Amy Conway

Amy Conway is a theatre-maker, actor, playwright, facilitator, trained clown and creator of Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World, a solo theatre show in which she explored her experiences of depression, and volunteering as a Samaritan, alongside her love of computer games.  

Following an early work in progress sharing as part of the 2016 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, Super Awesome World went on to a successful run at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, where it was one of the first shows to be nominated for the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Fringe Award.

We interviewed Amy in December 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

How do you look back on Super Awesome World now?

I guess, as you do with a lot of these past projects, not exactly with cringe, because I am still proud of that piece of work, but with the hindsight of wisdom and experience, going there’s so much I’d yet to learn about theatre making, about autobiographical work, and about dealing with depression or mental health as a subject matter. So I can sort of look kindly on it – like, ‘you weren’t to know.’ Also it felt like it was made in a time, in 2015, when the conversations about mental health were happening but it just feels like we’ve come a million miles since then. It was a different landscape.

That’s really interesting. I’d like to come back to that, but do you remember what your intentions were at the time? 

I was trying to find my voice as a maker. I wanted to make my own work, you know, having come from training as being an actor. And I was told to write what you know, and I’d also had one of the hardest challenges of my life, which was overcoming a period of depression, and I wanted to turn that into something creative. 

And so it was for me, but it was also about wanting to see my story represented, and wanting a show that was not depressing. I felt like I had seen some work about mental health that had just been a little bit po-faced, a little bit serious. You know, no offence to those makers, because you have to make whatever you feel you need to make, but I needed something I could resonate with that also acknowledged that people that have chronic mental health conditions are multifaceted and can play games and have fun, which is where the gaming angle came in. 

I remember thinking that was a clever idea because it was counterintuitive. There was perhaps an expectation that you were going to talk about how addictive computer games and you wrong-footed people in a really interesting way. 

Yeah, that was delightful. We got just as many non-gamers (in the audience) as we got gamers, if not more, who I hope had their minds changed about the idea of play and gaming as time that isn’t productive. Maybe their minds were changed about that, as well as being changed about, you know, who can experience feelings of depression or poor mental health.

And the show did very well, with an Edinburgh Fringe run in 2017 which was very well received. 

Yeah, yeah. I think that was a huge relief for me, because I poured my whole self into this thing. I mean, there was maybe a degree of removal, and then there’s always a stage persona you play, even in autobiographical pieces, but it still was me putting myself out there on stage and I think if it had been received badly, especially somewhere at the Fringe where I was mostly on my own for a lot of time. I don’t know how I would have coped with that. So the fact that people understood what it was trying to achieve, and then being critically…. I hate that I need that in any way to get a sense of validation, but yeah, reviews were favourable and that meant a lot to me.

Do you think, looking back, you understood what you were doing in terms of putting yourself in a vulnerable position?

I don’t think so, no. I’d done a bit of autobiographical stuff before and with anything autobiographical, you can, if you’re not careful, end up conflating someone failing to connect with the work as a rejection of you as a person. It’s difficult to separate the work from the self. And when you talk about mental health, you’re talking about lots of things, but it’s the darkest, you know, the dark night of the soul. And that’s probably one of the most difficult things to share with people. The fact that I had collaborators meant everything, you know. I have a memory of making a show for Buzzcut almost entirely on my own. I really didn’t ask for any help at that point. And that was an absolute mistake. And I did not have a good experience with that.

This was before Super Awesome World?

Yeah, that was 2014. And it was a huge leap of faith for me, but because I didn’t have any money for that and I couldn’t afford to pay anyone, I decided to do everything myself, and it really was not good for my mental health. But in this (Super Awesome World) we did have some partners with this show, although it never received Creative Scotland funding, which I think is a key thing, a lot of it was fundraised off the back of some opportunities that supported emerging artists, and obviously SMHAF stepped in to support a work in progress and other artistic development. But yeah, having other people there was absolutely key, and the fact that they seemed to understand the story I was wanting to tell, and what we were trying to achieve. That, and my partnership with Rob Jones, we were such a great collaboration, makes you feel validated and affirmed as an artist and person. And Sarah Wilson also stepped in as a producer for the Fringe, and she worked very closely with me. 

