At last in the arts we are learning that embracing diversity is not about targets or worthiness but about removing structural barriers so that previously marginalised voices are foregrounded. So much innovation happens on the edges of the arts sector influencing those who have the privilege and resources to run with new ideas. This tendency, which stinks of cultural appropriation dressed up as cross-fertilisation, is so out of date: to be honest, we really should know better…
But my, oh, my – those structural barriers are robust and the obstacles facing artists with mental health needs are varied and deeply entrenched.
When I talk about arts and mental health 3 things usually happen:
First, there is the irritating assumption that the work is “therapeutic” and its value lies in “helping” people. If we were talking about ANY OTHER minority group in these terms we would be in deep water. But somehow it is still acceptable to talk about people with mental health conditions in this way rather than in terms of voice, inclusion and good quality art.
This is often followed by the hackneyed response that the arts are full of people with mental health needs – the “you don’t have to be mad to work here” mentality. To a point that is true – art mirrors life and life is full of people with mental health needs – 1 in 4 adults in fact – officially we are the largest disabled population in the UK. But when we talk about disability rarely are we thinking about mental health. Unfortunately, unlike any other disabled group the onus is still very much on us to normalise than on the sector to enable.
Finally, it never takes long for someone to point out that the arts are already full of mental health narratives – so what is the problem? The issue is one of ownership, of people like me reclaiming the right to tell our own stories - to tell them with courage and authenticity from a inside experience. So many representations of mental health in the arts are watered down oversimplifications that are at best well meaning and at worst perpetuate stigma and discrimination.
If I sound frustrated - I am. Artists like me have grown up internalising the stigma that we really ought to try to be “normal”. Until we have an arts sector that actively engages with our needs as legitimate access needs, this frustration serves me well. It’s meant that I can start to do things differently. In all my work I am experimenting with a mental health friendly making and touring processes, finding out and addressing what my needs are to do a good job. A broader dialogue between artists with lived experience of mental health is now long overdue, to enable relevant steps forward in developing new ways of doing, a sense of community, voice and representation within the sector.
So – as I pack my bag ready for my first ever Edinburgh Fringe I’m seriously looking forward to engaging with other artists and companies who are also hungry for that conversation.
On Tuesday, we start production week for the 2017 tour of I am Joan, my solo show which you can read more about here www.vivgordon.com/i-am-joan.html. I'm excited! In amongst the flurry of rather mundane activities like booking last minute accommodation, paying invoices for marketing and getting everything properly insured, I can feel a bubbling up of the passion which made me want to make this piece in the first place.
Wrapped up in a fun package of inspiring Joans, french accents, ridiculous tap dancing and punk rock - the subject of the piece is me, my mental health and the childhood abuse and trauma which I am still learning to live with. The point of making a show about it is that performing is the best way I know of speaking up, of shaping the chaos of my inner world into something that communicates, of starting conversations about the things we all find it too easy to stay silent about. In that respect the show is transgressive and transformative - not just for me personally but for the millions of us in the UK that share these all too common experiences.
Since our first tour last year - I have heard so many humbling stories, met so many brave people who have felt empowered to break the silence, connected with a number of courageous artists who want to make work about their own mental health stories and worked with a handful of arts organisations who are thinking differently about mental health access and inclusion and are willing to take real steps to do things differently to commit to nurturing new voices and audiences.
Its no exaggeration to say that while it is all very exciting and there is much to feel good about and look forward to - it is also seriously challenging. A lot of the process of making and sharing this work has been about working out how to do it without negatively impacting on my wellbeing. I'm happy to say we are doing a good job at that. I've got a lot of support in place - regular supervision, a personal assistant, a well thought through pre- and post-show schedule and an excellent team who are up for being in this difficult territory with me as allies. I know for sure that without all of this it simply would not be possible to do the show.
One artist I spoke to after last year's tour said “I'm very, very grateful that you have done this. The world needs more of this, I needed this. I long to make all the shit that has happened to me mean something. You have given me hope that I might be able to….”
Alchemy is the process of turning a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value. And that says it all really....
Last week I had the pleasure of launching my first ever programme of work as part of my Agent for Change role with Salisbury International Arts Festival - who it must be said are a rather lovely bunch of people.
We've been working together to curate MouthPieces, a new strand of the festival which celebrates the creativity of diverse communities. Embracing diversity is not about targets or worthiness it's about removing barriers so that we as audiences get to enjoy totally fresh, innovative voices and hear stories that might otherwise remain hidden.
This year, MouthPieces focuses in on work by artists, who like myself, have lived experience of mental health. I've been wanting to do something like this for ages - the arts are full of mental health narratives often told by people without lived experience - if we were talking about any other marginalised community we would be questioning ethics, appropriateness and cultural appropriation and quite right too! I feel strongly that I want to reclaim the right for people like me to tell our own stories.
After all with 1 in 4 adults in the UK experiencing mental health challenges in any year we are a massive minority group underrepresented in all sectors including the arts. My belief is that the stigma, shame and secrecy surrounding mental health has got in the way of us coming together, representing ourselves and getting our voices heard. We have a lot to learn from other disabled groups and marginalised communities. And I for one am learning fast!
MouthPieces is a wonderful step forward - tickets are on sale now at https://www.salisburyfestival.co.uk/ for a fabulous range of shows including Vici Wreford-Sinnott's Butterfly, Running Dog Theatre’s Wanna Dance With Somebody!, a film double bill from Jonathon Caouette and Carol Morley and a talk from Alistair Campbell. And free experiences include Aidan Moesby's interactive installation A Periodic Table of Emotions and Company Chameleon's Witness This.
My own autobiographical show I am Joan is obviously not to be missed (ha!) It is an irreverent comedy about trauma recovery through role modelling imperfect but inspirational pioneers including Joan of Arc, Joan Jett and Joan Rivers.
Finally, our Mouthing Off event showcases emerging and established regional talent with work-in-progress sharings from Emma Louvelle and Richard Crowe, a facilitated conversation asking why mental health voices matter in the arts and a full length piece Help! from Viki Browne.
So there is a great deal to interest and enjoy and I really hope to see some of you there.
Thanks for dropping in. More Soon.....