Where Art Meets Mental Health Awareness
Gothenburg Fringe 2023 in review - Anastasia Konstantopoulou's Fringe journey with shows that explored the theme of mental health awareness.
If you are even a bit familiar with the Gothenburg Fringe Festival, you would know by now that this is a festival like no other, where artistic expression is celebrated and encouraged by all means. You would also be acquainted with the vast array of shows it hosts, from theatre, comedy, and dance, to improv, film, poetry, and everything in between.
However, are you aware of its thematic profundity? Fringe festivals not only accommodate a great diversity of themes in the productions they host but also embrace productions that discuss taboo or sensitive subjects, traditionally shunned or overlooked by mainstream or popular cultural productions. Of course, there would be nothing fringe in the festival if we were with shows that didn’t push the boundaries of artistic expression and stayed within the limits of societal and cultural expectations.
As a second-year volunteer in the Gothenburg Fringe Festival, I have had the honour to witness shows that challenged, inspired, and moved me in profound ways. Despite that, I was (pleasantly) surprised when I realised that this year Fringe was hosting many shows that explored the theme of mental health awareness. Mental health is unfortunately still an issue that is at best a taboo one, and while it gains ground in art, it still needs more representation and discussion in the field of arts What I have also found very fascinating was that the shows that dealt with mental health themes were very diverse in nature spanning from stand-up comedy (humour is one of the primary defence mechanisms against stress) to film, physical theatre and dance. For this article, I have selected four productions that caught my interest and educated me in the most profound ways. So, if you wonder how it is possible to laugh about the most unfunny things, to dance like you are psychosis itself, or to cast your anxiety as one of the main protagonists for your next short film, keep on reading.
Squeak! & Self-Empowerment through comedy workshop by Dan Zerin (USA/Iceland)
Alright, I am going to open this paragraph with a bit of a controversial statement: I don’t like stand-up comedy. There, I said it. Sure, I have enjoyed some stand-up comedy shows from time to time, and I do have in mind some stand-up comedians that actually make me laugh, but this is a rare phenomenon. Ultimately, I find most of them cringey at best, and offensive at worst. With that being said, I am always trying to keep an open mind and give a chance to anyone who seems to have a broader palette of jokes than those considering certain body parts of the comedian and what they do or don’t do with them. So I was really intrigued when I came across Dan Zerin’s comedy show “Squeak!” and of course, his workshop about empowerment through comedy.
The workshop preceded the comedy show and took place at the cozy Kaffe Kid. In this workshop, Dan not only shared his experiences with Tourette Syndrome and other disorders he was diagnosed with but also gave us insight into the pop and medical narratives surrounding these disorders and how he wanted to challenge them. It was very interesting to see how he chose to frame some of the challenges that he faced in a positive and ultimately funny way, and make them his own, instead of just accepting them as mere symptoms or “deficits”.
It was also very insightful to be able to see the creative and artistic process that he followed which led him to be able to make stand-up comedy shows about them. To me, it seemed like he wanted to open a dialogue in the public discourse about how mental illness is being viewed and discussed. I am not sure whether the format of stand-up comedies allows for this kind of artistic endeavor, but in his workshop, we were very much encouraged to ask him questions and at some point, he needed someone from the audience to help him demonstrate something, so I guess that interactive aspect was something that I personally enjoyed more than the classic “I tell a joke- you laugh” type of interaction in comedy shows.
The following day of the workshop, his award-winning comedy “Squeak!” took place at Folkteatern, a well-known cultural and artistic hub in the heart of Gothenburg that specialises in bringing newly written plays for both children and adults which entertain, touch, and bring forward the most uncomfortable issues, so it was the ideal
place to host Dan's comedy show. In a full foyer stage, we were taken into a rollercoaster of a show, which was based on his experiences with his diagnoses and the consequent adventures that they have caused, with sometimes lightweight and quirky, and other times really dark humour. His show generated a lot of excitement among the Fringe community and as of now, the multiple-award comedian has another under his belt, the Hype Award on the final night of the festival.
Anxiety Riddenby Olle Sundström (Sweden)
If you are a post-irony aficionado like me, you would probably enjoy the following anecdote: I arrived late and stressed to Esperantoscenen, literally a few seconds before the show “Anxiety Ridden” started, dripping sweat and completely out of breath. And as if that was not enough, I decided last minute (last second!) to also change my seat from the front to the last row because, ahem, I was too worried thinking that I would disturb those on stage.
