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Stand Tall Theatre founder Carley Dawson: ‘Most theatre companies really don’t tackle mental health in a direct way’

Carley Dawson Carley Dawson

Carley Dawson founded Stand Tall Theatre in 2015, with the company’s latest show focusing on schizophrenia. She tells Simon Fearn why she believes mainstream theatre often refuses to tackle mental health head-on…

Why is it important to write about schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is one of the most highly stigmatised mental illnesses. If you meet someone and they say they have schizophrenia, you instinctively step back and are confronted by a fear of them. Also Stevie [Williams, co-founder of Stand Tall Theatre] has a personal connection, as schizophrenia runs in his family.

How did you research the play?

We spoke with people who had suffered from schizophrenia, outreach workers and medical professionals and recorded interviews with seven people over a month. We’re also going on a training day with Pam Schweitzer, who specialises in memory and verbatim techniques and coined the term ‘reminiscence theatre’.

How important is it to have recorded voice-overs from people who have experienced schizophrenia as part of the play?

It would be a completely different show if we hadn’t done that. It merges fact and fiction and you get the sense that these issues actually do happen to real people. Half of the play is a fictional script, a quarter of it is verbatim text and then the last quarter is simply recorded voice-overs.

Why is education such a crucial part of your theatre company?

My degree at Chichester was very much about how to make an impact and change perceptions through theatre. Theatre is a great tool for that because it’s something you experience and we make our performances quite immersive. We use smells and a lot of music. With our touring production Anxiety, for example, you walk in with the smell of lavender. Theatre is something you don’t tend to forget when you’re younger, and it brings adults together.

What is important about schemes such as the John Thaw Initiative at the Actors Centre, which is showcasing this work as part of a mental health season?

While researching the first essay for my master’s degree – on empathy in theatre – I found that the larger theatre companies and the productions that people are really aware of don’t tackle mental health in a direct way. When I started writing the play, I thought: ‘Is anyone going to want to come and see this?’ Then I looked at the John Thaw Initiative and thought it was perfect. It was lovely to meet the other people involved in it, who all had the same passion as us to give an important message quite frankly.

Actors Centre announces seasons focusing on graduate actors and mental health

CV: Carley Dawson

Training: BA in performing arts, University of Chichester (2011-14)
First professional role: S in Dominion at Groundlings Theatre (2017)
Agent: None

Schizophrenia runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London on June 7

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