Throughout October we’re running a series of interviews with artists performing at SMHAF. Here, Emma Jayne Park, our associate artist, discusses her two projects this year - It’s Not Over Yet, a very personal show about her cancer diagnosis two years ago, and 5 Ways to Begin, a scratch night showcasing new work about mental health.
You've previously said you'd never make a show about having cancer - what changed your mind?
I only make work when I feel like I have something to say or a question to ask. An illness like cancer understandably takes over your life and when I started to get back into the studio I realised that all of my strong opinions referenced cancer because for two years it was my whole life. More importantly, the transition back to 'normality' is really complicated. When a treatment makes you feel worse instead of better, your mental health takes a real beating. People are really kind and make every effort to support you but, as with any period of low mental health, the effort can be misplaced: advice is contradictory and often people respond in a way that represents how they imagine they would like to be treated which is not particularly useful. You are tussling with feeling grateful for being alive but not having the quality of life you were fighting for whilst feeling a huge support network subside and this is something worth talking about because it is impossible to understand fully. I suppose I don't feel like I have made a show about cancer, it (as always) is a show about mental health, it is just that mental health can only ever exist in a context and this context is cancer.
Was It's Not Over Yet a difficult show to make?
Absolutely. There have been around four versions of the work to date, each a stripped back version of the previous. I am still in remission so I am frequently having to decipher between when I am making the work and when I am simply processing what I am going through. It is important to me that the performance is not being made as a form of self-therapy, it has to be good performance work that speaks to an audience. This is a very fine line to tread with something that is still so raw.
I owe huge thanks to Charlotte Vincent who came on board as a creative mentor, which developed into her directing the show. Charlotte is kind, supportive and deeply sympathetic but in a gutsy, take no nonsense kind of way - I respond really well to this! She creates supremely visceral work and has an amazing eye for detail, which is essential in stripping the work back to what is important.
I have been utterly exhausted throughout the whole process, not help by bouts of illness due to my immune system not being fully recovered. On the days where my face would glaze over in the studio Charlotte didn't step back or assume I needed treated delicately. This was challenging but went a long way to making me feel human again, she has a really instinctive sense of knowing when to push and when not to. This allowed me to see the work as opposed to being wrapped up in my anxieties about being a dancer and presenting my body - which has changed so much - on stage.
Can you tell us about the living room performances you're doing in Dumfries and Galloway? How are they different from your show in Aberdeen?
The content of the stage work has developed into something particularly raw and I have had to ask questions about how confronting that would feel in a home-based setting. I don't shy away from confrontation but intimate performance is an entirely different scenario and I have no desire to make an audience feel unsafe. Therefore elements of the stage work remain and others have been adapted. I will also be performing alongside Nik Paget-Tomlinson because there will then be more people in the room, meaning that the audience are not the only focal point for me as a performer - this can be quite intense and often intimidating.
The living room performance element is going to take a lot more research and I hope to be able to dedicate all of next year to it because it is important but really complex work. Therefore, the performances in my home region of Dumfries and Galloway are the first step into this kind of work. We will be working with self-selected audiences who don't necessarily have immunodeficiency or anxiety disorders, this is important at the early stages so that people feel comfortable with the performance in their own home. That said, each performance comes with a 'get out clause'. The performance has enough space that should someone wish it to stop, it can.
What does being associate artist for SMHAF involve, and what does it mean to you?
SMHAF is such a rare organisation and festival in that it invites everyone to contribute on their own terms whilst taking into account their own individual needs. It also acknowledges that a seemingly small contribution, for some, can take greater effort than any of the more involved roles.
Initially the associate artist role came to be through a long-term relationship with the festival and because of other people asking if I was associated with SMHAF in some way as I was such an advocate. I am especially grateful that the role has evolved slowly over the past couple of years, particularly in light of my treatment and recovery. I think this showcases what the festival stands for, it feels quite radical to have an organisation willing to build slowly over the longer term in an arts world that is so project driven.
At present the role involves speaking at events, contributing to planning meetings, advocating for the festival, consulting with some artists and getting to propose ideas about how SMHAF can have a greater impact. 5 Ways To Begin, the two scratch events that will be running in October, are a result of these conversations and my want to identify how the festival assists artists in making work about mental health from the early stages.
It is a real privilege to be associate artist with the festival because I genuinely believe in what it stands for. Moreover, as an independent artist it is amazing to feel the support of such a talented team and feel as if I can contribute to something greater than my own work. I also really enjoy all of the events that run throughout the year such as The Dust Of Everyday Life, because nowhere else do you meet such a cross section of people who genuinely challenge my opinions and therefore my work. Although it is a festival that is all about support and care it doesn't shy away from gritty conversation - that is the environment that I feel most at home in!
What can audiences expect from 5 Ways to Begin, the scratch nights you're curating in Edinburgh and Glasgow?
An amazing evening!!! Each venue has a different line up of really interesting ideas. Some of the work is very new and some pieces have been in development for a while. We also have artists at many different stages of their careers. The work that is being presented ranges from spoken word to puppetry all exploring different themes related to mental health.
Most importantly, audiences can have the opportunity to contribute to new performance as it is being made. All artists have questions when they are developing new material and the audiences answers are hugely important in the direction the work takes. For anyone not comfortable speaking in public there will be ways of leaving written feedback too.
Finally, I would recommend that everyone attends because it is often an opportunity to see something you may not normally choose to. The first time I saw object theatre was at a scratch event. I would never have thought to go and see something like that but it is now one of my favourite genres so, in theory, you could leave with a whole new perspective on performance.
What else are you up to at the moment?
As I write this I am on a train from Derby to Bradford with a host of brilliant artists from India. 'It's Not Over Yet' was commissioned following on from The BENCH Fellowship, a programme designed to support female choreographers. 2 Faced Dance Company, who run the programme, also worked with female artists in India commissioning two new performances. The triple bill featuring our work premiered last night. We tour to eight venues across England with our last performance on World Mental Health Day. So far, so good and I can't wait to meet audiences in places I have never performed.