WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY
HAPPINESSLESS is a new Arts Council Wales funded project being led by Justin Teddy Cliffe in collaboration with Charlotte Lewis, with support from The Riverfront & Dirty Protest, in connection with Urban Circle, REACT Support Services & the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Throughout Sept 2023, a large creative team came together to co-create an experimental devising theatre piece that aimed to use tech and movement create a verbatim story telling experience centred around mental health and human psychology. The aim is to challenge us to think about how we can have better/more useful conversations about mental health, suicide, wellness and happiness.
During this process we explored a model of co-creation with local community members, young people and emerging artists. Taking place over 4 weeks, the work resulted in a work-in-progress sharing at The Riverfront, at the 15th Sept 2023.
Through robust community engagement, integrated access provision & the exploration of an online-digital offering; this work aimed to responsibly share new/alternative narratives around mental health whilst creating pathways for audiences & participants to do the same.
COLLABORATION & NEXT STEPS
As we move forward with a plan to re-develop and tour the work we're interested in continuing the conversations we're already having with people about the work, as well as hear from organisations, venues, charities, groups and individuals who might want to connect to the project.
If you came to see the work-in-progress sharing and want to share some after-thoughts:
THE MAKING OF
This short film was shot by Fez Miah, periodically throughout our process. It captures moments from rehearsal and audience feedback following the WIP sharing event.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
This short video is a recorded Zoom conversation between some audience members and the cast.
If you want to listen to the 'podcast' version click the link below.
FULL (WIP) PERFORMANCE
This recording was made on the 15th Sept 2023 live at the Riverfront.
Justin Teddy Cliffe
Mental Health Practitioner
Jodi Ann Nicholson
Visual Digital Designer
Company Stage Manager
Dept Stage Manager
Community Youth Producer
Community Charities Producer
Lloyd Miller aka Photosapien
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
The Word: I made up the word ‘happinessless’ to describe a collection of feelings we might encounter when searching for or aspiring to be happy. For me it includes a multitude of feelings as well as the lack of any feelings. It’s both active and inactive, and (for me) sort-of-captures a sense/feeling that other emotional descriptors like “confused” “sad” “angry” or “lost” cannot. Through exploring this new word and what it might mean, we found the overall sensation for the piece.
A main aim was to work with mental health practitioners, artists and members of the public to create a piece of work the broad subsection of the public could relate to and get something out of.
Happinessless is a Research & Development project funded by Arts Council Wales, supported by Dirty Protest, in connection with Urban Circle and in co-production with The Riverfront. We also had support from React Support Services in Cardiff. The initial project brief was to make a show featuring one male protagonist, supported by two other performers. The aim was to explore a semi-autobiographical script about depression, modern life, derealisation, moments of dysphoria and mens mental health. Through collaboration and co-creation, the project changed dramatically as soon as we (me, Charlotte Lewis and Ceriann Williams) held group auditions. Through doing this, we realised a larger ensemble was exciting, and shifted the work to become more representative of a wider subsection of people, with various lived experiences. By accepting this new pathway, our cast of three turned into a cast of nine.
The project had three main points of focus: 1) To explore ways in which we could have ‘better’ conversations about mental health. 2) To develop a radically different working methodology that could enable performers to devise and create work based off of their own lived experiences in a healthy and responsible way. 3) To explore how technology (and specifically AI) could enable us tell better stories and involve more people.
The overall time we spent physically building the work was 4 weeks. Each week represented a new opportunity for a smaller cast of 3x performers to come together and engage in a co-ordinated creative process. In Week 4 these groups came together to form the cast of 9, and we re-built the work together in the studio.
Process: The overall approach and process was developed by Charlotte Lewis, Rebbecca Nembhard and myself. It was grounded in a devising methodology that relied on none of the actors taking notes, whilst also rejecting any formalised form of ‘a script’. We worked with urgency and always to find what would happen in any given moment through improvisation, rather than forecasting forward too much and/or having any real expectation of what the content could/should become. We constantly asked; what is satisfying/interesting and what is unsatisfying/uninteresting, and followed that.
Every group learned the exact same games and exercises. These games and exercises were the absolute foundation of how the performers would; move, speak and interact. They also gave us a shared performance language. These games ended up forming the nuts and bolts of the content for our piece.
For each group the very first day of the process was the same. We started with a large blank piece of paper, on this paper we asked each group to write as many questions as they could about happiness. From here we had hours of conversation based on their responses. These questions would lead us into physical explorations in the space, and we would revisit them sporadically during the four days we were together. Never in an attempt to answer them, but to understand why we wanted to ask them in the first place.
The technical work on this was huge. Looking at projection and integrated access captioning, microphones surrounding the space, the moving set pieces of the work having lights and sound installed etc. As well as this, we also had wireless headphones for the audience to wear in order to reduce the sound of the revolving stage and enhance the voice of the narrator. As is often the case, a lot of this tech didn’t work for us. The AI captioning is in a very beta phase, and was actually an R&D in and of its self, and the headphones didn’t end up being utilised as they seemed to create a separation between audiences and the work, during rehearsal.
In terms of how we worked with Rebecca Nembhard to install support into a process that positioned the wellness of all participants at the forefront. It’s important to note that Rebecca’s role was co-ordination, pastoral and creative. Devising a working methodology together we took a pragmatic approach that acknowledged how important routine, schedule, time keeping and discipline actually are in terms of the way we treat the collective with responsibility and respect. We also understood the potential impact of making work like this might have from moment to moment, and always invited anyone in the room to leave for 15mins if needed. Rebecca also helped us set up a social contract for the groups which were about compassion, responsibility and mutual respect. Where she was creative in the work, Rebecca helped make decisions about how we would explore specific moments and what that might look like and feel like for audiences.
Next steps: We are currently having conversations about the future of the work. We want to connect with more mental health charities and organisations in order to explore how the work could enable us to have better conversations with more people. The possibility of touring it is an exciting one, however, we know it will cost a lot and so are also interested in talking to people who might be interested in co-funding the work. We are aware we need more time to work on the detail and depth of the overall piece. We also need to consider how the work can offer opportunities to a more diverse range of people, to speak and share their experiences of ‘happinessless’.