Mental health drama

LEARNING: Janette Dempsey talks to a group of high school drama students about supporting her son, Peter Cross (in the white shirt), who was diagnosed with schizophrenia about 13 years ago. Picture: Simone De PeakHole in suburb’s soulFamily calls for changeFarewell to ‘door man’Man in MemoriesCrying out to be listened toNO matter how hard he tries to stand, Nick keeps getting knocked down and pushed around. Figures appear like shadows and grabthe 16-year-old.

The Toronto High School student is not being assaulted. He and the others are workshopping a piece of theatreto portraywhat it is like to live with a mental illness.

“I have friends who have been fighting depression, mental illness, so it’s close to my heart,” says 15-year-old Warners Bay High student Daniel.

The young actors are part of a group of high school students from across the Hunter participating in the week-long DramaWorks program in Newcastle, devising and performing pieceswith tutors.

In searching for a performance subject, drama tutor Michael Gallaway read the Herald’s story aboutBernie Sessions, Mayfield’s Man in the Doorway, whose death prompted not just grief but a public conversation about mental illness. Mr Gallaway also read about Newcastle man Peter Cross’ battle with schizophrenia and the support of his mother, Janette Dempsey.

Mr Gallaway decided to explore on the stage a subject that many are still uncomfortable talking about.

“We’re not trying to do a demon play, or a zombie play, we want to be truthful, and we want to get it right,” Mr Gallaway tells the students.

To get it right, Mr Gallaway wanted to invite along Peter Cross and Janette Dempsey, and Mr Sessions’ sister, Jenny Allen, who has been advocating for the mental health system to listen more carefully to patients’ carers and loved ones. A supervising teacher at DramaWorks, Michelle Gosper, had taught Jenny Allen at high schooland contactedher former student. Mrs Allen, along with Mr Cross and his mother, who is also Hunter president of carers’ support group ARAFMI, accepted the invitation.

“It’s not often that theatre-makers can speak directly to the source material,” Mr Gallaway says.

DRAMA: Students workshop their piece about Peter Cross’ struggle with schizophrenia, and his mother’s support. Picture: Simone De Peak

Sitting in a circle, the three talk to the group about their experience with mental illness. Sensing the teenagers aretrying to choose their words carefully, Mrs Allen assures themthey can ask anything, it won’t causeoffence, and “it’s okay”.

“It’s more offensive if we’re not talking about this,” she says.

Sixteen-year-old Shelby mentions wantingto avoid an “over the top” performance, like “a horror movie”, and 15-year-old Shae-Leesays listening to the stories helps ensure there are “no misconceptions”.

The group then performa couple of the ideas they have been working on for the trio.

“We’re not performing them for your entertainment but for your feedback,” Michael Gallaway says to the three onlookers.

The first, featuring Nick, is about Peter Cross’ story about the importance of his mother’s support to regainhis life. Janette Dempsey’s role is portrayed as a paddle, helping guide her son out of “shit creek”. After the performance, Ms Dempsey says she appreciateshow it showed “the emotional turmoil being stopped”.

“Carers are not just paddlers,” adds Jenny Allen. “We’re sails, we’re hoping to blow them [aloved one with mental illness] in the right direction.”

The second presentationportraysPeter Cross’pastfears in situations as ordinary as walking along the street.

“It’s bizarre watching something based on things I’ve said about myself,” Mr Cross later says, adding he thought the performance was very good.

DramaWorks regional coordinator and Belmont High teacher Renee Bergersays the experience has been enormously valuable for the young performers.

“Havingsomebody who has been impacted personally and they’re in the room right in front of you, it’s a powerful thing,” she says. “It helps theatre-making more powerful and impactful.”

The students are performing their workshopped pieceson Friday night to an audience of family, teachers –and Jenny Allen, Peter Cross and Janette Dempsey. But they hope the message reverberates beyond the stage.

“I think there’s still a lot of stigma,” says Daniel. “Say ‘mental illness’ andsome think padded rooms and straitjackets. Butlook at Pete. He’s normal.”

Jenny Allen says the students’ work helps removethe “taboo” of discussing mental illness.

“It’s wonderful to see that people are interested in not only telling Bernie’s story and Peter’s story,” she says,“but in talking about mental illness.”

ADVICE: Janette Dempsey, Peter Cross and Jenny Allen watch the drama students perform pieces based on the trio’s experience with mental illness.