Ross Mackay

Ross Mackay is a theatre-maker and writer who lives in Aberdour. As artistic director of theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell, his productions toured the world and won numerous awards; the company’s shows include Fisk, a show shaped by Ross’s experiences of living with depression. 

Since leaving Tortoise in a Nutshell in 2020, Ross has worked as a commissioned poet and a writer of the children’s books Will and the Wisp and Daddy’s Bad Bed Day, both of which were also inspired by his experiences of depression. More recently he has returned to working in theatre as a writer..

We interviewed Ross in January 2024 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

I feel like a good place to start is a blog you wrote in September 2018, called Must The Show Go On?, in which you were very honest about your mental health and what was going on with you at that time. Can you talk aabout why you decided to write it and what the response was?

I had quite rocky mental health since I was a university student, and at that point it had got quite bad; I’d had a few suicide attempts and mental health interventions. But even during those periods I was still working. When I did Arabian Nights with the Royal Lyceum Theatre as a puppetry director, in December 2017, it was really bad at that point. I was going into psychiatric hospitals, just short periods and short stays, but one of them I was going in overnight because they felt like, for my own safety, that was important. And then I was insistent that I would come back out and go to work, because I knew the show was being made and because I felt like, you know, I can’t let the show down, I’m employed, I am the only puppetry director there. 

And I didn’t let a lot of people on the team know. I let the director know, but coming off the back of that, and coming into a period where it was actually getting a little bit better, I started to reflect on that and how that was really not healthy. I wasn’t giving my body the time I needed to recover, and to really take some space. And part of that was what’s instilled in that performing arts culture – the idea that ‘the show’s the thing’. Even in my training, say there was a flu going through the actors, it was really laudable that you’d got in, you were seen as sort of letting the side down if you missed rehearsals. Reflecting back on that, I was like, that’s really not healthy for me, and so that’s where the blog came from.

I got a really warm response from people who were recognising that conversation, a lot of people who then opened up to me about their own mental health that they hadn’t maybe opened up about before. And even in subsequent years people have said that it helped them, that even putting that ball out there had helped them to have a conversation. 

The other side of it, which looking back wasn’t great, was that I also got approached with job offers. Different organisations approached me to speak to them about mental health and it was one of the first times I’d said no to jobs, because I was like ‘actually, I’m talking about lived experience, I don’t have any anything to offer.’ I was approached with ‘Could you do a workshop on resilience? Could you do a workshop on mental health awareness?’ I don’t have any expertise to do that, I’d just written about my own lived experience. But now suddenly, I’m getting approached about things that are totally outwith my wheelhouse.

That’s interesting; it suggests there weren’t many people at the time who were offering those workshops?

It was really interesting. Obviously people were starting to have the conversation about the need for that, but it felt like they hadn’t made the links to ‘who actually does Mental Health First Aid training?’ Or ‘who actually does this kind of stuff?’ because they were pushing me as an artist to do it. So there were two or three organisations in Scotland that approached me, but if anything that blog is about how I’ve done it wrong. I don’t have a solution.

It’s quite the irony for an organisation to read a blog by someone saying ‘I am not coping with the work that I’m doing’ and then offer them work. 

Yeah I know!

And that in itself says something about the culture. But the other irony here, of course, is that you had just made a show about depression, Fisk, which went on to tour Scotland in 2019. If I’m remembering rightly, in talking about the show hadn’t you been quite open about living with depression?

Yeah I had and actually, did you say the blog was in September 2018?

September 2018, yes.

So we opened Fisk in Denmark in October 2018, so they must have been alongside each other, and then we toured it in the UK around January, February and March. And I had been very open about my mental health in that process. The idea had come from my mental health journey. And so I felt it was important that I could be quite frank about that in the process, and also I was really careful in who, as a team… I was working with Arran (Howie) and Alex (Bird) as performers, I had known them by that point maybe over a decade, and we made sure the collaborators that came in were quite close to us. And we created an advisory panel of people who had lived experience, either through caring for someone with mental health difficulties or having mental health difficulties themselves, who came in at various points and offered their perspective on what they were seeing from the show. But on reflection, looking back, what we didn’t have in there was anyone we’d employed as mental health support.

It’s interesting, now I’m doing a project with the National Theatre of Scotland, and it’s not even about mental health, per se but there’s depictions of violence and trauma. And they instantly said, ‘we employ counselling services that anyone from NTS can use.’ That’s very different that they have that almost on retainer, because with Fisk we didn’t have any of that. And I think, looking back, that was the big gap, because all the conversations were about the show. Reliving the trauma wasn’t about me processing it emotionally or psychologically, it was about sort of using that as material. But then there was no aftercare for me having brought those memories up and trying to process them. 

