The Orange Works’ Being Frank is a show that takes true stories from the writer and friends and weaves them in and out of a narrative that explores male mental health and illness. We caught up with Ian Tucker-Bell to chat about Being Frank, the inspirations behind the show and why we need to empower men to talk about their mental health.
Can you tell us a little more about the show?
Being Frank explores the relationship between men and mental health. It was born out of real-life experiences: my own and that of friends who shared their stories with me. The play has various layers, exploring my own battles with mental health, and also that of different generations of men portrayed through a tricky father/son relationship. It uses humour and flat-pack furniture, as well as original music and songs.
The show is made up from real-life stories told in a fictional narrative – how does the blurring of reality and fiction help to tell the story?
That’s a big question! I’ve been very focused over the last few years on telling stories born out of real-life experiences – often those lives whose stories are seldom told. That’s kind of a core thing for me, and I think gives an authenticity to the work, allowing audience members to truly engage with characters and situations, and then reflect on their own lives.
The structure of this play is a little more adventurous than my previous work – and this has come from a few areas. One was a workshop with the renowned physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, which had a big impact on how the play was created and structured. Another was various productions I’d seen over the last year that played with different kinds of form and narrative and being inspired to work with those forms. The play The Inheritance was a big influence in shaping my ideas for Being Frank.
As for the elements in the play that balance the real and the fictional, I suppose what you are seeing throughout the play is a complete mix of those two things. There is a fictionalised story at the heart of the play of a father and son, each with their own issues, struggling to communicate with one another – but the issues they face, the stories that they weave, and the stories that Being Frank portrays are real – they are my life and they are the lives of people close to me. This keeps the story rooted in reality, and helps audiences to truly connect with the issues the story is presenting. It’s fiction, but it’s not.
Why is it important that male mental health in particular is talked about today?
Research heavily suggests that men are not good at talking about their mental health, and this inability to talk, to open up, to seek help, is what keeps many men struggling to manage for years, or worse – taking their own lives. We need to challenge this ingrained notion that to be male means to be strong, that talking about feelings or personal struggles is a sign of weakness, that boys don’t cry. We need to create an environment in which men, of all generations, can get the help they need when they need it and not feel the need to hide behind masks, or in the personas our society has carved out for them. We need to find ways to get men to talk.
Being Frank tells stories of men’s battles with mental health, while asking the question: “Why can’t men talk about this?” One of the most powerful moments in the play is a song that tells the story of my friend Barry who took his own life after a long battle with mental illness. We need to talk about this so that we prevent situations like that happening. My hope is that, whether in a large or a small way, Being Frank builds a platform for people to think about, and talk about, mental health – and enables men to open up about it.
Do you find talking about mental illness is easier through theatre?
I think theatre is at its most powerful when it is holding up a mirror to ourselves and asking the questions we often avoid. Writing and creating the play certainly helped me to be more open in discussing my own mental health (and it took me three years to find the courage to create this work due to my own fears about what other people would think!) – and early audience indications are that it has provoked conversations about mental health already. I’m not sure if doing this through theatre is easier – I’ve certainly had a raging battle with anxiety about putting this on – but if it contributes to people talking about this in the real world then I think we’ve done a good thing. I would also add that as a species we are story tellers, and we often learn through stories – maybe that is why theatre is such a powerful medium in addressing issues such as this.
It took me three years to get over my worry about writing Being Frank. I had intense anxiety thinking that people would feel I was looking for sympathy, or pity, or attention – and those fears, that anxiety, were a mountain that kept me from writing. In the end I actually incorporated that anxiety into the play, and challenged it through the interaction of the characters. It was liberating, and at the same time affirming. I’m not saying writing Being Frank has cured me – depression and anxiety are an ever-present entity in my life, but it has robbed them of power they had over me. It has also shown me that I am not alone in this fight, and that has been powerful for me as well. I think one of the things this disease does is it makes you feel that you are the only one, it isolates you in your fear – finding out you are not isolated after all is empowering and shatters the lie that everyone is fine except you.
Why should Edinburgh Fringe-goers choose Being Frank?
The competition for audiences at Edinburgh is enormous, and we are always grateful to those who choose to see our work. My pitch would be that if you’re interested in mental health issues, either from a personal or a professional perspective, you like original theatre, rooted in real human stories, then Being Frank is for you. It’s an intriguing, captivating watch – with real shades of light and dark, some lovely humour, and some really moving moments too. Last night’s audience laughed, cried, and then wanted to talk. It’s a powerful, honest, and affecting piece that I hope you’ll love.
What would you like audiences to leave the show feeling?
I want them to go away thinking about the issues surrounding mental illness – but that will then depend their own perspective on the issue. Some will connect to it because of their own struggles, and I hope it gives a voice to them. Some will connect to it because they will know someone who struggles, and I hope it sets them thinking about how they can support those they are around who suffer with similar mental health issues. I also hope it sends them away thinking about how we get men talking, and motivated to try.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
You can find us at The Space on North Bridge, v36, from August 12th – and also at the Faversham Fringe on August 30th. Come see the show, and chat to us afterwards – tell us your stories. We can’t destroy the stigmas all in one go, but we can knock them down in our own lives one by one. Talking is the most important, and possibly the bravest, thing to do.
Being Frank, theSpace on North Bridge, 16, 20, 22, 24 Aug, times vary, £9 (£6)