Last night I watched ‘Man Up’ from the wonderful ‘Restoke’, a group of artists and collaborators who work with the local community to craft music, dance and spoken word performances in various unusual locations around Stoke on Trent.
This was the first year I was able to watch a performance purely as an audience member, having previously helped out with the technical crew behind the scenes, and regrettably missing last year’s performance due to baby duties!
What a year I chose to come and watch.
‘Man Up’ was pitched as “A gritty, humorous & revealing performance from the frontlines of masculinity & mental health.” (https://www.restoke.org.uk/man-up/), a strapline that is entirely accurate, but could not possibly convey the emotional heft and punch that we felt in the audience.
Almost radiating from the stage, there was a palpable energy in that room as the cast shared interpretations of their struggles with the concept of masculinity, identity and mental health.
And for what reason? Well, that was made clear early in the night: Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. The prison and homeless population is predominantly male. These facts are the surface reality of deep, social questions that we need productions like this to ask.
The received image of masculinity is that men are not great at talking, at sharing their feelings, at ‘connecting’ with their emotions. At worse, it is almost as if we should purposefully avoid doing so. Yet I just watched a group of men from all walks of life, who started this process as strangers, literally perform their anxieties, their stories, their hopes and fears, together, to yet more strangers.
If that’s not talking about your feelings, I don’t know what is.
This was exceptional in many senses. It was an exceptional production, but it was also an exceptional opportunity for those few who chose to share and see the process through. The hope, I would think, is that focussing on these issues will help conversations happen more regularly in ‘real’ life, whatever that means to each of us.
I certainly heard a lot of stories of audience members inspired to check in with friends, family, or even colleagues who might be needing an opportunity of their own to share, to reach out, to be heard, to be helped. And although these stories came from men who had experienced the extreme edges of mental health, there are none of us immune to the possibility of finding ourselves in those same places.
Mental health, like physical health, is a scale that we can all move up and down, and if society’s preconceived notions of gender identity are causing men to not seek the help they need, then we need to challenge and change society, in whatever way we can, even if that is simply telling someone that it is okay to talk about it.
Find out more about Restoke and their work here: https://www.restoke.org.uk/