Mental Health Takes Centre Stage at SMHAF

With Scotland’s only arts and mental health festival set to begin, The Skinny takes a look at the theatre arm of this year’s festival, and asks, has the topic of mental health finally become accepted by the wider arts community?

Preview by Amy Taylor | 04 Oct 2017

In August, mental health emerged as one of the stand-out themes of the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe. From talks at Fringe Central about mental health in the arts, to listicles of the ‘best’ plays that tackled the subject, the stage was set and the message was clear: in theatre it’s OK to talk about mental health, but it’s even better when you put on a show about it.

But while the Fringe takes over Edinburgh for one month every year, the theme of mental health in the arts has been something of a familiar presence in Scotland for the last decade. Launched in 2007, and created to challenge popular perceptions of the subject, as well as to encourage participation and develop connections, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (SMHAF) is now in its 11th year. Recognised as one of the largest specialist festivals of its kind, it has grown to accommodate 300 events across Scotland and boasts 25,000 attendees every year.

This year’s theme is ‘reclaim’, and in events across the country, participants will be reclaiming their experiences of mental health by sharing them and helping develop a greater understanding of the topic. While the festival’s line-up is as diverse and exciting as ever, and promises to be the “biggest and most ambitious yet” according to the festival’s manager, Gail Aldam, this year, the theatre arm appears to be particularly rich and challenging.

Featuring established names and companies amongst newer faces and festival first timers, the shows range from one handers to ensembles, each reclaiming the narrative of mental illness and recovery. Emerging Glasgow theatre company Wonder Fools examine the effect of pornography on mental health relationships and sexual experiences in The Coolidge Effect, which looks at the correlation between the increasing access to pornography and society’s unwillingness to talk about it.

Meanwhile, Hysteria!, a 'darkly comic political cabaret' by AJ Taudevin, looks at the impact of sexism on mental health in a piece inspired by the 2016 US election and the Women's March. Elsewhere, Theatre Tonic’s The Village looks at the secrets held by a group of villagers and One Mississippi, a new piece of verbatim theatre, looks at how the childhood experiences of boys shape the lives of the men that they then become. 

In Dingwall, Rob Gee stars in Forget Me Not: The Alzheimer’s Whodunnit, a one-man poetry comedy show looking at how we deal with people who have dementia, based on Gee’s experience of working on a Challenging Behaviour ward for people with late stage Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, the Scottish premiere of Mark Lockyer’s Living With the Lights On tells the true story of his own mental health crisis and recovery, which began with an on-stage breakdown during a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Romeo and Juliet in 1995.

Many other companies and performers are set to appear at this year’s festival, each with their own stories and tales to tell. However, while each performance may vary in form, design and execution, the message of SMHAF and the work of the artists involved speak to an almost universal truth. When it comes to mental illness, there is life after diagnosis, and the road to recovery follows reclamation of the subject.

The Scottish Mental Heath Arts Festival runs from 10-29 October at venues across Scotland.