As the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival returns for its 13th year, we speak to those involved about how the event challenges preconceived notions of mental health
'Sharing stories generally is a very effective way of exploring mental health issues,' explains Andrew Eaton-Lewis, arts lead for the Mental Heath Foundation. 'It humanises it and makes it relatable: talking about your own mental health is an important part of processing it and realising that you're not alone. It's also about listening and empathy – seeing someone with mental health issues as a complex, relatable human being, somebody like you, not just a collection of symptoms that you might not experience yourself.'
Having become a fixture on the Scottish arts festival calendar, SMHAF is exploring the idea of 'connection' for 2019. Eaton-Lewis' description of how art can raise awareness and make those intimate connections is expressed through the eclectic programming, which includes a flagship production of Wildcard Theatre's Electrolyte. 'There are lots of different kinds of engagement,' Eaton-Lewis continues. 'For example, our associate artist Emma Jayne Park is doing an event in Glasgow called A Day of Failure, in which performers will get together to talk about times when they've failed, and what they learned from it. That's about raising awareness, and reducing stigma, but it's also a form of practical support.'
Electrolyte, a 2018 Fringe success and winner of the Mental Health Fringe Award, 'is a fascinating phenomenon,' says Eaton-Lewis, 'a show about someone having a psychotic episode that is also a really thrilling, accessible and very popular piece of gig theatre; it was playing to sold out houses at the Pleasance last year.'
Electrolyte's success has come from the way that the structure of the script allows the protagonist Jess – an apparently fun-loving youngster – to explore her biography across a single evening through a meeting with a singer-songwriter: framed by an evocative set, Jess takes the audience through the night and her own journey. As James Meteyard, writer and joint artistic director of Wildcard, explains: 'She talks directly to the audience, responding to their feelings and energy and inviting them into her experience, so much so that people have often asked if it is the actor's personal story. This allows Jessie's story to be really understood and felt and for there to be true empathy and understanding. Equally, although the subject matter is heavy and emotionally charged in places, the performance of the gig is upbeat, exciting and fun. This allows the audience to be simultaneously entertained as you would be at a gig, before being drawn into Jessie's intense experience.'
The show does come from a personal perspective, Meteyard continues. 'The inspiration for the story came from a close family member, who went through a psychotic episode. This made me realise both the power of the brain but also how misunderstood a lot of mental health problems are. They are so varied and each particular condition is so specific to the individual.'
Over the past decade, there has been a shift in the way that mental health has been portrayed in theatre – previously, it was more often shown as an ill-defined sickness that was a plot device rather than treated as an active, sympathetic engagement with the conditions or issues. Electrolyte is part of the trend towards a serious and reflective representation that refuses to 'other' the individual. 'I wanted to write a story that demonstrates how easily a series of tragic events could lead to problems with your mental health,' says Meteyard, 'and give an insight into what a psychotic episode might feel like for an individual. Most of all, I wanted to champion the importance of community, friendship and togetherness in recovery from mental health problems and help people to realise how vital they are to the people around them.'
The intentions of Eaton-Lewis and Wildcard are undeniably worthy, but the success of Electrolyte at the Fringe demonstrates that this does not mean an unnecessary division between entertainment and engagement, or important content and aesthetic excellence. 'Theatre is bloody exciting,' points out composer Maimuna Memon. 'It's a new experience every night and audiences will react and connect to different things. I love that conversation between the audience and the performer.' The decision to use the fashionable and dynamic gig-theatre format, drawing on the energy of live music and the reflective intelligence of theatre, places Memon's music at the heart of the storytelling. Director Donnacadh O'Briain adds: 'It's just got electricity running through all of its veins. Liv's central performance is very special, and I think between the performances, the Northern urban poetry of the script, and the beauty and immediacy of the music it just gets right inside you. It's a ride, and ultimately a joy.'
If SMHAF has a mission to raise awareness of both mental health issues and the public treatment of those who struggle with them, Electrolyte serves as a reminder of this vision but also the power of theatre to transform and explain serious topics: escaping from both a tradition of art that reduces 'mental illness' to fodder for inspiration – a fashion condemned most notably in Hannah Gadsby's Nanette – and a useless dichotomy of entertainment and education. Bold, forceful and reflective, both the production and the festival aim to change attitudes emotionally and intellectually.
Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, various venues across Scotland, Fri 3–Sun 26 May; Electrolyte, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 14 May; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 15–Sat 18 May.