How a New Podcast Inspired By Billy Elliot is Shining a Light on Men's Mental Health
Actor-turned-podcast-host Sean Hayden is telling his own personal story, with help from a team of voice actors, in a new scripted podcast to raise awareness of men's mental health
Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience in theatre.
I’m a theatre actor based out of New York City who’s been acting professionally for over 25 years. I’ve appeared in Broadway national tours for Mamma Mia! and The Light in the Piazza and in theatre productions across the US.
In 2019, however, my life fundamentally changed. I experienced a mental health crisis and collapsed on stage during a live performance of Billy Elliot, the Musical while working at one of the most powerful theatres in the US. My body was dragged off the stage and I started crying uncontrollably. I was having my first panic attack. That experience and what happened to me afterwards in the workplace dramatically damaged my health and put me on a precarious mental health journey for the next three and a half years.
As CEO of Haywood Productions, LLC, I’m now telling that story in a new, groundbreaking podcast called Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story, which premieres on 16th May 2023 on all podcast platforms.
Stage Combat centres around a US production of Billy Elliot, The Musical. What can you tell me about this.
As a British export, Billy Elliot, the Musical is beloved in the US. It won the Tony award for best musical in 2009, and 10 years later one of the most prestigious theatres in the US, The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, was producing Billy Elliot. I was asked to audition for the production and was cast in one of the leading roles as Billy’s father. The cast all took a deep dive into learning about Northern England and the miners’ strike which is the setting for Billy Elliot. And in the podcast, we take the listener backstage into the audition process, rehearsals and show them what it takes to put a show up on the stage.
How did you find learning a Geordie accent?
As an actor, I’ve always enjoyed learning accents. The Geordie accent was one of the most difficult I have encountered. But I really enjoyed it! I hired an internationally renowned dialect coach prior to rehearsals just to get a jump on it. In rehearsals for Billy Elliot, the theatre provided an in-house dialect coach to work with the cast. I also found it very helpful to watch old news reels on Youtube. By the time the show opened, the Geordie vowels started to bleed into my everyday speech.
What did you find most interesting about the history of the miners’ strike?
Being a bit of an Anglophile and having spent a semester during my university years in London, I’ve always been passionate about British history. So I did a lot of research for Billy Elliot. I read books about the mining communities of the 1980s and watched hours of documentaries about the strike. I believe I was most affected by the human cost of the strike.
What about toxic masculinity?
I’m so glad you asked about toxic masculinity because it certainly is part of the story of Billy Elliot. It’s interesting that the issue of toxic masculinity is something that is very much part of the conversation in the US today in 2023 some 40 years after the events in Billy Elliot. Toxic masculinity is definitely something that came up in my research about the mining communities in the 1980s. And that was probably the toughest part of the role for me to access because the character is initially very brutal with violent tendencies. Of all the characters I have played, this character was the farthest removed from my actual self.
In Billy Elliot, those rigid ideas of ‘manliness’ really put Billy’s dad in an emotional straight jacket as he faces the recent death of his wife and is unable to express his grief. Men during the 1980s, and even more so in mining communities, didn’t possess the freedom, culturally, to express their emotions for fear of being ‘less than a man’.
While we have made advances socially when it comes to men and mental health, we still have a silent epidemic on our hands today. Statistically men are almost four times more likely to die by suicide than women, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. We need to do everything we can to normalise talking about mental health for everyone and particularly for men.
What about the loss of identity?
I was really struck with the idea of loss while doing my research for Billy Elliot. The loss of identity for the miners must have been devastating with the closures of the pits since identity as an individual and as community was so intricately intertwined with mining.
I think this is something many of us today are struggling with after the pandemic when jobs were lost or businesses had to close. It’s the question of, ‘what am I if I am not __________’. Many actors had to deal with this dilemma during the Covid lockdowns as the pandemic forced many artists to leave the performing arts and create new identities.
'We need to do everything we can to normalise talking about mental health for everyone and particularly for men'
How will these be reflected in Stage Combat?
The listener will definitely hear in the story of Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story the theme of toxic masculinity. I think the listener will wonder while listening to the podcast whether art is imitating life or life is imitating art. And the issue of loss of identity is part of my personal story of Stage Combat that I experience after the fall out following my mental health crisis in the theatre industry.
How did you find your experience directing this?
It was an interesting dichotomy to not only record and tell my story but to also direct the podcast. In many ways, creating and directing the podcast was the ultimate cognitive therapy. It’s almost like recreating the crime scene in a sense to work through your trauma. But there’s tremendous power in claiming your story. And I was able to do that in not only recording my story but in directing it as well.
What can listeners expect from the podcast?
We take the listener into the protective, insular world of the theatre industry where the unspoken rule is, ’it is in your best interest not to speak up, or there will be consequences’. I narrate the scripted, non-fiction story along with a cast of 10 talented voice actors in an immersive serialised story told in 20-minute chapters. Music, sound effects, and a fast-paced story that always ends on a cliffhanger! Each story is then followed by a 10-minute conversation with a mental health professional about some of the issues the listener just heard in the story. It’s a format that I’ve never seen in a podcast so I think the listener will find Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story a unique experience.
Why is it so important to air this during US Mental Health Awareness Month?
It’s a month which aims to raise awareness about mental health struggles and to reduce the stigma around them. One of the best ways of doing that is in telling our stories. Each time we tell our story we take a brick out of the wall of stigma. I created Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story because one of the things many said to me after my mental health crisis was, ‘I didn’t think this would happen to someone like you’. I thought, ‘what does that mean?’ Because a mental health crisis could happen to anyone. It made me think, ‘what if I could show you in a podcast how a mental health crisis happens? Dramatise how my mental health crisis happened. All within a juicy backstage theatre story.’
Hopes and plans for the future?
I hope, out of a traumatic experience that caused me great pain, that something powerful can come out of it to help others. I’m proud to become a mental health advocate. My plans are to never stop talking about mental health. And I believe that’s what we all need to do. We need to talk about it every day like our lives depend on it. Because they do. We look forward to sharing more stories and conversations about mental health in future seasons of Stage Combat: A Mental Health Story.