If I told you that a youth theatre performance I recently saw, about mental health, ended with a group sing-along of Stand By Me, what would be your first reaction? Some people, I’d imagine, might think that sounds heartwarming. Others, perhaps, might feel it sounds a wee bit cheesy. Some people might think that singing a pop song, complete with guitars, arm-waving and clapping, could be something of a cop-out, or ‘artistically uninteresting’. As for me, well, I have seen some youth drama performances where there is a serious cheese overload. However, The Sound of Silence, performed by 52 young people in Enniskillen recently, was definitely not one of them. This 40-minute piece of devised theatre was carefully crafted, varied in form and reflective. It also ‘got me’ deep in the heart and gut, and by the end, both performers and audience had certainly earned the right to a good sing-along.
The Sound of Silence was a collaborative production by young people from 4 different schools in Donegal, Fermanagh, Cavan and Derry. They were joined by members of Key Drama, an up-and-coming youth theatre group. The play formed part of a cross-border mental health project with the intriguing title of Salus (means ‘wellbeing’ in Latin, I am told). Run by Action Mental Health and the National Learning Network, the Salus project enabled over 6000 young people to participate in workshops exploring mental health, between 2013 and February 2015. The drama element of Salus began in November last year, and was offered to young people from schools who had hosted mental health workshops. I am guessing that the creation of a play was seen as a way of giving artistic expression to the issues explored in these workshops, and of providing a platform for young people’s thoughts to be heard. The piece was devised by the 52 young people themselves. They were helped and guided in this challenge by drama facilitator Brenda Burns, who fondly christened her team: ‘The Salus 52’.
The great thing about The Sound of Silence was that it didn’t present mental health as all doom and gloom. It was highlighted early on – through the neat scenic device of a school lesson led by a stressed-out teacher – that the term ‘mental health’ itself is neither good nor bad. The first half of the play focussed on experiences of poor mental health, whilst the second half looked at how we can lift ourselves (and each other) up.
The opening sequence had performers circling in and out of the audience, chanting softly in rhythm: “What’s mental health? What’s mental health? Don’t know what mental health is? Shh…” The effect was disquieting – an embodiment of the social stigma which exists around talking about mental health, whether it be in the school playground or the office. This chanting was eventually broken by soft guitar music from one of the two excellent young actor-musicians.
A powerful montage of interlocking scenes followed, depicting snapshots of interaction within families and friendship groups. Voice-over narrative was used to illustrate how a young person may seem completely fine to their friends or family, whilst inside they are struggling with feelings of anxiety or despair. A ‘domino effect’ was built up, with one character from each scene moving on to the next one, bringing with them the stresses they had experienced in the previous scene. There were also some short monologues from individuals, telling stories about struggles with mental health. These were incredibly moving, and have stayed with me since.
Like clouds shifting to reveal the sun, the second half brought humour and light. We watched as a youth drama group full of lively characters attempted to create a play about mental health. After sharing things that help their mental health – from going to football matches to hanging out with friends – the group fell to devising scenes. Suggestions such as “let’s have an eerie whisper moving into a haunting chant” were tried out and discarded, before one group member said: “how about ending with a big song and dance? Like they have in musicals… Where they just seem to break simultaneously into song…”. And so it was that The Sound of Silence ended with a fabulous dance routine involving all 52 performers, followed by a chorus of Stand By Me. By that stage, the audience were on their feet, clapping and singing along. We had followed these young performers on a journey from darkness into light. And, quite simply, they had put on a fantastic show.
And I haven’t told you the half of it. I didn’t even mention the scene of the debate in the Dáil, with T.D.s arguing for making mental health education compulsory in schools. Or all the funny bits with the youth drama workshop. But I will say this: as someone who has struggled with mental health at times throughout my life, The Sound of Silence made me feel less alone. Listening to the monologues, I thought: “I remember feeling like that when I was 16. I should have told somebody sooner.” And after the rousing finale, the whole audience left with a spring in their step, off to have lunch at Action Mental Health and get to know each other better. This is what good youth theatre can do. Salus 52, I salute you.