Current Issue #488

The gently cosmic play destigmatising mental health for young audiences

Ellen Graham

In their new play Claire Della and The Moon, emerging theatremakers Ellen Graham and Jamie Hornsby have crafted a timely meditation on mental health.

“I think there’s a major misconception in our conversations about mental illness – that it’s something to be overcome or to be defeated,” Ellen Graham tells The Adelaide Review explains. “It’s not some evil dragon that you vanquish; it’s something that you live with and that you learn to manage.”

With co-writer and co-star Jamie Hornsby, Graham’s new play Claire Della and The Moon seeks to debunk such misconceptions for a young audience – before they really take root. “A lot of media around mental health is aimed at teens and young adults, and they tend to be grittier “issue based” dramas,” Hornsby explains. “This show is a much more gentle, magical, poetic look at the topic, and one that we think is going to resonate with audiences, whether they’re young or just young-at-heart.”

“When I think back to where some of my own experiences with mental health began, it was in childhood,” Graham says. “You develop coping mechanisms early on, and it’s not until things get trickier through adolescence that you realise the coping mechanisms you’ve built up aren’t necessarily helpful.”

“And so by talking about these issues at a younger age we can pre-empt the stigma that’s associated with them,” Hornsby adds. “It stops depression and anxiety from being scary things that kids have never heard of – they’ve got a metaphoric vocabulary with which to address them.”

Jamie Hornsby and Ellen Graham

A playfully cosmic blend of puppetry and performance, the play’s crafty visual style has been a key part of the story and character since its inception. “The story of Claire Della and the Moon has been germinating for a few years now, through a lot of learning about mental health and wellbeing, and trying to put some perspective on my own experiences with it,” Graham says.

“When I was at a low point dealing with my own mental health issues the only way I could express how I was feeling was through drawing – and I drew a little girl alone on the moon. That’s where the idea for Claire Della was born, and it’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time.”

Although couched in the pair’s own experiences, the pair worked with child psychologist Simon Andrews to finesse the play’s framing and messaging. “We knew from the outset that we wanted to work with a child psychologist to develop this show – we needed someone who was an expert in the field to have a look at what we were doing. While we have firsthand experience with mental health issues, that doesn’t make us experts.”

 “You can drive a car but not know how it works,” Graham adds.

“Our collaboration with Simon [Principal Psychology at Adelaide-based practice OK Psychology] was so integral to the development of the piece,” Hornsby says. “We met sporadically to talk through our ideas and concepts, he provided feedback on drafts and pointed out ways to really make sure we were addressing the themes of the piece in a positive and proactive way. He also provided loads of resources we could use and pass on to the children – and adults – in the audience.”

With much of the play fleshed out over a six-month residency at Slingsby’s Hall of Possibility, the impact of COVID-19 – which forced the pair to jettison Edinburgh Fringe plans and cancel school performances – has only reiterated the importance of the play’s themes.

“It’s been hard for artists in general,” Graham says. “We’ve all lost lots of gigs, and we’re not really eligible for JobKeeper or other government assistance. It’s also decimated our day jobs and side gigs – one of the companies I worked for no longer even exists. It’s put a lot of artists into a state of added uncertainty in what’s already an unstable life.

“There’s also been an expectation to keep creating – early on in lockdown there were all of these posts circulating talking about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined during the plague,” she adds.

“[But] it’s also made the show extra timely and relevant. It’s kind of the perfect time for a new play about mental health and isolation, given that we’ve all spent a huge chunk of this year stuck at home,” Hornsby says. “It’s the perfect show for these trying times.”

Claire Della and The Moon
26 September – 4 October
The Parks Theatre
48 Cowan St, Angle Park

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country. His work has appeared in Rip It Up, Broadsheet, The Saturday Paper, The Guardian Australia, The Thousands, dB Magazine, Jetstar Magazine and Royal Auto. 

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