All in the Mind is an annual arts festival in Basingstoke, organised by Fluid Motion Theatre. Its Artistic Director, Leigh Johnstone spoke to Joe Turnbull ahead of this year’s festival on 14 September at Eastrop Park.
“I understand the power that the arts can have in allowing people to express themselves and make sense of their lives,” explains Leigh Johnstone, Artistic Director of Fluid Motion Theatre, whose 2018 production Rum in the Gravy Boat explored the very personal issue of growing up with an alcoholic parent. “It allowed me to come to terms with my own childhood trauma and deal with my anxiety and depression in a way I hadn’t been able to do through conventional means.”
Through Fluid Motion Theatre’s productions, community and education programmes, the intention has been to disseminate that catharsis, raise awareness and make great art. In 2016, the company hit upon the idea of holding a one-day mini-festival focussed on mental health at their offices. It was a modest affair, with around 50 attendees and 10-15 artists.
“My original motivation was to create an event dedicated to providing artists with a safe platform to share work around mental health themes. I wanted to create an event that welcomed artists who had something to say and something they wanted to share with audiences that inspired and informed.”
The festival has gradually gained momentum, outgrowing the office space and making the move to Eastrop park last year. All in the Mind has recently become part of the Without Walls Outdoor Arts Consortium. This year’s festival promises to be a one-day extravaganza of theatre, music and spoken word, with 31 artists and companies ensuring there is something for everyone.
“I am really excited about our offer for children and families this year,” Johnstone explains. “We have a sensory re-telling of The Tempest by award winning theatre company Collar and Cuffs, a tiny movie theatre in an old caravan powered entirely by the sun and some roaming troubadours telling stories about overcoming adversity.”
Organising an arts festival about mental health presents some pretty unique challenges. As Johnstone outlines:
“We are still finding that as soon as you label something as being about mental health, so ‘a mental health arts festival’ rather than ‘an arts festival’ people sort of take a step back and then think a bit more about whether they want to come or not. We are having to tweak a few things slightly with our marketing to find that balance between ensuring people know they can engage with the mental health themes but also just come and have a fun day out.”
“I am keen on ensuring that as we develop the festival it is first and foremost a high-quality arts event for everyone, rather than feeling like an academic conference or symposium that has a very specific audience and theme. Whilst there is a strong therapeutic and health and wellbeing angle to the work we do, the festival has to appeal to all in order for it to be a success.”
Fluid Motion Theatre is well aware of the benefits of the arts for mental health outcomes, delivering an outreach programme which includes a monthly volunteering programme, performances for dementia patients in local care homes and regular arts sessions with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAHMS).
“I feel it is important to continue providing opportunities for the arts to find its way into people’s lives,” says Johnstone.
“I am also finding that there is a slight fatigue in the industry at the moment about supporting and showcasing work from artists that is about mental health. We had the same just after the First World War Centenary commemorations, I think everyone is always looking for the new ‘thing’. However, these issues do not just disappear, so it’s important to keep them in our collective consciousness and at the forefront of our minds.”
Whilst Johnstone is encouraged by the increasing number of theatre productions addressing mental health at showcases like Edinburgh Fringe, not everyone is equally enthused.
“I think there should be more of it. I have heard a lot of Edinburgh critics recently saying that this year’s festival is all about ‘me, me, me’ but I agree with Lyn Gardner when she says that ‘autobiographical theatre isn’t self-indulgent, it’s essential’. The fact that artists feel more empowered to create work from their own experiences should be celebrated and as an industry, we should support and praise them in doing so.”
The type of work being made about mental health changes over time, and Johnstone can see some thematic trends reflected in this year’s programme:
“This year we have several pieces that reflect body image/identity in some way and I think that may have something to do with its increasing exposure in the national press and in the online world. We have a dance piece from ella&co. called #nofilter that specifically looks at social media and its effect on mental health and several of our spoken word artists are young people who talk about the impact of society on their self-identity.”
In terms of access, much has been considered, from traditional forms to thinking about how the frame the language of the festival, as Johnstone expands:
“This is something we are always talking about and are always trying to get better at. I don’t think we have all of the answers yet. It comes back to my point about making sure the festival is first and foremost a fun arts event and a great day out that hopefully anyone can come and engage with. We ensure that all of our marketing and any publicity around the festival makes it clear that it is not aimed directly at people with mental health problems.”
“We like to ensure that the festival is relaxed as possible so that the atmosphere on the day is friendly and welcoming. There are several BSL interpreted shows this year across all art forms, we also have a dedicated space for new mothers run by NCT Basingstoke.”
Johnstone ends by summing up his aspirations for 2019’s incarnation of All in the Mind Festival:
“I hope we can continue to work towards our vision of becoming the only UK arts outdoor festival dedicated to mental health and strengthen the reputation that we have worked hard to achieve thus far. I hope that we see increase in audience numbers, provide more choice for festivalgoers and continue to offer a high-quality arts event that inspires and informs.”