Issue based (adjective) – based on or concerned with specific problems or concerns rather than an overall ideology.
It’s early June, and I’m sitting in a circle of Imaginate Festival delegates, discussing how children’s theatre can address the huge subject of children’s mental health. The conversation is wide-ranging and positive, touching on acclaimed shows like Titus (about a boy standing on the roof of his school, while a crowd gathers below, everybody wondering what he’s going to do) and Mess (about a teenage girl living with anorexia – pictured above). However a phrase keeps coming up that bothers me – ‘issue-based theatre’.
It comes up because it’s useful shorthand – everyone sort of knows what it means. Sometimes children’s theatre-makers are hesitant about tackling mental health, it is suggested, and perhaps this is partly because they’ve been put off by ‘issue-based theatre’ that didn’t stand up to artistic scrutiny. (Too narrow, perhaps, too didactic, or more like an educational tool than a work of art.)
This reminds me of a column last year by Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan, prompted in part by the programme launch for the 2015 Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF). While complimentary about the festival’s ‘sheer power and quality’, Joyce added: ‘I still can’t help feeling a twinge of unease at the growing need for arts projects to label themselves in this utilitarian and easily-legible way.’ The best works of art, she suggested, ‘utterly defy any officially approved idea of usefulness’.
As an example, Joyce cited the Edinburgh International Festival’s superb 2015 stage production of Lanark, concluding: ‘It’s worth remembering that great art finally tends to speak to us not because we belong to some particular interest group, but because we are human, bound up in the big story of humanity that sings through a novel like Lanark. And it’s a lazy culture, and a lazy funding system, that ever loses sight of that truth, and begins to use obvious utility as a criterion for interest and support, instead of striving to recognise the deep and often unnameable undercurrents of creative energy that power the greatest work, whatever its theme.’
Joyce’s column bothered me too. I don’t like the idea that my job, arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, is symptomatic of a ‘lazy funding system’ (she didn’t exactly say this, but still). I understood what she was getting at, though, and what those children’s theatre-makers were getting at. Artists want to make art, right? If the work you make has a prescribed social purpose – an ‘obvious utility’ as Joyce put it – does it not feel less like art?
To cite SMHAFF in such a discussion complicates things, for various reasons. The first thing to say, since Joyce was making a point about arts funding, is that SMHAFF is largely funded by the health sector. So it is right and proper that the health impact of the festival is a key concern.
However, the festival does also receive some arts funding – my own work over the past year, for example, has been mostly funded by See Me, Scotland’s campaign against mental health discrimination, but also by Creative Scotland. So I’ll respond to Joyce’s argument from that perspective, beginning with her use of the phrase ‘particular interest group’. At the risk of point-scoring, I can’t help observing that the audience for quite a lot of arts events consists of a ‘particular interest group’ – white, university educated, middle class people – and that SMHAFF is a notable exception to this, frequently reaching a wider audience, the reason being that much of the festival is programmed by community groups and volunteers (our core programming team is directly responsible for only a small fraction of SMHAFF, the majority of it being organised by regional co-ordinators across Scotland).
I’m also tempted to counter that mental ill health is itself hardly the preserve of a particular interest group. At SMHAFF we tend to talk about mental health rather than mental illness; it has less stigmatising associations, but also – and I think this is crucial – it makes the point that what we are addressing is not only the severe, crippling illnesses that afflict a minority of us, but also a whole range of everyday experiences from brief periods of depression to grief. All these experiences are a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Who are these people that aren’t affected by mental ill-health at some point, or haven’t had to look after someone who is? I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. In short, SMHAFF is demonstrably not about catering to a particular interest group, it is about establishing the idea that mental health is something that concerns all of us.
