IN RECENT YEARS, sport and mental health awareness have been inextricably linked.
Traditionally seen as an aggressively macho environment, the dressing room is now the setting of a new play penned by Cavan-born performer Alan Bradley.
‘Grounds for Concern,’ which focuses in particular on young Irish men and the challenges they often face in relation to their mental health, will premiere next month as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival.
Directed by Elif Knight, the play is literally being performed in a Croke Park dressing room and is based on the real-life experiences of a number of GAA players.
Countless athletes, including GAA stars Conor Cusack, Nicole Owens and Alan O’Mara among others, have helped raise awareness of mental health issues in recent years by speaking openly about their respective experiences with depression. So in some respects, ‘Grounds for Concern’ feels like a logical next step. Indeed, Bradley consulted a number of GAA players as research while writing the play.
“I did talk to quite a few different players that have had their struggles with mental health to make sure it was authentic,” he tells The42. “I spoke to a doctor and got their point of view from that side. So it’s fictional, but there are lots of bits in it that are inspired by true things and real people’s stories.”
It is not Bradley’s first foray into the subject area. He previously wrote, produced and acted in ‘Mandown,’ a short film about mental health.
“That had me in the realm of working with the concept of mental health and young men, and I always wanted to do a stage production,” he explains. “The thing I find when you talk about this topic, you’re often speaking to people who are already converted or engaged with the subject matter.
“I was trying to think of a way to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily come and see something like that. So that’s why I had the idea of staging it with a football player and staging it in a football changing room, to access those people who wouldn’t come normally.
[Mental health issues are] a problem throughout Ireland in general. I don’t think it’s restricted to the GAA. I think it’s a big problem with young men. Suicide rates among young men are still astronomically high. Less of a stigma may be attached to it [in recent times], but I don’t think it’s any less of a problem. So we’re talking about it a bit more, but it’s still a big issue.”
Recent figures support Bradley’s assertion. A report in The Irish Examiner last May noted how suicide rates in 2018 decreased only slightly from the previous year.
“The CSO data shows that the number of people who died by suicide fell slightly from 392 in 2017 to 352,” it noted. “The suicide rate decreased for both men and women, but men remain four times more likely to take their own lives than women. The rate of suicide was 7.2 in 2018, down from 10.6 in 2013.”
In recent years, a number of GAA stars such as former Cork hurler Conor Cusack, pictured above, have spoken openly about their mental health issues.
Source: Neil Danton/INPHO
Bradley does not want to be perceived as presenting himself as an “authority” on the issue, but hopes his play can help facilitate open conversations about a subject that people are sometimes reluctant to discuss.
“It is just about having open conversations and also being comfortable to talk about it, so it’s not something people are embarrassed to say [they have suffered from]. I think sometimes people are afraid to say they’ve struggled in case it colours your opinion of them.
“So [it’s important] for us to be more open in that way, to not put people in a box once we’ve heard they’ve struggled.
“I also want to show how these things can happen to very normal guys that we all know. It’s just an unfortunate series of events and maybe a natural disposition. This condition can happen so easily.”
The 29-year-old, who divides his time between Dublin and London depending on his work situation, admits he is by no means a hardcore GAA fan, but feels the lack of a strong affinity for the sport was a strength rather than a weakness when it came to writing the play.
“It’s funny, my brothers both play and my whole family’s very into GAA. I wasn’t as much. I was really bad at it. So I played up until U12s. But I think that’s actually aided me. I have a slightly outside view on it as well from a bit of a distance, which helps with the writing — I can observe a bit more.”
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And Bradley insists performing a one-man 50-minute play within the unusual confines of a dressing room is not as taxing as it sounds.
Having it in a dressing room in a way makes it easier. It becomes immersive and the audience almost become characters in the play. It’s almost easier than doing it on a stage where you are literally the one man on the stage. In many ways, different members of the audience become different characters for free. So that actually kind of helps from the one-man side of things. And it also makes it really intimate and engaging, because you’re there almost with the characters in real life, as opposed to sitting in the dark in the distance.
“There’ll be moments where people might become actual characters that don’t have to do anything mad, but they just have to be a little bit more involved. There could be an audience member at the beginning who I decide is the character’s girlfriend. Maybe when she’s being spoken about, it might just be that you look in her direction, that kind of thing. So it’s just implied that it’s that character without them having to do anything.”
He is also keen to emphasise that the play is not necessarily as unremittingly harsh as its subject matter might suggest.
“When you have the whole area of mental health, it can be very heavy. And obviously, there are heavy moments in this play. But a lot of it is quite fun and light and hopefully engaging in a way that’s not just doom and gloom. You get to go on a real journey with a character and really see how someone’s mental health can play out. So if you’re interested in that, hopefully you’ll enjoy it.”
‘Grounds for Concern’ will be showing in Croke Park Dressing Room 1 on 12, 13, 18 and 19 September at 7.30pm as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. More details here.
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