“Ser ou não ser, eis a questao!” or “to be or not to be, that is the question!” that line, instantly identifiable, can be heard being screamed from the lips of one Vitor Pordeus. Actor, mental heath activist and Doctor, Pordeus believes in the power of theatre to treat social anxieties, emotional recall and empathy.
He, the conductor of his theatre troupe, orchestrates his psychiatric patients – who he calls “clients”, into exploring relationships and emotions through role-playing and group therapy.
Pordeus believes in the transformative nature of theatre, in allowing his clients to ease their mental health problems without having to solely rely in drugs.
He says that the effectiveness of this treatment lies in the ability to “throw relationships wide open to debate”.
“We can work on emotions, identities, family relationships, memories and cultural relationships. By exploring, reflecting, debating, we can decrease the power and mental weight of frightening thoughts and images lurking in a person’s mind,” he explained.
By not eliminating, but simply complementing traditional medicine with theatrical therapy – like singing and chanting rituals – performance allows Pordeus to better understand his clients’ individual needs.
This theatre troupe, or collective, is aptly named ‘Madness Hotel’, a witty play on the patients’ permanent location at Nise da Silveira Psychiatric Hospital, where many of the actors have diagnoses of severe schizophrenia and chronic psychosis.
Drama therapy is not newly discovered treatment, and the idea for using the transformative nature of theatre exploded in the 1950’s when activist Augtusto Boal created the Theatre of the Oppressed.
This platform allowed for the exploration of power dynamics and societal possibilities, through role-play, and became the framework for revolutionary practice within troubled landscapes and under oppressive governments.
Hamlet is especially useful in the eyes of Pordeus. The characters explored throughout the play, and the waxing and waning of mental states, are particularly useful to the actors in addressing their roles in society.
One of the patients, that suffers from severe schizophrenia, told media outlets of his enjoyment in playing his new role.
“When I first got here, I was in a really dark place, but now I can express myself, and I just love singing and dancing. Theatre has helped me open my mind.”
However, this therapy is not without its critics. Other doctors have labelled his techniques as overly stimulating and agitating for the patients, as well as blurring the lines of doctor-patient boundaries.
One of the biggest claims against him is that Pordeus has decreased his patients’ drug intake, using drama therapy to complement and eventually lower their prescriptions.
Pordeus believes that many mental health patients are locked into “grossly outdated” and overly prescribed medication, limiting their ability to grow and heal.
Dr Leonardo Palmeira, who runs another clinic in Rio de Janiero, specialising in schizophrenia, shares the view of keeping mental health patients medicated above all else.
Whilst he does not dismiss the effective work of Pordeus he does maintain that complementary medicine is key.
“We have to be reasonable in our evaluation of available treatments: no single tool has been proven to cure mental health… the best results have come from a tailored mix of therapies – and theatre and the arts are a part of this complementary side of a broad spectrum of therapies. We should remember that theatre may not be for everyone.”
Pordeus maintains that he will continue with his therapy, as complementary medicine, as he has witnessed the ability for theatre to actively change a patients life, providing a glimmer of hope and light in an otherwise very dark space.
“Patients who never spoke before joining the Madness Hotel, and who now smile or spontaneously interact with others are proof of the healing power of theatre.”