Celebrating wellbeing and creativity: South London artists break mental health taboos with Southwark festival

A heart-warming festival aiming to break taboos surrounding mental health kick started last night with plays written by south London artists.

The five-day Stories of Being event will showcase a range of poetry, music and theatre performances, art installations, talks and workshops at the Platform theatre in Southwark until Sunday May 22.

Founded by Ed Halsam, Karis Halsall and Joe Ball, the festival intends to start a network of support for creative practitioners and try to reframe conversations around mental health.

“In the same way that observational comedy is everything that no one speaks about what they experience, mental health is very similar,” said Ms Halsall, writer of black comedy ‘Hysterical’.

“Because no one speaks about it, everyone retains these minute details and feel stressed about it.

“They don’t articulate it and that is the root of stigmatisation. It’s this fear that you build around yourself.

“That is why we use comedy, to connect and disarm and make it ok to talk about it.”

Hysterical, winner of the Vault Festival People’s Choice Award 2016, blurs the lines of office boardroom and hospital ward, as lead character June attempts to rebrand a bottle of water while caring for her brother.

The play laughs darkly at the absurdity of mental health care, featuring characters such as the cowardly lion, a hilariously clumsy roller-skating Virgin Mary and a terrifyingly realistic doll.

For Ms Halsall, much of the writing was shaped by her brother, whose experiences of psychosis previously led to him being sectioned.

“There’s a theory that psychosis is probably on a spectrum like autism is and we’re all somewhere on that spectrum,” she said.

“I have psychosis, when I’m tired I start to hear music.

“If I were to write that music down it would be creativity but because I can’t write music, it’s just psychosis.”

Also performed that evening was How We Think We Think created by Battersea duo Mel and Joe Ball, who also run their own theatre company, Heart To Heart Theatre.

The play follows the compelling character of Tom as he tells the audience about witnessing the suicide of a stranger on the London underground.

What follows is a captivating journey through the human mind, exploring decision-making, obsession, and the way we look at other people.

“It makes you think about how you view mental health,” said actor Peter Dewhurst, who played Tom.

“We often go through our lives assuming things of other people, judging ourselves by our intentions and judging others by their actions.

“I think it’s an Artistotle quote, be kind to others because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

For Ms Ball, who lectures in Mental Health at Canterbury Christ Church, it was important to focus on Tom’s experience and keep him undiagnosed.

“It’s always about the person, it’s never about the label,” she said.

“We often forget that as soon as there’s a pathology introduced.

“Instead it’s about the themes, the emotions and the loneliness.

“It’s about our feelings.”

The weekend will also feature free discussions, debates and workshops where audiences can engage and imagine what it feels like to experience mental illnesses.

One art installation, I am Hamlet by Jeff Church, features a mirrored box in which participants can place their heads and look at themselves whilst hearing Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

“It’s this idea that the speech, to be or not to be, is essentially a speech which is exploring suicide,” said Ms Halsall.

“If you do suffer with depression, then every day is a choice to be.

“It’s getting people to experience what that might feel like.”

Stories of Being will run from May 18-22.

For more information and to book tickets visit http://www.platformsouthwark.co.uk/storiesofbeing/

Image courtesy of Hysterical, with thanks

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