Case Study Two: Suitcase Theatre Productions, Right Here Fermanagh

Encouraging greater understanding of mental health through community theatre and creative approaches to mental health promotion


YouthAction North Ireland


  • Western Education and Library Board youth service workers (audience recruitment)


Right here Fermanagh receives additional funding from:

  • Public Health Agency
  • Youth Council for Northern Ireland
  • Fermanagh District Council
  • Western Education and Library board


Suitcase Theatre is an issue based theatre project, aiming to use the performing arts as a medium to allow young people to explore and express their views and beliefs on issues that they feel affect their lives. The concept of Suitcase Theatre is that productions are created that can travel anywhere in a suitcase. It involves young people in the creative development and performance of a piece of theatre around a specific topic, which in this instance focused on mental health issues.


This activity allies itself with the following Right Here ambitions:

  • To achieve greater understanding and acceptance of mental health issues by young people
  • To develop new approaches / structures which are participatory and able to engage with and be sensitive to the needs of young people


In 2010 funding was made available from Right Here Fermanagh to engage Suitcase Theatre to work with YouthAction Northern Ireland’s Youth Arts CLP Apprentices.

The project was set up as a way of using youth-led methods to deliver a peer message to young people about mental health in an accessible and engaging way.


Since 2010, two touring productions have been produced and performed by young people in partnership with YouthAction Northern Ireland and Right Here Fermanagh. In each case young people were involved in developing and delivering the performances to audiences of their peers. Along with the performances, the cast delivered post-show workshops with the audience, exploring the issues surrounding mental health and young people in today’s society. The performances and workshops were aimed at young people aged 15 – 25 years.


EVA was performed four times in 2010 – twice in Belfast and twice in Enniskillen to a total audience of 300. The production explored how young people experience everyday situations and pressures, through the life of the central character “Eva”. The plot centres around an experiment which robots / aliens are carrying out on humans, trying to discover how humans manage their mental health and emotions and tries to track one human, EVA, in a series of real life situations.

  • In addition to the post performance workshop, audience members were given a range of mental health supports and inputs:
  • Specially designed wristbands were distributed with flashdrives built in containing mental health signposting information.

Inspirational quotes were created and distributed to young people.

Circus: Behind the Curtain

In 2013, “Circus: Behind the Curtain” was developed to explore myths about mental health and how to achieve a healthy state of mind. Using concepts from the field of positive psychology, it examined different aspects of mental health through various characters, played by young people, including The Clown, The Juggler and The Ringmaster. To date the show has been performed on two occasions to 75 young people in Belfast and 45 young people in Fermanagh.

After the performance, the cast ran a workshop with the audience, exploring the issues highlighted in the play concerning young adults and mental health. Young men’s wristbands were also distributed, with mental health messages on them such as “B CONFIDENT” “B ACTIVE” “B FOCUSSED”.

In both EVA and Circus: Behind the Curtain performances Counselling Services from ‘CONTACT’ and ‘LIFELINE’ and Right Here Staff were available on-site to talk to young people about any mental health issues or concerns arising from the performances.


Young people living in Belfast and Fermanagh. Both productions were advertised using existing networks, Facebook, mental health partners, and youth clubs.


“The cast members clearly loved the whole process and there was a real sense of exhilaration after the show. They had written the show themselves after researching the subject thoroughly and said they had learned a lot themselves in the process. For most of them it was their first time in a public production and they were very proud of their achievement”

-Independent Evaluator from Arts Council Northern Ireland

Right Here Fermanagh young people and staff worked with Youth Action’s Youth Arts CLP Apprentices to create and perform EVA and Circus: Behind the Curtain. Young people were involved in every stage of the process, from selecting the themes, writing the scripts, performing the show, facilitating the workshops and also in a range of front of house roles. In total, 52 young people were involved in the development and delivery of these two productions.


2010 – 2013


  • EVA – post performance audience questionnaire
  • Circus Theatre – Evaluations from young people
  • Evaluations of the Inspirational quotes
  • Independent evaluation report of Circus: Behind the Curtain by the Arts Council for Northern Ireland.


“Made me think more about my own mental health. Made me understand I can always get help no matter what my issues, there is always a way out”

– Young EVA audience member

“My mental health is now something that I now consider talking to people about”

– Young EVA audience member

“The workshop has made me realise I have factors that contribute to poor mental health”

– Young EVA audience member

After watching EVA and participating in the post production workshop, young audience members reported increased awareness of:

  • the differences between mental health and mental illness
  • their own mental health and wellbeing and potential risk and protective factors affecting them
  • tips and ideas to improve their own mental health
  • the fact that sources of support and treatment are available for mental health problems

Post performance, EVA audience members were asked to rate their responses to set statements on a scale of 1-7, with 1 being low and 7 high. 54% of respondents indicated that there was a high probability (scoring of 6 or 7) that they would use the flashdrive distributed to EVA audience members.

