A forum to discuss the effects of representation in theatre on young people’s mental health.

As You Like It production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_273577

This panel discussion was held on 20 May 2019 as part of the collaboration between the RSC and The University of Birmingham. It was developed in response to Mental Health Awareness Week and explored the potential effects of representation in theatre on young people’s sense of identity.

The panel was chaired by Professor Matthew Broome, Chair in Psychiatry and Youth Mental Health & Director of the Institute for Mental Health, University of Birmingham. Other members of the panel were:

  • Dr Niall Boyce, Editor of The Lancet Psychiatry

  • Caroline Horton, Theatre-Maker, University of Birmingham Creative Fellow

  • Stephen Unwin, Theatre Director and Chair of KIDS charity

  • Justin Audibert, Director of The Taming of the Shrew

  • Charlotte Arrowsmith, Actor in As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew

  • Holly Moyse, Youth Advisory Group member from the Institute for Mental Health, University of Birmingham

Mental health is increasingly being recognised as a serious issue for young people today. The stories we see, read, and tell in our daily lives help us understand our own and others’ experiences. Such stories told through theatre can be powerful in embodying these experiences but can also present problems in considering whose stories are being told, by whom, and how such representation can affect us.

A key theme of the discussion was about the importance of increasing awareness of minority groups through inclusion. Stephen Unwin talked about how people living with learning disabilities are often a forgotten minority in concerns about diversity. In sharing her story, Charlotte Arrowsmith talked about the importance of positive role models for deaf young people. She called for theatre companies to be brave in order to broaden the views of audiences.

Dr Niall Boyce explained how laughter is a profound social bonding experience but this can mean we laugh at things that make us feel uncomfortable and we need to remain aware of how our laughter might make others feel. Caroline Horton explored how much easier it is to connect to a story when you can recognise yourself represented in it, and our need to listen to those with experiences different to our own.

The discussion also touched on the responsibility of the arts industries to question inequalities and the extent to which those inequalities affect the stories we get to hear and tell. Holly Moyse talked about adapting classic stories to be more inclusive of working-class perspectives. The panel also acknowledged the risks of trying to represent other people’s lives on stage. Justin Audibert said ‘As artists, we don’t have a right to represent anyone else’s life but we do have a responsibility to do so as best we can.’

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