Masculinity, mental health and theatre: In conversation with Red Ladder Theatre Company

By February 19, 2018

Theatre & Dance. Leeds.

For over 40 years, radical Leeds-based theatre company Red Ladder has been bringing relevant and fearless entertainment to the doorsteps of pubs and social clubs across the north of England. Thanks to their Northern Social Circuit Tour, audiences who might not have the inclination to visit the theatre have been able to experience it from the comfort and familiarity of their local pub. With an aim to give a voice to the marginalised, the company continue to explore internal and social struggles with humour, energy and originality.

One of the most recent struggles to be taken on by the organisation is mental health. According to the Office for National Statistics, there was a substantial decrease in suicide rates in 2015-2016. However, shockingly, men still account for two thirds of the overall figure; the Samaritans estimate that 4997 male suicides took place in 2015, in comparison to 1,642 female suicides. Without a doubt, there is an issue here that needs tackling. And that’s exactly what writer Chris O’Connor does in his production The Life and Soul.

In conversation with TSOTA, Chris was clear to point out his belief that mental health doesn’t differentiate gender, ethnicity or race,  and that there is work to be done in bringing awareness to male depression. This is a central focus in his play, a dynamic and emotive production that throws into question socialised masculinity, and the dangers of playing up to entrenched stereotypes that leave men particularly voiceless and isolated.

Commenting on the power of exploring mental health through the arts, and particularly through the medium of theatre and the power of storytelling, Chris said: “Reflect someone’s story back to them, and immediately they don’t feel alone.” He thinks theatre can help create an “emotional” and “empathetic” reaction from the audience that engenders conversation about mental health.

This encouragement to communicate was furthered by the informal conversations and a Q & A that took place after the play, enabling Chris and the audience to reach out and work towards dispelling “toxic” ideas of masculinity. And, in a continued effort to raise awareness and acceptance of male depression, Red Ladder ran an interactive workshop on the topic at Leeds University in January this year.

Chris’ efforts to raise awareness of gender discrimination and mental health, were supported by Leeds Rhino player, Stevie Ward, who attended a Leeds showing of the production, The Life and Soul. His open attitude to personal struggles with depression added to an ongoing campaign, that aims to re-shape our understanding of depression and gender. His successful online magazine Mantality follows on in a similar suit from the work of Red Ladder, whereby storytelling and sharing appear to be the catalyst in creating much needed discussions regarding mental health.

Breaking down barriers to mental health and using the arts as a method of treatment is by no means a new concept. Nevertheless, the work being carried out across Leeds in its varied artistic and visionary forms continues to challenge the way we address mental health. This may take the shape of theatre in a non-conventional venue, a podcast, or a question answered in an open group, but there is one constant that runs through this shared effort: talking. Exploring and using the arts as a tool to elicit conversation about mental health appears to be an important step in a long journey to destigmatise mental health, within our local and national community.

The Life and Soul is playing at The Playhouse in Derry on 22 February. Book tickets here.