Elaine Paton’s work as a writer, director and performer lives at the intersection of art and mental health. Her work constantly challenges the stigma and shame that surrounds being mentally unwell. Her process is one of collaboration with community groups and practitioners from all aspects of the arts.
I am passionate about my work due to my family’s history of mental health disasters that have ripped us all apart. COVID is a plague of visible, physical symptoms. There is another plague that is invisible. A mental health plague, the symptoms of which are invisible until, like a volcano, they erupt and destroy all in its path. It’s been around for a long time.
The project featured here, ‘Moment(o)s of Leaving’, available at: https://elainepaton.org/theatre-productions/ is a 12 minute documentary about this immersive theatrical experience and it reflects the ongoing global mental health crisis that touches everyone. We all know someone who has experienced some form of mental breakdown. We are all one step away from our lives collapsing at any moment.
At the end of 2012, back in Wales, my brother had taken up the family baton, and was on the edge of obliteration due to depression. I flew over to care for him for a few months. I stayed for nearly 6 years. It was during this time that I created this work, ‘Moment(o)s of Leaving’ about my father’s mental health journey and another work about my own mental health story, ‘Moment(o)s’.
Even though I had already been through my personal breakdown, breakthrough and recovery, the extraordinary opportunity to work within the soon-to-be-abandoned Whitchurch Psychiatric Hospital north of Cardiff, where both my parents had been patients, was a further process of recovery. Particularly, in relation to my Father’s suicide, I felt his presence at Whitchurch far stronger than my Mother’s, so I focused on his story and my own story of attempted suicide.
I began what would become an immersive theatre experience with a six-week residency at Whitchurch, where I liaised closely with the hospital staff and the Whitchurch Hospital Historical Society.
Within the creative team, there were those of us who had suffered from being mentally unhinged. Colleague and artist Gail Howard, had been incarcerated in Whitchurch, having been a patient on the ward we were given as part of the immersive site. Returning to this place where she had received numerous ECT treatments was extraordinarily brave and at first, she could only be in the room for a few minutes at a time. However, her trauma receded and by making an installation in the room an enormous step in her recovery took place.
Cai Thomas, one of the dancers, had also spent time on the ward. He created a solo piece and by expressing the past, he found a healing place. Our producer was going through her own mental issues, as was our sound designer. One of the dancers was supporting a friend through a ‘manic’ episode.
Meanwhile, the staff were grieving for the loss of the history, and community of the old hospital building. By involving the staff and the Whitchurch Hospital Historical Society in the making process, was a way of them being able to articulate their own relationship to the place, their memories and stories. It gave them a way of expressing their loss.
A uniquely caring comradeship developed leading to a shared resilience around the various issues and feelings that were being excavated. Lots of cups of tea and tissues were incorporated in the production budget.
It was evident from audience reactions to the play that it assisted them to understand mental illness and aided recovery for those experiencing mental difficulties. Despite 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem each year, mental illness is still shrouded in suspicion, shame and fear. Depression is the most common mental health problem, obscuring itself from the public eye, hiding in shame as minds are ambushed. Mental distress is often foreign and misunderstood; confronting it is challenging.
Creating work keeps me sane by feeling I have a focus and purpose that extends beyond my narrow existence. During COVID, online theatre and dance productions have fed my inspiration.
More of Elaine’s work can be found at www.elainepaton.org