This is important because it’s an idea that mainstream society, still, seems to have a problem accepting. Why? Because, I think, it would force us to confront the fact that so many aspects of our daily lives are damaging our mental health. Instead, we are encouraged to think that there are normal people who are fine – these being the people who are, on the whole, willing to accept society as they find it – and other people who are not fine because they’ve gone through some kind of relatively rare trauma. This is demonstrably untrue. To choose one topical example, the problem of male depression and suicide is to a significant extent a problem created by the narrow, limiting role that mainstream society expects men to play. In other words it is not just exceptional experiences that are making men ill, but everyday life. This is one of the reasons why, when we began programming a conference on the arts and mental health last year, we called it The Dust of Everyday Life.
It is interesting to me that when people talk about ‘issue-based’ art, it often involves a process of othering. Theatre about being transgender, or disabled, or black, or a woman, or in poverty, is considered to be ‘issue-based’ (or, to quote the definition above, ‘concerned with specific problems’ rather than just being about the universal experience of being human). Theatre about being a default man is not. But the fact is, all of us belong to a particular interest group of some kind – it’s just that not all of them tend to be identified as that, only the ones that aren’t routinely allowed a voice. This certainly applies to the way people talk about mental health.
To be clear, I am not accusing Joyce McMillan of doing this, at least not deliberately. Still, I am interested in how work comes to be thought of as catering to a ‘particular interest group’, and the assumptions behind such labels. Lanark, after all, is written from the particular perspective of a white, male, heterosexual artist who lacks sexual confidence. If there isn’t a funding stream or a festival for such people, perhaps it’s because their voices are not exactly underrepresented in culture.
How, then, does all this apply to work made for children that explores mental health? This complicates things further. It is, I think, reasonable to argue that while the best theatre for adults is ‘bound up in the big story of humanity’ as Joyce described it, the purpose of children’s theatre is different because children are not yet able fully to understand or appreciate that big story of humanity. So instead it is about preparing them for the adult world. In other words, it has a prescribed social purpose. It is educational, even if not explicitly. And if you decide that the children’s theatre you are making is going to address mental health, isn’t that, by definition, adding on another layer of prescribed social purpose?
My answer to that is… not necessarily. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The subject of children and mental health has preoccupied me for a while now, both as a parent (I have three children) and professionally. How could it not, given the level of media coverage the subject has received in recent months? In March the World Health Organisation reported a 54% increase in the number of children being prescribed anti-depressants in the UK between 2005 and 2012. Three children in every classroom have a diagnosed mental illness, according to YoungMinds. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of exactly what is going on, since many statistics are up to a decade old, but austerity, and the way our education system is run, is certainly having an impact, and schools are not coping. In May the UK government sacked its children’s mental health champion, Natasha Devon, after she said that its own policies were making the problem worse. It feels worryingly like a crisis, one that schools do not have the resources to address.
It is, then, something that SMHAFF – and the Mental Health Foundation’s year-round arts programme – clearly needs to be talking about. And so we are. This year’s Dust of Everyday Life opened with a session on children, creativity and mental health chaired by Imaginate’s creative development director Fiona Ferguson (which you can listen to on Soundcloud). The delegate discussion at this year’s Imaginate Festival was a continuation of that conversation, and we are currently planning further events in a similar spirit, this year and next. This week I will be talking about some of this work at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, as part of the 2016 Public Mental Health Network day.
The question posed by the Dust of Everyday Life session was this: ‘how do we talk to children about mental health and what can artists do to help?’ My feeling is that artists have a crucial role to play, precisely because their role is not to be an educator, or a psychologist, or a campaigner, but simply to do what they’re good at – making really good art that comes from a place of curiosity, questioning, and empathy.
Art for children is, of course, different from art for grown ups. Firstly, since it is mostly made by adults rather than children, it is not created by the people whose stories it is telling (we were all children once, obviously, but that doesn’t mean we can remember with any clarity what it feels like). Secondly, children don’t usually decide to experience it by themselves. Adults decide for them. This presents particular challenges for an organisation such as Imaginate, which is exceptionally good at finding and showcasing bold, brilliant, experimental, boundary pushing art that children love. Before it can reach any children, it has to win over the gatekeepers – teachers and parents. This can be difficult if the work is exploring subjects – sexuality, perhaps, or body image, or grief – that alarm the gatekeepers.
