At Edinburgh Fringe, a spotlight on mental health

The actors were from the London theater company Silent Faces, one of thousands of acts at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The actors were from the London theater company Silent Faces, one of thousands of acts at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The piece, “A Clown Show About Rain,” is a deceptively playful work of physical theater: As it wears on, it becomes apparent that the tempest at the play’s center is a metaphor for depression.

“We’ve all suffered quite a lot, at varying levels,” Josie Underwood, a member of the company, said of the group’s mental health. “I think it’s been therapeutic to make a show about it.”

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, a sprawl of multidisciplinary entertainment that transforms Scotland’s capital for several weeks every August. This year, there are over 3,500 shows, mostly theater and comedy, in more than 300 venues. The Fringe is open to all performers, who pay a registration fee for a spot on the program.

Over the past few years, mental health has emerged as a prominent topic at the Fringe. According to the charity Changing Ideas, which gives an annual award for socially engaged theater, a record 52 theatrical shows at the festival last year dealt with the issue. This year, it is a still-prodigious 42.

The dark paradox is that for all the opportunities the Fringe provides to stage works about mental health, it is taxing for the mental health of its performers. The hours are long and the costs are high. The entertainers have to drum up their own audiences as well as put on their shows. And many are just starting their careers, unused to the actors’ life, hundreds of miles from home.

Camilla Whitehill, a playwright, said she was worried about some of those she had seen perform. “I worry it’s not safe for them,” she said in an interview. “They look like they’re really struggling. Are they really OK?”

For this year’s Fringe, Whitehill teamed up with Strictly Arts, a company based in Birmingham, England, to devise a crusading work of physical theater called “Freeman,” about the fragile mental health of black prisoners.

Its touchstone is the story of William Freeman, a freeborn man of African and Native American descent who was accused of multiple brutal killings in upstate New York. He was one of the first to use the insanity defense in a U.S. court, arguing that the beatings he had received in jail after an earlier, wrongful, conviction had made him insane.

“Freeman” also weaves in more modern stories, such as the death in 2015 of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who killed herself in a Texas prison after she was arrested during a traffic stop.

“I just feel like mental health in the black community is not discussed,” Whitehill said. “I want this show to start a conversation about it.”

Andrew Eaton-Lewis, who runs the arts program for the Mental Health Foundation, a British nonprofit, said in an interview that 2015 was the year works about mental health really started appearing at the Fringe. The deaths by suicide of Robin Williams and the influential British theater maker Adrian Howells a year earlier had cast a shadow, he said, and inspired several high-profile shows.

In particular, Eaton-Lewis pointed to Bryony Kimmings’ “Fake It ‘Til You Make It,” a two-hander about depression that was partly inspired by Williams’ death. Many theater makers cited the work as an influence, he said.

Eaton-Lewis also noted a generational shift: Younger people talk about mental health more openly, he said, and are more interested in works on the subject.

Underwood has seen similar reactions. When handing out flyers for her show, she said, the reaction of many older people was, “Oh God, that sounds horrible.” On the other hand, “Young people light up. They’re excited by it.”

The Mental Health Foundation introduced a Mental Health Fringe Award last year, a prize for a work of outstanding artistic merit on the subject. But Eaton-Lewis said that working to break the silence around the topic is less of a priority for him now that so many artists talk about it openly. He is now more concerned with the mental well-being of the artists themselves, he said.

“Doing an intimate show about a traumatic experience on the Edinburgh Fringe is the most stressful environment for a show, probably in the world,” he said.

Eaton-Lewis is also organizing a workshop for performers called “Mental Health Is a Fringe Issue,” providing an opportunity to talk through both the Fringe experience and how to make theater about mental health. He said there were also free events organized by the festival itself, including “Conquering Performance Anxiety,” a session teaching practical mindfulness, breathing and meditation, and “A Mentally Well Fringe,” a series of therapeutic drop-in sessions.

Ultimately, though, there is no safety net. The Fringe is tough, and performing personal work can be painful. Eaton-Lewis pointed to the success of the 2017 festival’s breakout star, Hannah Gadsby, and her searing show “Nanette,” which became a hit for Netflix after it was recorded at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. “You just hope that somebody making a show like that is able to take care of themselves through that process,” he said. (Gadsby planned to perform at this year’s Fringe, but she pulled out in June, citing scheduling conflicts.)

The Fringe provides one of the best opportunities in the English-speaking world for an unknown theater or comedy act to forge a reputation. Nobody will stop you from booking a slot. But there may be nobody to look out for you, either. It is a long shot at success that thousands are willing to take.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Andrzej Lukowski © 2018 The New York Times


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