From Teesside to Stateside: How this North East actress is shining a light on mental health
Mental health has never been so talked about, and actress and writer Francesca Bolam, from Teesside but now living in Brooklyn, has highlighted the real battles anyone can face
In July 2020, like many of us, she found herself in a time of uncertainty, alone with much more time on her hands. Like many in the arts industry she was out of work, and after her mental health deteriorated, she decided to seek out a therapist. That gave her the space she needed to voice her feelings and examine her journey to work out her next steps – and she realised how many others would have been feeling the same way she did.
Francesca had been asked to write for Rogue Theater Festival at the iconic 13th Street Repertory Theatre in NYC. But, of course, the festival was postponed and the piece she had written was no longer relevant. When she began her therapy journey, she started to create stories from her own experience in the form of poems, journal entries and monologues – all in the notes app of her phone. And as the festival’s rescheduled date grew closer last December, all these stories started to come together to create one body of work – Untitled Monologues. Exploring themes of mental illness, addiction and relationships through the journeys of four women in therapy, it debuted at the Rogue Theater Festival in Manhattan in December to huge success.
‘The play means a lot to me because they’re all my stories,’ Francesca explains. ‘It’s either a personal experience of mine or an experience of someone that I know. For each monologue there’s a person in my head. But they could be anybody’s stories, no matter where you come from or who you are. I really wanted to portray that with my cast too. I felt that during the pandemic, there’s been a huge focus on mental health and wellbeing and mindfulness, but sometimes I think the actual root of these problems is overlooked.
Francesca goes on to explain that it’s not ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to mental health. ‘We all have our own journey which is very dependent on what’s going on at that time,’ she adds. ‘For me, I like a holistic approach. I’m Buddhist so I chant and practice the same practice that Tina Turner uses: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I don’t think I would be here without that because it really comes down to taking responsibility for yourself. It creates intentions to live the life that you want. Talk therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy was really working too. I also do a lot of yoga and meditation, but journaling and writing for me is probably the biggest outlet. It means I can get whatever it is off my chest.’
Off the back of the success of Untitled Monologues, Francesca hopes to carry on writing about things that reflect reality. ‘That’s the biggest thing I get out of what I do,’ she explains. ‘While I love the successful commercial musicals, I’m always more drawn to smaller productions that are pared back with no frills; things that are experimental and have a strong message. The most important thing is to write about things that are really relevant at the time. When I was writing Untitled Monologues, I was actually really worried about putting it out because there were so many personal aspects. No matter what you write, when it’s based on someone it’s a dangerous slope but ultimately my goal for the future is to carry on doing the work that I feel needs to be done. I’d love to have it in a major theatre and be able to take it on tour.’
For now, exciting things await as Francesca juggles a few different projects. She’s currently lead vocalist on an ongoing project with Grammy producer Bob Brockmann, she has a residency at Rogue Theater in New York, and one of her plays is currently being workshopped and she’ll be playing the lead.
Things are certainly looking up, and we can’t wait to see what’s next for Francesca. With the recent reopening of Stockton Globe, and now more Teesside-based venues have reopened their doors, maybe we’ll see her this side of the pond soon. ‘The arts in England are really celebrated, I feel,’ Francesca says. ‘I always had a very artistic education and had lots of opportunity. People in America always say British theatre is way better, but I’m bringing a bit of that flavour to New York.’
In busy Brooklyn, life is very different, but when we ask Francesca to reflect on her hometown she says the quieter spots of the North East are the best place to reflect. 'Teesside is just so different from the fast pace I’m used to,’ she says. ‘But my favourite place in the North is probably Saltburn. I love the beach and we have some truly beautiful scenery. Everyone needs that to unwind sometimes.’
Find out more about Francesca and her upcoming work at francescabolam.com.
There are many organisations available to offer support for those suffering from mental illness or those close to them. Websites such as mind.org.uk are a good place to start.