Emma Jayne Park is the Artistic Director of Cultured Mongrel which she founded as a means to impact the sector beyond simply touring work. Emma is described to make ‘socio-political performances and installations as a catalyst for deepening discussion and encouraging social change.’ Currently touring with 2Faced Dance’s Outlands, a triple bill of contemporary dance by three up-and-coming choreographers, Emma spoke to me about the inspiration behind her piece It’s Not Over Yet.
Two years ago at age 30, Emma was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Both her experience with cancer, and her experience as an artist in recovery, she used to create her dance theatre production. “Initially I wasn’t intending on making a stage piece,” Emma told me. “Whilst I was having chemotherapy, during my treatment I wasn’t able to be around the world of live performance and do the things I’d normally do because of my health.” After looking at that, it became apparent to Emma that she had a lot to say about being unwell and she was reflecting on the aftermath of treatment and how we deal with the mental health issues after cancer. “I can’t fault my treatment in the slightest, it was super supported and informed, I feel very lucky to live in a country where the healthcare is free.
However, what I tended to find is that people would try to respond how they think you’d like them to respond to them and sometimes you end up shouldering a lot of the weight of your illness and trying to make it easier for other people,” Emma explained. Realising how much she had to say, she decided to make the stage work. “Funnily enough when I was diagnosed and told people I was diagnosed someone said to me ‘oh you’ll make a piece about that’ and I was like ‘no I won’t.’ Also at the time I didn’t feel like I had a lot to say about it and I only make work when I feel like I can add to the conversation,” Emma told me.
Asking Emma to describe the piece she told me: “It’s dance theatre, I’d say it’s a piece built on powerful images and it creates space for the audience to be involved in the work. It’s honest, I think it’s funny in places, it’s a little bit dark but it is an honest insight into my experience.” We then talked about the way people see cancer who have never experienced. I mentioned the adverts and films project cancer at one angle, not presenting the harrowing truth and a well-rounded view of how cancer completely takes over your life. Emma said: “I particularly found all of those things to be not very useful. It’s Not Over Yet will be a useful tool to start the conversation, if people talk about my cancer and how I felt about it, I think they’ll find that easier than talking about someone close to them.”
“I think everyone is so supportive and people are so kind but the times where I felt most overwhelmed is because I felt like they were responding to the movie version they’d seen, or the advert that they’d seen, or the information they have which is so dressed up.”
The work has taken a huge journey as Emma originally wanted it to be a stand-up comedy piece. “I am not a comic at all, I am a dancer so I really stripped it back,” she said. “However, in December I am going to take some time with physical comedians and see if there is a stand-up comedy gig in there that is much more explicit because I feel like this work is strong and it says a lot, but I feel like also saying it explicitly will be a benefit.”
Aside from the power of the piece itself, after Emma’s treatment, she felt it really changed her mindset as a dancer. “Creatively I don’t feel as connected to my body and I hadn’t realised how connected to my body I was, I think you take that for granted when you’ve been doing something for so long,” she said. “Also, the value that I place on my body has changed, I gained a lot of weight because of the number of steroids I had to take as part of my treatment. When I was told my treatment would take two years I kind of brushed that off and thought it couldn’t take that long and part of that is learning to live in my own skin again.”
Having a lot of thinking time really allowed Emma to realise the impact both the treatment and the work had on her mental health. It just hammered home how much I was doing before I was ill, how switched on my brain was and how relentless my lifestyle was. I can’t advocate for positive mental health and self-care if I’m not really living that practice,” she said.
“I was always looking for ways to shift the sector, change the sector or make a more supportive sector and now I feel kind of more determined than ever to do that.”
Working in partnership with The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, Emma eyes have really opened to what needs to change in the arts sector. “I am still in that remission because if anything happens where someone tries to cut a lunch hour too short or the working hours are too long then I feel like I have a license to stand up and say ‘that is not on’ whereas before, especially as a dancer you’d think to just give more and not be lazy. I’ve really seen the difference between laziness and self-care, which feels great and is a really great lesson,” she explained. “It’s still not easy to manage, my family would laugh as they still see me push myself to the end of my tether and then fall over but at least I am aware of it now.”
Alongside changing the sector to create more positive working environments for mental health, during Emma’s treatment and remission she was enormously affected by being unable to access live performance. It’s Not Over Yet is the first stage in developing high-quality theatre work that can be scaled down into a home-based environment for people that are housebound. “I think there is a real importance in being connected to wider society, I think there is a lot of impact work and discussion of access in a broad term but it really neglects the fact that some people don’t have that ability to connect, and for me it was because my immune system just couldn’t cope with being in public spaces,” she said.
Emma found that mentally she really suffered from the lack of live performance. “I could watch movies and Youtube videos and lots of 2D stuff on a screen all day when I was ill, but I think it actually adds to the sense of alienation, more than having something physical in your space,” Emma explained. “Touch is really important and when you’re that poorly, touch is something that changes massively as suddenly all touch is clinical.”
Living and breathing the arts before her treatment began, she discovered that she couldn’t relate to anyone because she had nothing to talk about. “The things that joined us and the things we bonded over suddenly didn’t exist anymore, we couldn’t have those experiences so I really think if people can make work that becomes that connection then we have that hope of supporting people slightly more in the process of recovery,” she said.
“You’re fighting this disease with a treatment that makes you feel bad, and when you come out the other side you have nothing to talk about but cancer.”
Growing up in a rural part of Scotland, all the theatre work Emma makes can be taken to a village hall or smaller space. “As much as technical support is a bonus, it isn’t essential,” she said. Her plan is to make a massive extension of this and develop three short works with The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival that can be taken out of a theatre and into the living room of someone who is being treated or in recovery from an illness that makes theatre inaccessible.
“I feel like coming from that unique perspective, we really have to take into account the healthcare needs and the after show care, recognising that sometimes these performances will be booked and people have licence to cancel them,” Emma said. “I could feel great for three days and then all of a sudden feel ill for no reason, so I think there is something about really considering that, which is quite delicate and important.”
Emma hopes to dedicate all of next year researching this model of work, “It needs that pace and time for reflection and it’s so delicate so I do hope that it’s possible to support that and find ways to take time to sit with people, listen and adapt the work,” she said.