Even Though the Rough Times Are Showing - (Performative Anxiety and A Need for Authenticity)
I bloody love fringe theatre. It’s probably my favourite thing. So, guess who got pretty excited when the Brighton Fringe rolled back into town for the first time since she moved down, got out her sticky notes and cracked open the Fringe brochure the first spare moment she had?
I hadn’t seen a lot of shows for the first half of this year due to an unexpected re-emergence of anxiety and agoraphobic panic attacks (more of that over here), so I was starving for a good bit of theatre. The Brighton Fringe came just at the right time as I was turning a corner with my own health. While looking through the Warren’s brochure (who I also performed two shows at in a lovely 6-day run), it was really refreshing to see a number of shows about mental health, and one show instantly caught my eye; I’m Telling You I’m Not Going performed by Naomi Petersen. There’s a pretty obvious reason. I’ll give you three guesses why…
Okay, so I was curious, I got into shows at the Warren for free, so I went along to see it.
I have to admit, it left me feeling disappointed.
What I’m not going to do is a review of the show because that’s not what I want to do here. I’m not clued up enough on comedy to give a decent analysis and I don’t want to do a blow-by-blow account of what happens in the show. You might want to see it for yourself (as it’ll be up in Edinburgh for their Fringe) and I wouldn’t want to stop you doing that. Go see it! It's on all month! This isn’t about slagging off a show. If you want my opinion on it on a performance level, as I wave my M.A around, I think Naomi Petersen is a pretty solid and fluid performer, has a fucking fantastic singing voice and she knows her way around a keyboard better than I will ever (sorry dad).
It’s the use of the subject matter that’s not sitting well with me.
I’ve made sure that this isn’t a reactionary post. Knowing me I can get a little emotional, I have cognitive errors that I need to work through which I have to get it out of my system and usually, that means having a little cleansing cry. I did just that. Tick that off my to-do list. I have given it the time it needs to really reflect on it and consider why it bothered me.
Luckily, my anxiety has already summoned up a load of reasons about how wrong I am to let this get to me, (Cheers brain!) so I’ll try and work my way through it.
First up - it’s comedy. It’s not a documentary so I shouldn’t get upset about it, after all, this wasn’t about a real person with agoraphobia. Get over it.
Geez, hypothetical people, that’s a bit harsh.
Okay, yeah, sure that’s true but that is where my frustrations start.
Here’s something I found interesting: In the Warren’s brochure copy for ‘I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ the character we meet is referred to as Rosie and this is her story. I call her a character because she has a different name to the performer. That’s a bit textbook and obvious, sorry, but it leads me to this point. Both in the online description of the show and in the performance itself, Naomi refers to herself as… well, Naomi.
It’s something small but it makes things problematic for me. If the character is called Rosie, I can accept her absurdities because she’s a pretty absurd character; I can accept the cast of other absurd characters populating this absurd timeline of anxiety and a final absurd triggering of the agoraphobia that has caused Rosie to be effectively trapped inside the theatre and now performing a show. It’s obvious to me that Rosie and Naomi (performer) aren’t the same person.
However, when we have Naomi as Naomi, I can’t help but see her as a real person (or a heightened version of the performer Naomi) in front of me. I subconsciously expect a real person who went through real experiences with other real people she plays and this is her sharing some of the real comedy about it.
I've been wondering what led to the change in the name, somewhat at short notice, and whether it was acknowledged how this little name change has a big impact on how an audience is being asked to read the person in front of them. It’s one of the reasons in most of my recent performances I tend to use my own name because everything I do is done from my own perspective and sourced from my own history. Sure, there’s artistic license and techniques we use in performance to make a narrative more readable and more enjoyable, but we are somewhat expected to show something more truthful when we use our own names. Or we may have to acknowledge that we're not being so.
I’ve even pondered whether there are moments of the story that could be genuinely true, on the off-chance they were, but I can’t see it.
The major triggering event the whole performance leads up to, (which I won’t describe here out of context because I can see how that would be a bit unfair) that leaves Naomi stuck in a theatre, without leaving for a whole year, is pretty silly. But it’s supposed to be silly! It’s played for laughs! It is some silly fun! Which is honestly fine! I love a bit of silly fun, me. But not when the person in front of me is blurring the line between character and a real persona.
