How the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival learned to love the internet

The shock of having to put the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival online is tempered by the realisation that it can now reach a much wider audience than with the pre-coronavirus tickets and theatres model, writes Joyce McMillan

Amy Conway

On screen, a woman is leaping around on a small stage furnished with a few brightly-coloured cubes and a flickering screen. She talks, and the screen shows images; and she also engages with the audience, who very soon find themselves involved in a series of simple, non-threatening games – rearranging themselves along their row in order of height, or according to eye colour.

The show – filmed in what now seem the faraway days of live entertainment – is Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World, first seen on the Edinburgh Fringe three years ago. It’s a fascinating show that, among other things, explores the possible positive impact of onscreen gaming on the mental health of people who may otherwise feel helpless and disempowered; and it’s one of three past shows, selected from previous festivals and now available on video, that form part of the programme for this month’s Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, now appearing online following the cancellation of all this year’s live events.

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This weekend marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week across the UK; and in normal times, the SMHAF would form part of a UK-wide festival of live shows, exhibitions, film screenings and events designed both to raise awareness of mental health issues, and to explore the role of the arts in supporting people with mental health problems, and in changing public attitudes. Since the SMHAF was launched in 2007, its ground-breaking work has helped inspire other similar festivals across the UK and beyond; this year, for example the SMHAF is collaborating for the first time with the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival, which first took place 2013.

And although the cancellation of live events has come as a blow to the SMHAF’s growing community of artists, audiences, and mental health professionals, the festival has been able to mount an impressive programme of online happenings, ranging from live socials hosted by the associate artist Emma Jayne Park, to the showing of films from the SMHAF International Film Award programme and the purposeful reworking of existing or planned material for lockdown times. Writer/performer Sky Loneragan, for instance, is working to recreate her 2018 show Though This Be Madness – about a woman struggling with the sleep-deprived craziness of early motherhood – as an interactive piece of online theatre, staged from her own living room; and after an open call-out in March to artists interested in working on the theme of “isolation,” the festival has commissioned five new online artworks featuring the wisdom of people who, for whatever reasons, already understand the experience of isolation.

“What we’re finding” says former Scotsman arts editor Andrew Eaton-Lewis, who is now arts lead for the Scottish Mental Health Foundation, “is that the process of moving the festival online raises profound questions about accessibility, and what we mean by it. Social anxiety is a huge factor in many people’s mental health problems, which means that they can find live events challenging, as well as expensive to get to; and the fact is that they often find it easier to encounter other people online, from home. We’re also finding that the voices of artists with disability are if anything being amplified by this situation, given that they often have experience of working creatively with restrictions that few other people had experienced, until lockdown.

“So what I’d hope, from this year’s festival, is that we’ll be able to learn a lot more about how to make our live events, once we return to them, much more accessible, to the widest possible range of people. It does seem that this crisis, and the move online, is making some aspects of the arts much more available to people who would normally feel excluded from them; and I think we perhaps need to explore running more events that are both live and online, and to work out what else we can do to make the whole business of live performance more approachable.”

The SMHAF and the artists involved in this year’s programme are not alone, though, in exploring what the arts have to offer in facing up to our society’s mental health crisis; and one of the richest seams of exploration, in recent years, has come from the Leith-based company Creative Electric, led by writer and director Heather Marshall, and recognised for leftfield projects including last year’s Fringe show The Happiness Project, and inspired visual street theatre like the cross-dressing love-and-marriage show, Church of Broccoli. And Marshall – who has her own history of mental health problems – is also finding that the slowing-down caused by the Covid crisis is reducing some of the pressures that often contribute to mental distress.

“I’m not suggesting there are no problems,” says Marshall, who is also a primary carer for her mother, “and I know there will be new problems and stresses created by the lockdown; I certainly had a moment of real panic, back at the beginning, when most of my work just disappeared overnight.

“For me, though, and for many people that I’m in touch with, there’s now a definite sense of having more time to look after myself, and of being freed from the intense pressure to work to other people’s schedules that came with the pace of life before the crisis. For me and my mother, there’s also a much stronger sense of the community around us, as if all our neighbours have had to slow down, and begin to understand how it feels to be largely confined to home. I’m lucky enough to have my own little balcony, at my flat, and I’m out there blowing giant bubbles half the time, and the kids on the estate are all out watching me, having a laugh.”

Marshall is also now working – along with her 12 year-old godson – on a new lockdown commission from Scotland’s children’s theatre organisation, Imaginate, called My Auntie’s A Vandal, which explores the idea of individualism and self-expression in an over-controlled society, and is partly designed to reach children – including those from refugee families – who may not have easy access to the internet. “We’re going to be encouraging a bit of legal graffiti art,” says Marshall. “What’s strange about this time is that being online is what’s keeping us all connected – I’m getting great support from groups like the performer Scottie’s UK-wide working-class artists network – and yet it’s also offering us time to take life offline, a bit. To walk down to the beach, and blow a few big bubbles, you know? And that can’t be bad.”

The programme for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2020 is available at www.mhfestival.com/2020. Find out more about Creative Electric at www.creative-electric.org