London-based theatre company On the Button gives a voice to those that go unheard. In Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka, which is touring Scotland as part of SMHAF, they use that voice to take on the challenges of overcoming anxiety.
In the fourth of a series of conversations with theatre-makers at this year’s festival, Mabli Godden talks to co-founder and performer Sophie Winter about the challenges of addressing her own anxiety, the under-representation of mental health and a deep, deep love of Anneka Rice.
Your company, On the Button, aim to tell stories that don’t often get a voice. Do you feel that stories about anxiety disorder are under-represented?
Well it’s an interesting one because we’ve been working on this project, on and off now, for about three years. I think even three years ago I felt like mental health generally was quite under-represented, both in the arts and in the public eye. Anxiety is one of the biggest mental health problems that we have in the UK, if not the world, and it’s a disorder that can quite easily just be seen as “oh I’m just a bit stressed” or “oh I’m fine I’ll be able to deal with it”. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily talk about it.
I’ve had anxiety since I was about 16 and it sort of came and went in different forms and took on different forms throughout my life. It was only when I started to talk about it that other people started to talk about it as well. I would discuss it with friends and family and other artists as well. At the time, when I had it, I felt very lonely and didn’t really understand what I had. When I was diagnosed with it, it all started to make sense but I still felt quite lonely in that and quite embarrassed to be talking about it and then decided “I need to kind of deal with it” and the best way I could deal with it was to make a show about it.
I think in terms of the work we do, yeah, our focus is on telling stories that are not told or not heard and we felt at the time that mental health problems were something that were not talked about as much, which is why we focussed on it. And I think that now people are starting to be more aware of it and it’s certainly becoming more on the government’s agenda, thankfully. Slowly it’s becoming something that people are definitely talking about more.
Part of the reason you made the show was to address your own anxiety. Was it challenging to tackle your own mental health in such a public way?
Yeah, it was really tough actually. When we first did it we did a little scratch performance at Battersea Arts Centre in London, and I kind of played myself, I realised that that, actually, it was really hard to do, because I was in the middle of dealing with my anxiety, I think at that point I was still having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for my anxiety, so it felt all very raw. So I made sure I played a character who was fairly different to myself and we distanced her from myself. There were times when we were doing research on it, partly by talking to other people with mental health problems, and it became a bit too much. I had to be really careful to make sure to distance myself and make sure there was a character in place to kind of make me safer. And Ben, who was directing me, also made sure there were lots of things in place to make me safe. You’re unearthing loads of stuff that is really difficult. I felt safe because I was playing this character, it helped, but it was tough.
What was it that drew you to the game show format, and Challenge Anneka as a particular example?
When I was younger I really loved Challenge Anneka. It was part of the hallowed time of Saturday night TV, really safe, and I’d be allowed to stay up late and watch it. I used to really love Anneka Rice, I thought she was an amazing woman who could just do seemingly impossible tasks and do it with such grace and kindness and fun. I just totally idolised her and loved everything about her and kind of wanted to be her
My life, at the time I was making this show, was quite hectic, I had a lot on and I would be cycling all over the place and just doing a bit of work here and then teaching here and just working on shows. I was trying to fit so much into my day because I felt like that was what I needed to do to keep busy, because then I won’t have to think about my anxiety too much. I started to think of myself as a little bit like Anneka Rice in that I was kind of trying to achieve the almost impossible on a day to day basis, I kind of felt the manicness of how I was working, and how I was running myself into the ground, felt a little like the manicness that Challenge Anneka was.
Did you know what form it was going to take when you first went in to rehearsals and started to devise?
No, not really. When we started to devise it, we knew we wanted the character of Holly to play Anneka and the idea was that Holly would get Anneka to help her fix her anxiety. But then the narrative took the turn where we followed the basic structure of CBT. The way that CBT works is that it’s a clear programme where you go from recognising your fears and anxiety to being able to face them, so there’s about five or six steps that we based the show on and it goes through an arc naturally following the CBT. We also followed the idea of the game show in that Anneka brings in a lot of people to try and help Holly and try to understand [her anxiety] so that by the end of the programme the idea is that she’s been fixed, although it’s not necessarily Anneka that’s done that, it’s Holly herself.
Interview by Mabli Godden
Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka will be touring to Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (Fri 11 May), Paisley Arts Centre (Sat 12 May), Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling (Thu 17 May), The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (Sat 19 May).