‘Dramaturgy’. A word that quite often receives blank looks or confused responses, it is a concept that has only begun to take off relatively recently in the UK. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked “what is a dramaturg?”, and to be quite honest, even as someone who does it, I don’t always know what to say. It’s a word that can mean a lot of things in a lot of contexts.
Originally developed in Germany and widely adopted on the continent, at least significantly more than here, the dramaturg is the ‘outside eye’, someone who makes sure that each part of a collaborative input works together to serve the work as a whole. To practice or research dramaturgy is to be aware of trends and styles in the arts, to have a handle on the context of what is being made as well as making sure that the artist’s cohesive vision serves both the piece and its audience, and vice versa.
I am someone who has long had a rocky relationship with my mental health, after years of debilitating physical symptoms and mood swings I was diagnosed with chronic generalised anxiety at eighteen and intermittent depression a few years later, I have tried what feels like every form of medication and therapy ever invented with varying degrees of success: Many things have been helpful, many frustratingly not, but the one thing that always succeeds in helping me out of my own head is access to the arts.
Discovering the concept of dramaturgy, that I could actually dedicate myself to an attempt at organising all those confusing strands that make up creative action and consciousness, was a beautiful moment of clarity for me. I could focus on something that made me calm, which, as I’m sure anyone who experiences anxiety disorder will agree, is a fantastic relief. But dramaturgy is a massive field, what, then, to focus on? The dramaturgy of mental health was a logical jump, the thing that had taken over my life combined with the thing that has helped me through it. How can mental health be represented in creative projects? What do audiences want and need out of creative interventions concerning mental health?
After decades of being publicly swept under the rug and avoided as a taboo topic, mental health has, in more recent years come to the fore as a topic of investigation and action for artists in a range of forms. We live in a world of ever increasing disassociation, it’s now easy to go through an entire day without speaking to or interacting with another living being. This, along with many other factors of modern daily life, has led to mental health woes of epidemic proportion. Organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation and their kin are doing essential work to provide relief for those suffering and to engage with and educate communities around the country on a broad range of topics surrounding mental health.
This year I have been working with the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival (led by the Mental Health Foundation) as part of my research into the dramaturgy of mental health and have been overwhelmed by both the quality and quantity of exciting work being produced on the topic. I was tasked with interviewing the various theatre-makers and performers involved in the festival and proceeded to have a variety of fascinating conversations on modes of making, personal experiences of mental health and the importance of presenting work on the topic around Scotland.
Through meeting such a broad range of wonderful artists producing exciting work investigating the lived experience of suffering from mental health and/or supporting those that do, I have gained a refreshed sense of vigour and excitement for mental health representation in Scotland. The drive is out there – makers are developing fantastic work experimenting with a range of techniques to bring the issues surrounding mental health to light and to life on stages around the country. From puppetry to soundscapes, from comedic intervention to emotional autobiography and running the gamut in-between, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, and the wider Scottish theatre scene provide a fertile and supportive grounding for artists taking on such challenging and essential topics.
Among many other factors, what really stood out to me, whilst working with SMHAF was the unending encouragement given to members of the public, participants from other organisations and practitioners at earlier stages of developing work on the topic to join in, share their work and receive support from the festival. With scratch performances showcasing exciting new work to come, brave and varied public submissions to the writing awards and events such as Moving Minds encouraging new ways of looking at sites and spaces of community, SMHAF goes above and beyond to develop a community of artists and art-appreciators concerned about mental health.
This is what we so desperately need, not only a platform for work but an invigorated, engaged and proactive audience to absorb it and continue to produce more. SMHAF allows a multitude of creative voices to join the debate around mental health, to continue challenging stigma and broadening perception of what living with mental health challenges or supporting someone who does actually means. The dramaturgy of mental health is coming alive and I am excited to be a part of it.
by Mabli Godden