Tom Powell on mental health play ‘Surfacing’ at VAULT Festival: ‘We’re giving an understanding that you couldn’t get from observing behaviour’

A woman from the street enters a building in France, pleading with the medical professionals inside to help her with medication and her mental health issues. It’s 2016, and watching this unfold is Tom Powell, a playwright who would go on to win the Paptango New Writing Prize alongside two others five years later.

“There was just this image of this person coming into this hotel conference centre full of all these very well-qualified people and sort of being very politely given absolutely nothing,” he tells me over Zoom. “That’s not really in the play, but that was part of the images that we’re kind of feeding into it.”

While a film adaptation of his award-winning play, The Silence and the Noise, is still in development with a potential release this year, Powell’s current project is a new play titled Surfacing, performing at this year’s VAULT Festival and following the life of NHS therapist and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) practitioner Luca. 

After meeting a new service user who brings up certain topics she’s been running away from, she goes swimming, only to nearly drown and remerge from the water to a whole different, Through The Looking Glass world.

“Part of the actual play is a deep belief in this more cognitive, more rational therapy coming up against the crisis you’d find yourself in,” says Powell. “It’s her faith and her trust, belief – maybe delusion – in this thing, coming into contact with different things that challenge it, I suppose.”

He goes on to add: “I think often, depictions of mental health, or just mental distress, are wedded to a kind of naturalism. We show the outside of someone, and we think that that’s the key to understanding the inside, right? That wasn’t what we were actually wanting to do. We wanted to, I suppose, maybe make the point as well that you have to take the inside of someone’s head and their subjective experiences as meaningful and as meaningful as an objective outside account.

“I think that’s something that is often missing from the conversation, particularly when we’re talking about more acute kind of mental health crises with distress,” Powell explains.

Luc is a protagonist on the precipice, and she wouldn’t be the first character from the playwright to find herself in such a position. The Silence and the Noise was billed as being about “two young people on the edge”. Evidently, there’s something about individuals on the cusp of change which appeals to Powell.

“I think there are times in our lives when we experience the most tumultuous events and the biggest changes in who we are, what we believe, and the material circumstances in our world,” he replies when I ask him why. “I think those moments of doubt and fear and hope and chaos and change – the transformation – are some of the things that are most exciting to me as dramatist.”

And of course, the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 – which put an end to plans for Surfacing to play at the Edinburgh Fringe that year – is one painfully prominent example experienced by us all.

“It was a time when we were terrified, and it felt then, if we’re going to bother making anything, it has to be something that we really care about,” says Powell. “I’m quite a restless artist anyway, asking questions about the stuff that I’m doing, hopefully, but we really interrogated what we wanted to do, what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. Weirdly, some of the best years of my career have been some of the worst years of my life.”

With every single one of us experiencing the solitude and potential mental health challenges that came with lockdown, restricted to the same four walls, how did the pandemic inform Surfacing?

“In a way, the story hasn’t changed, but I feel like the themes of connectedness and isolation feel more pertinent, and actually, the form has changed significantly,” the award-winning playwright responds. “We were starting off as monologue, and [director] Stephen [Bailey] got some funding from Unlimited in 2020 to work on it and as a digital monologue with these thoughts as almost like a chat stream. 

“So yeah, in terms of the pandemic, I suppose that kind of isolation became more kind of relevant in a sad way, I suppose.”

The appearance of a chat stream-like digital staging not only helps with accessibility (all performances of the two-hander are relaxed, captioned and audio described), but comes in the form of impressive motion sensor technology. It’s another way in which the play hopes to break through the wall of bone which makes it hard for us to understand and fully appreciate someone’s internal monologue.

I share my own experience of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) with Powell as an example of misunderstanding the internal mental health struggles based on the external manifestations – the damaging misconception that having OCD is just having a desire to be clean or organised, without truly appreciating the debilitating intrusive thoughts which compel us to enact such physical actions. Throughout our conversation, I get the sense Surfacing’s creative use of motion sensor technology aims to bridge such a gap.

“Hopefully we get that in terms of her thoughts,” the writer comments, “which punctuate and sometimes intrude upon the action. Hopefully, we get that also in terms of with the motion sensors, but more broadly with the changing world. 

“We’re getting her break from reality, her internal struggle in the world writ large, and hopefully, we’re giving an understanding that you couldn’t get from observing behaviour, from standing outside,” he continues. “This is an important reality; you cannot dismiss this reality. That’s what we’re trying to do anyway, I think.”

Surfacing will play at VAULT Festival from 14-19 February, with all performances being relaxed, audio described and captioned. Tickets start from £13 and are available online now.

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