training and focus on aesthetics. The potential, she says, is “incredibly damaging”.

With fewer jobs available, Covino fears it will be a long time before theatre properly recovers. “Some people may have been out of work before the pandemic and are still out of work now, which has the potential to be very harmful to their sense of purpose,” she says. Even for those who have managed to secure a job, Covino has worries about the process of readjusting to a busy schedule after almost 18 months on pause. “This change, coupled with the feeling of needing to be grateful for actually being in work, is a huge pressure,” she says. There is an added stress of jobs being cancelled because of coronavirus and the “pingdemic”.

Covino is quick to say that real change has to happen at a systemic level. She wants mental health lessons to be part of drama school curriculums, and everyone working behind the scenes on a show to have access to appropriate support and coaching.

“I’m a massive believer that trauma is passed on,” she says. “We have to change from the inside out. We have a duty of care to producers, casting directors and line managers too. If someone has looked after themselves, they are more likely to look after the people they are working with.”

She is not alone in her desire for mental health to become more of a priority across the theatre industry. The Bush theatre in west London recently announced its employment of an associate drama therapist, Wabriya King, to support actors. Rose Bruford College in Kent has appointed a councillor to its staff and set up a round-the-clock mental health helpline. “I think things are starting to move in the right direction,” Covino says.

Covino hopes that the work of Applause for Thought will become standard industry procedure. “Every single production and set should have a wellbeing scheme in place,” she says.

Does she believe it is possible? “I hope so. But to actually change the way this industry has been run for hundreds of years, it is not going to happen overnight. It may not even happen in my lifetime, so I have to play the long game.”


Anya Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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