For the RECollective theatre company being courageous meant taking to the stage to encourage people to open up and start talking about mental health.
New Zealand actresses Romy Hooper, Cian Elyse White and Esmee Myers were motivated by their own experience of mental distress and that of their loved ones.
Their show, called ‘deVine’, was based on a fictitious Northland vineyard and focused on three generations of one family and tensions that arose when they did or didn’t deal with mental health problems.
Romy says depression, anxiety and other experiences of mental distress aren’t ageist, classist, racist or sexist - they exist within people of all demographics and circumstances.
“I’ve had very close friends take their lives, and I feel that there is a need for those of us who are still here to advocate and normalise mental health discussion and share our stories,” Romy says.
Before the trio took to the stage for the first time, they hit the road to research not only what they wanted to focus on, but how best to share that with the audiences they wanted to reach - the Northland communities in Whangarei, Kaitaia and Kerikeri.
The women covered 400 kilometres and spoke with individuals, theatre organisations, health practitioners, community leaders from churches and iwi, shopkeepers, artists and volunteers in suicide prevention groups.
The actresses organised post-show forums to allow for safe discussions about issues raised during the production. They aimed to leave people with a message of hope and reminded them of the importance of communicating feelings, before they become overwhelming, and potentially destructive.
“Our mission was always steadfastly focused on effecting ‘the one’,” Romy says. “If no one gets it, save for a single person right up the back who decides to change their behaviour, we’ve achieved success. There is always someone who leaves having experienced something unique and altering, that’s more important than anything else.”
“Most reflected on how relatable our characters were, and how real the conversations and arguments that took place appeared to them, which was a massive win for us,” Romy says.
The post-show forums proved to be hugely successful, and the actresses realised just how much the audiences - particularly youth - benefitted from their kaupapa.
“Our audiences actively launched into discussions around their experiences and stories with such humbling generosity that they often lasted over an hour,” Romy says.
While the curtains have closed for now, Romy, Cian and Esmee feel there is a need for more workshops and education around how communities can use theatre as a platform to tell stories and start conversations about mental health.
In the meantime, they continue to make sure they touch base with people they care about who they know are struggling.
“A simple message to say that we’re thinking of them can be the difference between a very good, or a very bad day. Small gestures can be huge, and remind people that despite the flurry of life, we’ll make time for them,” Romy says.
The RECollective hope to bring their ‘Theatre of Courage’ productions to regional communities once a year.
deVine was supported by a 2016 NZ Mental Health Media Grant