But, you know, everybody was doing more than they were getting paid for, it was a lot of free labour. So it’s people’s generosity and kindness that you’re kind of relying on, without the structure of everybody actually receiving a wage that supports them as individuals to do that job. And I don’t think even those collaborators understood, at that time, the toll that doing a piece about such a personal topic can take. 

I mean, it was fortunate that I did find it incredibly therapeutic in the end. Ultimately I think that show really helped me, because I wanted to be seen and heard, and I wanted lived experience of depression to be given a platform. And that’s what it does. So I felt useful in that sense, and that I had a sense of purpose. But yeah, looking back, there’s so much more we could have done to hold that space.

What would you have done differently now?

So I’m starting to bring in experiences I’ve had since then. I made a project during lockdown, with Scissor Kick, we got Creative Scotland project funding to work with some artists during lockdown and support them to make a personal response to what was going on then. And I made a podcast about loneliness. Again, I was choosing a topic that was very close to the bone for me because I was living alone during lockdown. And Scissor Kick factored in, after some discussion, some therapy for me. And that wasn’t the first therapy I’d had, but it was an enormous financial benefit to be able to do that, in conjunction with making the work. And that just seems like such an obvious thing, you know, like that should be factored into all budgets. I think everybody would benefit from therapy all the time. To have it kind of legitimised and formalised by a producer, and Stephanie Katie Hunter is a very talented producer for Scissor Kick. We didn’t have the resources at the time (for Super Awesome World), but I absolutely would do that again and I would recommend that artists do that.

I think in terms of trying to formalise some sort of…. You know (people started doing) artist check ins in 2016, 2017, but I think people didn’t really know what they were doing with them. They were like, ‘well, we just ask people to spill the beans on everything they’re feeling at that moment in time, then we just continue to work and warm up, even if something has been disclosed’. And I think there’s been a bit more of a growth from that initial, ‘Oh, great. Well, we’re going to offer a space where people can disclose if they’re not okay.’ And I like the equity of everyone doing it, but that continues to have a question mark over it, as to how best to do it? 

It’s giving you permission to say whatever you need to say, but also I think a company or director or facilitator has to have full transparency as to their limitations are and what they can offer. So that was a key thing during Super Awesome World. Everybody had the best will in the world to be able to be that, like, mammoth level of support for someone if a crisis was to happen, but they didn’t necessarily acknowledge their lack of qualification or capacity to do that in a safe way. I think it’s okay to say we can’t support you in this grand, overarching way, but maybe we can offer… it’s like negotiating what they can offer.

Obviously without referring to names or particular situations, have you personally experienced check ins which didn’t do what they needed to do?

Yeah. And not necessarily just from my perspective. I’ve seen other people say things that are really upsetting them and then it’s just so jarring to then go, ‘well, look, we’re running out of time, you know, we spent half an hour baring our souls, so we have to get on’ and then it’s like that person has exposed themselves in a way they could feel might be detrimental to them. Because it could create an awkward atmosphere, whether they project that onto it or not, just a sense of, ‘Oh, no, everybody thinks that I am sometimes not able to do the job or something, because I’ve said I’m struggling in this way.’ And then it’s like the professional and the personal hats get mixed up. And because you’ve got the peer pressure of going around the circle and saying how you feel, you’re trying to be as authentic as possible about your feelings, you might have felt that you’ve lost some power or respect.

And again, I think everyone has good intentions. But I feel like when I did Super Awesome World I really didn’t have a sense of how boundaries can support a situation or a creative process. And now I’m starting to realise that boundaries are good. And you don’t want it to lead to anyone’s censorship. But also it’s fine to have different personas, you know, a professional persona and a personal persona, and it is so hard when the personal is in the work. But I think, since I’ve made Super Awesome World…  I don’t know whether I can articulate exactly what it is, but I feel there is more of a boundary between my personal self and my professional self.

That makes sense. Are there examples of times during performances of Super Awesome World, or engaging with audiences, where you were aware of setting boundaries, or not setting enough boundaries? One thing I hear from a lot of people who make very personal work about their mental health is that, after the show, people really want to talk to them. And that can be great but also quite overwhelming. How was that experience for you?

The thing about Super Awesome World is I said, ‘I’m a Samaritan’ and that was kind of me saying, ‘I have the capacity to support you.’ So there was a double whammy of people saying that they can relate to my experience, but also saying, ‘oh, look, this is someone that is empathetic and kind and is an active listener.’ So I maybe made my own rope to hang myself with or whatever the expression is. And I think it was lucky that I was pretty mentally strong for the majority of Super Awesome World, but then I did things like put my email address at the bottom of programmes and say, email me if you want to talk more about this. And that was a mistake, giving out personal information.

