Telling My Story

Autobiographical work about mental health

A performer tells a deeply personal, true story about their own struggle with mental health, in front of a live audience…

This could describe any number of performances created over the past decade, a time in which, as a society, we have become increasingly open to the idea of talking about our mental health. But how do you share very personal mental health experiences with an audience without putting your own mental health at risk? 

“I think, naturally, when we’ve developed new language for things in a cultural way, it becomes really prevalent, especially with something so hidden, so taboo, so unexplored. I think, once you’re allowed to say something, there will always be an explosion of people saying it, because people are like, ‘I didn’t know we were allowed to.’ It’s such a revolution inside people’s minds.”

Bryony Kimmings

Bryony Kimmings is one of the UK’s most high profile live artists; she has made two intensely personal and very successful shows about mental health, Fake It Til You Make It (2015) and I’m a Phoenix, Bitch (2019). The ‘explosion’ she refers to arguably began in August 2015 at the Edinburgh Fringe, a huge international arts festival whose themes often reflect wider cultural shifts. The previous year, comedian Robin Williams had died by suicide, as had well known British theatre-makers Adrian Howells and Ian Smith. As the comedy and theatre industries grieved, shows about mental health began to receive considerably more attention from audiences and the media.

Alongside Kimmings, people performing Edinburgh Fringe shows about depression or anxiety in 2015 included Le Gateau Chocolat with a cabaret show called Black, Brigitte Aphrodite with a musical called My Beautiful Black Dog, and comedians Felicity Ward, Carl Donnelly and Juliette Burton. Mental health has been a prominent theme at the Edinburgh Fringe every year since then.

“Some of it, I think, is to do with the fact that cuts during the age of austerity pushed a lot of people away from making work as a collective and into making solo work, which pushes them into autobiography. And if you are trying to make autobiographical work, and build stories, you’re going to be looking for conflict and trauma, and there is mental health almost immediately. So I think it’s inevitable that when you make a shift to autobiographical work, you are going to find more people talking about trauma and, as such, mental health.”

Selina Thompson

Selina Thompson is one of numerous performers who, since 2015, have expanded the thematic scope of these very personal shows, from anxiety or depression to subjects such as generational trauma rooted in the history of racism and slavery – which Thompson addressed in her 2017 show, salt – or violent intrusive thoughts, as explored in Stammermouth’s 2023 show Choo Choo. Other more recent shows have seen performers address living with autism, or ADHD, as public understanding about neurodivergence has also increased.

There tends to be an assumption that talking publicly about mental health is a positive thing, in that it can reduce isolation and stigma and open up conversations. All of this can be true. But what is the psychological cost for a performer of sharing traumatic personal experiences in front of an audience? And how do you know whether you’re ready, or whether you should do it at all?

“It’s not a rite of passage, making a show. It’s not like ‘I deserve to be heard.’ It’s, ‘why are you doing this?’ There can be 5% of it that’s healing and there has to be 95% of it that does something to an audience, that’s going to do something for the world. Otherwise, why do it?” 

Bryony Kimmings

“The first question is why? Why is this the story you want to tell? Why do you want to tell it now? Why are people coming to hear you tell that story rather than, you know, staying in bed watching Sex and the City re-runs? What is the political purpose of telling it beyond you? I think it’s really important to be specific about who your work is for. Why do they need this? And then the next thing almost immediately is, what care have you put in place for yourself? Because when I first started making work, I did not have the tools and the language. And I feel that I did myself a great deal of harm.”

Selina Thompson

When interviewing the first wave of writer-performers who made very personal shows about mental health, it’s striking to hear them talking about mistakes they made, and the lessons they learned, often through not having enough support in place. 

In 2012, Caroline Horton and production company China Plate made Mess, a show about Horton’s struggle with anorexia. As she developed the show, Horton went to great lengths to consult an expert in eating disorders, as well as other people who had experienced anorexia, but she admits she hadn’t fully considered the impact of performing the show on her own mental health.

“We’d only realised that it could cause problems after we’d done a long run of it. And it was stuff like, bits of my behaviours around food were becoming more problematic, not to the extreme that they had been before, but they were definitely at play again. And I don’t think it’s necessarily that the play caused that, it’s just, I think, I’d been in those behaviours with those various forms of eating disorders for such a long time that choosing to re-enter the story was a risk.”

Caroline Horton

This was especially the case when performing Mess at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Being in Edinburgh, in the pressure cooker that it is, and experiencing people talking about theatre critically where it’s also your story, I hadn’t realised how vulnerable that can make you. So it was after that that we were like, ‘right, if we’re going to tour this show we’ve got to get better at knowing how to,’ because it started to feel like it was unsustainable.”

Caroline Horton

Following her Fringe experience, Horton began working with Lou Platt, a theatre-maker, psychotherapist, and what now tends to be known as a wellbeing practitioner. Platt helped Horton to structure rehearsal processes, and set boundaries when talking about her mental health in public. But it was only through making the show that she learned to do this.

In other words, the risk of making autobiographical work about mental health is that it can be triggering rather than therapeutic. Almost everyone I spoke to stressed the importance of a thorough research and development process, to try out ideas that you may not use but which will allow you to process painful experiences before going public with them. They also recommended asking yourself what you need at every stage of the process. 

