Bryony Kimmings: Part Two

Bryony Kimmings is one of the UK’s most successful live artists, as well as working as a teacher, a mentor, and a writer of films and musicals. She has made two shows that explicitly address mental health, both of which have been critically acclaimed and influential. 

The first, Fake It Til You Make It (2015), was a show about men’s reluctance to talk about mental health, made in collaboration with Bryony’s then partner, Tim Grayburn, who she discovered was secretly living with clinical depression after she found a hidden box of pills. The show, in which he shares his experiences of depression, was the first time Tim had ever performed on stage.

While Bryony and Tim were performing the show, Bryony became pregnant with their son, Frank. A few months after he was born, Frank became seriously ill and Bryony’s relationship with Tim came to an end, while Bryony herself endured post-natal depression. She would ultimately tell the story of this time – which she describes as the worst year of her life – in her solo show I’m a Phoenix, Bitch (premiered in 2018).

Over two days in November 2023, Bryony spoke frankly and at length to Andrew Eaton-Lewis, arts programme officer for the Mental Health Foundation, about the experience of making both shows, the effect it had on her own mental health, and what she learned from it all.

Part Two: I’m A Phoenix, Bitch

We’ve talked a bit already about what happened after you made Fake It Til You Make It – your son Frank becoming seriously ill, breaking up with your partner Tim, and your own mental health struggles during this time. At what point did you begin to think you might turn these experiences into a show?

Honestly, the first thing that happened when I posted online that I was having to cancel Fake It Til You Make It gigs, that we were really struggling with our boy – that was in 2016, the year that it all fell apart – somebody, some f***ing c***, excuse my language, wrote, ‘well, at least you’ll get a good show out of it’. Underneath (my saying that ) ‘my life is falling apart and my child is in hospital’. And I was just like, wow, I’ve kind of asked for that, I suppose – as in, if you’re going to be the person that writes about their life, then people will be that insensitive, to say, well, the least you’ll get some material out of it. 

At the time it just felt like, why would I ever talk about this? This has nothing to do with anybody else. And then, I guess, as all things traumatic do die down and, you know, in the patchwork and tapestry of life you have a bit of rest, you have a bit of quietness, and in that big mental couple of years, I made A Pacifist’s Guide to The War on Cancer, which was such a mistake, now I think about it, I should have just been hiding and soothing. But then, when the dust had settled, and I felt well again, and Frank was not dead, and you know, the future wasn’t certain, but at least it was… it was different, but it was okay. I had so many new radical thoughts about being a person, that change of being a mother, being a mother of a disabled child, being a single mother, all of those things. 

And I was angry. I was angry at the fact that I wasn’t ready for that kind of trauma. I think I was angry at the fact that nobody can prepare you. I was angry with myself for not being able to imagine that something bad could happen. And I was angry at all those people around me that had been like, ‘this is going to be the making of you, having a baby. Oh, it’s going to be so beautiful, how’s baby?’ and not asking how mum is. And I was angry at Tim for not supporting me and understanding that it was very different  for me than it was for him. Or, you know, there was a lot of anger about what I’d been sold. I had chats with a lot of women who’d had postnatal depression or psychosis. And I suppose what happened was what always happens with me which is, oh, this is a subject we don’t talk about. And it was like, well, if I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be an artist anymore, you know, I was really not sure. I’d had a terrible experience working on the musical because it was just so overwhelming. And I thought, well, I can’t go from an 18 person musical back to just a solo show, it felt like I’d failed to grow in the way that perhaps artists were meant to, been given this amazing opportunity. I was just so deflated by it. But then I also knew that if I didn’t talk about it, then I wasn’t using my skill or job in the way that I’d always dedicated myself to doing, you know? I was like, I must speak about this because every time I do another person holds my hand and says I know and thank you. And it was really difficult to decide whether to do it, whether I was ready – and it was a long old process. I was always weighing up, is this for me? Is it too much? Is this necessary? Like do we need to talk?

I always put a question into my work. What’s the question I’m trying to answer? And this one was, how do I turn the worst thing in my life, the worst things that ever happened to me, into something hopeful and positive that can look and set a flame and still fly? And I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a Phoenix, that I could find myself again. And so yeah, it just slowly but surely, in the years after that happened, I realised it was important that it was hard to make that decision. I didn’t take it lightly, you know. Yeah.

At the beginning of the show you make a point of reassuring the audience that, even though youre telling this very personal, traumatic story, they can watch the show without worrying about you, that you’re an experienced professional performer. Can you talk about why you chose to start the show that way?

I think every show I’ve ever made starts with ‘Hi, I’m Bryony Kimmings, and this is a little bit about me, so you can at least know who I am. I like birds. I’m an avid ornithologist. I’m a sexual f***up, or whatever it is. And so they’ve always begun like that, ‘this is what you’re here to see’.  And I think that’s an insecurity thing, so it’s sort of to reassure the audience that I’m a normal human being, and that there’s something that’s about to happen. I’m fully aware of my own fallibility, I suppose. But also I think it was about this time, maybe a bit before this, when (performer and teacher) Brian Lobel had made me really aware of the word triggered, ‘I’m triggered, I’m triggered’, and I’d never heard it before. 