And did people do that?

Yes, and I had some beautiful correspondences. But that was work that I didn’t need to do. I did it because I wanted to, and there was a little bit of the sense of when people say how much they connected with the show my ego gets stroked. So you know, I was definitely coming from that perspective as well but ten feeling the sense of responsibility, of course, when that person has disclosed maybe even suicidal feelings. And all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Oh, well, I know your personal details now.’ And that, yeah, that’s the hardest situation. 

After the show, I sort of did hang around. I only had ten minute conversations. There were a few people I had to comfort and the thing is that at the Fringe it was impossible, because of the time pressure, and then my technician and the producer had to go off to their next shows, they were all working five different shows, so I was often left on my own to deal with that. And it’s too much for one person, even if you have training in how to hold a conversation. It’s different when you’re seeing them face to face, and when they feel like they know you. I think then maybe people share too much. And I’ve done this with other artists after their show that I’ve been so moved by that I just stood in front of them and cried. And I don’t think that was good for me. And I don’t think it was necessarily good for them. Being available after the show is another tricky one that I have a big question mark over.

It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Because the mark of a successful show, particularly that kind of one person, autobiographical show, is that it makes the audience feel like they know you. If you’ve done that, if you’ve made this connection between you and the audience, then it’s a successful show, right? But then you’re obviously putting yourself in a position where people feel some sort of entitlement to come and talk to you as a friend. 

But I was looking for connection at that time. And it is a double edged sword.

Of course. I think a lot of people making these shows are looking for connection and that’s perfectly reasonable. But you said at the start that the way we talk about mental health now is different and that Super Awesome World feels like a show from another time. Can you talk a bit more about that? 

Well, okay, so I think the main thing I’d say about the culture of mental health is that we are realising that it is all encompassing and the crossover with everything… what’s the word when something is ever present?

Omnipresent?

Ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. And I don’t think I’ve made a work since then that is explicitly about a mental health condition, but it has a presence in all of my work. And maybe I needed to make the work that was explicitly about it… although, in a sense, Super Awesome World never used the word depression so it wasn’t explicit. I was trying to say, without pathologising dark thoughts and struggling with being in the world – which there’s now crossover with, maybe, neurodiversity as well, you know, like, maybe that sense of not belonging, and not quite being able to connect with people can spill over into that, and then people that are realising they’re neurodiverse are like, oh, that’s why I was I was suffering from mental health. Because I wasn’t accepting myself for being a different way. 

Young people are so much better at talking about it. I don’t know the statistics but mental ill health is such a problem, it seems like all young people have anxiety and stuff. But from my perspective, and from the perspective of speaking to people on the phones at that age, quite frequently, they have a much better awareness, and a name for it, finally, a name for… you know, I think feelings of anxiety are probably universal, but whether it comes to a point where you need support with that, through medication, or through therapy (which is) a great avenue for anyone, I just don’t believe anyone who says ‘Nope, never been anxious’. Yeah. so Super Awesome World was always geared towards trying to get everyone to stand up to say ‘yeah me too, I’ve experienced this’ even if I would never identify as having mental ill health.’ But I suppose the thing is we all have mental health. And I just want to weave that into everything that I’ve done. 

And actually the thing that I’m working on just now is about hormonal well-being, about the menstrual cycle, something which is a massive change on my mental health journey. I’m just like, ‘Oh, my God, my hormones are so responsible for the way I feel today.’ But, you know, like I recognise those symptoms of depression, I also know that it’s because my oestrogen is incredibly low. And I just feel like our understanding will probably be in a completely different place in ten years’ time as well. 

Can you say a bit more about this new project?

It’s called Blood Moon. We did a community version of the project which was part of the research, where we asked a lot of a lot of menstruators about their cycle and their experience. One was menopausal, so it was the full spectrum, the full gamut of experience. And then we formed a wolf pack and howled at the Moon. So it was kind of a bit of a reverse werewolf story. And now I’m exploring the solo part of that at a Surge residency. So I’m kind of thinking a lot about period awareness, which is something that has only come about in the last five years; all of my fellow bleeders are reading the books and going, ‘I’m in the autumn of my cycle now and this means this’, and that’s enormously helpful to my relationship to my mental health. And so again, it’s like I’m not explicitly exploring mental health through this project, but it feels like that is so present.

