“We still need to get into position where you can go to the chemist, say you’re having a panic attack, ask if they mind you meditating for a bit and no one will bat an eyelid, just like you might go for some cough sweets. Unfortunately we’re not there yet”.
Jim Pope, Director and CEO of company Playing ON, is striving for a change in society’s perception, or rather misconception of those suffering with mental health issues. The definition itself is broad and ambiguous, helmed in a grey area many are too afraid or embarrassed to enter. Various mediums have approached mental health with varying results but often there’s a lack of truth and consequently sufferers are left still stigmatised and cemented in prejudice.
Theatre has had huge economic and critical success with its assault on the subject, notably with The National Theatre’s production of People, Places & Things. As we chat in the Ortus building of Denmark Hill’s Maudsley hospital on a typically unpleasant January day, Pope chats about the project he and his team have been working on for the last three years.
“It’s an in-depth look at both patients and a psychiatry figure and his struggles in particular, showing the system is problematic for everyone.” Unlike other plays, which focus on the patients, Playing ON’s latest, Hearing Things has a keen eye for the bigger picture. It demonstrates that mental health can affect anyone and not just, say the economically downtrodden. It also tampers with a perhaps very British mentality of conservatism where we’d rather not hear about other people’s troubles – particular if they occupy a professional position.
“We don’t necessarily want to hear our psychiatrist is unwell but would be great if we could. We expect them to know the answers as they have a kind of symbolic power.” Pope elaborates.
Before Hearing Things became a play, the company were funded by the Guy St Thomas Hospital to gather data using a series of improvisation workshops which took place on inpatient wards – with some surprising, even astounding results.
“Patients were playing staff and vice versa and nurses were gobsmacked at the capabilities of these people (patients) and finding out they were say, an international chemist. The presumptive stereotype is conflicting and argumentative… a doctor discharged a patient on the strength of what he saw – which they hadn’t been able to in their previous weekly one hour meetings”.
Alongside writer and co-founder of Playing ON, Philip Osment, Pope has long fought for those marginalised and disenfranchised ‘outsiders’ of society. The company doesn’t look specifically at mental health, rather it aims to bridge the gap between theatre and social impact and engage these voices, allowing the demographic they come from to be secondary to their stories. Mental health is perhaps not generally thought of as health at all, especially in the public sphere – where global corporations like supermarket chain Tesco are still making ill-informed choices.
“They [Tesco] got into trouble recently by having a ‘lunatic in a strait-jacket’ Halloween costume. You wouldn’t laugh at a cancer sufferer like that. This is still a misconceived and problematic public image of mental illness,” says Pope.
Sufferers find difficulties envelop every part of their lives, however Pope believes theatre has a role to play in changing some of the perceptions and widening the debate.
“You couldn’t phone your employer and say I’m having a mentally unwell day and it be thought of as same as if had flu. It’s still a journey and we have to keep throwing about questions in drama, to make audience leave scratching their heads. We need to bring more awareness,” he explains.
The array of work Pope has crafted with such companies as The National Youth Theatre and the Lyric theatre as a mentor, trainer and consultant deals primarily with the young – and he says that the social aspect in tackling mental health issues is crucial.
“The key is early intervention,” he says. “Rehearsing real life situations is therapeutic and prevents the isolation as this is massively associated with mental health. Anyone not feeling alone is half the battle won”.
But what about older generations?
“There’s very little for older people feeling lonely,” he admits. “However there is a wonderful place in Borough’s St George The Martyr Church called the Dragon Café. It was set up by a woman mentally ill all her life, who died last year and is most remarkable place. Every Monday, 12-8pm there’s singing, yoga, gardening, a vegetarian café and performances. It feels like the perfect model and should be funded by the NHS. Why aren’t doctors prescribing a drama class once a week?”
Broadening the reach of art and the idea of conversing to gain real empathy is clearly very important to Pope. It’s all well and good having names like Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax vocalising their own battles with mental illness and the Royal Family supporting charities that urge sufferers to speak out but what do most people really think? Voices and companies like Playing ON, that ring truth; that have stories to tell and are not afraid to be unorthodox by society’s standards, aim to ‘normalise’ mental health, because this is what will contribute to improving the quality of life of sufferers.
Our minds are wonderful, precious but fragile things and we’re all on the brink of fragmentation at some point in our lives, so let’s have a conversation, educate and inform and make sure nobody has to be alone.