Programme highlights include Living with The Lights On, Adam World Choir, Hysteria! and One Mississippi
The arts and mental health have not always had the best relationship: throughout history, 'madness' was more frequently a plot point or a signifier of villainy rather than a serious attempt to understand mental processes. However, in the last decade – notably through state-supported initiatives in the UK – a more thoughtful engagement with mental health has encouraged the arts to become a valuable platform for the discussion of ideas surrounding mental well-being.
Now in its 11th year, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival has been an important part of this dialogue, and arts lead Andrew Eaton-Lewis recognises its role. For 2017, the theme of reclamation is at the heart of the programme: through a wide range of art forms and public discussions, SMHAF seeks to both increase the visibility of the debate about mental health but offer new ways to think about its impact. As intersectionality – the space of connection between different concerns and identities – becomes more familiar, SMHAF is recognising the need for nuance and proposes that it is the arts that can both enhance and refine the conversation.
The programme reflects an engagement with both local and national artists: popular Scottish performance poetry nights Neu! Reekie! and Flint & Pitch have commissioned themed nights, with Flint & Pitch taking the festival's theme of 'reclamation'. For theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company actor Mark Lockyer stars in Living with The Lights On, an autobiographical show about the manic depressive episode that almost ended his career and his subsequent road to recovery, while two new commissions approach mental health through the lens of gender.
One Mississippi sees Mariem Omari address the potent issue of male suicide: a piece of verbatim theatre, it gives voice to the stories of four men who were on the brink of suicide. Inspired by her own experience of her father's behaviour, Omari draws a connection between the expectations placed on men, depression and aggressive conduct. 'It didn't excuse what they had done,' she says.' 'But they recognised what they had become, and found this so distressing that they saw suicide as an escape. And the ways in which they contemplated suicide were really violent as well.'
The sensitivity of Omari's work relies on the direct honesty of her storytelling technique, which allows the men to tell their own stories in the script, then interpreted through the bodies and voices of the actors. Her love of stripped down, 'low budget' shows emphasises the immediacy of documentary theatre. By selecting across religious and ethnic boundaries, Omari suggests that male depression is a matter of systemic pressure, spurred on by adverse childhood experiences – as revealed in the massive CDC-Kaiser study (one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being).
This linking of serious academic thought and theatricality appears elsewhere in the programme. Julia Taudevin's musical cabaret Hysteria! is based on stories collected during workshops by Taudevin and Dr Iris Elliot (head of policy and research for the Mental Health Foundation). Taudevin, creator of 2016's Fringe hit Blow Off, recognises both the challenges of working complex ideas into a popular format and its powerful possibilities.
'Shortly after Trump was elected, Andrew Eaton-Lewis asked me if I wanted to do something about the impact on women's mental health: I broadened my pitch to include Brexit policy,' she says. While she has been influenced by the revival of the ceilidh-play format, she's aiming for ' a post dramatic form, like Sarah Kane, and a Brechtian approach, to get a more contemporary feel', even as she respects the 'alternative radical spaces Dr Eliot and I have created for the workshops'.
'It's obvious we need to change the very fabric of our society – finding new ways to be in the world with each other. And theatre is a way to experiment with this. The more we progress, the more we see the nuances, as the discussion becomes about intersectionality, it's not possible to talk about one subject purely: so how can I use the form of cabaret satire to reflect this?'
Taudevin's sensitivity to the need for change and belief in the arts reflects the dynamism of SMHAF, and promotes the vision of reclamation, which is the over-arching theme for 2017. The intersectionality of her vision is echoed in Adam World Choir, a group formed from Cora Bissett and the National Theatre of Scotland's show Adam. Using technology to draw together transgender and non-binary people, the choir formed the centerpiece of the biographical play, a major hit at this year's Fringe. The choir will appear at SMHAF as part of the Dundee Literary Festival, creating a book of stories about their experiences.
The presence of the choir is a reminder that the discussions of SMHAF are never parochial but recognise the international dimension and strive towards inclusivity as an important factor in the arts. It's a vision that firmly insists on visibility, diversity and engaged creativity, linking the political, the social and the artistic in an expression of optimism.
Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, various venues across Scotland, Tue 10–Sat 29 Oct.