Actors' inspiring mission to tackle mental illness

Adam Calvert, Jack Herbertand Katie Fry - directors oftheatre company Spectacle Arts, Burnley - are the creators of One in Five. (s)
Adam Calvert, Jack Herbertand Katie Fry - directors oftheatre company Spectacle Arts, Burnley - are the creators of One in Five. (s)

"Anxiety can eat you up inside and it can be life and death for some people."

For actor Katie Fry and her co-workers, tackling the myths of mental illness is a mission which is close to home and has inspired their original new show.

ActorsKatie Rose Wlodarczyk, Laura Masters, Matthew Warren and Elouise Drummond. (s)

ActorsKatie Rose Wlodarczyk, Laura Masters, Matthew Warren and Elouise Drummond. (s)

Katie, Adam Calvert and Jack Herbert - directors of theatre company Spectacle Arts, Burnley - have toured One in Five around schools in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale.

The show reveals the experiences with mental illness of actors in their 20s who have journeyed from crisis to recovery and aims to encourage Year 10 and 11 pupils to reach out to trusted adults for help with their own battles.

Katie, (31) of Blackburn, said: "It's a personal thing for me because I've had anxiety problems in the past so I've always been passionate about raising awareness of mental health."

Funded by the NHS, One in Five shines a light on the issue of mental health using statistics, physical theatre and recordings of real-life stories, and actors Katie Rose Wlodarczyk, Elouise Drummond, Laura Masters and Matthew Warren, who has OCD, bare their souls on stage with accounts of their own struggles.

So far, the team has visited Sir John Thursby Community College, Burnley High School, Unity College and Colne Little Theatre.

Teachers or mentors by day and theatre directors by night, Katie, Jack and Adam became frustrated with their limited powers to help children who are unable to access help for mental illness. Tired of feeling helpless, they vowed to help make a change using the power of theatre.

Katie added: "A statistic which sticks with me is if you can reach a child at the age of 13 or 14 then you're more likely to prevent them from having similar issues as an adult," Katie said, "but since young people don't have a clue where to go for support, we want to point them in the right direction."

That's why every audience member receives a leaflet with anonymous helpline numbers and websites while a Q&A session with the cast follows each performance.

"At that age you're growing as a person, changing in your body and having all these new feelings and experiences," said Katie.

"It's a cruel age as it's when you're most insecure and unsure if your emotions are normal. So you're too scared to reach out but the reality is: it's an illness.

"We ask pupils if they or a loved one suffers from mental illness and around 90% of them put their hands up, then look around in shock."

The team is also hammering home the message that support is open to anyone, no matter if they have a diagnosis or not, and regardless of the length and extremity of their battle.

"There's such a broad spectrum of issues and with mental illness there's not a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone's an individual and their treatment will be different," said Katie.

"One of the actors, Laura, doesn't have a diagnosed condition but she realised her circumstances were making her feel unworthy and taking the joy out of life.

"Just because you don't have a diagnosis doesn't mean you don't have down days or get stuck in a rut so Laura's story is more about being the happiest version of herself."

When the four actors were cast, the directors had no idea they were all secretly wrestling mental illness. So when it came out in conversation, it inspired an honest yet uplifting conclusion to the show.

Matthew, for example, opened up on stage about his fight with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Sufferers experience unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, images or urges called obsessions, which repeatedly enter the mind and cause feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease. Examples include sudden urges to harm oneself or unrelenting fears of loved ones being killed in accidents.

The sufferer engages in repetitive behaviour called compulsions in the hope of eliminating their distress by preventing the negative thoughts from becoming reality. But this only eases their pain temporarily and over time gives power to their obsessions.

"Our piece is hard-hitting," said Katie.

"We're not here to gloss over the issue but we're also passionate about showing the light at the end of the tunnel.

"Matthew's still fighting against OCD and it was quite scary for a while.

"Anxiety can eat you up inside and there are many physical symptoms, like heart palpitations, headaches and diarrhoea.

"If you don't speak out you think you're going crazy and the only one in the world going through it but when someone tells you you're not on your own it lifts a weight off your shoulders.

"Opening a dialogue about mental health is the start of recovery because then experts can point you in the right direction.

"It can be life and death for some people so having someone show they care can save them.

"We're saying: 'let's be open and honest' and that's why I'm so proud of our actors.

"It took Matthew six months to speak to his GP and he didn't see a future for himself but now he's a different person.

"For Matthew to stand up and say 'we're OK and you will be too' was amazing.

"And as the cast are aged 19 to 24, young people look at the actors and see themselves."

The thespians are also inspiring youngsters to develop more empathy.

"They will leave school with an understanding of depression and anxiety and how they might play out in the real world," Katie added.

"Mental illness is mainly invisible so people are quick to brush it off. It's down to a lack of education so the more we talk about it, the more normal it will become.

"We as a society are quick to make judgements, labelling someone who is quiet as either 'rude' or 'boring' when they might have social anxiety and feel scared to speak in case they say something wrong.

"I've never met anyone who actually wants to go to a party just to sit there in silence and if there's one thing I've learnt about this world, it's this: nothing is black-and-white.

"We need to be kind, supportive and open-minded because we don't know what someone is really going through.

"We're getting better though: today, issues are being pushed more often into the public spotlight; but we still have a long way to go."

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