Mental health is no laughing matter, you might think. But a gig taking place in Newcastle early next week would suggest otherwise.
North East writer and comedian Sharon Race has been leading comedy workshops for women connected with mental health services in Tyne & Wear.
The workshops, called Laughter for Lasses, were commissioned by Launchpad, a Newcastle-based mental health awareness group, with funding from the Community Foundation’s Women’s Fund.
They were open to mental health service users, past and present, and also their supporters.
Sharon, who is the resident MC of the Laughing Lasses Comedy Club, Newcastle’s only regular comedy night for female performers, says she had a hunch the workshops would go well.
“I went to Launchpad to discuss a fun project that I thought might be useful and they put in the successful funding bid,” she says, explaining how it came about.
“I had worked with them on a previous project called Soundness of Mind which was a series of monologues around mental health issues.
“I interviewed some of the staff and volunteers about their experiences of mental health and incorporated what they said into the monologues.
“They were performed in a rehearsed reading at the Lit & Phil last autumn. It was an invited audience but it seemed to go down well.”
Launchpad, which is based in the old Holy Jesus Hospital, strives to improve mental health services and to promote the views of service users in a safe and friendly environment.
On their website, they say: “People who use mental health services are all too often excluded by society at large and can suffer twice over – once from the problem itself and over again from the general public’s ignorance and discriminatory attitudes.
“Mental health services in the UK are under-funded and over-stretched but the whole topic is frequently not acknowledged or recognised.”
Well, comedy is a tried and tested icebreaker and Launchpad were happy to let Sharon share some of the secrets of the laughter-generating business.
Seven women were intrigued by the idea and signed up for the four workshops, culminating in a public performance.
“I started off by talking to them about stand-up and how to write comedy,” says Sharon.
“Basically, it was about improving their self-confidence and encouraging them to explore their creativity.
“There are techniques, in writing and delivery, that can help in stand-up and the thing about working in a group is that you can discuss and assess each other’s work.
“In the end you can reach a consensus about whether something’s funny or not.”
Sharon says the women attending the workshops ranged in age from 18 to 60.
“One of them said she had always been interested in doing some stand-up but had never had the guts to try.”
Many of us would sympathise with that. But Sharon, whose Laughing Lasses club has twice hosted a national competition, Funny’s Funny New Female Comedienne of the Year, is clearly the one to put the newcomers at their ease and prepare them for the moment of truth.
For those attending the workshops that moment will come on March 10 at music and comedy venue Cluny 2 in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley (36 Lime Street) when the comedy rookies will perform their Laughter for Lasses showcase in public.
Sharon accepts it could be a nerve-wracking experience for the newcomers but at least the ladies on the bill will have been prepared – and even given a few tips about how to deal with hecklers (always have a few stock ripostes to hand, advises Sharon).
To help steel the nerves of the participants, the final workshop will take place on Saturday at Cluny 2, giving the budding comediennes a chance to acclimatise.
“I think going in there on the Saturday will boost them up and it will be more fun than the previous workshops, in the office at Launchpad,” says Sharon.
“Hopefully there will be nothing left for them to worry about by the time they perform in public. It’s a showcase, after all, not a Broadway show.”
The Laughter for Lasses showcase will take place at 7.30pm on Tuesday, March 10, celebrating International Women’s Day (which takes place this year on March 8). Doors will open at 7pm and entry is free.
And who knows? Maybe the evening will turn up the next Viv Gee, Kate Fox or Bethany Black – all past headliners at Laughing Lasses.