Features Q&A and Interviews Published 25 January 2018

Beyond Nervous Laughter

Four Vault Festival shows are combining belly laughs with explorations of life with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Francesca Peschier chats to some of their creators.
Francesca Peschier
'Surprise' is on at Vault Festival

‘SURPRISE!’ is on at Vault Festival

“The show takes the form of exposure therapy. I’m introducing moments of the unknown, points which might make me feel really sick or afraid that I’m going to shit myself. You know how you hate bananas? It’s like if I slowly started introducing bananas around the flat until finally I got to the point where you were happy to eat one. That’s SURPRISE!, it’s learning to live with my banana”

Lauren Silver reorders the falafel she’s spread over the baking sheet so that they form two perfect parallel lines. Our movements are coordinated: I wash spoons as soon as she’s used them. Over many years, we have both learnt socially acceptable techniques to manage our anxiety. The difference being that I would never consider relinquishing that control to an audience, particularly whilst wearing a clown suit. Lauren’s show SURPRISE!, does just that, becoming the vehicle for her to ask, ‘How does a girl with social and anticipation anxiety enjoy a surprise party?’ Talking this question over has lead me to my own, ‘How, or even, can we laugh about our mental health?’

I spoke to three other theatre makers whose work at this year’s Vaults festival draws on their experience of mental health and whom either actively use humour, or whose backgrounds are comedic: both Nicole Henriksen, whose A Robot In Human Skin explores anxiety with ‘honesty and whimsy’, and Joz Norris, whose 60 Minutes after Feeling Sad is an exploration of all the ludicrous strategies we use to make ourselves feel better, have backgrounds in stand-up comedy. He explains that “I like things that know how ridiculous they are, but aren’t afraid to be honest or thoughtful despite that. Things that have an inherent sense of absurdity and silliness even when exploring sad things.” Integrated company Silent Faces are more explicit in their mission to blend mental health with the funnies in their A Clown Show About Rain, where escaping the downpour becomes a neat allegory for keeping your head above the metaphorical water.

Making work that about mental health is always loaded with potential to offend, trivialise, or even cause harm to the performer. As Scottee explored in his essay Picking My Scabs for Your Entertainment, there’s a difficult balance between exposure that is productive for the conversation, and pornographic self-destruction. I do not want to watch a performer in pain, not even (actually, especially if) it’s a pain that is familiar from my own experience. The artists have to continuously check in with themselves as to their own self-care. Nicole Henriksen admits it’s not always easy, with the Edinburgh run of Robot seeing her an unhealthy ‘checked-out mess’ – an experience she is keen not to recommend. The space created between the performer and the audience has also has to be a safe one for people attending the show: Lauren Silver warns that “We’ve all sat in shows feeling the fearful threat of aggressive audience participation. Whatever you do, you can make it worse for you but never for the audience”.

Living with an ongoing mental health condition requires that a certain amount of your life become necessarily performative. There are times when you have to seriously try not to give into the spiral of doom, for fear of losing your job or alienating the people that love you. Nicole articulately explains how when she feels “paranoid, believing that every single one of my actions, or every single word I speak, is going to be documented by everyone around me” then her façade manifests. She creates the “robot-like state” that she explores in her show; a state of “going through the motions, getting the discussion finished, getting to and from the shops, getting through the day, doing whatever I have to do until I’m back in a safe place”.

This feeling isn’t unique to those than suffer from anxiety and depression, but rather it’s something most people can empathise with. Nicole often finds it difficult to make the distinction even within her own experience: “In many ways, it’s incredibly difficult for me to determine how much of my social performance is from my anxiety, rather than say, regular social conditioning.”

These permeable boundaries mean that the audience can identify with a lot of what they see on stage. Three of these pieces involve a single performer baring their truth to people they don’t know in a pledge for increased emphatic understanding. Humour can bridge that gap still further, because laughter, as Joz points out it “doesn’t diminish in any way comedy’s ability to explore serious ideas in serious ways”. A blurring of the line between theatrical gravity and the silliness of comedy untethers the audience from their expectations, ‘[it] allows the audience to feel the voice of the show’ says Nicole, “rather than being told outright what to expect or experience. I know not everyone will come to any one of my shows with a fully open being, ready to go on a journey, and understanding that what they’re seeing is a person sharing of their life”.

