New play Waving not Drowning helping to raise awareness of mental health issues

By Grainne McCool

About a year ago, three people were having a coffee in the theatre, discussing new projects and ideas for future plays. Lots of ideas were mooted but one area began to come to the fore – mental health and wellbeing.

From that point onward began the series of events that brought a brand new play and theatrical experience; Waving Not Drowning – The Mental Health Roadshow into being. 

The process started back in January of this year with a call for interested actors and writers to come together to work on a creative project focused on mental health. The instigators were Mark McCollum, Kathleen McCreery and Tanya McLaughlin, all from Bread & Roses Theatre Company.

Weekly sessions took place where people came along and discussed the broad area of mental health. Psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, service users, all contributed to the research process of gathering information that would inform the play. Interviews took place with individuals who wanted to share their experiences and ethical contracts were drafted to protect all parties. Themes and topics emerged and the writers began initial drafts of works; over time these were honed, reworked and reshaped to function better as a theatrical piece.

The decision was made to not have a traditional three act play but rather, in the Brectian tradition, a montage of disparate scenes or vignettes all focused on various facets of the multi-faceted area that is mental health.

The end result, Waving Not Drowning, comprised of 10 distinct scenes, all of which work as individual pieces, but when viewed together form something greater than the sum of the parts.

Director, Rosa Stourac McCreery said: “It has been a great challenge to direct such a varied programme, with a team with different backgrounds, skills, experience and talents. As well as looking to Brecht’s practices to ensure the material actively questions and critiques, we also employed physical theatre approaches.

“We tried to infuse our work with the integrity that the extensive research the group had done gives it, as well as a creative and theatricality stimulated and made richer by collaboration.

“With content as important as the issues around mental health, we feel a responsibility to do the subject justice, and this has guided our process. Everyone involved has taken this seriously, whilst knowing that we also had to keep the work pleasurable and entertaining”.

This is a very special piece of original theatre. Unlike anything seen before, it’s funny, entertaining, engaging and different.  This is the innovative and challenging work that Bread & Roses was set up to do.

Anne Gallagher from Muff in Donegal has been acting for a number of years. She is a member of Bread & Roses Theatre Company and part of this current production, Just why did she feel compelled to be a part of this show?

“I wanted to get involved because, like so many people, I feel deep concern for the increasing number of people experiencing mental health problems and I don’t think we’re dealing with it adequately.

“If you have a loved one going through a mental health problem, as I’ve had, you can feel pretty confused and useless, really not knowing how to help.”

Anne Gallagher and Michael Devlin star in Waving not Drowning
Anne Gallagher and Michael Devlin star in Waving not Drowning

Anne continued:  “I got involved in this project because I wanted to do something. I think we need to acknowledge the scale of the problem here in Ireland and get rid of the stigma around mental health once and for all. It’s so damaging.

I believe that the arts has it’s part to play and by putting the issues of mental health on the stage, we encourage people to focus on and talk about mental health. I don’t think there’s a family in Ireland who haven’t been touched by it. People need to know they are not alone.

Has this been an enjoyable experience putting such an emotional show together? “It has been a wonderful experience from start to finish. I’ve learned so much. When I initially got involved, it was as an actor, but I ended up writing one of the scenes, which I definitely didn’t think I could do. As a group we’ve been meeting since January and it’s been such a creative, supportive and productive experience.”

Waving not Drowning premiered last Wednesday night at An Grianan Theatre, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal and deserved the standing ovation which resulted at the end.

The show opened with the first sketch highlighting the non-equality system which exists in Ireland between physical and mental health. This immediately brought a sense of humour to the production but clearly highlighted that mental health takes second place to that of physical.

A young girl was brought to A & E by her father having broken her leg. The receptionist was able to give her an appointment to see the doctor in two weeks time. And so she was sent home to wait for the appointment. A very funny sketch but very apt when it comes to mental health.

Throughout the night a number of sketches were explored and each one which followed covered yet another area of mental health. Nothing was left out. A particular poignant sketch was that of a young mother suffering with Post-natal depression. As a mother who has not experienced this, it really brought a tear to my eye, as to many others also. This simple sketch highlighted a very real issue in today’s society.

When a young girl opened her university exam results and prepared to go out celebrating she recalled her mother and her illness, before dying. The young girl talked about how her mother had haunted her for years and drove her to self-harm and indeed self-blame.

This also showed how with help and the right support it was possible to reclaim your life and your identity and self-confidence and move on. The young girl allowed herself to remember her mother in a more positive light and didn’t allow her to impose in a negative way anymore. 

Waving not Drowning finished with a musical sketch which highlighted the issues of lack of self-confidence and feeling on the outside within the work place.

It showed how others can make you stand out in the worst possible way and make you feel even more inferior. However, it ended on a positive note when a shy couple were eventually able to make contact and get to know each other, fall in love and marry. It was a rather upbeat ending to an extremely engaging and clear insight into the problems that are prominent in our society through mental health issues.

A scene from Waving not Drowning
A scene from Waving not Drowning

Waving not Drowning is a production which shows the reality of mental health problems, and it shows that there can be light at the end of the tunnel. It shows that it’s not just one type of person who suffers with their mental health, but people from all walks of life. It highlights the reality of depression, mental health, suicide and more.

Kathleen, one of the founding members of Bread & Roses Theatre Company said:

The sketches and short plays are all fictional, but the writers were informed by extensive research and sharing of experiences, including interviews with users of the mental health services and a counsellor, talks by a GP, a psychologist and a TD. Several members of the group including myself also work or have worked in mental health.

Asked if the company would be touring the show, she replied: “Yes, we are looking forward to touring with it between January and March 2017. We can arrange a bespoke programme to fit the needs of different organisations or hosts, both in terms of subject matter and the time available. We are open to invitations. The show is flexible and does not require sophisticated equipment, or even a stage.”

Waving not Drowing sparks a discussion on mental health, which de-stigmatises, creates understanding and empathy, entertains and stimulates, and advocates the need for greater recognition and resourcing of mental health provision. It’s one show everyone needs to see once.

For more information or to book Waving not Drowning, The Mental Health Roadshow contact Tanya on +353831507030 or Mark +353879959345. E:

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