BY HANNAH MORPETH
Ahead of new production, I Weigh, Hannah Morpeth has spoken to Helen Ferguson (Theatre Director at Mortal Fools) about the importance of theatre and the inspirations behind the production developed by Mortal Fools and Tyne Valley Youth Theatre.
At Create Healthy Minds we love to ask people what great work they have read/listened to/watched recently.
‘I saw a show at Arts Centre Washington recently called ‘Woke’ by Testament – who is a rapper, MC, theatre maker, performer(!) The show questioned Testament’s values and culture in relation to sexism. He used his artistic skills to make his point brilliantly, including a particularly brilliant scene recreating classic hip hop tracks using beat-boxing and then pulling them apart for hidden sexist lyrics. It was one of those brilliant shows that just kept taking things further and further and not just skimming the surface but properly questioning himself and the themes of the piece. It made me think a lot afterwards and will change how I fight for gender equality and respect.’
(It’s coming to Northern Stage in May and Queens Hall in September!)
Mortal Fools is a truly responsive theatre company who represent real issues that are having an impact on real people. Helen tells us that they ‘love working with people, our people and partners are at the heart of what we do and our community is ever growing so we’d love to hear from anyone who is interested in what we do, or is doing similar work, or is a young person who’d like to get involved!’
The Importance of Theatre
It is no secret at Create Healthy Minds we think theatre is an incredibly powerful platform. Helen has spoken to us about the real life changes she has witnessed happen for young people that Mortal Fools have worked with: ‘young people from our company have said in the past that taking part in our theatre projects has had a huge impact on their wider lives enabling them to speak to people confidently, become resilient to challenges in their lives, and help them to support others.’
‘Theatre and drama encourages them to share, offload and let things out. Whether that’s through playing ridiculous drama games or researching a theme, or having a conversation, or creating a scene or performing to an audience – they experience something that improves how they are feeling. We directly see and hear about the effects the youth theatre has on our young people, from them and their families.’
Imagine a world in which we prescribed theatre – either creating or watching it. Imagine the positive impact it could have on the lives of people who are struggling with all sorts of difficulties.
As a live event theatre is powerful because everyone is in that room, on that night, experiencing something together that hopefully makes them think and feel something important.
Theatre has the possibility to educate people and ultimately have an impact on their lives, ‘Last year we had several parents leave Brainstorm saying it will change how they parent their children – that’s a huge achievement that can change people’s lives.’
In response to an image of the Jenner/Kardashian females with their weights labelled, actress, model, presenter and all-round activist Jameela Jamil started the I Weigh movement. Designed to empower people to think of their weight in more than kilograms, to encourage people to think of their weight in achievements and personal qualities. The response has been overwhelming, with many turning to Instagram to celebrate what they are, flipping the narrative we are often faced with.
Theatre group Mortal Fools presents us with the greatest response of all – a whole show made up of young people’s voices and experiences. Helen speaks of why the show is so important: ‘I Weigh makes real people visible, beyond the media’s fake representation of people in the world, and I wanted to make a show that helped young people share their experiences and make their lives visible too.’
Although not directly about the I Weigh movement, the production draws upon the themes that have came out of the movement by looking at how people have responded to I Weigh alongside their own experiences. ‘All of the material in the show comes from the real-life personal experiences of the cast, they all have a story to tell and we aim for the audience to relate to what they see. Using real life experiences bring humour and poignancy which is when really good theatre can have an impact.’ Helen has drawn on a organic approach to develop I Weigh with the young people, allowing them space to talk about their experiences which fed into the themes used within the final production.
The Weight of Young People Involved
The I Weigh movement celebrates people’s qualities beyond that of their physical appearance and that it’s important to celebrate all qualities irrespective of how you might feel about them. The discussion about what makes us us and the values we hold has played an important part of the production and rehearsals of I Weigh. This way of working has lead to the young people in the cast coming to a realising that ‘all of those things make up who you are as a person, and you can take ownership of them in a way that is honest and productive rather than striving to be ‘perfect’.’ Often people can be their worst enemies but thinking about how other people view you can be a more helpful approach, the young people involved in I Weigh have said that ‘they weigh whatever they are worth to those important to them, and you can’t really put a value on that.’
A Message to the Masses
It is almost impossible to avoid the constant comparison in the media in general, with people constantly striving to be prettier, thinner, more successful, richer etc. than someone else. In a society that seems to thrive on being more how do we manage to veer away from this dialogue and encourage people to be happy the way they are and be satisfied with what they have without comparison? Productions like I Weigh seem to have the answer, they’re giving young people an opportunity to share their views on a platform which allows for honesty about the change they want to see in the world. We’ve been given a speak peak of some spoken word one of the young people has written as part of I Weigh:
don’t be fake, you are always enough,
you are an immovable piece of art,
not beautiful, not made for the pleasure of others,
you are an inscrutable treasure unlike any other.
It is incredibly encouraging to hear such powerful words written by young people who are passionate about giving positive messages to others. The whole cast of I Weigh have a message for you, if like many others, find yourself wrapped up, lost or pressurised by what you see on social media:
- It’s often not real, often what you see on Instagram is a curated version of someone’s real life.
- Don’t try to be something you’re not just because society has constructed an expectation of what people should be like. Keep questioning those expectations and encouraging not only yourself but more importantly your peers to question and push through to develop who you actually are as a person, and individual who is a one-off.
Access to the Arts for Young People
For those of us that have had access to arts experiences both as young people and adults it might seem obvious that those experiences can be valuable in all sorts of ways and for some, life changing. However, there is nothing more powerful than a personal testimony of the impact arts organisations can have on people’s lives. One young person, Ben (17), shared with us the impact joining Mortal Fools has had on his life:
I started Mortal Fools youth theatre when I was 9 and it was the best thing that I’ve ever done. Before I started I had no self-esteem and doubted myself a lot, however after taking part in I was able to build my confidence massively. Being around people that shared many similarities allowed me to make loads of new friends and feel comfortable in my own skin straight away.
Still today I get stressed and lack in confidence at times, however when this is the case, Mortal Fools is my outlet for stress relief, providing a place to take my mind off school work and other anxieties. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It has given me confidence in my abilities and skills to pursue an acting career in the future. It’s so important to have youth theatre in Prudhoe as I want to give other young people in my home town the chance to fit in, and be helped to release their full potential completely.
It is incredible to hear a story of such positivity of the influence engaging in theatre has had on Ben and it is amazing that in the North East of England we are lucky to have so many amazing arts organisations that continue to offer such incredible opportunities to young people. In a world where young people are facing increasing pressures from education, social media and their peers we have arts organisations such as Mortal Fools giving them access to an alternative narrative for their lives.
If you, like me, feel passionate about young people and understanding their experiences in the world, head on over to the Mortal Fools website to get yourself a ticket to see I Weigh at one of the performances across the North East and North West this spring.