Tell us about your involvement with Hearing Things
I’m the co-artistic director of Playing ON and we’ve been working in mental health settings for about five years now. Devising and creating engagement work in hospitals and community settings, over that time we’ve devised material for this play at the Albany.
Where did you get the idea to stage a play about mental health?
We were in Homerton hospital delivering some engagement workshops and we were waiting to go into the wards to start. And before you go in there’s an office where you can see into the wards and the administration, and there was this guy at a computer cackling maniacally in the corner. Then a member of staff came up to me with a clipboard and started talking about schedules and how busy it was, how they couldn’t possibly fit anyone else in, double bookings etc and she was really stressed and gabbling away. I told her ‘I’m not here for that, we’re just delivering a workshop, I don’t know about your schedules.’ And she didn’t hear a word of it, she just kept going on and on. So we had this guy cackling in the corner, and a person talking over us about what’s going on and I looked over into the ward and there were just a couple of guys playing pool, calm as anything. It was very apparent that at that moment, if you were asked to say ‘Who’s mad’ and ‘Who’s sane’, it would be the office where the stress and tension was. And that was our experience throughout. The environments felt very anxiety-laden. That situation sparked an interest in the question ‘what is mental health?’.
What themes and issues does the play raise awareness of?
We really want to look at the artificial division in mental health. There’s such a stigma and the phrase carries judgement and people are either mentally well or mentally ill with nowhere in between. And that’s just not realistic. It’s not like that. So we’re very keen to expose, challenge and explore those preconceptions.
What do you want audiences to take away from the play?
I’d like people to come away with a different attitude. We don’t want to teach them, I want them to ask questions, because it is a complex issue. And to consider the role that both medicine and community have on mental wellbeing. Medicine in mental health has a vital role to play but so does community. So does engagement, so does acceptance and lack of empathy within society. I think funding cuts and the current constant outcome-driven system creates mental illness and makes things worse.
What has the audience response been like so far?
When we did this performance in the grounds of the Maudsley Hospital, We had patients and professional actors improvising the play together. The patients played doctors and some of the staff agreed to be in it playing patients. And there were various doctors, funders, friends and family of patients watching. At the end the audience didn’t know who was who. There were senior consultants who said ‘well that person is clearly a psychiatrist.’ When actually that person was resident in the Maudsley Hospital and had been there for several weeks. They didn’t know. That was a very powerful result of what we’re trying to do – which is mess around with the boundaries and see what wellness and illness is.