Words: Niamh McNeela
Rather than focusing on losing the turkey weight this New Year, chose to channel your efforts into a worthy and completely voluntary enterprise running from the 2nd to the 11thof January. Now in its fifth year, First Fortnight has succeeded in raising the profile of mental health awareness by means of cultural and artistic events. With an impressive schedule of performances, talks and exhibitions we talk to producer and project manager David Keegan and J.P. Swaine about what to expect.
Where exactly did the connection between the arts and mental health come from? How do you feel the two are interlinked?
D: At base level, advertising from the HSE saying “Mind Your Head”, doesn’t really do it and statistics prove that it had no real effect on suicide rates in the country. How do you discuss topics that have so much stigma attached to them? People have to change their minds about that subject matter. How do you change public opinion on anything? With people being open about the subject matter. We can address this through unique events where the subject matter is mental health. If anything, the arts reflect us as a society so we can use the arts as a medium for the message.
Can we backtrack a little bit and maybe talk about the background to these motivations?
J.P: It was a culmination of a few years of ideas. I had qualified and was working as a mental health professional but I had started going to a lot more arts events. My birthday is on the 13th of January and I noticed people were never that happy around then and it was hard to get people out. The general population have a susceptibility to a bit of low mood. Then the people I work with are on the other extreme, they have severe mental health problems all the time. I always found those weeks challenging because you could have seen progress over the year, but then have it retreat very quickly. We decided to do a fundraiser for my 30th birthday and started to design the event from there. We had an art exhibition in Andrew’s Lane in 2010, got on Newstalk and sold out all the tickets. Then we realised we were on to people.
Without a doubt this is an incredibly prevalent issue. Have you found that people are very open to offering their services and their time to the cause?
D: People nearly fall over themselves to help you! I’ve had friends telling me that their friend committed suicide recently and they’re committing to me that they will do something for First Fortnight next year. In reality when we started what we’re doing, our ten year plan would have been to be a service provider. That happened in year three. We had planned to have an actual festival by the time we could afford to have a service. But we jumped the gun a bit, I suppose. JP put in an application for a Genio fund and got the money to start the pilot initiative and lobby the HSE for the second year’s worth of funding. Our film programme has gone national now. So in our fifth year we’re a service provider, we have a festival that has reached a national scale. The only reason that has been able to happen has been because of the goodwill towards us.
So as a result you’re operating the First Fortnight Centre for Creative Therapies. Can you explain the concept?
J.P: It’s a therapeutic intervention with individuals affected by homelessness. For the longitudinal legacy of the project it was important that we have a year round presence or purpose. The festival has huge power and will shape how things work, but because it’s a short burst it doesn’t necessarily happen all at once. A lot of the people who make their way into homelessness are severely affected by mental health problems. An awful lot also have conditions that are not suitable to typical interventions. The creative arts are actually a lot more effective in that population.
Featuring high-profile figures in society tends to attract an initial interest from people who might not necessarily have thought of attending. Do you think having people like Marian Finucane and Richie Sadlier speak makes these kinds of issues more accessible?
J.P: I do think people experiencing mental health problems perceive themselves as weak and not important. I think that people who are in the public eye and are perceived as being strong, they embody the idea of being in control. I do think there is that shock, that just because I have enough mastery of myself to perform in this film or to run this race or to write this book, doesn’t mean I’m immune to the personal challenges that you are. We all have those challenges and I think it’s a very strong message. You can’t talk to a group of people with bipolar people and for Stephen Fry not to matter to them. He matters greatly because he’s done great things in his life and he has that condition. Our partners SeeChange, Spun Out and Mental Health Reform are all on page with this. Our previous partners Amnesty International were very much ahead of the curve on a lot of this and broke down an awful lot of barriers.
Any picks or highlights from this year’s line up? Flying Soprano’s star Joe Pantoliano over will surely be a tough one to top?
J.P: That’s eleven and a half months ago now and I still haven’t gotten over it. But he was just so committed to the issue that he ended up knocking around with us during the festival. He’s not a prophet or imbued with this amazing wisdom, he’s just a guy with personal experience and just wanted to talk about it. ‘Dolls’ is a stunning piece of theatre so I’d definitely recommend that. It’s the first performance we’ve given an award to through the Dublin Fringe.
D: We’ve invited Stuart Semple to install his mobile happy cloud machine which has never been in Ireland before; it’s actually coming from Australia. They can travel about a kilometre and a half so we can’t wait to see people’s reaction to those. The Year of Magical Wanking should be pretty interesting too!
First Fortnight festival will run from the 2nd – 11th January.