Gavin Roberts: Mental illness is better out than in

Gavin Roberts, artistic director of Creative Madness in Song, would like to see a change in the mental health system Pic: Sebastian Kettley

Gavin Roberts, artistic director of Creative Madness in Song, would like to see a change in the mental health system Pic: Sebastian Kettley

You can tell Gavin Roberts is the artistic director behind Creative Madness in Song the moment you step into St Mary’s Church in Lewisham. He is prancing around energetically, organising the pre-show rehearsals. He keeps it tight, but not bossy, and that says a lot.

He sits down in an empty pew with a cup of tea in one hand. He is suave, and as he speaks of his project, there is a twinkle in his eyes. Roberts, 33, works for the Song in the City charity and explained Creative Madness in Song was a culmination of a yearlong project of workshops where mental health service users wrote poems, and set their poetry to music with young composers and singers.

“Our catch line is: ‘Taking classical music out of its comfort zone’,” he said. “So we decided to do something where classical musicians really do go out of their comfort zone, and really do go out into the community.

“Now we’re not on tour, but are keen to take it round the community, so we’re doing one performance here in Lewisham, close to the Ladywell Unit [of Lewisham Hospital] and then we’re at Guy’s hospital. So we’re trying to do it in medical settings.”

Roberts says it’s a nice feeling to have everyone from the team back on the project again. He is glad to revisit the work they have done in the past and reflect on it. That said, a lot of the music and poetry will premiere for the first time on this night.

Song in the City applied for funding from the Maudsley Charity when it first started out and, according to Roberts, “the rest is history really”. “We ran some creative writing workshops, then got the writers in touch with composers, and talked about how on earth we get these complicated feelings through the poetry into music,” he added.

Roberts says some of the initial reactions to the project were mixed. Some people found it hard to resonate with classical music, not wanting to partake in it, or simply not liking it. “Some people just said ‘oh no, I don’t know anything about classical music, I don’t want to take part in something like that. I don’t like opera singers. This is not for me’,” he said.

He is his convinced, however, that the project is breaking down some of the barriers of classical music, as well as breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“Often classical musicians are thought to be quite stuffy, a bit like we speak in a language people can’t understand,” he explained. “The workshops are a chance to express ourselves with this language and explain that language, so they learn about that, and the writers are able to say ‘oh now I get it’ or if they don’t get it, we ask why and we adapt.”

Roberts admitted to having been frightened at first, because he could not think of anyone who has ever done something like this before. “It’s a bit like a leap in the dark. Is this going to work?” he said.

Time was a challenge as he found out. The initial goal was to finish in six months but that took longer than expected. “[It] became clear we couldn’t rush people, we couldn’t rush the writers. You certainly can’t ever rush composers.”

A lot of the poetry and music is very personal and reflective of the painful mental states of the writers, but that is what challenges a lot of the preconceptions about the ways in which issues such as healthcare should be taken care of.

“It’s a chance to bring more people to this stuff so that these words get heard, as well the work of young composers being supported, so that people have a chance to talk through expressing themselves through art and singing, about their experience of mental illness,” Roberts said.

“Better out than in I think is what we feel.”

Song in the City collaborated with the Lewisham Volunteer Centre and Dragon Café, as well as various creative writing groups to find writers who wanted to participate. “We put the word through the mental health art network, which is actually quite extensive these days,” he explained. Patients from local hospitals are always invited to spectate. He says it is important that the work is shared with these people. “I think the results have been that people have found it rewarding.”

Roberts confidently says that this has been one of the best things he has ever done as an artist. “We’ve done the workshop bit, now we’re showing the people the fruits of our labour as it were,” he said.

He discusses some of the long-term goals he has for the project. He most certainly wants to carry on doing it. “Maybe reinvent it in a different way,” he says. He also talks about reaching out to other forms of art and artists such as actors, who might bring in new ways of talking about mental health. “It’s just trying to bring it more and more to a wider audience,” he said.

“[A long term goal would be] a change in the mental health system if we can be so bold. Many of the poems talk about challenges to doctors, saying I don’t feel as if I was listened to, so here’s a forum where you are listened to.”

His tea is long gone, and the hour of the concert is coming close. With a firm handshake and smile, Roberts hurries off to make sure all is ready to kick off. He mans the piano this evening and you can see he is clearly having fun. During Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me, his whole frame bobs from side to side, fingers not missing a single note.

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