Scottish Theatre, Mental Health, and SMHAF

The Skinny chats to theatre director Ross MacKay and Andrew Eaton-Lewis of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival and asks, how can the theatre industry be more mindful of mental ill-health?

Feature by Amy Taylor | 29 Apr 2019
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Mental health has long been a worthy topic for theatre, from Lady Macbeth scrubbing her hands of spots of blood, to Tennessee Williams’ entire back catalogue; theatre has raised awareness of the issue just as much as it has sensationalised it.

But, what about the people that make theatre? Can you continue to work in the industry while you have a mental illness?

For theatre director Ross MacKay, who openly discusses his own mental health issues online, disclosing his mental health problems and having to take time off from work to recover made him start to worry about his future in the industry.

In a blog post called Why I Am Afraid to Talk, MacKay revealed that he’d worried about telling his colleagues about a relapse in his mental health because he feared sharing his diagnosis would mean he would be seen as unreliable, and therefore, unemployable.

“I am scared of letting people know. I’m scared that ‘everyone gets one’ is the way we might look at the world. Ross was unwell but now he’s better. But if he’s ill again, not even one year after the last time, then maybe he’s not getting better,” he continues.

While MacKay says that his colleagues have been supportive and open, the insecurity of being a freelancer in an unpredictable industry is another cause for concern. Taking time out could mean that someone else could take his job and affect his job prospects later on.

“I also worry about what that means as a director who is looking to take on more demanding projects with greater strains and stresses. Does it seem like I can’t cope?”

Overworked and Underfunded

Perhaps one of the most powerful things about MacKay’s blog is its honesty and openness. It lays bare his personal fears and reveals how the theatre industry’s structure can and has negatively affected his mental health.

While MacKay noted that his doctor advised him to only work 37 hours a week when he returned to work, because theatre isn’t a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday job, he couldn’t. During production week, for example, with opening night looming, working longer hours is industry standard.

This kind of pressure, combined with overwork is something which Andrew Eaton-Lewis, the Arts Lead of the Mental Health Foundation Scotland, knows has a big impact on the mental health of everyone working on a show.

“In my experience it's very common for people in the theatre world to work so hard that it has a negative impact on their mental health,” explains Eaton-Lewis.

It’s obvious that everyone who works in the industry is there because they love theatre, but as MacKay and Eaton-Lewis explain, a lack of opportunities, and the uncertainty of funding, combined with long working hours all take their toll on the people.

“I think the theatre industry can often talk a good game but not deliver on progressive change. We need our large institutions and funders to support freelancers by thinking imaginatively about doing things differently,” says MacKay.

“People are in this industry in the first place because they're passionate about the art – it's certainly not because of the money – so it can be tempting to push yourself to your limits just because you want to get the job done as well as possible,” Eaton-Lewis continues.

What Can Theatre Do Better?

So, what can be done to help people in the industry who might be struggling with their mental health? It’s a complicated topic, but when we ask MacKay what the industry could do better, he is clear.

MacKay believes theatres, venues and companies need to change how they approach making theatre, instead of just talking about making changes to how they work. “Not everything has to be staked every time on the project at hand,” he explains. “We need to see investment in these ideas that goes beyond panel discussions and conversations over coffee.

“We need to build more ways to make work and support artists. We need to recognise that mental health is complex and therefore our ecology needs to be diverse enough to support that,” he continues.

Eaton-Lewis agrees, and believes that people working in theatre need to look out for each other – the industry needs to provide a space for these conversations, and how theatres and shows are funded needs to be changed to make it fairer for all.

“We need directors, producers and venue managers to look after performers and make sure they are able to take time out, don't work beyond contracted hours, and are not put under unnecessary pressure,” he says. “We need a funding system that is clear, fair, and consistent. We also need forums where people across the industry feel able to talk, in a safe environment, about what they're going through.”

Signs of Change

In the Scottish theatre industry, there are signs of change, with the Tron Theatre recently announcing they’ve started piloting Artist Check Ins, a regular session for artists to meet up and share issues, worries, with their peers, in a safe environment.

Changing long-held attitudes and structural issues takes time, but the more we talk about mental health, the more we destigmatise it and tear down prejudices and confront ignorance.

And, as both Eaton-Lewis and MacKay believe, allowing yourself to have a rest, and take a break from making theatre, is just as important as the act of making theatre.  

“As Ross very wisely said in his blog last year, ‘The show must go on’, is foolish posturing,” explains Eaton-Lewis. “To hell with the show. There will be another show, the artists must go on and sometimes that means the artists must allow themselves to stop.”

The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival runs 3-26 May at venues across Scotland – scroll on for our highlights from this year's theatre programme