“Have you thought about which bits of the process you can hold? And which bits you can’t? Can you work long days? If you can’t, how does that change the length of the process? Are you going to need coaching and counselling? Because the Arts Council can pay for that. Are you going to need to ensure that you write a certain amount of it somewhere where you can look up, look out the window and see green things? Also, the care can’t just be in the process, it has to be in the show. So, what are the bits that are going to feel intense and triggering for you? And how are you going to remind yourself, the performer in that moment, that you are just in a room talking about things, not necessarily experiencing them again? What does it look like to cancel the show? Are you going to be able to tour it? If so, for how long? There are many beautiful, lofty, deeply meaningful reasons why people make art, but if you are making it to get paid, if it’s work, if it’s labour, then you’ve got to make sure you don’t get sick, you’ve got to honour your body and mind as tools that you work with that must not be harmed as much as possible.”

Selina Thompson

“I think if you’re really taking it seriously, and you want to make a great piece of art that does something to an audience, you almost have to take your own experience outside of your body and in your hand and turn it around and look at it with a really pragmatic and almost forensic eye. You need to be able to be objective about your experience. And if you can’t be objective about it, I would say that’s when you know you’re not ready.”

Bryony Kimmings

It’s perhaps questionable whether the objectivity Bryony Kimmings talks about here is entirely possible, given that traumatic experiences are rarely left behind completely. Time though, can help.

“I think it’s very important that you’re making art from a scar but not an open wound. So it was important to me that I was only sharing stories that I had been through in therapy and talked to enough people about, and wasn’t something that was actively causing me distress anymore.”

Sinead O’Brien

Sinead O’Brien is the creator of No One is Coming, a 2023 show in which the Irish storyteller describes growing up with a family member with severe mental illness. O’Brien was able to make this show, she says, because the events she describes in it happened over a decade ago, and she had already discussed them at length in therapy. Also, around half of the show consists of Irish folk tales which mirror O’Brien’s childhood experiences rather than directly describing them.

“For me, it makes sense in that it creates the atmosphere of my experience as a small kid, where I didn’t understand what was happening. You would go to school and everything was normal, and you’d come home and something had happened. It’s like in a dream with a dream logic when someone is, you know, not well…. So that’s where the idea came of having it kind of jolt from personal story to mythology, because it was   this feeling that suddenly something changed, and we find ourselves in completely different worlds. While it doesn’t make logical sense, why it goes from one to the other, emotionally it feels very similar to that experience of living with someone where, at any moment, having a normal conversation suddenly takes you somewhere that you really didn’t expect.”

Sinead O’Brien

Nye Russell-Thompson does something similar with Choo Choo, a show inspired by his own experiences of living with intrusive thoughts, for which his company StammerMouth won the Mental Health Foundation Fringe Award at the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe. 

“I think you start from a comfort level, from what do you want to talk about, how much of your experience, varying levels from okay to traumatic, just ensuring that the person who’s making it is not going to expose themselves too much on stage in front of potentially hundreds of people.”

Nye Russell-Thompson

Choo Choo is presented as a playful parody of children’s television shows which gradually becomes something darker.

“I think, at least for me, it has to be a mix of truthful elements packaged and wrapped up in something more akin to caricature or character. In the example of Choo Choo, that being sort of safe, semi-autobiographical performance, it’s bright, it’s fun, and it’s silly. So you can still have that distance as a performer because there’s other things to focus on.”

Nye Russell-Thompson

In short, the style of a performance can be crucial in allowing a performer to put a safe distance between themselves and the material. It might also help address a concern that director and playwright Julia Taudevin raised with me during our interview, about this move towards heavily autobiographical performance work.

“I think that there’s a sector-wide obsession with prioritising the individual story, as opposed to storytelling. So prioritising the story of the individual and platforming voices we’ve not heard before, which necessarily asks them to re-traumatise themselves, if their story is traumatic, which generally, if they are people of colour, or women or gender minority, they will have trauma, their story will be rooted in trauma. So we’re part of this sort of industry wide – probably global wide – push to tell your own personal story. But as a sector we’re not teaching craft. We’re not teaching character. We’re not teaching story structure. We’re not teaching resilience, wellbeing. You know, we’re just saying, give us yourself, and we might put you in the spotlight. And if that doesn’t go so well, oops, we’ll go to someone else. And sorry. I hope you’re okay. But if that does go well, great, well, we’ll keep doing this.”

Julia Taudevin

The final word goes to Amy Conway, whose 2016 autobiographical solo show, Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World, explored her experiences of depression, but in the style of a computer game. The show was popular with audiences and critics; however Conway now has mixed feelings about how direct and personal it was.

“I think it’s okay to not be ready to talk about something, it’s okay to talk about it through metaphor. That’s something that I’m realising now, working with people in therapeutic drama contexts, that anonymity can be your friend. That’s not to say that the raw, incredibly, exposing shows can’t exist. But I just have to question like, ‘do you have good collaborators that are funded and have the resources to hold this experience and hold this story?'”

Amy Conway