Were you aware of the show making you emotionally vulnerable?

No, and you know, even you saying that blog was September 2018, I hadn’t connected those dots. Even now I’m like, oh yeah. So I don’t think I was super aware of it making me vulnerable at that time. But looking back on it – and pretty soon looking back on it, when the show was touring – I was like, Oh, wow, I’ve opened up a lot there without actually thinking about my own wellbeing.

Do you have a sense now of the impact the show had on you?

Not directly. It’s hard. I am pretty sure it will have had an impact. But what I find very hard, with my own mental health, is that when I go through periods of depression, anxiety, I squash my memories of them quite a lot. There’s a sort of running joke with my wife, because there’s a hotel near us and quite a few times I have said to her, ‘I would really like to go there for dinner one day, I think that’d be quite nice for dinner.’ And eventually Emma was like, ‘Ross, we went there three or four times.’ But it was all times when I had been around a psychiatric hospital and so I just squash those memories when it becomes quite traumatic. But I am aware that from that point onwards I was in quite a bad mental health cycle. From the making of Fisk onwards until I left Tortoise in a Nutshell, the cycle was quite bad and every production I went into was having a deteriorating impact on my mental health, even if it wasn’t necessarily related to mental health. 

For the record, can you talk a bit about Fisk and the story you were trying to tell?

Yeah. So it was a visual theatre piece. I described it as a theatrical poem, an extended metaphor in which a man is on a paper ball in the middle of a big silk sea, and the waves continually get stormier and stormier, and there’s this giant fish, another performer who’s trying to get onto the boat and take him through different sort of exercises, and what we realise at the end of the show is that this is a man who’s going through a period of depression and the fish is actually his partner who’s trying to get through to him. And it ends in a helpful way of her managing to pull him a little bit out of that period of mental health. He isn’t cured by it, but he’s managed to reach out to her and to open up and talk to her. So he is almost completely silent through it. And then at the end, the last moment is him just going (intake of breath) as he’s about to speak. 

It had come from my own struggles with mental health, particularly as a student, the first time I had real difficulties with mental health and my inability to talk about it. In the show we use origami paper boats, but in my real life experience it was a jigsaw puzzle that I did with my dad. He didn’t speak to me about mental health, we just did a jigsaw puzzle together.

That seems to be a very common approach among men, to do activities together rather than talking seems to be helpful, like with the Men’s Sheds movement. I remember we spoke about Fisk at the early stages of making that show, how it was very important to you for it to feel authentic, which was why you were wanting to reach out to people who had gone through that. You had your own experience to draw on and yet you still felt you needed something else to give it authenticity. 

I felt like it was really important to listen to different sides of it. So we wanted to speak to people who were caring as well, so that we had that other side, not just my own perspective, but also to sense check what my story was, in some ways, to see that it would resonate with other people. And that other people felt ‘oh, yeah, I can recognise that’. What our hope was, with that show in particular, was that it would facilitate opening up conversations around mental health. And so bringing in other people was about sense checking, and also making sure that what we were talking about, although it was specific, touched on universal struggles with mental health, if that makes sense.

And do you feel like the show did open up conversations?

I think so. It was really well received on tour in Scotland in particular. It struggled in Denmark (to open conversations) but I wonder if, because we weren’t from that culture and community, we weren’t able to facilitate a lot of those conversations. So we did a lot of wraparound workshops in Scotland; we reached out to different communities, support groups and things like that, and invited them along. And then it went to Montenegro for their children’s festival, and that was really interesting because they did a lot of workshops themselves with young people, and that was really interesting, how it facilitated conversations around young people’s mental health – older teenagers, 14, 15 or 16. It’s always hard to tell because maybe some of those conversations go on behind closed doors.

You mentioned workshops in Scotland. Was that something you ever took part in yourself?

No, I actually didn’t tour with Fisk, so Arran and Alex, when they took it out on tour, did a lot of the workshops around it. And they weren’t necessarily mental health workshops, if that makes sense, it was more like, ‘how did we explore that theatrically?’

Looking back, what support would you have liked to have been in place?

I would have definitely appreciated having someone to speak to outside of the process, (outside) the making of the show. It would have been really useful for me to have had someone just to check in with, even if it was once every couple of weeks, to talk about my own mental health in that process. The other thing, looking back on it, is longer breaks. We were doing six day weeks in the rehearsal process, and it doesn’t give you a lot of time to rest and recuperate. If I am working through something that’s quite a traumatic, to have one day off, you barely switch off. And because the team was quite small, even then we had a lot of conversations on that Sunday. I’d be speaking to my lighting designer, filling them in with things. So I think having more space would have been really useful.

