Mental Health and The 24/7 Club
It's taken me a while to get around to writing this article. I needed some time to digest my thoughts on the Fringe and in particular, the role mental health ended up playing in my show. Hopefully this article will answer some of the questions people have asked me in reaction to the show and also perhaps even provide some insight and support.
For those who didn't see The 24/7 Club this Fringe, or maybe only saw early previews, let me fill you in a bit. In the introduction to the show I welcome the audience, as myself, dressed as a speakeasy hostess, to The 24/7 Club - a club for people born on the 24th July.
I explain that people born on and around my birthday are born on the "cusp of oscillation" meaning you are prone to experiencing extreme highs and lows. (I discovered this last year when I read it to a friend whose birthday is two days before mine, he said, "this is just calling me out on being bipolar!") I go on to say that like many others born on the cusp, and specifically my birthday, I have also experienced severe anxiety and depression despite appearing to be a confidant and outgoing person.
The rest of the show is then me joking about and performing as historical characters that have my birthday: Zelda Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Wonder Woman, Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey and Bill the Butcher. For the majority of the show, it's a very silly show.
The closing speech of the show however takes a sudden turn back to the theme of mental illness. While I was somewhat limited by space and time, I did want to make the change fairly abrupt to reflect the extreme oscillation I'd discussed earlier. For those who didn't see it, here's what happened*:
*I refer to C venues here a number of times because throughout the entire show, their tech equipment kept completely malfunctioning. Unfortunately it was the day I decided to film my show but I guess it's not C venue's fault that after 25 days of my team complaining, they still hadn't paid for updated equipment.**
I started writing this show pretty much straight after Fringe 2017. I experimented a lot with different characters and trying stand-up. I realised that if I was going to do a show about my birthday I would need to talk as myself, something I wasn't used to. I had dipped my toe in a bit while playing Eve in Dante's History of the Banished last year but this had had mixed reactions. Worrying about doing anything too personal or that might come off as "preachy" was definitely holding me back.
In 2016 I attended a number of workshops, including a two-day-long, call-back audition with the Neo-Futurists. I had seen and heard a lot about their work and admired their anarchic approach to theatre which sought to strip away artifice and be as real as possible on stage. For this particular group, they attempt to perform 30 two-minute plays in an hour.
The final piece I wrote was called "Nasty Voice". I used half of a large cardboard box to make a lectern on which I wrote "Charlie's Corner". I started the piece in my enthusiastic, almost children's TV presenter tone talking about what's new in my life when suddenly, from behind the cardboard, I brought up a red devil puppet, exclaiming that my new flatmates didn't like me.
(It was actually one of the Glitch puppets made by Mike Hutcherson.)
I then explained that this was my inner voice, which often fed me "negative thoughts" that I had to confront. I started arguing with the puppet, which started to push harder on insecurities - work, family, relationships - until ultimately getting into self-harm at which point I threw the puppet away screaming and crying. I calmed myself down and called scene.
Another auditionee hugged me. We'd all been through a lot that weekend. Actually, you should check them out: The Dirty Thirty - Degenerate Fox
I was surprised at how emotional I'd been able to get in front of strangers and proud that I was able to compose myself so quickly. The feedback generally was that it was a very powerful piece but some were worried about me going through that every night in the middle of a very full-on show.
At the time I was a little bit frustrated and wondered what they meant - I had done what the Neo-futurists had asked and shown vulnerability. But they were totally right.
The thing is, two years ago, I was still going through therapy. I had been in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) a few years before and was disappointed to find myself there again. It would not have been a good idea for me to be doing that piece every night. At the very least, I wouldn't have had the physical energy to cope.
I knew I had stumbled on something good and didn't want to throw the piece away so I decided to "put it in a drawer" for a while. There was no place for it in Dante's History of the Banished, which was what I was working towards for Fringe 2017. I did however continue to embrace the power of puppets!
In the Spring of 2017, I finally left therapy. I was in a good place and somewhat ironically that meant I could go on antidepressants. This was something I had been afraid to do for years but it was talking about this with close friends that started a new phase in my life.
Over the past year, a number of friends have come to me for advice and to ask about my experiences with anxiety and depression so that they can better understand their own mental health. I am so grateful for the people who had been there for me at that stage so I was really happy do it for others.
While I had been cynical at the start of both CBT courses, I ended up finding it extremely helpful. If you don't know about it, the main aim of CBT is to teach you to be your own therapist. If you're like me and was told rather unhelpfully by doctors in your teens and early 20s "you were just born this way and you'll always be like this", this is a pretty good option. It's hard work and is basically retraining your brain to be less self-sabotaging. Most importantly, it teaches you to realise when you're slipping and might need help.
Writing The 24/7 Club
By early 2018 I knew that the Nasty Voice piece would feature in my show in some form. The fact that mental health was already becoming a recurring theme in my research and was something I talked about so much in my everyday life meant that it would almost be weird if I didn't mention it.
However, I didn't want it to seem like "a buzzword". Mental health was big on the Ed Fringe agenda this year as was "#MeToo". I didn't really go into that this year as I felt I'd covered it last year, as Eve. Before the MeToo movement had even started.
I'd talked about Feminism last year because it was relevant to me before the theme caught fire, should it matter that this one already had? Moreover, I knew I could add something beyond a "yay let's talk and break the stigma" approach. I wanted to show that people can come through it but be honest that it can be hard work.
With that I also knew I had to be careful not to trigger people. This was my biggest fear.
Of course I also had to be careful not to trigger myself. I needed to stay in control for the audience and be able to get somewhere where we could laugh. After all, this was a comedy show.
