Bethany Taylor talks about starting a theatre company at the age of 18. Called Cognito Theatre, the company was created with the intention of using performance to tackle and discuss current issues. Their first project was performed at Leeds last year and focused on mental health stigma. Their current project is an installation to accompany the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Spring Awakening
When people ask me how/why I started a theatre company, I tell them it was an accident. When people ask me if I’m ‘mental’, I proudly reply with “most definitely”.
It started when I was 17 – the ‘mental’, that is – a number of things had built up over my early teenage years and they all, rather unhelpfully, chose my AS Levels as the best time to finally crush me. Fast forward a little, and I found the more open I had started to be about the real reasons why I was missing class, why some days getting out of bed wasn’t actually an option and why I wore longer sleeves, the more people would eagerly take me to the side to talk to me about their experiences of Citalopram, or about how their Uncle Bob has schizophrenia. In short, I found out that even though one in four of us will be affected by a mental health problem at some point in our lives, mental health stigma is something that still affects us all. People are still terrified at the prospect of starting a conversation on the subject, probably either because a) they’re terrified of saying the wrong thing or b) they believe the archaic view that everyone with a mental health problem is extremely dangerous and should be avoided swiftly. Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has their physical health. The whole topic baffled (and continues to baffle) me.
Enter, stage right, Leicester’s Curve Theatre and my love of the stage. Exit, my social life and whatever sanity was left. By the age of 18, with funding and support from Curve, I started Cognito Theatre, with the intention of using theatre and performance to challenge current issues (mental health stigma included), and to spark discussion on the things people don’t usually like to discuss, by approaching subjects from new perspectives and giving them unique platforms.
Our first project ‘Do You Expect Me to Talk?’ (perhaps unsurprisingly) was all about getting people to talk about their mental health and wellbeing, regardless of whether it was good or bad. It was all about making conversations happen. I went into several schools at first, and ran workshops with groups ranging from nine year olds to postgraduate students. We didn’t examine the symptoms of depression or devise awkward plays on bullying, but we used drama games and being able to ‘become other people’ through taking on characters to explore what happy, sad, angry, hurt etc. all actually mean.
This was interesting enough, but engaging members of the general public in these conversations without scaring them off via the ‘theatre’ or ‘mental health’ labels might have presented somewhat of a challenge. Enter, stage left, the ‘theatrical installation’ – which might be explained as a kind of art exhibition, but in Cognito’s case, instead of works of art, you have live actors improvising short scenes, surrounded by set. We worked with a professional designer to build said set, I gathered together a group of eager students to workshop and devise some scenarios to work with (for example, a doctor/patient conversation), and negotiated some empty shop space for a Saturday in July in the centre of Leicester. We had no large signage, just the unusual appeal of people standing in a shop window talking to each other. In the centre of the installation was a giant noticeboard for people to interact with and anonymously contribute their own stories and thoughts.
We were lucky enough to get a little more funding and use those contributions to develop new work in Leeds and York last year, which we presented here on campus, eventually. However, Cognito’s latest work has been a collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Headlong Theatre and national charity YoungMinds. With me back in the directorial seat and fellow Leeds student Patrick Hands as our new resident designer, we have produced another installation for the playhouse to accompany the new Playhouse/Headlong Theatre production of Spring Awakening, a classic yet controversial piece on the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers. Our installation focuses on the character of Moritz Stiefel, a particularly troubled lad who struggles under huge academic pressure and the confusion of puberty, sex, and the concept of virginity. Placed right by the auditorium in which Spring Awakening is playing until March 22, the installation is split into three sections and aims to put audience members in Moritz’s shoes, to encourage empathy with his character and with the issues at hand.