Drama festival brings positive mental health to Dublin stage
Smashing Times Theatre Company enables students to respond to performances
Smashing Times Theatre Company programmes involve theatre games and trust-building exercises.
Encouraging positive mental health and suicide prevention through drama is not a new approach.
The Smashing Times Theatre Company has been working in educational theatre for almost 20 years. When the company was founded, in 1991, it aimed to “bring theatre to places and people who wouldn’t normally have access to professional performance”, says company manager Freda Manweiler.
However, they realised their audiences in communities and schools were interested in using drama as a tool, to “have conversations about issues that were not always easy to raise among themselves”.
Now the company is presenting its first drama festival promoting positive mental health. “Acting for the Future – Be Well Rathmines and Ranelagh” is being held in the south Dublin neighbourhoods, in association with the Samaritans and the Irish Association of Suicidology.
The festival kicked off yesterday and will run until Friday and includes workshops, performances and street theatre. It is being held in an area with a large student population, so events are taking place at Sandford Park School, CBS Synge Street, DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, at the “triangle” at Ranelagh and Rathmines Shopping Centre. It is aimed at young people from the age of 14.
Through its work, Smashing Times is committed to social engagement as well as artistic excellence and “theatre for change”. The company’s Acting for the Future programme has been presented in schools all over the country since 2005, says Manweiler.
At the time, the programme was designed in conjunction with the Health Service Executive for transition year students to complement the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum. The programmes involve theatre games and trust-building exercises that enable students to respond to the drama performance and question the outcomes.
“This is the first time we’re doing it in a festival format. We have a series of monologues that we use and the one for the festival is called ‘A Day Out’. It’s about a young man’s last day with his friends before he takes his own life.
“There’s the aftermath for a friend who reflects on what happened and realises that there were visible signs but he didn’t act on them. He gets therapeutic intervention to deal with the guilt and to reflect on his own coping skills. Through this, he realises that sometimes you need a bit of extra help.”
The performance will be followed by a post-show discussion with representatives of the Samaritans, a psychotherapist and the students.
“The students will ask questions about the characters and the artistic process as well as the issues raised. It’s a light way to discuss a heavy subject,” explains Manweiler. “The fact that it’s a story makes it accessible. It’s not someone going in to a class and telling their [true] story. It’s that little bit removed and so makes it easier for students to talk about the story.”
The project has been independently evaluated as part of Arklow Mental Health Week, which deemed it an “example of best practice”, says Manweiler.
“The evaluators also pointed out that 14-year-olds are one of the toughest groups to engage. I think there’s a desire to be cool. When the actor in the show, Ben Waddell, comes in to the discussion, he’s really cool. He speaks a language that the students can relate to through his character.”
Manweiler stresses that there is “a really strong safety structure” around the schools programme. The workshops involve games and exercises that enable students to respond to the performances and question the outcomes.
“Before we go into a school, we give very clear information about what we’re bringing in. The teacher talks to the young people about it and a permission-seeking letter is sent to their parents. The students do a bit of pre-work around mental health and if anyone finds it too difficult, they can leave.”
For the theatre company, highlighting the importance of young people identifying a responsible adult that they can go to if there is a problem is essential.
“If a young person is in trouble, the friends can keep it confidential but we would encourage them to bring in an adult. Our message is that it’s okay not to feel okay but you need someone to talk to about it.”
Smashing Times runs various courses through the year to provide teachers and facilitators with the opportunity to develop process-led drama tools.