This anxiety roller coaster that I went into before the show was really fitting into what I would experience afterward. See, the classic “all is in your mind” narrative that all your close ones have more or less told you when you expressed your anxiety about whichever issue to them was not the case for the show. Anxiety was flesh and bones in the scene, dressed in black, and looked very much alive and real. On the opposite side of Anxiety was a dancer dressed in white, who moved and danced unstoppably through the whole performance, while Anxiety stood still.
Sometimes, Anxiety mumbled something incomprehensible through a microphone, but as in real anxiety, you don’t always understand what it says to you. Sometimes what anxiety tells you about yourself doesn’t make sense, but you are still controlled and moved by it.
In addition to the scenic presence, there was also a film playing on the wall. The film introduced Anxiety and a few other characters, who were all affected by anxiety in one way or another. They led different lives and lifestyles, but still, Anxiety was omnipresent. Sometimes, during the film, Anxiety was presented smaller, or further away from the characters, and other times was getting bigger and overwhelmingly close.
The audio and visuals of the film followed the same pattern of the scenic performance, with the audio being sometimes calm and meditative, and other times overwhelming and loud, while the beautiful and serene images were followed by grotesque ones. To my understanding, this multimedia piece made a solid comment on Anxiety as a condition: it can affect everyone, regardless of their demographic profile, lifestyle and it can also be present both in “objectively” stressful situations as well as in situations where one is having fun. I recommend watching this show if you want to understand what anxiety is as a condition.
HeadSpace by Mari Vittradotter (Sweden)
HeadSpace is a physical theater/dance piece about psychosis/schizophrenia, which was written and performed by the Gothenburg-based artist Mari Vittradotter and her team of performers. HeadSpace was presented in Slakthuset, a formerly old slaughterhouse that reinvented itself into an artistic and cultural hub, during the first three days of Gothenburg Fringe. As someone who has never seen a slaughterhouse before but could imagine what it might look like, I was surprised to see the premises inside functioning like galleries and theatrical scenes. However, some of its premises were left to somehow resemble its not-so-glorious past, where some sites of the hub were dark-lit, decorated in all-white tiles. In an area like this, the scene was set for HeadSpace.
Now, one might object that one doesn’t know anything about dance or physical theatre, let alone schizophrenia or psychosis. I was sitting there having these thoughts myself, not being quite sure about what I should expect from a performance like this and directing my attention from the scene to the audience's faces and back to the scene hoping to get a clue.
The scene of the show was very minimalistic and looked like we were inside a hospital. On the right side, there was a woman dressed in white, tied to a bed. She lies bound there unable to move, expressionless, with her eyes shut. On the left side, there was a figure wrapped in plastic, and in the middle the narrator of the show. As the music began the story started to unfold, and the figure on the left started tearing the plastic apart, revealing the spookiest version of Pennywise Clown, which started dancing and moving frantically and in odd ways. I thought to myself that the clown must have been a pop reference to Stephen King's “It” which reminds me of the “Id” or the suppressed unconscious mind as presented by Freud, a part of the human personality that doesn’t have contact with objective reality. And I guess, if your “Id” looks like a spooky clown that takes over with overwhelming and out-of-this-world moves into your space while you could barely move, then what we were watching was psychosis itself. However, this is only one part of the performance and just my interpretation so I should stop here.
This performance was made with the goal of providing an insightful experience to the audience members who have probably never been through psychosis rather than narrating a clear-cut story, that can afterward be described to those who have not attended the show. Mari Vittradotter and her cast delivered a piece of utmost importance, challenging yet sensitive and empathetic. It was a production that brought to the surface the experiences of those with schizophrenia/psychosis and the stigma that exists around the disease in our society, and for that reason, and in my humble opinion rightfully so, they won the Hot Potato Award in Gothenburg Fringe 2023, an award given to artists who dare to tackle important and relevant social issues.
As an epilogue
Something common that I saw in all productions can be encompassed in the famous quote of Satre “Hell is other people”. In simple terms, hell is the way other people view you and impose their views on you. In the context of mental illness, it is when other people expect you to act as if you do not actually have a mental illness or disability. If our struggles are perceivable and hence legitimised by others, it is expected of those to act in a certain way. So sometimes in that sense, the disease itself is not as debilitating as the stigma, the bias, and all the social and financial repercussions that the artists might face because of their perceived weaknesses and deficits by others.
This is why it is of extreme importance for artists to express themselves and tell their own stories about mental health, with the medium they think is appropriate, be it comedy, dance, or other. I am very proud that I took part in a festival such as the Gothenburg Fringe that gives space to productions that actually challenge the norms, open difficult conversations such as those of mental health between the artist and the audience and push artistic boundaries.