Ultimately, though, you left Tortoise in a Nutshell. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yeah. We went through different processes. In London in early 2019 I was making a puppet show called Prince Charming and I was having a difficult time. My mental health was particularly bad. I went to London at a point where I was struggling a lot with it, I was working with a company that I didn’t know, and I was in digs and didn’t really know anyone. So I was quite alone and quite isolated, and I ended up taking an overdose there and coming out of the production. From there, I was signed off for quite some time because obviously that was quite serious. 

But because our (Tortoise in a Nutshell) show Feral was heading to New York for an extended run, I wanted to be over there for that. We’d worked really hard to get it to there. And so I sort of worked to be healthy to do that. And it was a struggle, and I struggled a little bit while I was there, but we managed and that was a big success. And then we were heading off. And so from the overdose in the January, then Feral in the summer, I was then heading off at the end of the year to make a big show called Ragnarok with Tortoise in a Nutshell. We were going to be in Norway for seven weeks in the winter, and I went out there feeling quite good, but I got really progressively worse while I was there to the point where my mental health was getting really bad, I was really struggling with leading the rehearsals and feeling the pressure of that, and it had been the first show that I’d made since Prince Charming. 

In retrospect, having had a bad process on a small show, making your first show back a really huge show, and being in Norway, wasn’t the best! And again I ended up having to step off that production. And what happened was my parents came over to support me. So it was quite a big deal. I didn’t overdose or anything but I was in a really bad state. And so I then got signed off again. And it was at that point that I started to look back, actually feeling like I can’t do this, I can’t make shows, whatever I was able to do before, my mental health was too bad. And so I was signed off until July 2020. And in that period of being signed off, I started to realise that, the idea of going back to Tortoise was really worrying to me. And so I was then signed on to sabbatical.

And then the COVID pandemic happened. And I felt a really sudden release, because everything stopped and there was no pressure for me to go back to anything because everything had locked down. And I was one of those people who really embraced that because suddenly it felt like everyone else had been signed off with me. And then from that feeling, I realised that actually I needed the break. And I think by March I’d decided I was going to leave Tortoise. I got a little bit of work writing marketing blogs for different companies, and that kept me going, and from there I wrote books. And from there, I’ve come back into theatre as a writer, rather than as a director, and been able now to be involved in productions and shows and seeing a show through. But I think what I needed was that break and that chance to step away completely for a bit.

So was it March 2020, right at the beginning of lockdown, that you stepped away from Tortoise?

Yes, right at the beginning. December 2019 I was signed off and I was offered the chance to go on sabbatical until July but in March I decided to step away completely. And it’s been really beneficial for me, partly because I’d got myself into a cycle of guilt over having my mental health breakdowns. So then when I was coming back from them, I felt like not only did I have to make up for the lost time, I had to work extra hard because Aaron and Alex had been carrying the can for me. And so I got myself into a difficult cycle. Now I’m sort of working for myself I find my mental health management so much easier. Working for a company, you were employing people, bringing people on for a gig, I was the director and if I wasn’t there, things stopped or got held up. So other people couldn’t do their jobs because I wasn’t doing my job, and that was really difficult. Whereas now, as a writer, I can do my job at my own pace a lot more. And if I can’t get into a rehearsal room one day, people still make stuff. So switching roles has been really important for me.

It sounds like it was quite a long process of realisation to get you to that place. You wrote the blog in September 2018 and you said you were signed off work at that point, and yet only months after that you’re doing this big show in London, and then it sounds like you were signed off two more times after that?

Two more times I think it was. Basically what would happen is I got to the doctors, would be signed off, and then I would desperately work to get back to work, I would desperately try and get myself to a point where I could get back into work. So the focus for me – and it took me a long time to realise that – was not me feeling better, the focus was ‘I can survive a day at work so I’ll go in’. It wasn’t that I felt like the anxiety had reduced or that my suicidal feelings had reduced, but that I managed to get them enough under control that I wasn’t dangerous. Looking back, that was a really bad cycle that I had got caught in for quite a few years. And even that blog came out of a period of doing this for a while and then still not managing to recognise it, even though I’d written the blog about ‘the show not doesn’t need to go on’. I still didn’t live that.

It’s hard to get out these cycles, isn’t it? 

