Without Walls TALKS: Recovery and resilience: Outdoor Arts and mental health in 2021, by Leigh Johnstone

2 September 2021

It’s a poignant time to be holding an outdoor arts festival. Over the last year and a half we’ve all been through so much, both collectively and as individuals, and I get the sense that people are more than ready to get back out there again and enjoy live performance. I believe that the arts are an important part of national recovery, and we feel the All in the Mind Festival can play a part in that.

The festival kicks off 11 September in Basingstoke, and although the pandemic is still here, and for many there is some reluctance to get outside and engage with others again, there’s a strong appetite for it in the local area. 

Audiences and communities are telling us that they want to get out again, to spend time together, have a good time and reconnect. These are all important elements of wellbeing that have been missing for too long, and this year’s festival has a strong emphasis on this reconnection.

"Audiences and communities are telling us that they want to get out again, to spend time together, have a good time and reconnect"

AITM is branded as a mental health arts festival and we are proud to be one of the only outdoor arts festivals with a specific arts and mental health focus. Over the past six years, the festival has changed significantly; as society has learned more about mental health, we have too. 

When we first started, we were programming work better suited to indoor spaces with a sit-down audience and a real ‘in-ya-face’ mental health message. Whilst the work was powerful, it was quite highbrow and a little bit exclusive. Unless you were already a mental health advocate or an avid theatregoer, the content could come across as heavy or inaccessible.

Since then, the festival has become more about creating an event that allows people to come for a day out, doing something that makes them feel good. We all have mental health, whether good or bad, and AITM is about highlighting the fact that the arts can improve your health and wellbeing. 

"As society has learned more about mental health, we have too."

I believe the outdoor arts can lead the way in restoring people’s confidence in attending arts and cultural activities, helping us to recover from a very turbulent period and bring artists and audiences back into towns and cities. In terms of programming, we find that there is potential for more small-scale, outdoor work around the theme of mental health. There’s a niche there, and that’s why we now create outdoor pieces at Fluid Motion. We want to engage different groups and communities through developing inspiring pieces we can share around the country.

This year’s AITM Festival is themed around resilience, offering a direct response to the challenges we have all faced as a result of the pandemic. The festival is a culmination of Fluid Motion’s year-long programme and celebrates the great outreach work that takes place throughout the year.

Two of this year’s outreach projects influenced the creation of two new outdoor pieces of work from Fluid Motion, which will be premiering at this year’s festival.

Sound installation Listen Up! has been created using the stories, reflections and experiences of young people gathered during our Recovery Project. The project took place in secondary schools across the South East and was aimed at getting young people talking about the pandemic, to pause and reflect on their experiences. Many young people told us it was the first chance they’d had to explore and digest what had happened, and their stories have been brought together in this installation. People can sit, stand, or lie down and listen to six voices of young people talk about their reflections and how they felt and how they coped during the pandemic.

Take Ten, created in collaboration with Lorna Rees of Gobbledegook Theatre, is a performance installation that has been developed from our adult outreach programme The Gathering ProjectTake Ten is designed to slow us down. It’s a space to be present, in the here and now, to reflect and to notice. Audiences can take a moment on our bespoke and colourful swing chairs, guided by a soundtrack that encourages them to sit comfortably, swing gently and breathe deeply. 

"Many young people told us it was the first chance they’d had to explore and digest what had happened"

In the 2021 festival, we want to help our fellow performers reconnect with their audiences and give people a relaxed, enjoyable day out where they’ll be entertained and inspired. Life is about connecting and having fun, and we’ve all done far too little of that recently.

All in the Mind Festival 2021 takes place on 11 September, find out more on All in the Mind’s website.

Photo Credits: Grace Jeffreys

About the Author

Leigh Johnstone, Artistic Director of All in the Mind Festival

Leigh is the co-founder and Artistic Director of Fluid Motion Theatre Company, which was formed in 2010 while he was at The University of Winchester. The company exists to use theatre as a tool to help improve and support positive health and well-being as well as raise awareness of mental health topics and challenge stigma. The work of Fluid Motion stems from Leigh’s own lived experiences of poor mental health and underpins the ethos of everything they create.

In 2016 he created and performed in ‘Rum in the Gravy Boat’, an autobiographical show about his mum’s own alcohol abuse and the impact it had on his childhood. In the same year Leigh established the All in the Mind Festival, which is now widely recognised as the only mental health outdoor arts festival in the UK. Leigh regularly supports emerging artists creating autobiographical, mental health work for the first time and is developing new outdoor work in this area. He collaborates closely with partners in the fields of arts and health including local NHS clinical commissioning groups, local authorities, The National Academy for Social Prescribing, Arts Council England and Hampshire Cultural Trust. He is also a bit of a social media influencer, running the ‘Beardy Gardener’ on Instagram which focuses on mental health and gardening and is a regular contributor to several mental health and arts based podcasts.

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