Mental health, art and social change

Posted on September 27, 2016 by Basement

Our blogger Jonty had a chat to Lisa Brickell about her upcoming show Mockingbird, an exploration of an often-neglected topic in mental health through comedy, mask, music.

What can we expect from the show?

Mockingbird is an original play about family secrets, four generations of women and the unequivocal love we have for our children. With the show I aim to reduce stigma and create awareness around mental health and depression – especially post-natal depression. I look at how mental health approaches have developed over the last century, and offer hope and insight to build understanding, empathy and compassion.

NZ has one of the highest rates of depression and suicide in the world, but it is still often swept under the carpet and not talked about. With Mockingbird I want to address this by telling the story of postnatal depression as experienced by generation after generation of women in a single family. It is a comedy about depression – not a serious, depressing play about depression – which makes it accessible to a wide audience.

What inspired the show?

This show is based on my own story. I have had close friends and family suffer from depression and commit suicide, as I’m sure we all have. We think that suicide should be talked about. We think that not talking about an issue doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – bringing an issue out into the open is the first step towards understanding. Depression before being a mental health problem, is part of our human condition and we need to be open and honest about our own experiences and learn how to support each other through them.

The show was originally inspired by workshop I attended with Canadian Deb Filler on comedy storytelling, then I created the work through a combination of devising and improvising to create structure and text. This was then worked up into the first draft of the script. After presenting an initial shorter version of the work at the Maidment Theatre in 2014 as part of my MA in Drama, I further developed the script through an intensive week-long workshop with Giovanni Fusetti from Italy, in which we went deeply into the subject matter to produce a 60 minute version the Basement Theatre.

How much research was involved?

Quite a bit! Initial research involved talking with family members, which wasn’t always easy, as mental illness and suicide has always been something people prefer to cover up and forget about, especially in previous generations. It also involved reading letters, books and family histories.

After this, I interviewed many people who have suffered from PND more recently and talked about their experiences and the support they received, which has generally been much more positive than past generations, reflecting the way approaches to mental health are thankfully changing.

I also did a lot of factual and statistical research which has shown that postnatal Depression affects about 15% of new mothers and around 7% of new fathers. The risk is greater for those who have suffered from depression in the past without good support, or who have experienced a stressful event such as a trauma or the death of a family member or friend. postnatal Depression is greatly helped by support from whanau, friends and community.

How did (musician) Sarah Macombee get involved in the production?

Sarah and I both attended Deb Filler’s comedy writing workshop together back in 2013. She was interested in developing her story telling using spoken word, music and comedy. She was working on her own one woman show. It was a natural step to ask her if she would like to be involved with Mockingbird. Sarah hadn’t done anything like it before and we both had a feeling that we could create something pretty special together, so I asked her if she would be keen and she said yes.

What has been the most difficult part of the production?

One of the most challenging (and rewarding) parts of the production has been the discussion that the show raises around mental health, even before it has been performed. We have had some interesting comments on social media about how much can the arts really do to create social awareness and change.

I have always been really inspired by theatre makers such as Dario Fo and Franca Rame who have created very funny political comedies about very serious topics in order to raise awareness and inspire people to take action to change the injustices in society. They have won Nobel Peace Prizes for their work.

We believe the arts have a pivotal part to play in shedding light on areas in society which are frequently hidden or covered up, such as mental distress and well-being. For me, the power of comedy is really profound. To make people laugh. And think. And take action. The arts in most cultures have traditionally always played this role. From storytelling around the campfire, to the early clowns in the South Pacific who were called in by the grandmothers to make fun of the chief when he got too wrapped up in his ego and not focussed enough on the people, to the court jesters who spoke in riddles and made fun of royalty to Commedia dell’Arte in Italy, to many examples such as Fo and Rame in modern times.

Finally, of course, the power of humour and laughter is immeasurable when treating any kind of illness, whether mental or physical. This is why I am so lucky to run clowning and Commedia dell’Arte workshops and work as a Clown Doctor in hospitals and retirement villages.

Mockingbird is on in the Theatre from Oct 4 – 8. More information and ticketing can be found here. More of Jonty’s writing can be found on his blog.