Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival to explore the ties that bind

This year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival looks at the things that bring us together, and also some of the things that keep us apart, writes Andrew Eaton-Lewis

One Mississippi PIC: Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival
One Mississippi PIC: Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival

For the first time since 2019, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival is about to stage a programme of live, indoor events all over Scotland. Being a mental health festival, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what this means for audiences and artists who have been living in lockdown for over two years. So, our festival theme this year is ‘Gather’. And we’re asking ourselves a lot of questions about what that word means. How does sharing a physical space with other people influence our mental health and our experience of art? Who are we leaving out of that experience and why? And when we can’t – or choose not to – come together physically, how else can we gather in a way that is inclusive? Here are ten things you’ll find at this year’s festival that reveal something about people’s very different experiences of gathering.

1. A downloadable knitting pattern Did you know knitting has a 200-year history of being used to treat mental illness? Esther Rutter, a Fife-based writer, knitter and knitwear designer, has already had much media attention for This Golden Fleece, her fascinating book about the social history of knitting. Now SMHAF has commissioned her to create a downloadable knitting pattern inspired by knitting’s mental health connections as well as her own experience of mental illness. She will also be gathering knitters together online via Instagram, Twitter, and the free-to-use craft website Ravelry. Follow Esther on Twitter at @erutterwriter for updates.

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2. Piano tuning as a metaphor for mental illness Canadian musician James Smith’s family has, collectively, lived with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In his theatre show Lessons in Temperament, he uses piano tuning to help tell a very personal story of – as the New York Times put it – “minds gone out of tune”. Lockdown put a stop to live performances so now it has been adapted into a compelling feature film and SMHAF is hosting its international premiere. CCA, Glasgow, 14 May.

Adura Onashile appears in the new film created in honour of Beldina Odenyo Onassis.

3. A story about four men in crisis In One Mississippi we meet four men – a Scottish Pakistani Muslim, an Indian Sikh, an Irish Catholic, and a recovering addict – who have all reached crisis point. Mariem Omari’s moving play, assembled from interviews in which men opened up about their mental health struggles, is a powerful reminder of how, across cultures, so much adult trauma is rooted in adverse childhood experiences. Touring Scotland throughout May, http://bijliproductions.com.

4. A return to a crumbling childhood home In her award-winning documentary Charm Circle, Nira Burstein tries to reconnect with her eccentric parents after discovering a trove of home videos from her childhood. Burstein is coming to Glasgow for the Scottish premiere of her film and will do a Q&A after the film. CCA, 14 May.

5. A tribute to a lost friend Beldina Odenyo Onassis, who died in November last year, was a hugely gifted singer, musician and writer who had worked with SMHAF on numerous occasions since 2017 while increasingly making her mark as an artist in both the music world and the theatre world. Her last public appearance was an electrifying performance of Kathryn Joseph’s The Bird at the 2021 Scottish Album of the Year Awards. Now Kathryn has recorded a version of Beldina’s song A Way From Rage – commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in 2019 – as an act of remembrance. It’s accompanied by a short film by Adura Onashile and Laura Cameron-Lewis, to be premiered on SMHAF’s opening day as part of Gathering on Stage, a showcase of this year’s festival programme. CCA, 4 May.

6. A journey into the underworld Winner of the Mental Health Fringe Award at the 2019 Edinburgh festival, All of Me by Caroline Horton is one of the most intense, uncompromising portrayals of depression ever put on stage. It’s also visually spectacular and darkly funny. Tron, Glasgow, 19-21 May.

Skye Loneragan PIC: Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival

7. A story about suicide prevention in Lithuania I’ll Stand By You, winner of SMHAF’s Feature Documentary award, is a remarkable documentary in which two women, a psychologist and a police officer, make a determined effort to reduce suicide numbers in rural Lithuania, supporting the loneliest members of their community through the most difficult of times. The screening includes a discussion with co-directors Virginija Vareikyte and Maximilien Dejoie, film protagonist Valija Šap, and Danielle Rowley from Samaritans Scotland, who have recently launched a new campaign aimed at reducing suicides among men in rural Scotland. CCA, 13 May

8. A tale of a new mother trapped at home In Skye Loneragan’s solo theatre show, Though This Be Madness, a new mother tries to make some sense of her dysfunctional family while stuck in her living room with a crying baby. Created pre-Covid, TTBM took on a new resonance during lockdown, during which Loneragan adapted it as a series of short films for SMHAF’s online programme. Now she’s finally getting to tour it around Scotland. The Studio, Edinburgh, 21-22 May (including BSL interpreted and babes in arms performances)

9. A conversation about who is excluded from gathering Lockdown may be lifting but there are still plenty of factors stopping people from attending gatherings, from mental and physical health to institutional prejudice. On 4 May, photographer Jo Chukaulim and film-makers Drew Taylor-Wilson and Bibo & Brian Keeley – all recipients of SMHAF’s new Gathering artist commission – will discuss how they’re exploring this theme in their work. CCA, 4 May (also available online after the event)

10. A schizophrenia road movie Riptide, director Tim Barrow's remarkable road movie, is the story of two strangers with schizophrenia who find a romantic connection. A low budget labour of love that has been warmly received at various festivals, it’s now touring the Highlands as part of SMHAF; two of the screenings include a director Q&A. Phoenix Cinema, Oban, 6-12 May; Universal Hall, Findhorn, 6 May; Highland Cinema, Fort William, 9 May.

Andrew Eaton Lewis is arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation. Full SMHAF listings at www.mhfestival.com.