Naomi (performer) shows a slice of the sadder side to Naomi (character), she garners sympathy and an emotional response to her plight. However, when the reason she is an agoraphobic shut-in is just silly, it not only muddies how we are being asked to relate to Naomi but also how we relate to people with agoraphobia. I had this uncomfortable feeling that the audience were laughing at Naomi’s over-the-top reaction. They weren’t laughing with her.
This makes sense for a purely absurd character to be in this absurd situation because of an absurd traumatic event. But it doesn’t make sense for a character, who shares the same name as the performer, to react in the way they do without it coming off as... well... silly.
People with mental health problems aren’t silly; our thought processes are just really disordered.
Things get too blurry when you try and have it both ways.
So, am I saying that anxiety or any mental illness shouldn’t be the subject of any type of comedy because it might hurt mine or others feelings?
No, of course not.
Anxiety and mental illnesses can and are bloody devastating but they can also be and are bloody funny. They are two sides of the same coin and you won’t find that truer than from people who’ve suffered with it, for lack of a better phrase; the cliché of the depressed clown exists for a reason. It's a generalisation to say that humour and comedy are often used a coping mechanism for the darker times in life but I believe there’s a giant grain of truth to it. Comedy and tragedy live along a thin edge but that doesn’t mean that you can’t straddle both.
So maybe I shouldn’t have gone, I should have known that I was risking being upset and that was my responsibility.
But, you know what, I didn’t go to get “triggered”. Actually, I wanted to go, have a good laugh and maybe get a new funny perspective on my anxiety and my past agoraphobia. I deserve to have a laugh after the time I’ve had, trust me! Hey, I do know one thing about comedy! It’s “Most comedy is tragedy plus time,” And I know it is possible. I've had anxiety long enough and have had enough distance from my very worst days with agoraphobia not to be too precious about it.
If you want to know what comedy about mental health done by someone with a mental health problem is like then there are people out there who do it, beautifully, authentically and hilariously. Robin Williams and Ruby Wax are two that I can recall off the top of my head. Head onto Netflix and you can do plenty of “research” (if you know what I mean). Just trying to find a few more names led me to this really cool collaboration between Comedy Central and the mental health charity Mind called Performance Anxiety. They're nine awesome sets on mental health and they’re really funny and touching!
I’d also recommend my mate Natalie Walmsley …. I mean, of course, I would she’s my friend… but also some of her stuff has made me laugh (suddenly and very loudly and not even in front of her so I wasn’t just being supportive). It spoke to me in such a way that I had never been spoken to before and that is what I have been looking for.
That’s what I was hoping for! That could have been fantastic and mind-blowing! But it wasn’t what I got.
When chatting about this with Calum, (who not only is a great empathetic person to discuss emotional issues objectively and subjectively with, he also grew up with comedy) he made the point I bloody wish I had made but will credit him for it anyway.
He took the copy, the words that are supposed to entice audience members to come see the show and did this:
and I realised that it didn’t actually change the show that I saw.
After that realisation, my disappointment and annoyance turned into sadness and frustration.
So, it was the label that was getting to me.
The collection of characters that informed Naomi’s (the character) eventual breakdown, her caring granddad, her aloof mum, her narcissist bully all played enthusiastically by Naomi (... technically performer and character...), didn’t rely on Naomi being agoraphobic. Initially, that’s where my disappointment stemmed from. I had got myself ready for something that wasn’t really delivered.
When you have to write copy, especially for Fringes you are usually limited to about 50 words. I know this because I did it for two shows this year. It’s super important to get this right and usually takes a lot of editing to do so. So when ‘agoraphobia’ is the third word and the only adjective, it’s not unreasonable for me to expect something about agoraphobia. The comedy didn’t seem to come from Naomi (character) but from the people around her, the situations and words they put in her mind. Which again is great and fine and indicative of good character comedy but not when we’re only being told about the character’s agoraphobia and not shown it.
