A new award has been introduced for the Edinburgh Fringe this year, celebrating work that explores mental health. The Mental Health Fringe Award (which will be run by the Mental Health Foundation with the support of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow and the Scotsman newspaper) is open to shows of all styles and genres that explore issues around mental health. In recent years the topic has been a prominent theme of many notable and critically acclaimed shows at the such as Bryony Kimmings and Timothy Grayburns, Fake It ’Til You Make It and Tom Gill’s Growing Pains.
One theatre maker who has always had this topic at the forefront of her theatre is Isabelle Kabban, founder of SpeakUp Theatre. The company aims to explore “the stories behind closed doors faced by young people: the small moments that become life changing, the underlying issues that make us who we are, and the strength within us all” with a heavy focus on mental health and the stigma surrounding it. Kabban herself has always been a vocal spokesperson for mental health support, working regularly with Mind UK.
Her latest show Cognitions draws from her own relationship with her mother who has bipolar disorder. The show tackles the complexities of living with a mental illness and the strain it can have on the family. It was premiered at The Garage Theatre, Norwich in June 2016 and from that performance was selected for the National Student Drama Festival 2017. The show was then developed by the company from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
We here at culturised spoke to Isabelle Kabban to discuss her work but also the wider topic of mental health in theatre and theatre as a form of social activism.
Have you seen any shows that you felt have been particular affecting in regards to discussing mental health?
Yes – Duncan Macmillan’s People Places & Things. It just nails the issue of addiction perfectly and forces the audience to think about how incredibly challenging life can be for drug/alcohol addicts. The final scene in that play is so brutally honest and truthful and perfectly depicts how difficult addiction can be on families.
I also saw Growing Pains [by Tom Gill, orignally premiered at the Fringe 2016] at Battersea Arts Centre and I thought it was so beautiful and important for a guy to talk about depression and feelings – we need more of that. I hope that show has allowed other men to open up too.
Why do you think theatre is an effective medium for this topic, and what led you to found SpeakUp Theatre?
Because you sit in a dark room and follow another human being’s story for an hour or two. Rather than reading about these issues in the news you can see a person go through these events in front of you and it is far more personal and affecting. It’s all about connection.
I founded the company after I wrote a short play in my first year of uni which consisted of monologues from the point of view of various sufferers of mental illness. I was surprised by how moved people were by the piece and I realised that being open about things people don’t always talk about can really affect people. The kind of theatre I want to make explores issues that go on behind closed doors. I want my plays to be like peering into someone’s head.
So tell us a bit about Cognitions
Cognitions is about a mother, Joanna and her daughter, Niamh. Joanna isn’t very well and Niamh is moving away to university. Their relationship is under a lot of strain and the looming reality that they have to separate seems to make things worse.
It examines the effect of bipolar disorder on family life. It’s a play about co-dependency, relationships and learning to be OK on your own. The story is told through a mixture of very honest scenes and more abstract physical sequences.
It has been amazing working with such a creative and inspiring cast who are never afraid to play or make mistakes. It’s been wonderful watching the play grow from just a few scenes of dialogue into an hour long piece and seeing how this has changed over time.
A lot of successful shows about mental health such as Fake It Till You Make It work in this almost autobiographical sense, with a very clear personal narrative. Why do you think that is?
I think any good theatre/art is personal. Whether you are a writer, actor, director or any sort of artist I think you bring elements of yourself into your work. Fake It Till You Make It was the ultimate example of this. I think knowing that a performer is bearing their deeply personal story to you on stage and not hiding behind a character allows you to feel even more engaged. Seeing people on stage being 100% truthful and not really “performing” is very exciting. When I watched the show I was in awe of Bryony and Tim’s bravery.
Has anything been particularly challenging or in fact rewarding in working from personal experience?
There are moments where someone on the team will call something out about a line I’ve written that I had never even thought of before. It can be quite an emotional experience to know that someone is connecting with and finding deeper meaning in events that have actually happened to you or someone close to you.
Overall it has been incredibly rewarding. The most amazing moments are when an audience member recognises a person or an experience that they are familiar with in the play. It’s like saying “hey I’ve been through something similar too”.
Cognitions has been in development for a year now. Was there one moment that was particularly affirming or rewarding in that time?
Someone who suffers with bipolar watched the first version of the show and their partner sent me a message after explaining that they had been deeply affected by it and that it nailed the portrayal of bipolar disorder and “it was weird seeing her brain on stage”. That has been the most rewarding thing without a doubt, and it was the moment when I decided I needed to keep developing it further. If I know that I have connected with one person then that makes me unbelievably happy.
In terms of the working environment of theatre making, do you think it help or hinders attitudes around mental health?
I suppose I can only speak from my own experience – working on a show is such an intense process and you become so close with the creative team of your play that I would hope there is a sense of openness in the room that helps attitudes towards mental health. When working on a play surrounding mental health issues we delve so deeply into the context of it and the experiences it is based upon that I hope this educates people and in turn helps attitudes. I guess the most important thing is openness, looking after each other And making sure you’re working with people you feel comfortable around. However, everyone’s experience is different.
Cognitions is showing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at the Olive Studio at Greenside @ Infirmary Street at 6:40pm. For tickets visit here.
Find more about the company via their social media.
.“New mental health arts award announced for Edinburgh Fringe”, Mental Health Foundation 22nd June 2017. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/new-mental-health-arts-award-announced-edinburgh-fringe