Using a sophisticated visual language and brutally honest monologue developed by the ‘all-singing-all-dancing-all-mental’ cast and crew, Musical Mental Health Cabaret debuts at Attenborough Arts this June. Alice Holland meets Priya during rehearsal to find out more about the show and her work developing new techniques and expressions for artists with mental health issues.
Working under the name ‘whatsthebigmistry’ Priya is an interdisciplinary practitioner with 13 years experience in dance, theatre, digital art-forms and visual arts.
Her current project, Musical Mental Health Cabaret, is an attempt to make something invisible into something that can be quantified and shared in the process of constructing a visual language around the unquantifiable, invisible and unpredictable symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Priya explains: “I draw on tropes of cabaret, variety and live art because they have the capacity to speak of wider things. Cabaret can be made up of absolutely everything, and it can speak about and do lots of different things. Equally it can be very absurd. It’s very visual, spectacular and sometimes imbued with meaningful politics. The acts can be absolutely absurd, odd, one-off and a little bit strange, and I think that’s befitting of the approach required to tackle this subject.”
“Depression doesn’t always have a straight narrative. It’s not a straight line. It’s not that an event happened to trigger my depression, I’ve struggled and then got better; that isn’t how depression works. It’s episodic, like a cabaret or variety show. It’s something that goes up and down. It can exist for a lifetime, sometimes in the background and sometimes very present. It doesn’t always come to an end.”
Priya explains that the project has been driven by the experience of having spent 7 years spent majorly dealing with depression.
“I have friends I can talk to but I very much kept it hidden from my artistic community, never talked about it with other artists, producers or programmers. I did that because it feels like a sign of weakness, like people are judging my capacity to deliver.”
Then there came a turning point. Priya began to come out of the closet and talk to people in the artistic sphere about her experience. She now runs workshops for other artists with the intention of creating a safe space where they can also turn their own experience into visual performance.
“I don’t think there are enough conversations on how to work with artists who are dealing with mental health impairments, about what that means and how that works. In terms of people like myself, anxiety is a very central thing, which can make communication difficult. In terms of access it helps just to have a relationship with a venue or a producer and know you can pick up the phone and have a chat rather than write an exchange of emails.”
“Having to explain yourself is half the battle. Trust, honesty and openness mean you can get on with your stuff without feeling as much worry or feeling like you’ve let someone down, that you’re not performing or delivering. My impairment has been a large part of the brief of the piece, what it is that I want to talk about. Usually I’ll have some ideas and develop a palate. I’m very much a deviser and an improviser tending to see where ideas lead me. The ideas follow the form. I am cross-discipline practitioner and as I go I will often pick up new techniques to suit.”
Priya describes her process as ‘all-singing-all-dancing-all-mental’. She has attracted a variety of people who have wanted to work on the project because of their own experiences managing to get on with life whilst working with mental health issues.
“In the studio we have an open dialogue; creating space for accounting for the fact that we are also going through stuff. In a classic rehearsal process you leave everything at the door, any problems that you’re having, whereas because this is so central it’s something that we deal with and make space for in the studio with honesty about how we’re feeling or if anything difficult has happened. From that process has come a lot of respect and understanding, whilst focussing on what we want to get done.”
“It takes a lot out of your energy, and that’s something that being a freelancer, we’re expected to be 24/7, don’t want to say no to anything, to be everywhere and do everything, and network. When you’re suffering anxiety getting out of bed can be a huge effort let alone getting to a public or social event full of your peers.”
Priya Mistry’s Musical Mental Health Cabaret previews at the Attenborough Arts Centre where a key part of the venue's focus and ethos is about not just programming disabled artists but really making access and inclusion part of everything they do. Priya describes how in the past year she has seen the building physically change in the way that it has involved disabled artists, from exhibits and performance to the way they’re working with the community of mental health service users.
"To make a work with a pretty narrative following a difficult journey where everything turns out fine in the end doesn’t reflect reality. My job is to be honest. Musical Mental Health Cabaret is going to be an experience, more an event than a show, and the aim is to invite you in to a night of humour and darkness: it’s not going to be the easiest piece of work to see, but I think that honesty will draw the audience in."
Musical Mental Health Cabaret debuts at Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester on June 18th.