Winner of the 2018 Mental Health Fringe Award, we are delighted to welcome Electrolyte back to Scotland for a week of dates as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019. We spoke to writer James Meteyard about what inspired him to create the show, the collaborative process that brought it to life, and the success it’s had so far…
Electrolyte is a show about somebody experiencing a psychotic episode. What made you want to tell that story?
A close family member of mine went through a psychotic breakdown. This was exceptionally difficult as we lost them inside their own mind and fantasy for a while and we were scared we wouldn’t get them back. The episode was brought on by a series of tragic events that came in close succession to one another and it made me think that this is something that could happen to anyone. My family member was lucky as they had a lot of people around them who supported them and lucky they have made a full recovery. But I realised that there must be so many people who don’t have that support network or perhaps don’t realise that they are someone’s support network. I wanted to write a piece that both showed the power of the mind through one person’s experience but also championed the importance of community and togetherness in combating poor mental health.
Have a lot of audience members wanted to share their own stories with you? What has that been like?
Yes. After almost every show in Edinburgh last year. The way the piece is presented is quite unconventional, it’s very much a group of friends playing a music gig as a way to tell you a story. It’s informal and doesn’t feel like a traditional theatre show so by the end of the 70 minutes the audience really feel that they have met and got to know the characters, whilst going on Jessie’s (the main character) journey. This led people to come up to us straight after the show had finished and share their experiences with depression, anxiety, self harm, suicide, psychosis – the list goes on. This was incredibly powerful as it goes to show how common mental health problems are! The stigma that suggests mental health problems are abnormal is not only damaging but it simply isn’t true. Hearing different people’s stories has been remarkable and the impact that the show has had on people is extraordinary. I can’t wait to share this story further and to continue encouraging conversation around mental health.
It seems like creating Electrolyte was a very collaborative process – can you tell us a bit about how the show came together?
I wrote the script with Olivia Sweeney in mind for the lead character Jessie. We talked a lot about my personal reasons for wanting to tell a story about mental health and also hers. I wrote a first draft, bouncing ideas off her along the way. I then approached Maimuna Memon to play Allie Touch and to write the songs this character sings as well as take a lead on developing the underscore. We then brought Ben Simon & Chris Georgiou on board and together we all developed the score, through a lot of trial and error, play and conversation. It was important that the score was always an extension of Jessie’s experience and never just there for the sake of it. We were supported by The Watermill Theatre and Theatre Clwyd with a week of free development space at each theatre to do this. We then had a four week rehearsal process in London where we were joined by Megan Ashley and our director Donnacadh O’Briain. It was here we finished the development of the score and did most of the redrafts on the script. Donnacadh pushed to strip back the story so it rips along with the pace of a live gig, sweeping the audience up. We developed a style of playing the piece which feels very ‘knockabout’ but underneath the pretence is an extremely tight production that took weeks of rehearsal to realise.
What did winning the 2018 Mental Health Fringe Award – among numerous other prizes – mean to you?
It was a real honour. Through the process of developing the show and the difficulties of getting something so ‘tech heavy’ to Edinburgh, in some ways, I’d forgotten the intention behind why I’d written it. But the moment audience members started reacting to the piece so strongly I started to remembered that at its heart it’s about the importance of starting a conversation with those around you. But mental health is a difficult and delicate subject and, if dealt with badly, it can be quite damaging or not useful to develop a show around certain themes. So there was always a fear in the back of my mind that maybe Electrolyte was bad – or even worse – damaging to those people it was trying to speak to. The audience reactions were a phenomenal reassurance that this wasn’t the case but to win the Mental Health Fringe Award was then the ultimate legitimisation that this story is one that should be told.
You’re about to set off on a huge tour of the UK and Ireland. How are you feeling about it?
Stressed! Nervous! Excited! A mixture of all three? It’s truly overwhelming. Anyone who knows me knows that I set out to tour this piece when I started writing it. I said I wanted to do the Edinburgh Fringe 2018 and then tour it in 2019 with an outreach programme attached providing free workshops and discussions around mental health. We’re now doing that… to 32 different places across the UK and Ireland and it’s honestly one of the most amazing/difficult/incredible things I’ve ever done. As I write this we’re in rehearsals and it’s such an honour to work with these talented people again. I just can’t wait to get on the road with the group of people who I have the privilege to do this show for the next ten weeks with!
Do you know what you’re going to do next?
We’re returning to the Edinburgh Fringe with Electrolyte this year and I’m developing a new production with a theatre company called The Big House which we’re looking to tour next year. I also really want to develop a piece of gig theatre exploring male suicide in the Autumn – possibly for Edinburgh next year although who knows!
Electrolyte is a multi-award winning piece of gig theatre that powerfully explores mental health for a contemporary audience. Written in spoken word poetry and underscored by original music ranging from “blasts of sound to lyrical sweetness” (★★★★★ The Scotsman), this exhilarating and powerful show is performed by six multi-instrumentalists who seamlessly integrate live music with expert storytelling. We’re delighted to welcome the show back to Scotland for a week of dates at the Traverse Theatre and Tron Theatre.