Chloë Plumb on the balancing act of mental health representation in the arts

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Balancing Acts ran last month at VAULT festival and was a result of a collaboration between Kaleido Film Collective and Feral Foxy Ladies. Two free workshops in February explore mental health with a particular focus on depression and ways of coping through an introduction to different expressive practices such as film, story-telling and performance. Elinor Rowlands spoke to Chloë Plumb about the development of the show and the workshops.

Balancing Acts at VAULT festival

Balancing Acts at VAULT festival

Chloë Plumb co-founded Kaleido Film Collective after meeting other filmmakers on her MA in Visual Anthropology. Their aim was always with a specific documentary focus: “to make ourselves a team to offer to others”.

Plumb met Claire Stone of Feral Foxy Ladies whilst they were working together on a creative outreach project.

“I wanted to look at mental health through film but I was seeing the work Feral Foxy Ladies were doing and I was interested in how they did it – they used a lot of dance, physical theatre and video in their previous shows so I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ Not just in a filmic way, but through their use of three-dimensional space. I hadn’t done something like that before, so I approached them with this idea for Balancing Acts.”

Film still diving

Film still from Balancing Acts

The collaboration started with a scratch idea based on the first ‘balancer’s’ interview in the show, Balancing Acts. “She’s actually my best friend so I was having conversations with her about her own experiences of depression and also about her love of scuba diving and that’s kind of how it all started.”

This became the catalyst for selecting five other balancers. They realised they needed more male respondents so put a call out online, to mental health charities and social media. They had two respondents who really piqued their interest, Tony, a 61-year-old man who joined a choir to combat his isolation, and Jason, a 29 year old who uses boxing as a release from his depression.

They selected some of the interviewee’s through a questionnaire with questions like: ‘what makes you feel alive? Do you class yourself as having depression, if so how does that manifest for you?’ Another big factor in the questionnaire was – ‘what does depression feel like for you and what does it look like? If you could describe it and if you could create a metaphor for what it is how would you answer that? What does a happy time feel like? What does that look like to you? What does that remind you of? It might have a particular smell? Particular age when you had it?’

“Tony was just great, immediately in his questionnaire he had answers like ‘depression is like a bath overflowing; like dragging an anchor through mud’, so we thought, he’s amazing, he can think artistically about the subject”.

The beauty of the interviewing process was that “we either knew these people very well or we gave them the space to chat, three hours at least, sometimes double that with my friend, so it just allowed conversations to flow.”

Balancing Acts red-lit photograph

Performance shot from Balancing Acts at VAULT Festival

The show played a big role in Plumb’s own personal journey. “From a selfish point of view, Balancing Acts came out at a point where I could decipher my own emotions a little bit more and I was wanting to connect with other people’s journeys [of depression]. And then to hand it over to Katherine Vince – who also has experience of depression – to perform it was really interesting.”

“Balancing Acts has been a journey for everyone. Most of the company has had an experience of mental health issues.”

Plumb speaks with refreshing candour and honesty about depression:

“My dad died when I was eighteen and ever since that happened I’ve been battling with anxiety and depression, and bouts of insomnia, oh god! I’m a terrible, terrible sleeper, in and out of therapy.”

Art that deals with mental health issues and disability is so important, because it starts the conversation. “It can just be talking to your mate, to the person next to you on the bus, to the bar lady. Opening up is easier said than done, but when you do do it, you reap the benefits. I am hoping the project has built a group of people who can support each other”.

And this network of support is transformative and transferrable as it seeps into the workshops that are on offer.

“I’m drawn multi-dimensionally to that – using film and performance as tools to elevate real stories and to bring a different angle – to conjure new ideas into the audience’s minds. Using these processes and knowing what we know they can do, we want to work with other people to make their own work.”

Stories can be shared in a safe environment and the ways to express these stories will be explored. The Company want to work with mental health groups and the public to enable them to make their own sections, allowing participants to “think about how they might interpret their own personal story through the medium of film, performance, poetry, whatever they bring we will work with it using a collaborative process. People can come even if they haven’t had depression.”

Plumb acknowledges it will be challenging, and people will be at different stages but the importance and ultimate aim of the workshops is for people to open up and have a conversation.

Balancing Acts Workshop: Mental Health and the Arts is on at The Network Theatre, Launcelot Street, off Lower Marsh, SE1 7AD, 25 February.