Sunday Reads #6: Moving moments

17 May 2020

To mark the start of Mental Health Awareness Week tomorrow, our Co-Artistic Director Kevin, reflects on touring his creation, Witness This, to outdoor festivals.

Talking about a piece that doesn’t hold back, he reflects on moving moments from performances and how the piece has inspired real conversations about mental health.

In 2017, I had the great fortune to be commissioned by Without Walls to create Witness This. The support gave me the opportunity to adapt my theatre production, Witness, into an outdoor choreography, which would tour festivals.

Witness This, like Witness, explored mental health and more specifically a personal experience – a crisis I had with my own mental health and the impact it had on myself and my loved ones.

Once Witness This was created and the tour bookings started coming in, I felt excited but also nervous about taking the work outside of the theatre context and into the outdoor festival arena.

I was nervous because Witness This doesn’t hold back in anyway. I knew the work would engage audiences, but it would also challenge them.

One of the main differences between indoor theatre work and outdoor work is that when in a theatre, you have a captive audience. You have the luxury of playing with time in a different way, building time and tension within the work that is just not possible outdoors.

Outdoors you are competing with so many things. Other work is being presented at the festival, there are people walking past, cars, buses and all sorts of things happening around you. For this reason, the pace of outdoor work has to be faster.  You have to grab the audience immediately to have a chance of keeping them on your journey.

Outdoors, spectators can leave at any time and observe the work from many different vantage points. They might see different parts of the piece just as they’re walking by and happen to come across it. These parameters shape the pace and choreography. I love the democracy of outdoor work as it allows people from all walks of life to see things that they might not otherwise see. In Chameleon’s case, people who have never encountered dance theatre before.

Considering many outdoor arts festivals are family focused, at first, I was slightly surprised that so many national and international festivals booked Witness This as part of their programme. Witness This is provocative and hard-hitting and makes the audience think and feel. It’s a brave programming choice by the festivals and one that I feel is a reflection of the zeitgeist that the work is part of.

I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity to make Witness This and share it so widely, and as a result get people talking and thinking about mental health.  I’m passionate about talking openly about mental health and for it to no longer to be a taboo subject. There should be no shame attached to mental health illness; it should be something we face with love, understanding and compassion.

My favourite moment as a maker was when we premiered Witness This at Brighton International Festival. Afterwards an older gentleman approached me with his son who was around my age. The older gentleman started to talk to me about the work and how it made him feel. He explained Witness This had reminded him of the experience that he went through when his wife had died, and those things that he’d found challenging and difficult.

As he spoke his son stood there with his mouth open in disbelief. After his dad had finished speaking, the son told his dad that he had never shared any of those thoughts and feelings with him. We concluded the chat and they left talking.

It was an incredibly moving moment for me.  As men, we often do not share our thoughts and feelings, especially in relation to mental health and wellbeing. I felt I had done my job as an artist to help inspire that conversation.

After we have performed Witness This, myself and the other dancers give out postcards to the audience. On the front is a photo from the production, and on the back are details which signpost people to mental health support organisations such as MIND.

Handing out the postcards creates an opportunity for the audience to engage with the cast and talk about what they have just seen and experienced. It allows a dialogue to happen and many times leads to some very personal revelations from the audience.

When this happens, I feel my job has been done.  Real connections and real conversations about a really important part of life. This for me is why I do what I do. Art is a catalyst for change.

The full show of Witness This will be broadcast on YouTube as part of our Theatre Thursdays series on 21 May.  Take the time to enjoy and absorb this powerful and personal piece of dance theatre from home.  Subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place 18-24 May 2020, find out more here. #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek

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