Arts lead Andrew Eaton-Lewis speaks to Debbie Robbins of A Blank Canvas about In Her Shadows. The piece is touring Scotland as part of the Festival from 22 Sep – 23 Oct. 

A striking new piece of aerial and physical theatre, with a memorable musical score, In Her Shadows would do any arts festival proud. It is, however, a particularly good fit for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, since its subject is aerial performer Debbie Robbins’ battle with depression.

That hadn’t been the plan. For a while, Robbins explains, the show had no story at all, and was purely an exercise in combining her performance style with that of fellow aerial performer Rachael Macintyre, with whom she had just started collaborating. “Rachael comes from a puppetry background so that got us talking about working with shadow and projections, the idea that we would work with shadow and light,” Robbins explains. “Then we went into development at North Edinburgh Arts Centre and it was during that time that I had this scary surreal moment of…. I understand why everything is on this set. What have I done?”

As it turned out, Robbins had been channeling years of psychological trauma into her work, but subconsciously. She had started training as an aerial performer following a period of depression triggered by a long and painful family conflict – it was, she would later realise, a form of therapy. “My counsellor was an art therapist so she was getting me to work with drawing and pictures but I felt it wasn’t my outlet; aerial training was a form of expression for me. When I was learning tricks I was naturally putting my story into them without realising it.” She remembers telling her counselor that she felt she needed something bigger to work with than a pencil and paper – a big, blank canvas to express herself on. A Blank Canvas became the name of her company. Years later, the set of In Her Shadows is, quite literally, an enormous blank white canvas on which images – animation, film, text, the contents of its character’s head – are projected. It is, in a sense, Robbins’ mind on a stage.

When she realised how much of herself had ended up in the show, she says, “I was mortified. Why have I done this to myself? I don’t want to tell this story.” Once she’d reconciled herself to this, though, she knew what she had to do. 

“It’s been a real journey,” says Macintyre. “When I was growing up depression wasn’t something I knew much about so it’s been really interesting trying to transform Debbie’s story into this show. And we’ve had a lot of people coming up to talk to us about depression. It’s obviously triggered something.”

To help them give shape to the story, Robbins and Macintyre approached theatre director Cora Bissett, creator of Glasgow Girls and Roadkill, who had experience of combining different art forms with strong storytelling, through shows like Grit, her tribute to Martyn Bennett, and Whatever Gets You Through The Night. “Mental illness is a very amorphous kind of condition and I think that’s why we find it so hard to talk about and to live with,” says Bissett. “Depression is very different for everyone and I felt the physicality of In Her Shadows kind of allowed for that kind of ambiguity, it’s not a play with lots of words that debate what is happening. Sometimes there’s no reason for depression, so it opens it wider. People I know have said to me, ‘I’m just feeling black today, there isn’t a reason, you haven’t done anything, that’s just where the chemicals in my brain have gone today.’ I hope that there’s enough space in the show to allow everyone to bring their own experiences to it.”

The show does include one powerful piece of text, however – a poem by Jenny Lindsay called Today, in which the Scottish performance poet (and co-creator of popular cabaret night Rally & Broad) describes her own experience of depression. Lindsay first performed the poem at The Dust of Everyday Life, a conference organised by the Mental Health Foundation earlier this year at the CCA in Glasgow. Bissett was also speaking at the conference (alongside the Mental Health Foundation’s Amal Azzudin, one of the Glasgow Girls whose campaign against dawn raids had inspired her musical of the same name). Lindsay’s poem, she says, “moved me to tears”.

“We were working purely with physicality in this story, we had no words in it at all,” she says. “I think for a large part of the piece that’s a great choice and hopefully people will connect with those visceral things – the ascension, the feeling of release, the feeling of being trapped and spun. But then I saw Jenny performing that fantastic poem and I was just in that headspace of thinking we need something that gives us a hook, that clarifies, or lets the audience think ‘I know what this is all about.’ And I just thought, that poem is what we need, she has just summed up in eight minutes the entire journey. So I brought it back to the girls and they loved it.”

If depression is different for everyone, it’s an inspired idea to show two women processing their very personal experiences of it, in their own way, simultaneously, as Robbins and Macintyre perform a silent physical routine choreographed to Lindsay’s evocative and poignant poem at the climax of the show. Robbins describes how, when teaching pilates, she has found that her clients won’t always admit how much pain they are in “because they want to be fine”. Their bodies, though, tell a different story. “The body’s always genuine, it never lies and it’s pure. So that’s my language.” This, perhaps, is why it took so long for In Her Shadows’ subject to reveal itself – Robbins’ body understood what the show was about before her mind did. Jenny Lindsay’s poem, in articulating what depression can feel like so vividly and with such self-awareness, seems to echo that moment of mental clarity.

That said, the poem – inspired by medical questionnaires that ask patients to describe how depressed they feel on a scale of one to ten – is also about how reductive it can be to try to put experience of mental illness into words. It is full of hesitation, contradiction and doubt, and Robbins and Macintyre’s movements reflect this, as they jut back and forth, all the highs and lows of the rest of the show condensed into eight minutes, a physical manifestation of traumatic mood swings. Afterwards I found myself thinking: maybe physical movement can describe depression better than words ever could? Go see In Her Shadows and decide for yourself.

In Her Shadows tours Scotland until 23 October as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. Andrew Eaton-Lewis will host post-show discussions with Debbie Robbins, Rachael Macintyre and other members of the creative team at the Traverse on 8 October, Platform, Easterhouse on 20 October and Dundee Rep on 23 October.