XenZone’s online mental health support service for young people, Kooth, has partnered with the touring production of A Monster Calls. Many of its staff members are attending dates throughout the tour to support and promote the service. We asked them for their personal response to this production, which explores themes such as grief, sadness, anger, hope and friendship. Here’s what they had to say.
Dan Mills-Da’Bell, Head of Safeguarding, XenZone
I’m so pleased we’re able to partner with A Monster Calls; it’s such an exciting opportunity in many ways. I attended a performance recently in Nottingham, along with my colleague (and incredible friend) Tom. We were on hand before and after the performance to represent Kooth.
I’ve got previous experience with this story, from the movie and London stage production, so in some ways came prepared for the show. While I still believe I can come prepared, I can still be completely blown away and impacted by the themes in such an intense way. I think the production is genius in a number of ways, as it allows you to project your own experience and see your processing beautifully produced on stage. It genuinely feels like an immersive production for this reason, and to be a part of this in the room is incredible.
The themes people can engage with might include bullying, being a young carer, illness, loss, grief, absent parents, pain, destruction, sadness, anger….and that list could be infinite in some ways. Without spoiling the story (and the power of storytelling is a theme within the show, as well as being evident by witnessing the power of storytelling too!)… there’s a particular emotional culmination that rocks me emotionally, and it did this week. I struggle for breath, feel a chill and tightening in my body, have tears… and have a whirl of my own experiences conjured up whilst simultaneously experiencing and processing what’s happening on stage.
The moment I’m referring to is phenomenally produced and impacts the audience with an emotional punch. Any rustling, low chatter, checking of watches, or any other things that humans do in the theatre, immediately stops at this moment. You hear the pain of people, you feel the empathy, and feel the shared impact. Young children are silenced into a process. A human, important, essential process. What your truth is. How speaking your truth can free yourself, and learning it’s ok to express your truth and go through pain to let it go, and not stifle it or ignore it. “Stories are wild creatures” is a line in the show, and this is certainly that.
It was a pleasure to experience this with my friend and colleague, and it created moments for us to look back and reflect on, to feel together, and to process together. It was also incredible to hear young people talk to each other after the show. I observed a teenage boy tell his friend: “That was really sad. It was sad”. Nothing more was needed between them, but this shared experience, and then speaking their truth afterwards.
Another young person spoke about “seeing feelings on stage”, and another about seeing themselves, and their experience, and then having an experience as a result. This is powerful. It’s powerful theatre, it’s a powerful experience.
There’s a beautiful process also happening in the foyer, with a tree/monster that people attach notes to. They were also a wonder to read, and again very impactful. Unfortunately, not everybody has a monster, or anybody, to support them to a place of healing, or to help them process and experience the emotional truth of something. I hope this production gives this opportunity, and I know that Kooth, our service, can also provide a place for young people to come and have these experiences, express them, process them, voice them. And to do so anonymously, to come to a safe place and be able to process such intensity is incredible.
Young people don’t need to have a mental health diagnosis or specific label to be experiencing the chaos of life and to be struggling with it. Kooth offers a place to do this, which can support people with their emotional and mental health, but also provide a platform, or content, or community to be a part of, where experiencing these raw, visceral, complicated emotions can become their truth, and hopefully free them from pain.
A Monster Calls is a special show that I’d encourage everybody to go and see and experience. Be prepared for it, and be prepared for after it, and hopefully speak your truth.
Sian Johnson, Marketing Executive, XenZone
As a theatre lover who’s passionate about better mental health, I knew working on the A Monster Calls partnership would be such a privilege. What I didn’t know was the impact the show would have on me. I always try and go to the theatre “blind”, meaning trying to shelter myself from previous press articles, images and social media so I formulate my own opinions and reactions to a piece. And well, what a reaction I had.
I was blown away. By the acting, the direction, the set, the music, everything. What struck me most was the audience reaction. I felt no matter what age or gender, everybody in that theatre could relate to the themes presented within the play. Grief, loss, fear, sadness, anger, love and friendship were all present, creating an intense and powerful atmosphere that many of us audience members sat with long after the final bow was taken.
The minimalist yet beautifully lit set allowed audience members to immerse themselves in their own truth and use their own imagination which made the experience all the more powerful.
Not only am I a theatre fan, but a huge muso as well. The way in which the incredibly talented band were presented on stage to communicate emotions too painful or intense to be articulated through speech was a highlight for me. Working within our organisation, many young people often express how music is a form of therapy for them. Therefore I thought this was an inspired direction choice to enable us to connect with main character Conor on a deeper level, especially for the younger audience members.
As an adult, what I found really resonated with me was forgetting how intimidating and scary the school environment can be for a young person. Study pressures, along with the risk of being bullied, as well as navigating and sustaining friendships can have a huge impact. This sparked a very emotional response from me: remembering the anxiety I felt on a daily basis as a teenager, not even having to navigate some of the challenges Conor faces throughout the performance.
Watching a school group leave the performance was inspiring. Young people sitting with each other long after the performance, quietly, absorbing the piece with not a smartphone in sight was a rare and powerful thing to witness. A Monster Calls certainly reminds you to check in with your peers, as well as yourself.
The monster reminds us all to be true to ourselves and to have the courage to articulate our truth when we need to. This is a lesson that will stay with me always.
Tom Robson, Integration and Participation, XenZone
Where to start? I was blown away by so many aspects of the show, which beautifully captures a young boy’s (Conor) experience. Hope, denial, destruction, anger, fear, guilt, isolation, desperation and so much more are prevalent throughout Conor’s journey.
I was so intrigued as to how young people experienced the show. A friend overheard one boy say to another “That was sad, man!”. He was right…and then some.
What I loved about A Monster Calls was that every single person in the audience could relate to Conor. We’ve all been angry, sad, hurt, desperate, lonely and felt that no one truly understands our experience – particularly with grief, as it’s so unique to us all and our own histories.
The ending was painful, but for me it also gave a really important message: one of hope. Sadly for Conor and his Mum, there was no magic wand, one that so many people cling to or search for when in a dark place.
Instead, the monster encourages Conor, to speak his truth and free himself from the guilt he felt, guilt he experienced in simply wanting his pain to end. The monster holds Conor in his despair, something our amazing team of therapists do on a daily basis. Sharing in people’s pain, as opposed to searching for a solution!
Brenè Brown says something similar: “Rarely can a response make something better, what can make something better is connection”.
It was a privilege to watch the show and to represent XenZone alongside this incredible production. A massive well done to everyone who made this happen. I genuinely can’t wait to be at the Leicester show, where we will be part of a Q&A and making children, young people and families aware of the amazing support they can access through Kooth.