I hope the use of agoraphobia as a character trait did not come from mental illness being a bit of a hot topic right now; it’s a taboo that isn’t being fought by just a handful of people like it once was but by thousands demanding that all these illnesses, and those who have them, are understood a bit better. Agoraphobia and anxiety are already wrapped up in a lot of myths and stigma. We are seen as over-thinkers, worriers, lazy, weak-minded, shy and indulged which is stupidly far away from the truth. We don’t need this to be perpetuated anymore; it can be life-threatening.
As we’re busy kicking taboo’s arse, agoraphobia and anxiety do not deserve to be used as yet another shorthand; for something to accumulate instant sympathy and to explain away irrationality as something quirky and endearing. Agoraphobic is not an adjective but a disorder that derails the day to day functioning of people’s lives. I felt that instead of being shown Naomi’s vulnerability and the courage to share and overcome this huge struggle in her life, I was just told to root for her because she’s a bit mental.
Comedy, theatre, performance - ultimately all art is a reflection of the world we live in. It’s our way of processing and understanding the random, irrational world into a way that we can get something out of. Sometimes we want to see it distorted, sometimes we want to see our reflection and laugh because it wasn’t as painful as it used to be and sometimes we want to see something we had never seen before.
For too long people with mental illnesses have looked at a distorted mirror to the point we're not sure what the true reflection looks like. That's stigma for you.
(I’m painfully aware how subjective this whole article is, just so you know)
I suppose what this really comes down to is I felt that we, the audience, were being offered to laugh at and not with someone with agoraphobia. As someone who has experienced agoraphobia at it’s most severe for over six years and who still has to live with its legacy, I wanted a bit of comedy to speak to me, to make me laugh with my experiences, because it’s a part of my coping mechanism and I wanted to share in that experience in public; because comedy, if you believe the defence mechanism theory on laughter , is bloody cathartic.
So, if you’re going to be straight up describing this person in front of me as agoraphobic, having experienced panic and anxiety attacks, you need to have it right because then it has the chance to be funny and uplifting in all the right ways.
Sure, I don’t know a lot about comedy but I can refer to some people that really do. I read Truth in Comedy by Del Close and Charna Halpern a year or so ago and what will always stick with me is this quote:
There’s no point in doing it wrong or half-assed because you’re not honouring your own and your audience’s intelligence. Otherwise, it threatens to set back a lot what people with mental health problems have been working hard towards. You need to do something real, based in reality when you’re dealing with illnesses and disorders that aren’t only really bloody real but also really bloody common.
I do a show about my own experiences of mental health and I’m not about to compare which one was better, or funnier or has better songs - I mean there aren’t any bloody songs to start off with - because they are two different shows, two different mediums and made for two different reasons.
The reason I bring it up though is this: For my last show at the Warren, I walked out and found amongst the audience two young teenaged girls. They were great audience members, the kind that you really feel a connection with. Now, maybe I’m assuming a lot but I wondered if one, or both of those girls had been affected by anxiety. There was something that made them want to come based on my copy, a show about anxiety, love and relationships.
And I know which show I would have rather they had seen. I mean, yes of course because it’s my show, but also because I strived to give something just really truthful and honest, highlighting the bloody ridiculous things you encounter on a day-to-day basis with a disordered brain. And I don’t think I got that with I’m Telling You I’m Not Going. If one of those girls was affected, at that age, a horrible one for someone with anxiety, you need the right kind of experience reflected back at you. What doesn’t help is a caricature no matter how well constructed and funny it is.
This wasn’t the only performance based on mental health that I saw at the Fringe that made me feel a little awkward in my own skin. (Or should that be my own brain?) I only chose this one because it spoke so strongly of an experience I will never really forget.
I hold up my hands; I am totally responsible for my reaction, no-one else is and I chose to go see that show. Which is why I have tried to be as articulate and as objective as I can because that is what both Naomi the character and Naomi the performer deserve.
I’m so sure Naomi's intention was not to have anyone feeling like I did and it is why I haven’t let myself get angry at it. I’m sure she wanted her audience to laugh and a good time. The ending of I’m Telling You I’m Not Going was clearly supposed to be uplifting but I didn’t feel it and surely I’m the person who, having gone through the same hell and come out the other side should be laughing the loudest?