Yeah, and it’s hard because mental health support from the NHS comes in at a point of crisis, and not necessarily a point of prevention. It mean, it can, but for instance I’ve just finished in December doing a course with the psychology team, and I had been on the waiting list from a mental health incident in March last year, and I’ve just finished a course that was put in place for that, so I was already on the other side of it, but because of waiting lists it makes it very difficult. I would get that intervention at a crisis point, and then I would get to the point where I felt healthy enough but I hadn’t actually processed it, you know, I just got in and got myself back to work. And so I wasn’t giving myself the time. Also with the NHS care the lead in time was too long for me to have properly got what I needed.

Do you still find yourself in these cycles of wanting to work but it not being good for you?

Yes, although it’s a lot easier doing it as a writer. As a director it’ll be four or five weeks of really intense work, whereas with a writer, although there are deadlines, you have maybe two or three months, so I’m finding that easier. But I still go through mental health depths. It’s not always necessarily related to work, but often, looking back, it’s because I’ve got myself into a period of business. I was chatting to someone just recently about how no one tells you the point where you start to be able to say no, because you start as a freelance artist, you say yes, the work comes, and no-one says actually you can start to say no to projects now. And it can be feast or famine, so you’re scared sometimes to say no to work. So it’s taken me a long while to learn that it’s okay for me to go, ‘I’m going to turn that down’. And even though that’s scary, because that was a few thousand pounds that I may never get, something else will come along at a better point.

I do get the sense from talking to people that the artists who are able to put these kinds of boundaries in place, or are able to get the mental health support they need, tend to be people who have come to that realisation themselves. It’s quite rare that somebody else is stepping in and saying ‘no, you need to slow down’. And organisations are not necessarily very good at that because they need the product.

And also they’re getting little slices of you, right? As a freelance artist, it’s only you that is able to see the whole picture of what you’re doing. The National Theatre of Scotland, for instance, at this moment is offering me support but on another project there’s no support, and that other project is probably more related to my mental health. So you’re siloed a wee bit, So you’re maybe working on two or three projects at once, and no one’s able to go, ‘Whoa, you’re doing a lot.’

No one’s able to see the whole picture. That’s interesting, and as you say mental health support varies from project to project, or even within a project. I was talking to a theatre maker recently, who for a first stage of development had had all these things in place, and then when they moved on to the next stage, because it’s a different team and different funding, that was all gone. But it’s the same project, same needs.

And the same exact things you’re exploring, yeah. And also, learning to put your own boundaries (in place) and learning to ask for those things is really difficult because you know the pressure projects are under. Especially with Tortoise, I was intricately involved in all the budgets and all the different needs and me and Aaron and Alex would take our salaries last to make sure everyone’s getting paid. So to ask for something for yourself when you know the budget and the project was really hard. It’s a lot easier now. Maybe something that’s useful to say was that at the point when I left Tortoise I was thinking of leaving the performing arts completely – as I say, I was writing marketing blogs – and Fiona Ferguson at Imaginate offered me a chance for some mentorship. And it was very open ended, it was like, you know, if you decide at the end of it that you leave the industry that’s fine. But I was paired up with Robert Softley Gale and Robert helped me to write an access rider. And that was a huge thing for me, and has been really beneficial in terms of just putting it out there. And what I’ve found has been really interesting is that people have really responded to and asked about my needs. And so that’s been really nice.

Can you describe what’s on your access rider?

It talks about my mental health, and it talks about methods of communicating with me, it talks about what’s useful for my working patterns, and I’ve got a neurological condition so it talks about that quite a bit as well, the different terms I use, and the different things I might need. What it does, more than setting rules or anything like that, by giving it to people then the conversation opens up, and then we can sort of tailor things but the conversation starts from the access rider if that makes sense. Although it facilitates the conversation not necessarily being about the product. Your conversation is about this access rider, rather than, ‘okay, we’ve got this show, and how are we going to do this? Maybe there’s a wee bit of budget here.’ It sort of separates the conversation out a little bit, and I find that useful, because when you start the conversation about the access rider, and then when it comes to the product you’ve already had the conversation, if that makes sense. 

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been having some very interesting conversations about access riders. It seems like they’re becoming standard practice now in terms of disability, or neurodivergence, but not necessarily in terms of mental health.

No. And it’s interesting, because when you see the access rider it’s around my neurological condition, but actually the biggest thing that prevents my neurological condition is actually being quite mentally resilient. It’s called functional neurological disorder and it’s quite closely linked to stress. Although it’s neurological, it’s psychological. So it’s your your brain’s response to stress or tiredness. And so what happens is my body removes me from situations, almost like an epileptic fit, like I have a seizure. But it’s very closely related to my mental health. And if I’m in a period of bad mental health I’m also in a period of having attacks. So what happens is I send the rider and the neurological condition opens up conversations, but once I have the conversations it’s all about my mental health management in the project. So it’s interesting you saying that because my access rider is definitely framed more around the neurological thing than my mental health.

