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GUEST BLOG: Leigh Johnstone – All in the Mind Festival Director

When I was at secondary school, in Year 9, I took part in my first school play. It was Grease and I was playing Doody one of the T-birds. Apart from falling off the stage during the finale We go togetherI absolutely loved it and that experience really stuck with me. I then ‘got the drama bug’ and took part in every school play for the rest of my time there.

My parents were going through a pretty messy divorce during this period and my mum had started drinking heavily. This made for a pretty awful childhood and theatre became my only escape. I could be someone else for a few hours and I was quite good at it too, so it was also a chance to receive some positive praise – praise that I wasn’t receiving at home. I don’t want to be overdramatic, but that afterschool drama club saved me. It allowed me to spend a few more precious hours out of the house and away from my alcoholic mother.

Going to University gave me the opportunity to distance myself from what was going on at home and to start to come to terms with it. I did a drama degree at The University of Winchester and used an autobiographical theatre module to start experimenting with telling my childhood story. That was around the same time I formed my company Fluid Motion with fellow student, Ali Gill. We created my autobiographical play Rum in the Gravy Boat together and completed our first professional performance. In 2017 we went on tour with it. It was shortlisted for ‘Best New Play’ at the Brighton Fringe in 2018 and I couldn’t have been happier. We both knew we wanted to start a company that used theatre to do more than just entertain, where we could use the arts to raise awareness, challenge stigma and educate.

I believe that theatre has the powerful ability to allow us to express emotions, feelings and ideas that would otherwise go unheard. It can help us make sense of the world, giving people hope, a light at the end of the tunnel and a feeling that they are not alone. It can break down barriers, educate us and inspire us to make changes. As a performer, theatre has allowed me to be in control of my own narrative. It has given me the chance to decide what parts of my story I wanted to tell and enabled me to have a positive, therapeutic experience as a result. When I work with participants on a project or in a workshop, they resist a little at first, but when they realise they are in control and that they are allowed to express themselves on their own terms, they understand the power that the arts can have in improving their mental health and wellbeing.

I came up with the idea for the All in the Mind Festival four years ago. I wanted to create an event dedicated to providing artists with a safe platform to share work around mental health themes. I wanted to create an event that welcomed artists who had something to say and something they wanted to share with audiences that inspired and informed. I feel it is important to continue providing opportunities for the arts to find its way into people’s lives.

The first two years of the festival saw it take place within our offices in Basingstoke, with a programme that included mostly friends, family and existing supporters of our work. Last year we moved everything outdoors and opened up the programme to a wider range of artists from different genres with audiences hitting around 1500 people. This year All in the Mind has joined Without Walls, a consortium of festivals and organisations dedicated to raising the profile of the UK outdoor arts sector. This provides us with exceptional support and raises the profile of the festival to a national audience.

This year, we have more than 30 acts taking part and we are expecting around 2500 people – this year will be bigger and better than ever before. It’s so exciting to know that our original motivation of providing artists an safe place to express themselves while challenging stigma and educating people is being realised.

All in the Mind Festival takes place on Saturday 14 September 2019 at Eastrop Park, Basingstoke. Full details and line up can be found at aitmfestival.com

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The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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