“When you see work from other countries you see how much our attitudes towards children are reflected in the work we make,” Fiona Ferguson of Imaginate told me last year when I wrote about the Imaginate Festival (and Eilidh Macaskill’s Gendersaurus Rex research project on children and gender) for the Scotsman. “In the UK we often want to protect children but they don’t often have a loud voice. There’s a contradiction there – a lot of decisions are made by adults about what children can handle.” But are those adults always best placed to make those decisions, or are they part of a system that is harming – or at least not helping – the mental health of children?
Sitting alongside me at the Imaginate discussion this month was Emma Jayne Park of Cultured Mongrel Dance Theatre. A dancer and choreographer, Emma Jayne is passionate about making work that explores mental health, and recently became SMHAFF’s first associate artist. This year she is bringing a family show to the festival called Experts in Short Trousers, in which children help a group of aliens to rebuild their crashed rocket ship. From one perspective, the show has a social purpose – it is about empowering children to learn how to make their own decisions. But it connects with its audience primarily because it is fun, and the children feel an emotional connection with the alien characters, just as Mess connects with teenagers not because they are learning about anorexia but because they love the character and relate to her. At Imaginate, Emma Jayne talked about how she is sometimes able to reach out to school-children because she is not a teacher, or an authority figure. Teenagers feel able to ask her personal questions about her own mental health issues, she feels able to answer them, and a connection is made. For the Experts in Short Trousers tour, she has been wearing a T shirt with the slogan ‘I am not an expert’.
I am certainly not an expert on this subject, but I am attempting to learn. One of the things that makes me think the arts have a crucial role to play is the current campaign by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and chair of the organisation Upstart Scotland, to overhaul the education system so that children don’t begin school until they are seven – introducing a new ‘kindergarten stage’ from the ages of three to seven. This is not as radical as it may sound; Scotland is currently one of only six countries in Europe that sends kids to school at the age of four or five. Three of Europe’s most academically successful countries, Finland, Poland and Estonia, all send children to school two years later than Scotland does.
Palmer’s argument is that allowing children space to play is crucial to early development – and yet we neglect this in our obsession with teaching literacy skills. ‘When children are out playing that’s when they are developing resilience in a way they are designed by nature to develop it,’ she told the National last month. ‘We need to realise the self-regulation skills and the emotional resilience can develop in these early years. It is something you cannot teach. Grown-ups have this feeling that children’s minds are like their minds. They are not.’
This chimes with my experience of theatre for young children – the best of which tends to be about encouraging playfulness, and creating a space for that to happen. It has always been striking to me that a lot of children’s theatre-makers in Scotland – people like Emma Jayne Park, Eilidh Macaskill, Xana Marwick, and Brian Hartley – emerged from live art or dance, finding in both worlds an opportunity to play with, and subvert, the rules of theatre. Children, after all, create their own version of theatre from when they are toddlers, inventing characters and situations in the most freeform way. Children, left to their own devices, are much more free and experimental as artists than most adults are, and as audience members they are also more receptive to experimental work – often far more so than parents or teachers might expect.
Palmer’s research adds weight to the argument that children’s mental health is suffering because there is something fundamentally unhealthy about the way we make them live their everyday lives – sending them to school too early, forcing them into a stressful regime of constant tests, and not allowing them enough time outdoors. It would be naive to suggest that art or artists can fix all this, but I do think the lack of importance the arts are considered to have in children’s lives is having a damaging effect on children’s mental health. And, if I can, I want to help to do something about it, even if it’s just amplifying a conversation that’s already happening, which I am currently attempting to do in partnership with brilliant people like Emma Jayne Park, Fiona Ferguson at Imaginate and Alice McGrath of Red Bridge Arts, the producer of Titus.
I am very interested to hear from anyone else – artists, mental health campaigners, educators, children – who has experiences to share on this subject.