Well, one question I’ve asked a couple of people is ‘do you think we need an equivalent of an access rider for mental health?’ And I’ve had different answers. One person thought there shouldn’t because access riders should be specifically about accessibility, relating to neurological conditions or physical disabilities, and once you start getting into the realm of mental health it perhaps muddies the water a bit. But your case is a very specific one because of that connection.

Robert said that, working with a disabled theatre company, you get the access riders through, but then you have a conversation and the question he asks is, ‘What do you need to make your best work?’. And that can sometimes open up something that isn’t even in their access rider. They’ll say ‘in one project I did have a quiet room, I don’t need a quiet room but it really helped’. And I’ve had a lot of conversations with different people about that being a really good way of framing it because access feels sometimes like ‘this is what I need’ but sometimes mental health is about ‘this is what I prefer’. 

But there’s also a question about where people place it on their list of priorities, because obviously different people need different things. For me my mental health disability is more important than my neurological disability. But, societally, saying I’ve got a neurological condition opens up things a bit more. People take it a bit more seriously. Certainly, I feel that.

Before we finish I do want to ask you about the books. Will and the Wisp and Daddy’s Bad Bed Day are both about mental health and draw on your own mental health experiences. Can you talk about the writing of those?

Will and the Wisp is what I did when I stepped away from Tortoise and I was signed off. What I realised was that I needed a creative outlet. Even though I was off I wanted something, and so Will and the Wisp came from that. It wasn’t necessarily that I was looking to get it published, it was a lot more instinctive and impulsive, and then once I’d finished it and shared it with few people I then looked into getting it published and started to go on that journey because I knew how much I’d enjoyed writing as a creative process. A bit like Fisk it’s sort of a metaphor of anxiety and depression but it’s not maybe as because it’s writing from a young boy’s perspective. It’s sort of how I was a a young boy when I was a bit anxious and there was a bit of anxiety but it wasn’t like I was in crisis mode. It hints at things but doesn’t go too deep

Daddy’s Bad Bed Day was much more practical in that I was becoming a father. I was actually in Norway my first day making Ragnarok when my wife phoned to tell me she was pregnant. I was away for seven weeks during that process, so there was a lot happening I knew my mental health had been really bad in the period of the pregnancy, and I was not sure of how I was going to deal with that as a dad. And so I started to try and look out resources and even speaking to NHS professionals, trying to find anything that could help me explain what me being ill would look like to my son. When he was born I was like, I’m really aware that this will be part of his life and I want him to have it explained to him in some kind of way so that if I’m in crisis, this is something we have already had conversation about. 

But I couldn’t find any resources. I could find loads of resources talking about a child’s mental health, I could find loads of resources about parent mental health and about postnatal depression, even fathers with postnatal depression, but nothing that went on to say, ‘how do you talk about that with your child?’ So I got a little bit of support from Visible Fictions, and they’ve got a script for an animated short which has not been made yet. But what that allowed me to do was speak to different charities about how they dealt with that and that informed Daddy’s Bad Bed Day

There was one charity that had worked with dads who had come out of prison, and they were really keen that in any conversation Dad wasn’t just shown in a negative light, that there were images of that playing and  having that positive relationship that was combined with (Dad in bed) but then we didn’t shy away from that. So that came from a really practical place. 

What feedback have you had about the books?

Will and the Wisp does book festival circuits and the Scottish Book Trust have taken me around schools, and it sort of functions like an exciting fantasy story, and that’s fine. But with Dad’s Bad Bed Day, for instance, I’m just about to do some creative writing workshops with the Bethany Christian Trust, who are supporting some people who have experienced homelessness. A social worker gave the book to a family and then the family wrote a little letter about the book. So I get little tastes of it coming back every so often and what is interesting is that Will and the Wisp sits in that artistic world but with Dad’s Bad Bed Day it’s charities or social support that you seem to get contact from.

One last question. Mental health is something you will always be living with, and there will be a good days and bad days. Is it something you still feel the urge to write about? 

What I’m aware of is making sure I’m interested in other projects that don’t necessarily explore that, because I have explored it quite a lot recently, so there’s definitely a urge (not to) in the present moment, but it’s such a big part of my life and it comes in so many different ways anyway. Like I’m writing a piece at the moment which is like the history of the Conservative Party. And so it has nothing really to do with mental health. But I found myself the other day having a conversation about private schools, and is there childhood trauma there? Clearly I’m tapping into something, it’s still a route through for me. It’s such a big part of my life that it makes sense that it’s a way into a project.