Michelle Maher takes depression from her journals to the stage

WHAT started as a journal entry noting her depression has now become a play for first-time playwright Michelle Maher.

Michelle Maher takes depression from her journals to the stage

Two Sides of the Coin will be premiered at the Firkin Crane as part of First Fortnight, the national arts-based mental-health awareness festival, now in its seventh year.

Directed by Carol O’Donovan of Cork-based Light Star Theatre Company, the play is about a teacher called Alison who appears to have everything, but deep down, is tortured by self-loathing and feelings of worthlessness.

Maher, 31, has studied acting at the Gaiety School of Acting and is a qualified special needs assistant. She didn’t start writing until 2011.

“I wrote down my experience of mental health so that I wouldn’t forget what had happened to me.

"A few months went by and I looked at what I had written in a different way. I knew it was important but I didn’t really know how to change it so that it would be accessible to other people.

"There was a message behind it, about being honest and forthright about mental health.”

She decided to build a fictitious character around what she’d written.

In the play, Alison’s father, who recommends medication for his daughter, “represents an attitude in society where mental health is not talked about. ‘Take the relevant tablets and keep going’ is the thinking.”

Maher says the play has helped her to confront old demons. “Had I got counselling as a teenager, things wouldn’t have transpired the way they did,” she says.

Maher says her depression was sparked by moving with her family from Waterford to Cork when she was 11. “In primary school, I was very much the confident class clown but when we moved, I completely shut down and lost my identity and my personality.”

While Maher got help, she says the bereavement two years ago of a relative she was very close to, set her back.

“The progress I had made came to a full stop. I decided to get full-on counselling sessions. Everything came out. It took me ages to realise that what happened wasn’t my fault. At 11 or 12, I did the best I could with moving to Cork. At that age, you’re changing as a person.”

Maher hopes to continue writing but won’t confine herself to writing about mental-health issues. She says she is “humbled” to have the backing of First Fortnight for her debut play.

The co-founder of First Fortnight, psychotherapist JP Swaine, says theatre is a great way of driving a conversation around mental health.

“It offers a window into someone else’s experience. Once you think about a problem from someone else’s perspective, you automatically move towards a compassionate understanding rather than just a knee jerk reaction.”

He says that in the world we live in, “wrought with distraction from the phone in our hands or the laptop on our knees with adverts coming in, it’s actually a pleasure to sit in darkness at the theatre and pay attention to one thing for 90 minutes and then discuss it afterwards.”

Two Sides of the Coin is at the Firkin Crane from January 15 to 16. The opening night performance will be followed by a Q&A session with the writer, director, and panel of experts.

www.firstfortnight.ie

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