You can’t get away from the fact that some of the things mental health makes us do are funny. “I have to laugh about these things because I do genuinely sit in my living room and think my boyfriends had a heart attack on the toilet and is dead, when obviously he’s just on Instagram, having a poo and lovely time”, says Lauren.

The difficulty is in sharing the ability to laugh at yourself without making a mockery of what can be very real pain, and being able to embrace the strange ways our brains misfire without overly ridiculing or othering non neuro-typical experiences. Nicole describes it accurately as a “specific humour that belongs to the person and people who are mentally ill… a reclaiming of our experience, a gaining of perspective, and an ability to connect with others having similar experiences and say ‘lol girl same’.”

Our ability to find the laughs relies on recognition of a shared experience. Even if you do not have any form of mental health based capers (hello writing long emails to friends detailing the shame parade I deserve to be thrown in my honour), it’s recognising, as Silent Faces say, that “There’s any manner of bizarre things I did (and still do!) that are ripe for comedy” but that the audience have to trust that that “You’re poking fun from a place of understanding, not standing and laughing in judgement…the reason we work with clown is so that we don’t have to delve deep into our emotional memory to find a “real” reaction, instead our work accesses a live element of play. This works as a level of protection. It is important to us at the comedy never comes from pain”.

Perhaps it’s the wish to avoid exploiting pain that makes clowning seem like a logical genre in which to explore things that hurt; when you slam the car door on a clown’s head, there is an expectation that we will laugh but that they will emerge unharmed. Lauren’s practice employs Philippe Gaulier’s ‘Le Jeu’, where the motivation involves finding a childlike joy. Rooted in games, it presents a form of escapism from the adult world. She invites her audience to play pass the parcel with her, to let off party poppers. There is no fourth wall, it’s a party we are all invited to.

“I think the important and the profound is never very far away from any moment of silliness or nonsense, but it just has to be treated right for both of them to emerge”. (Joz)

Silent Faces call this breaking down of our natural barriers, our reluctance to talk about things that might hurt us ‘the tickle and the punch’, If you make people laugh then they will let you in ‘…and then you hit them with a serious message’. But clowning can have a nasty side. Researcher and performer Peta Lily has explored how dark clowning can be used alongside the more recognisable clown doctors, finding humour and strength in pain: “Dark Clown provokes a different quality of laughter. Dark Clown is where the audience laugh but at the same time, they ask themselves, ‘should I really be laughing at this?!’” (Peta Lily, The Comedy of Terrors – Dark Clown & Enforced Performance)

Should we be really laughing at mental health? For the performers I spoke to for this feature it’s too abstract a question. These aren’t shows that claim to speak for on behalf of anyone, only to relate their own experiences of leaning to live with their proverbial bananas. “We love the idea that audiences come on this journey with four likable idiots”, Silent Faces explain, “then find themselves complicit when it takes a darker turn”. It’s a journey that despite the artists doing the best to dictate the audience experience, they ultimately can’t control. But if the work results in more questions than answers that’s ok too, they are theatre makers not therapists: Joz Norris says that “If there is anything within the silliness and warmth of this show that casts a light on those sorts of places for anybody watching it, then it will have gone above and beyond anything I ever hoped for it to do”.

Lauren sums it up simply: “I can just say, this is what it’s like for me and then because it’s a clown show, I put on a costume and tell you about it”.

All the shows mentioned in this feature are on at Vault Festival over the coming months.Nicole Henriksen’s A Robot in Human Skin runs from 26 — 27 Jan, 19:45. Lauren Silver’s SURPRISE! runs from 14 – 15 Feb, 21:30. Joz Norris’s 60 Minutes after Feeling Sad is on 2 Feb, 22:00. Silent Faces: A Clown Show About Rain runs from 16 -17 March, 18:10

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Francesca Peschier

Francesca is a freelance lecturer, reviewer, and AHRC funded PhD student at University of Arts London. where her research examines the relationship between scenography and identity in Liverpool. A former model maker and set painter, she still manages to keep her place on the Society of British Theatre Designers committee. She is the founding editor of JAWS, the Journal of Arts Writing by Students published by Intellect. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with running a croquet society and back-combing her hair to desired Dolly Parton heights.

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