Local company Black Box Productions have collaborated with Joe Armitage (Boneshaker Photography) and RATS (the Raising Aspirations and Targeting Self-Esteem project) to put on #still_staring – a new production based on the experiences of young people living with mental health disorders. We had a chat to Jennie Swift, John Slater and Steve Kay from Black Box, and Nicola Walker from RATS.


Tell us about #still_staring.

Nicola: #still_staring started out as a collaboration between RATS (The Raising Aspirations and Targeting Self Esteem Project) and Joe Armitage of Boneshaker Photography. Joe has two children who have both been involved in RATS and as a parent he wanted to give something back to the group that he claimed had done so much for his children. What happened was Joe gave so much more to us as a group than we could ever have imagined. The after school RATS came up with the idea of doing a series of images to try and highlight some the issues they have to live with. Joe’s creativity and passion brought these difficulties to life with beauty, humour and sensitivity. He too was the driving force for the exhibition at the wonderful ‘Somewhere Else’ coffee shop on Ecclesall Rd.

Jennie: As Nicola mentioned #still_staring started off as a photography exhibition which I was blown away by. After seeing Joe’s work I immediately knew that that I wanted to eloborate on this idea using other creative mediums. Our interpretation of the #still_staring concept will be an immersive production based on the experiences of young people living with mental health disorders such as anxiety, OCD, bipolar, dysmorphia, eating disorders, and self harm. This powerful piece of entertainment promises to be educational and empowering and incorporating performances with music, dance, drama, and visual art it will take you on a journey into the mind of a young person suffering from mental illness. Definitely a must for anyone with a personal or professional interest in mental health disorders.

What was the message you wanted to get across with the production?

John: The aim of this production is not to ‘explain’ or ‘describe’ each of the disorders, some of which we feel are already widely acknowledged. Instead we hope to depict how an individual with a mental health disorder may ‘feel inside’, how they view the world, and what experiences they may have.

Jennie: I think it is important to mention that experience of mental health disorders can vary from person to person and that our production is based on the experiences of the young people who are involved in the Raising Aspirations and Targeting Self Esteem Project (RATS).

Do you think that mental health is an issue that is often ignored or trivialised?

Jennie: My own feeling is that instead of ignored there is a degree of stigma and certain misconceptions associated with mental health disorders and we would like to help to dispel these with our production. For example, the myths that serious mental health disorders are always obvious, and young peoples ‘ups and downs’ are due to hormonal changes which they will grow out of.

Nicola: I think mental health issues are often misunderstood and there isn’t always enough information on offer to young people. With RATS Collaborating with Joe, Jennie and John, it has allowed us to make the invisible visible.

John: Despite public campaigns to combat stigma around mental health disorders, people with mental health problems still face ongoing discrimination. And while some sections of the media focus on mental illness, there is a rise in the number of people who are more of a risk to themselves – and this can go unnoticed.

Steve: I think a lot of the time it can be a problem with how we use words, or how quick we are to label something rather than describe it. For example, many of us may feel depressed, stressed or anxious from time to time but not necessarily in a way which makes it difficult for us to function in society in the way we expect to be able to. This can make it difficult to empathise with sufferers, as “we all get depressed now and then don’t we?” A better understanding of these ‘disorders’ could help us identify with what these people are experiencing.

Do you think that the production will help to raise awareness for mental health issues?

John: This project is certainly raising my own awareness and understanding. I feel that it is also important to mention that these conditions not only affect the sufferer but also the people around them.

Jennie: It is already known that three children in every classroom has a diagnosable mental health condition and that nearly 80,000 young people suffer from severe depression. My goal is that the production will help to make the ‘invisible’ aspects of mental health disorders visible to more people, and that the audience will leave feeling empowered and with a deeper understanding of how it feels to suffer from a condition such as body dysmorphia or self harm.

Steve: It can be easy to forget that behind what are often quite debilitating disorders are ‘ordinary’ people that have the same needs as the rest of us. Through being involved in the project so far I’ve certainly learned a lot, and this knowledge has definitely helped me to forget any preconceptions I had and be more compassionate.

Nicola: The whole project has been an emotional rollercoaster. This collaboration has already touched many people’s lives and we have had some really positive comments from the local community. One person at the exhibition left us the following comments: “Amazing photo’s, very emotionally provoking. They really caption the feelings and get the point accross. They make you stop and think, not only about that person portraying the issue, but about other people you know who may be living with the same hurdles. Thankyou so much for sharing.”

Can you tell us about the RATS project and it’s impact on the people involved?

Nicola: School-based RATS is a 12 week solution-focused self-esteem workshop that has been designed, developed and is delivered by myself. It currently runs alongside the curriculum at High Storrs School and involves mainly Year 7s as they move through the transition to High School. The community group RATS is a separate group of young people who work with me and get involved in different projects that become accessible to all young people in Sheffield and the surrounding areas. This has involved the branding with The Engine Room in Huddersfield, a self-esteem video, a community dance day with 4FunxSake Dance school, Saturday morning self esteem workshops and now this amazing collaboration with Boneshaker and BlackBox Productions. RATS allows young people to feel safe and teaches them to embrace their uniqueness and accept other people for who they are. RATS has been proven to boost self esteem, increase aspirations of young people and raise attainment in education.

What is it like working withwith each other?

Jennie: The RATS are an amazing group who are constant source of inspiration and Nicola’s dedication and commitment to support these young people shows no bounds. We couldn’t have done it without them!

Nicola: RATS, the young people at High Storrs School, Joe Armitage and Jennie an John from Black Box have all played an equal part in this journey. Like a four piece jigsaw connecting together. It has been a wonderful experience that has involved laughter, tears and some very happy young people.

How did it feel to hear and use real stories from young people suffering from mental health issues in the production?

John: The young people have allowed us into their lives and shared some of their deepest feelings. To witness the burden they carry in order to sharpen our insight has been an immense privilege.

Jennie: Being allowed to ‘walk in the shoes’ of these young people has been an emotional and special experience and something I will never forget.

Steve: Meeting the young people, getting to know them and learning a bit about what they’re going through was absolutely invaluable. Once we got chatting and laughing with them almost made me forget they had these disorders at all. They’re all such funny and interesting individuals and it is a privilege to have met them.


For more information on RATS head to www.raisingaspirations.me.uk and follow them on Twitter @RATS_1 and Facebook/raising.aspiration.

Head to www.blackboxproductions.co.uk for more.

The production is on July 11 at Theatre Delicatessen from 7pm. Tickets £5 on the door.

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