Every now and then I come back to a podcast called Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert about her book Big Magic. There's one episode where she talks to Brene Brown and I highly recommend it to anyone doing anything creative.
They talk about sharing stories that are very personal and they come to the conclusion that you shouldn't share anything that you haven't already worked through.
This clicked for me. This is what the Neo-Futurists were concerned about. It also spelled out something I hadn't realised: I personally don't believe it's fair to talk about other people in my life on stage.
In the original Nasty Voice I spoke very specifically about certain relationships, which was fine in that small room. And while those issues were now in the past, I wanted to avoid possibly disrespecting the people I love most in front of a large Fringe audience.
I therefore rewrote the argument segment to be more directed at me and use more generic and repetitive phrases. I looked back at old diaries and CBT journals and found recurring themes to land on.
The most important change to the piece was the ending. The original piece had to be 2 minutes and at the time I was quite happy to end it at the dramatic climax of me throwing a puppet to the floor. But that wasn't the point of this show.
The purpose of arguing with the puppet was to demonstrate how I used to think. The point of the final address however was to show that I have changed but unfortunately others still talk to themselves that way.
Performing The 24/7 Club
My first preview on the 20th July at Hoopla was very nerve-wracking. I hadn't performed the ending at all, never mind the entire show in sequence! And while it was a bit rough and ready, it turned out to be one of my favourite shows I'd ever done. I felt on track.
The second preview however, felt quite disappointing. Maybe it's because the first one had gone surprisingly well but I think a lot of it was to do with performing it in front of so much of my family.
Please don't get me wrong, I appreciated them coming but I definitely felt spooked suddenly performing something so personal in front of a room full of people I knew, including my parents, my boyfriend and an auntie, uncle and two cousins I hadn't seen in a while.
I got more mixed reviews at this night. Some of my family worried I was wearing my heart on my sleeve too much. But I knew that I'd missed the mark.
Unfortunately, for the first couple of shows in Edinburgh I still felt like something wasn't clicking. I was afraid the show looked like it was trying to shoehorn an emotional scene for the sake of it. It didn't help that it was an extremely intimate space and for the first few shows it was my parents and close friends that came. I realised part of my issue wasn't just about me feeling uncomfortable but thinking they felt vulnerable in the space too. The lovely Lola Maxwell-Rose who was on tech for me (and my rock through this Fringe!) therefore gave the lights a bit more of a dramatic flair.
Having everything a bit darker and focused I felt adjusted the audience and gave everyone a bit of privacy. It made a huge difference. And once audience numbers started to pick up and I got more into the swing of the show, the ending started to hit the notes I was hoping for.
But then something started to happen that I could never have predicted. People started saying thank you to me after the show; old friends that I'd never spoken to about mental health opened up; others who had, gave me big, cathartic hugs. Counsellors, GPs and mental health nurses started to spread the news and leave reviews about how much they approved of the way mental health was represented and discussed.
One of my favourite memories of this is when I performed to my friend Ed and three guys who taught nursing in California. A small audience like this is usually a comedians nightmare but I have never had a more supportive audience. Afterwards, one of these lovely gentlemen asked if I had a clip of the ending so he could incorporate this into his lecture on CBT in San Francisco.
Soon I was receiving messages on social media from complete strangers thanking me for sharing what they thought they went through alone. One day I was left a card in the dressing room. The young woman who had left it was the girlfriend of a member of staff (who had been supportive of the show since the start) and actually came to see it twice. I'm very glad to say that I managed to talk to her in person and hope to see this awesome couple again.
So not only did talking about mental health bring me closer to some old friends, it also brought me new ones!
Another thing I hadn't considered before, were those who wrote to say that their partner or family member was going through depression and they hadn't known how to comfort them but now felt they could talk to them. Just writing that sends shivers through my skin.
There are some very good people in the world.
Throughout the run I incorporated some of these new experiences into my final monologue. The final section became a much more prominent part of the show than I had anticipated but it felt necessary to give it the time otherwise I wasn't being honest about how I was feeling.
Whereas two years ago the emotion came from my debate with the puppet, the address afterwards was now the climax of the show. I'm happy with that.
I was pretty tired but so is everyone. So often throughout the Fringe people asked me how I could do that every night and half expected me to be a nervous wreck by the end of it. But I was genuinely fine. Most of this was down to having taken into account my limits during the development process.
I should also say that I am an actor as well as a comedian. I approach performing from a lot of different experiences and training. Whilst I was being honest with my emotions, I was pacing myself and making sure I stayed in the moment - that means even more when an emotional scene ends.
There is also something to be said for having a good environment during the Fringe. I get to live with my parents, in my old bedroom, during the Fringe so I always had a nice clean house to come back to. I also surround myself with good friends, like Lola, and family, that give you a bit of perspective...
LIKE MY NEW BABY NEICE!
I spent an extra month after the Fringe to spend more time with my niece and help out my sister and brother-in-law - although they are managing wonderfully.
I thoroughly recommend any performer trying to reconnect with family and friends after an intense run.
Now that I am no longer touring with Griff Rhys Jones, I'm focusing on creating improv workshops and coaching for different industries. Much of the way I coach and teach is influenced by CBT and so I've started taking an online CPD-accredited course in CBT and Physiotherapy. I'm getting serious!
I'm not sure what my Fringe show will be next year. I hope to perform The 24/7 Club again at some point this year. But I'm proud of what it was and I'll always look back on it as a time when I experienced a huge amount of growth as a performer and a person.
By Charlie Vero-Martin
10th October 2018