A texting service was also borne from the idea of the inspirational quotes. The service texts random feel-good messages to young people who sign up for the service, with a particular emphasis on sending messages at times when young people might be feeling low, such as weekends. Approximately 500 young people have signed up for the texting service.

Learning Points

“Real for young people. Good to give young people space to talk about mental health”

– Young EVA audience member

“Really unique way of getting through to youth”

– Young EVA audience member

“There were several complex messages in the piece and the medium / analogy was very effective in putting them across without  it feeling like a lecture. It was very thought provoking while fun to watch”

– Independent Evaluator from Arts Council for Northern Ireland on Circus: Behind the Curtain

Identified success factors of the project included:

  • The enthusiasm and commitment of the cast of young people
  • The proven track record of YouthAction having developed issue-based drama involving young people
  • A range of local organisations were present in the audience, enabling mental health issues to be put on the agenda of other local agencies
  • Accuracy of the productions with regards to the mental health issues affecting young people. When rating the “accuracy of the play re: the minds of young people” 86% (n=87) of young respondents rated EVA highly (a response of 6 or 7), indicating that audience members felt that the portrayal of young peoples’ mental health on stage was realistic and true  to life. When asked whether the play matched their “own mind and motions” 44% (n=44) rated EVA highly (6 or 7), indicating that a significant proportion of the audience had experienced some mental health issues and concerns themselves at some point. This was borne out by some of the comments received:

“My own mental [health] can be like Evas but at the moment it’s on an even keel”

– Young EVA audience member

However, it was clear from EVA audience members’ views on their own mental health that most (57%) felt positive about this currently. 33% expressed mixed or neutral views about their mental health, 3% expressed negative views and 6% did not answer.

Some of the challenges experienced through the performances have included:

  • Young people, as audience members and as script-developers, are often attracted to the very acute and tragic stories of mental illness or suicide. Maintaining a focus on mental health rather than mental illness was challenging and required tenacity from staff supporting the work.
  • Practical performance issues arose in many ways, with cast members withdrawing, technical difficulties and the issue of young people with busy lives fitting in rehearsals and workshop skills work.

What we know

Research shows that using drama to raise awareness of a particular social or health issue can result in a range of impacts on audience members of all ages including: increased knowledge of the topic presented, positive attitudinal changes towards people with the specific conditions addressed (including mental health problems), and improvements in intended future behaviour relating to health behaviours or help seeking1  2 There is also some evidence which suggests that experiencing theatrical performances live achieves greater affective responses than video recordings of the same performance3 Furthermore, young people involved in the development and performance of issues based community theatre can experience a range of positive mental health impacts  stemming from their participation suchas improved self esteem, confidence and improved capacity for self expression4  5.

What this project adds

The evidence gathered through post EVA performance questionnaires provides a valuable snapshot of how young audience members viewed their own mental health immediately after a show presenting a character who experienced a range of mental health difficulties. Most audience  members surveyed described their own mental health positively at that moment in time, sometimes explicitly in relation to that of the character EVA’s. It is possible that the experience of the performance encouraged some audience members to positively adjust their opinions of their own mental health. Work to establish audience members’ perceptions of their mental health prior to future performances would provide a useful baseline to measure the impact of the performances on individuals.

Areas for future research

In addition to the dramatic productions, Right Here Fermanagh offered audience members the opportunity to undertake mental health awareness workshops immediately post performance. It would be useful to explore which activity (performance or workshop) was more impactful in terms of delivering mental health awareness messages to young people and whether the combination of both activities together was more effective than either one independently

Examples of similar Right Here activities

Mental health and wellbeing drama workshops were developed by Right Here Newham to form part of the New Vic College’s BTEC Level 2 Diploma in Performing Arts. Young people delivered scripted pieces based on mental health  issues linked to violence, relationships, isolation and stress. They have performed to their peers in the college, to an audience who have a lived experience of mental health issues at Newham Centre for Mental Health and at The Stratford Circus as part of the Stereo-Hype Festival. So far they have reached over 170 people through their performances.


  • 1 Joronen K, Rankin S, Astedt-Kurki P (2008) School-based drama interventions in health promotion for children and adolescents: systematic review, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 63 (2), 116-131
  • 2 Faigin D & Stein CH (2008) Comparing the effects of live and video-taped theatrical performances in decreasing stigmitization of people with serious mental illness, Journal of Mental Health, 17 (6): 594-606
  • 3 Faigin D & Stein CH (2008) Comparing the effects of live and video-taped theatrical performances in decreasing stigmitization of people with serious mental illness, Journal of Mental Health, 17 (6): 594-606
  • 4 Kemp M (2003) Acting Out: A qualitative evaluation of a mental health promotion project for young people, Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 2, 3, 20-31
  • 5 Kemp M (2006) Promoting the health and wellbeing of young Black men using community-based drama, Health Education, 106, 3, 186-200