SMHAF launches Performing Anxiety, an ambitious new good practice resource for people wanting to make creative work about mental health.

  • Contributors include Bryony Kimmings, Selina Thompson, the vacuum cleaner, Caroline Horton, Mariem Omari (Bijli Productions), Robert Softley Gale (Birds of Paradise), Ross Mackay (formerly of Tortoise in a Nutshell), Tracy Gentles (Sick Festival), and Nye Russell-Thompson (StammerMouth).
  • Resource includes 60-page publication, five-episode podcast, in depth artist interviews, specially commissioned provocations, and an evolving set of good practice guidelines drawing on one-to-one conversations and focus groups with people across the arts industry.
  • Performing Anxiety is supported by funding from the Baring Foundation.

The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival today launches Performing Anxiety, an ambitious new good practice resource for anyone who wants to make live artistic work about mental health. Covering everything from autobiographical shows about anxiety and depression to participatory projects working with vulnerable people, the resource is online from today.

There will also be an online launch and discussion event on Tuesday 16 July, with special guests Mariem Omari of Bijli Productions and Nye Russell Thompson of StammerMouth, winner of the 2023 Mental Health Foundation Fringe Award.

Performing Anxiety draws on the expertise of professional artists from across the UK who have made groundbreaking work in this field in the past few years. These include: performance artist Bryony Kimmings, whose shows Fake It Til You Make It and I’m a Phoenix, Bitch blazed a trail for mental health themed live shows; maverick artist and activist the vacuum cleaner (whose projects include Balmy Army at the 2023 Manchester International Festival); Mariem Omari of Bijli Productions, whose shows If I Had a Girl… and One Mississippi have challenged some of the biggest taboos around mental health; and Selina Thompson, whose internationally successful solo show, salt, explored the generational trauma of racism and slavery.

Others who have contributed (so far) include: Caroline Horton (whose acclaimed shows Mess and All of Me addressed her struggles with mental health); Robert Softley Gale of Birds of Paradise, writer, director and respected advocate for accessibility in the arts; Tracy Gentles, co-founder of the Sick of the Fringe and now CEO of Sick Festival; Nye Russell-Thompson of Welsh company StammerMouth, whose show Choo Choo won the 2023 Mental Health Foundation Fringe Award; award-winning playwright Laura Horton, storyteller Sinead O’Brien; writer and former Tortoise in a Nutshell director Ross Mackay; Sabra Khan of BEDLAM mental health arts festival; playwright and director Julia Taudevin; Stellar Quines CEO Caitlin Skinner; producers Robyn Jancovich Brown and Stephanie Katie Hunter; writer-performers Amy Conway and Skye Loneragan; choreographer Roberta Jean; playwright Clare Prenton (whose show Men Don’t Talk will tour Scotland as part of this year’s SMHAF); and comedians Felicity Ward, Juliette Burton and Dave Chawner.

Performing Anxiety was created as a response to a significant increase in the number of artistic projects explicitly addressing mental health, often describing people’s lived experience of depression, anxiety, psychosis, bipolar disorder and childhood trauma. The resource exists in various forms – a five episode podcast, a 60-page publication, two specially commissioned written provocations by theatre-maker Selina Thompson and artist & activist the vacuum cleaner, a set of evolving good practice guidelines, and a series of interviews with artists, all available from today at www.mhfestival.com/performinganxiety.

Andrew Eaton-Lewis, Arts Programme Officer for the Mental Health Foundation, said:

In the past few years there has been a huge rise in the number of people making creative projects about mental health, especially in live performance and participatory work. In some ways this is a very positive thing, reflecting a reduction in stigma around mental health, but this new openness to talking about mental health has raised lots of questions about safeguarding and good practice in general.

The Mental Health Foundation has been leading on the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for almost 20 years now, and we are frequently contacted by people looking for guidance as to how to make creative projects addressing mental health without jeopardising the mental health of the people involved or affected.

There are numerous artists, producers and programmers who have become experts in this field over the past decade, sometimes through trial and error when making work about their own mental health. We thought it was time to bring together some of the learning in our creative community. It feels especially timely when the arts industry itself is in such a state of crisis that it is having a serious impact on the mental health of many people working in it.

Questions explored by Performing Anxiety include:

  • How do you share very personal mental health experiences with an audience without jeopardising your mental health?
  • How do you safeguard the mental health of people you’re working with?
  • What is good practice when it comes to consent?
  • How effective are check ins, access riders, wellbeing practitioners and other recent mental health initiatives?
  • What do producers and programmers need to know when supporting work about mental health?
  • What is the role of cultural leaders?
  • What needs to change to make the arts a more mentally healthy place to work?

Performing Anxiety is designed to be a living, evolving resource, and SMHAF expects its initial set of guidelines to be constantly updated and expanded in response to feedback, as it shares the resource across a series of live and online events throughout 2024 and 2025 and more voices join the conversation.

The first of these events will be an online launch and discussion on Tuesday 16 July, with special guests Mariem Omari of Bijli Productions and Nye Russell Thompson of StammerMouth. Free tickets can be booked here. There will also be a live Performing Anxiety event as part of a two-day Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival showcase at the CCA in Glasgow on 25 and 26 October, with further events to be confirmed. Feedback can also be shared by contacting the festival team directly at smhaf@mentalhealth.org.uk.

The 2024 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival runs throughout October with the theme ‘In/Visible’. Before that, the Mental Health Foundation will once again be presenting its Mental Health Foundation Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Fringe. Two of the award’s previous winners, Caroline Horton and Nye Russell-Thompson of StammerMouth, have contributed to the Performing Anxiety resource.