Saturday, 18 May 2019

MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK: How do we break the stigma? Writing a Mental Health Musical


Mental Heath Awareness week was started by the Mental Heath Foundation, who are in their 70th year, in 2001. Combating issues such as stress, relationships, loneliness, altruism, sleep, alcohol and friendship with this years theme being body image. 

Here at Pocket we put some feelers out to some of our friends who responded with such bravery and pride. Working in this industry we call 'show business' is tough at the best of times, Mental Health Awareness week is our chance to educate people and help us understand one another. 

Our mission as people who are in and adore this industry is to support and help everyone in it. To promote Mental Health Awareness week we have been joined by a few of our friends who have written some wonderful guest posts for us. The more we speak about this, the better. 

Matthew Rankcom is a recent graduate of the Guildford School of Acting and is also one of the writers of mental health musical, Perfectly Ordinary
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Setting out to write a musical about mental health is a daunting task. How can you possibly encapsulate the feelings of millions of people within (in our case) a 90-minute show? Do you stick to medical descriptions of each illness as your foundation or choose to base your characters around people whose experiences may deviate from a textbook diagnosis? There were many questions like this when I began to work on ‘Perfectly Ordinary’ alongside our composer Joe Wilson a little over two years ago. 

We knew that we wanted to create a piece that was universal and didn’t focus on a single character’s journey, but instead offered a broader representation of mental illness. It’s important to mention that it’s not the first time a “mental health musical” has existed; ‘Next to Normal’ was a revelatory insight into living with Bipolar disorder and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ will soon show the West End the story of a teenager struggling with extreme anxiety. There are other examples, but none that have had quite this level of success. The Arts can play a huge part in spreading mental health awareness, and by introducing it into popular art forms, we can normalise the struggles that so many go through in order to try to help people to feel less alone. The two aforementioned musicals have already made incredible progress where this is concerned. What they both have in common is a focus on a primary character and their personal circumstances, alongside soaring emotional numbers accompanied by a band of musicians. They are also both big budget Broadway musicals. Ours is a much smaller affair. 

We decided to set the piece on a NHS Psychiatric Ward, allowing for a range of people from different backgrounds to be featured in the story. Anchoring it in a firm reality meant that we could be very specific about the world in which our characters were interacting, rather than making it a song cycle, which was one of our initial thoughts. Our show features a pianist and a cast of seven characters, who are hopefully all equally explored and relatable to different audience members. Telling a range of stories was, and is, something that’s really important to me personally. 

My family have a history of mental health problems and I’ve grown up living with and learning about them, which I suppose is why I don’t see them as something to hide away from. We opted to base each of characters on real people that we’d both met; some briefly, some we knew very well (shout-out to my Dad who received a lot of annoying phone calls asking him about his emotional state). This allowed us to use scientific fact as a reference, but to explore the emotions and personalities of the characters without being weighted down by fact. After all, each person’s journey with mental health is completely different - something which I’ve definitely experienced and wanted to make clear in the show. 

That being said, a lot of research went into making sure that we never stereotyped or generalised about mental illness. As much as I drew on friends and family members, I was cautious of assuming that my experiences were the same as everyone else’s. I found in writing the book and lyrics is that specificity is key. Strangely, the more specific the character’s circumstances became, the easier it seemed to relate to them and to understand what was going on in their minds. A fear of the unknown is, in my opinion, a large element of the stigma surrounding mental health. By allowing audiences to get to know the characters and relate to them on a human level, it hopefully forces them to reflect upon their behaviour towards people struggling with their mental health. We don’t always know the story. 

A choice was made to not state the diagnoses of the characters, so that no walls of pre-conceived notions are placed between the story and the audience. This sort of relates to my attitude towards mental health when growing up; I never knew the full medical detail of what was going on around me so it didn’t scare or upset me. For instance, I knew that my Dad went through a really hard time and noticed that he was often at the doctors but it wasn’t until much later that I understood what Bipolar Disorder actually meant and made the effort to learn more and reflect on how difficult it must have been for him. 

“Let’s not be dramatic”

Connection is my main goal. I want people to leave the theatre having had a wonderful time, but it’s more important that they leave discussing what they’ve seen and reflecting on their own approach to mental health. Something I wanted to avoid was excessive displays of emotion in an attempt to tug at an audience’s heartstrings. Obviously there are times for this, but our aim was for a quieter and more contemplative feel. Comedic moments are key, and I took a risk by having characters make fun of their situation. Worried that this could cause offence, I was anxious when we staged our first Fringe production in Guildford last year, however it was clear to see that the audience appreciated the light relief when exploring what can be a heavy subject. Plus, isn’t it human nature to laugh at our own misfortune? Sometimes you have to laugh or else you’ll cry. 

Glamorising or over dramatizing mental health only helps build the stigma and feeds into the idea that it is ‘other’. In reality, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem each year (according to MIND UK). Do I claim to be an expert on all forms of mental illness? Absolutely not. Do I have a deep personal connection to the subject and a longing to share a small part of my experiences so that I may help other people to understand? One hundred per cent! Our point is that it’s a universal issue that people still shy away from talking about unless it’s presented in a heightened way. In my experience, it can be the smaller struggles that amount to more. The everyday coping and healing is what interests me. How can we help each other? I hope that, by talking about it enough, we can normalise some taboos and help them to be considered ‘Perfectly Ordinary’. 

As we arrive at #MentalHealthAwareness Week 2019, we’re in the planning process for our July production at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester with casting soon to be announced. To stay up to date, find us on Facebook and Twitter @OrdinaryMusical. You can help us spread the word about this Mental Health Awareness Musical by sharing this article, booking tickets, or taking a look at our fundraising page. Together we can break the stigma.

Written by Matthew Rankcom
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