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From Bristol to Finland: taking the international leap

For some English companies, Edinburgh Fringe can seem a big trip, but Nick Awde hears how Stepping Out is taking a show to Scandinavia

Mental health theatre company Stepping Out started life as a small drama group inside a psychiatric hospital two decades ago. Since then, the Bristol company has grown to be a community-based theatre group performing in conventional theatres, but also occasionally inside mental health facilities.

The company has also travelled overseas this August to Finland to take part in Tampere’s MielenTilat (Mindspaces) Home Theatre Festival, which focuses on mental health and drama methods. Given the company’s long track record of almost 70 productions to date, it was an easy choice for the Finnish programmers to offer the invitation, but for Stepping Out it was quite a challenge to make that international leap.

“Tampere is sort of Finland’s equivalent of the Edinburgh festivals – the city hosts the official international Tampere Theatre Festival with a fringe, the Off Tampere,” says Stepping Out’s director and founder Steve Hennessy. “And in Finland, as you can imagine, pretty much everyone speaks English so MielenTilat, which is attached to the fringe, was interested in seeing what work we do.

“They gave us a lot of latitude in choice and we ended up taking over a cabaret-type show, Voyages of the Starship Lunar Sea, because it showcased a lot of different performers in different formats.”

That choice, however, meant taking over 16 performers, a financial challenge that disappointingly saw the company turned down twice for Arts Council funding. However, along with a little help from the Finns, Stepping Out was able to make up the shortfall with surplus from a recent run of Will Self’s Great Apes [1] at the Arcola Theatre.

“Lunar Sea was by far the most ambitious thing we’ve ever taken abroad. We had taken a show such as Diary of a Madman to France and New York. But that was literally one actor and a tech. So this was a very different level of project.

“It was a massive logistical enterprise. We had some very experienced performers but we also had some people without a lot of experience and some very vulnerable mental health service users.”

The group also included people who had never been on an airplane before, who’d never travelled abroad, and those who didn’t even have a passport. “So that was a lot of organising over many months, but it all paid off. Everyone was delighted with the outcome in Tampere and we hope to build on it for future years.”

There are plans for the Finns to come over to events in the UK and for Stepping Out to go over again. The company is also teaming up with the UK’s Ridiculusmus, which coincidently created a show about the mental health system in Finland.

Ridiculusmus: It’s no joke being funny [2]

“The trip had long been planned,” says Hennessy, “and then somebody pointed out that Ridiculusmus were at this year’s Bristol Mayfest doing a show on the same theme – The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. We got in touch but the show was completely sold out. But then Ridiculusmus put on a special performance for our group.

“That’s not the sort of thing that happens every day, and through that we’ve now forged a special connection with them that is helping us work towards Finland 2019.”

steppingouttheatre.co.uk [3]