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Mockingbird: A Comedy about Motherhood and Mental Health

BY Emma Smith | 09-Oct-2018
Pregnancy related mental health issues are common, incredibly common. In fact, an average woman in Melbourne is twice as likely to experience perinatal depression, anxiety or psychosis as catch public transport to work. Consider that next time you see a crammed tram at rush hour. Yet despite the prevalence of these conditions, many women feel too ashamed to seek the support they need. New Zealand based theatre maker Lisa Brickell is out to change that with Mockingbird: A Dark Comedy about Motherhood and Mental Health. Following sell-out seasons Sydney, New Zealand and Norway, Mockingbird arrives in Melbourne this month. She shares her journey so far.
What inspired Mockingbird?
This show is based on my own story, those of my female ancestors, and the stories of other women involved in the project. I have had close friends and family struggle with mental distress and commit suicide, as I'm sure we all have. We think that mental health and suicide should be talked about. We believe that not talking about an issue doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist—bringing an issue out into the open is the first step towards understanding. Depression, before being a mental health problem is part of our human condition and we need to be open and honest about our own experiences and learn how to support each other through them.

We are passionate about creating social change through the transformative power of the arts and hope that through this show, we can help raise awareness and lessen depression, psychosis and suicide rates.

How was Mockingbird created?
After doing quite a bit of devised physical theatre and comedy, I decided I wanted to learn more about script-writing so I did an MA in 2014, and as part of this, needed to write a show and perform it. This was the beginning of Mockingbird – a 30 minute version. It was co-created and directed by Ruth Dudding and with original music composed by Sarah Macombee. Then, with Giovanni Fusetti—one of my teachers at the Lecoq Theatre School in Paris—we turned this into an hour-long show through a combination of improvising, devising and writing.

What research informed Mockingbird?
Initial research involved talking with family members, which wasn't always easy, as mental illness and suicide has always been something people prefer to cover up and forget about, especially in previous generations. It also involved reading letters, books and family histories. I also interviewed many people who have experienced postnatal depression and psychosis, who talked about their experiences and the support they received, which has generally been much more positive than past generations, reflecting the way approaches to mental health are changing.

Then from 2016, in collaboration with researchers from Western Sydney University, Australian historical records have been used to give the play both greater universality and specificity. Dr Diana Jefferies, from the University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, led a research team which analysed the hospital records of women who were admitted to Callan Park and Gladesville Hospitals in Sydney from 1885 to 1955.

Changing Minds NZ, a mental health organization, was also part of the consultative process as Mockingbird shifted from being one family’s experience, to a story that represents postnatal depression and psychosis in a way that is true to many women’s lived experiences.

What has been the most difficult part of the production?
One of the most challenging and also rewarding parts of the production has been the discussion that the show raises around mental health, even before it has been performed. We have had some interesting comments on social media about how much can the arts really do to create social awareness and change? Do people think it's just entertainment?

I have always been really inspired by theatre makers such as Dario Fo and Franca Rame who have created very funny political comedies about very serious topics, in order to raise awareness and inspire people to take action to change the injustices in society. They won a Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

We believe the arts have a pivotal part to play in shedding light on areas in society which are frequently hidden or covered up, such as mental distress and well-being. For me, the power of comedy is really profound. To make people laugh, and think, and take action—the arts in most cultures have traditionally always played this role. From storytelling around the campfire, to the early clowns in the South Pacific who were called in by the grandmothers to make fun of the chief when he got too wrapped up in his ego and not focussed enough on the people, to the court jesters who spoke in riddles and made fun of royalty to Commedia dell'Arte in Italy, to many examples such as Fo and Rame in modern times.

Finally, of course, the power of humour and laughter is immeasurable when treating any kind of illness, whether mental or physical. This is why this is not a depressing play about depression, it’s a black comedy about mental health.

You’ve performed Mockingbird to a diverse range of audiences, what has been the response to the show?
We usually run either a forum or a casual Q and A after the show, and have had some incredible dialogues around mental health. We have been overwhelmed with all the personal stories we have heard from the audience’s own and family members’ lives. We always have contact details for support services on our programme, because asking for and receiving support is so important whether you are struggling with your own mental health or of those close to you.

In my mother and grandmother’s time, they didn't have much support and were taken to have a ‘rest’ in psychiatric wards. My mum remembers her mum saying to her, “It's a place of no hope and no help.” In my mother’s case, she insisted her baby go into the psychiatric ward with her so she could breastfeed. However the baby, when not being fed, was kept in the solitary confinement cell with the ‘most serious case’ so “the crying wouldn’t disturb the other patients!” This seems so ridiculous, it has become a comedic song in the show. I also struggled after having my first baby, but I was very lucky to have great support –my friends, my family, my Buddhist organisation (SGI) and my partner’s huge family. The importance of support, not isolation, is a key message in the play. We are often so isolated nowadays having children. It works a lot better all round when the village brings up the baby. If we don’t have a village, how can we create one?

We were surprised in Norway how mental health is still very hidden and not talked about, compared with NZ and Australia. So even though we still have a long way to go, we are making progress and this dialogue about mental health really helps in reducing stigma and discrimination.