“Have you ever tried to kill yourself?”
Three questions into a Q&A session after doing my show and the unflinching directness of this question stuns me.
My response, “No, no I haven’t” is immediately replied to with, “I have, three times.”
Last week I did my show Head Hand Head followed by a Q&A session at the Dragon Cafe, a weekly creative space exploring issues around mental illness, recovery and well-being. Over the last six months I have appeared in various locations and in different contexts, from hospitals to a tiny studio on the top floor of an old building as part of the Edinburgh Fringe and the experience of doing it and the audience responses have varied immensely. Since being back from Edinburgh I’ve been thinking about the differences between these and although the show itself remains exactly the same in whatever context, how it feels to perform, my relationship to the audience and the way it is perceived, understood and responded to always shifts.
The reactions to the show at the Dragon Cafe were similar to those shows at the Maudsley Hospital where the show was performed for service users and clinicians: broadly characterizable as reactive, uncensored and instinctive responses. Still viewed and understood to be theatre/performance but not reacted to with questions of what worked or didn’t work theatrically, or with critique of the writing or direction. Instead the piece is responded to without the weight of expected appropriateness and tradition afforded to theatre audiences. These audiences are almost certainly likely to have direct experience of suffering with mental illness (often severely) and therefore respond to the communication of shared experience, but also in places like the Dragon Cafe, these audiences have the freedom to talk openly and without judgement.
I think this also had an effect on me, although I suffered from the usual pre-show nerves I wasn’t particularly anxious, not compared to the noisy stream of ‘what if’s’ which flew through my head every day in Edinburgh and I thought if there was anywhere it would be ok to have a panic attack mid show, it was probably here. This isn’t to say that these experiences, responses and conversations are in some way better or more important (as a performer I made a piece of theatre for the general public and of course the critique of the show as performance is completely necessary) and also it isn’t always an either/or situation, theatre audiences can, and often have had, an instinctive, unreserved emotional response, I’m just noticing the differences and wondering where, how and why they exist. Here are some moments that stuck with me.
Phones rang, some people were twitchy, some people left, some of those people came back, some didn’t. A handful of people smiled back at me. Some people actively avoided my gaze. Someone shut their eyes for a really long time. Some people just stared right at me but didn’t smile. Someone slowly rocked back and forth in their seat as I repeated myself over and over again.
A man told me that he was schizophrenic and paranoid and he thought bad things were going to happen all the time too but he didn’t feel the urge to check things or repeat things, he wanted to know why I did. He asked me if I believed in God, he said he does and it was helping him. He said maybe I should try it.
A woman told me she was writing her memoirs, she said she was finding it tough as she suffers from amnesia. She said she wanted to talk to me about the water bottles in my show. She remembers staying in hospital and being given bottles of water but not knowing who had opened them. She has multiple personality disorder she tells me. She wasn’t sure which one of her opened the water bottles so she wouldn’t drink them, and instead kept them all, opened and half drunk, on a shelf.
Another woman wanted to know if I was taking any medication. I said no. She asked why not. I said that I had received therapy and for the moment that seemed to be enough. She nodded but said nothing.
“Do you hoard things?” “What happens if you get interrupted whilst counting to five, do you have to start again?” “Can you work?” “Can you be away from home?” “How much of this is art and how much is real life?” “I’m afraid, still on this side of the fence. How did you get on the other side of the fence?” “Have you ever tried to kill yourself?” “How long have you had it?” “Is it getting better?” “Is it a comfort?” “Does it make you feel more in control?”
A woman said she suffers in a similar way to me. She said that she always worries that bad things might happen and then has to do certain things to control her fear. She said she would have to sip a drink seven times. She said she is now trying something different, rather than thinking “what if something bad happens”, she thinks “what if something good happens”. Everyone in the room laughed gently. She repeated it a few times. What if something good happens, what good things might happen. The whole room spontaneously started to clap.
A woman approached me, shyly, and said thank you. She said she has OCD too. I took a step towards her so I could hear her better and her whole body tensed and she swiftly took a step back, away from me. She apologised, said that she can’t be touched, she worries about germs. She apologised again, and walked away.
Photo by Daniel B. Yates.