Grey Matters: A new approach to mental health awareness

LARA FERRIS investigates an immersive theatre project with a serious message

Grey Matters Ifeyinwa Frederick Immersive Theatre josh simons King's College lara ferris mental health Mental Health Awareness Week Student Minds ucs

Slotting neatly into the end of Student Minds’ Mental Health Week (17th-23rd February) comes Grey Matters, an immersive theatre project that aims to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. 

I talked to Ifeyinwa Frederick and Josh Simons, who started the project, about the different approach that they have adopted in order to raise awareness about mental illness. As Josh said, mental illness in Cambridge is not completely brushed under the carpet, but ‘it’s either dealt with in a beaurocratic way, with big organisations like the UCS [University Counselling Services] and in statistics, or numbers, or it tends to be press articles and journalism.’ There is space for a different, more creative approach.

The idea behind Grey Matters is to get people to talk about mental illness. Ifeyinwa believes that, given how commonplace mental illness is, it is wrong to have an attitude that ‘it’s a niche topic’ and therefore unsuitable for theatre. In order to accept that mental illness happens, we need to not always deal with it in a dark and depressing way. Immersive theatre is a different way of engaging with mental health, and Ifeyinwa and Josh hope it offer a way to help people be more sympathetic to and engage with the issues that will arise from the production.

Mental Health meets Immersive Theatre

The material that they are using for their show is taken from transcripts of interviews that they conducted with people, both within the Cambridge student population and beyond, who have experienced mental illness. The performance therefore touches upon illnesses talked about by their interviewees, such as anorexia, depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Ifeyinwa is keen to point out that ‘there is no sensationalism – when we’re talking about the actual experiences, all the material comes from the interviews.’

What is the aim of the project? As Josh points out, ‘part of the point of what we’re trying to do is NOT to make a point.’ They aren’t trying to bombard their audience members with ‘this is what we think about mental health, this is the way to deal with it, this of experience is how it really works.’ That is why immersive theatre is such a powerful way to raise awareness about an intensely personal, difficult-to-define subject. From Josh: ‘every single audience member who comes, they can’t get the same plot and the same experience – they will all have a different experience.’

Immersive theatre therefore helps to highlight the personal nature of mental illness. Although there are medically specific diagnoses of the various illnesses touched on in Grey Matters, the individual experience of mental illness changes wildly from person to person. Josh likens the concept of immersive theatre to the complicated workings of the mind: ‘Every immersive theatre production I’ve been to, it’s often quite weird, quite off-beat, often unexplained, and the mental world of an individual isn’t coherent or simple either, there’s no ‘A happens therefore B happens’ over a certain time frame.’ So the very nature of Grey Matters means it avoids making assumptions about mental health, as there are no plot generalisations, or clear events that everybody sees.

Ifeyinwa doesn’t believe that mental illness is something that always has to be dealt with in a dark and depressing way, and hopefully this new approach will go some way towards removing the stigma surrounding it. ‘We need to learn to accept that it happens – not accept and therefore not do anything to try and prevent it, but accept that it does happen, it does exist, and it can be dealt with.’

Grey Matters, begins in the Chetwynd Room @ Kings College, 7pm, 7.50pm & 8.35pm, 22-24th February, £6