Okay. Some general questions. What would you say to an artist who wants to make a piece of work about their mental health?

I feel like this has happened quite recently. Because, you know, I wonder whether it is still quite common … I feel like I come across a lot of younger artists, or artists that are at an earlier stage in their career, and they want to make a piece of work about their mental health because they did exactly what I did, which was, ‘I’ll write what I know. and I’ll write what is the most powerful thing to me’. And, obviously, it means a hell of a lot. And I would say, at what stage are you? Where is your mental health at now? And what support are you receiving for it? Is this lived experience from the past? Do you feel like you have enough distance from it to look back, not just for your own sanity but as an artist? 

I think any artistic process should have a little bit of space in it, where you maybe have a development period and you can throw anything at the wall, like absolutely, there should be no censorship, and everything is allowed and encouraged. Obviously, hopefully it’s a supportive, safe environment, but then there’s space to look back and go, ‘Okay, what is this I’m trying to make? What do I feel comfortable showing to people? And what is the thing that will serve me and the audience best, but with the artist being the top priority?’ 

In my description as an artist I used to talk a lot about authenticity, and the personal as the universal as my brand. And that’s a hell of a lot of pressure, to say that I basically just needed to be raw. And you know I don’t mince my words, I say what I mean, and it’s for all the world to see, because I’m not ashamed. And 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 I’m working with people in therapeutic drama contexts, that anonymity actually 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?’

What would you say to people who want to programme or support this work? 

They need to, first of all, realise that behind any work about mental health there is a person or multiple people that are vulnerable or have been in a very vulnerable place and have trauma, and take extreme care with that, whilst also respecting them as professionals who have good judgement. And, I think, just asking them what they need, not just at the start but as a project progresses at multiple stages, and maybe accepting that the work might change and giving them permission to change it. Because it has to be a malleable thing in order to best serve everybody.

What additional support would you ideally want to make your work more effectively?

I’ve already said about money for therapy, which is, you know, unrealistic in a lot of funding contexts. But if you’re at the beginning of a project, yeah, put it in your budget. If it’s a project with quite a big team, maybe there’s mental health training that people can do, as a team. Maybe there’s a day that is set aside, just for mental well-being, whether that means bringing in a holistic therapist or a practitioner, and thinking about when that time, when that day, can be strategically placed. You know, maybe after, when you’re generating material, you’re asking people to really dig deep, and then there’s some sort of cathartic debrief for moving away from that headspace, in a kind of supported environment. A lot of the time, what is so hard… to use an example from this year, there wasn’t a way that we could have done this better but the majority of the run of Shrill had to be cancelled because everyone got COVID. We were in one day during the preview, and then we didn’t see each other for two months. And it was awful. 

We did have a Zoom a few weeks down the line but that total severing of a limb when a project ends, can that be looked at?  And again just think about it at the start, you know, because everyone focuses on how to begin a project but they don’t foresee that there might be struggle at the end, and how everyone’s feeling and coping.

That’s something that comes up quite a bit that when you have the kind of group work where people are sharing profoundly difficult things, and then suddenly everyone’s off to do something else.

And that might only affect one person, but don’t leave that person behind.

Yeah, absolutely. One last question- how would you describe the relationship between your mental health and your creative practice?

Inextricably linked? For better or worse, I think. I’m just like, sometimes, ‘stop comparing yourself to other people’ but I look at some other artists and they’re doing what I see as quite fun projects that are maybe less challenging for audiences and just, you know, a good old time. And they fill theatres. And I’m like, ‘why don’t I just make work like that?’ Naming no names! But maybe life would be easier. But then whenever I sit down and create something, I just end up pouring part of myself into it. And as with everybody, it has lightness and a lot of darkness and I can’t help myself but that’s the art I need to make. And in the long term, even on the days when I just hold my head in my hands and go ‘Oh, I’ve just shown a part of myself that feels so exposing’ and I have felt shame because of it, it’s been formative. Because I have confronted my mental health I think it’s in a way saved my life. So, yeah, art as therapy! I can’t thank it enough, the fact that I’ve continued to commit to being creative in my life.