And of course, now you see things on Instagram where it immediately says ‘trigger warning’, and I just… we used it a bit in the cancer show (A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer) as well, when you’re talking about things that other people may find their own trauma in. And I think the words (in I’m a Phoenix, Bitch) were something like ‘this is a story of the worst year of my life. I lost my mind, I lost my partner, I lost my home and I very nearly lost my son.’ And so then acknowledging, ‘this is a heavy show’. Like this is something that’s like, ‘it’s not a f***ing walk in the park by any means. But then it feels like, okay, well, it felt like a consideration – why do I need to talk about this? Why do we need to talk about it? It always feels like I need to justify why it’s important. It’s not just that I need to get this off my chest. It’s, ‘if I tell you this, maybe you’ll be better prepared for if it happened to you’. 

I think it was really because it is concerning a child, you know. I’ve watched many things, film particularly, where it’s so horrible to watch. There was no part of me that wanted people to wonder whether my child was dead or not, you know that kind of suspension of knowledge that there was gonna be some sucker punch. Because it was nothing about that. It was about how one can become untethered from one’s own sanity. It wasn’t a show about grief, it was a show about becoming yourself. So I think I really needed to sort of say, ‘I’m okay. This isn’t traumatising me, so I’m safe, you’re safe. Because I’m a professional performer who’s gone through all of the therapy that I need to go through to just stand here to be able to tell the story. So it was kind of like, he’s not gonna die, he’s alive, and he’s really thriving, so we’ll get that out of the way. So you didn’t spend a lot of time going ‘Is he alive?’ Because that wasn’t the point. So I needed to get it out of the way because I didn’t want people to sit there worrying and wincing ready for the punch, you know, it was more like a need to tell you that we’re all right. Because then you won’t worry about that the whole time. 

But also, I’d already seen too many shows where I didn’t feel safe as the audience and not so much from my own trauma but the level of concern I felt for somebody on stage had been so overpowering that I couldn’t take anything from the show because I was too busy worrying whether or not that person was actually all right. It’s a pretty uncomfortable place to sit in as an audience member, some shows. That’s the point of them. And I’m happy to see those shows if it’s sort of been thought about, but when it felt when I’d seen something, like I wasn’t actually sure if this was good for the person, it just clouded any possible other take home than ‘hun are you all right?’ And I have a really clear thing that I want to do to my audience by the end. I have a really clear trajectory of where they might arrive, how they might arrive feeling ‘I wish I had gone for pizza’, all the way through to you know, something really kind of profound happening to them. 

And it felt like in the way of that particular trajectory would have been worrying about me or worrying about whether I was mentally well, or if they were sort of complicit in some kind of undoing of me, which is not, you know, very respectful of my audience. So it just felt so important to state it. When I’m writing stuff, it always just normally comes from a need. I have this idea where I’m going to make everyone feel safe, it’s normally like, I think right now people will need to know that they’re safe. So then I’ll write that particular part. And I’m always trying to put myself in the position of the audience looking at the show and thinking, what do they need right now? What do they need to hear? What part of information do they need to understand how we move into the next part? So yeah, trying to sort of be the viewer, as well as being the artist, is always kind of at the heart of me trying to figure out what to do next. 

In the show you refer to conversations with your therapist. Could you talk a bit about that, and how those sessions shaped your thinking about the show?

In the show I talk about rewind therapy, which is a particular type of therapy you do, where you it’s a bit like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), it works in a similar way where you reprogram the memories in your brain to not be quite so traumatic. You know, like, if you’re in a state of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which is what I’d had, you’re derailed by traumatic memories, which cause a trauma response. And I knew that that was what was happening straightaway, because I felt like I was in the hospital again with him or I felt I felt that feeling or the memory of a feeling. The rewind therapy was very brief. And it wasn’t actually the most healing thing I did. But it would it what it did as a device for the show. Was it contextualised an idea I had about what I would call? Well, I suppose we call them tropes a lot when we were making the show, like, what kind of woman are you?

There’s a lot of sort of, like, am I the mad woman at the window with the telephone in the 1950s? Am I the mother who breathes her baby out without a sound? Am I the alluring sex goddess who traps men into her web and then makes them in pregnant her like, all of these different versions of a woman that I that I felt like I was always putting on, you know, before this stuff happened, I was never quite sure who I was, what I was meant to be doing. And that idea of rewind therapy of watching something on a screen one step removed from oneself, felt like a very good holding device for having a camera on stage and trying to figure out which version of yourself you are and still are and want to be. 

But therapy wise, in the real world rewind therapy was a three session, take the edge off, PTSD, that worked very, very well. Three memories are replayed, you replay them so much that you create a new plasticity in your brain and your brain is able to go to that memory without you having a full panic attack. But underneath in terms of therapy, as soon as Frank got ill, I was in weekly therapy and always looking for ways to heal. I mean, I started weightlifting as therapy, you know, like it wasn’t just talk sitting and talking. It was like, daily practice and exercise and friendships that had to change, you know, lots of sorts of therapy in terms of self-care.

How long were you in therapy for?

I changed therapists midway. I opened the show at BAC (Battersea Arts Centre) and then I moved to Brighton, then I found a new therapist. And that therapist was who helped me the most. I was quite derailed by the making of Phoenix and then the performing of Phoenix every day, and I knew I had to do another run, and that I would then go to Australia. And I’d then, you know, want to tour this show. And that therapist I found, weirdly, because I’d left Tim for the second time, I’d moved home with my mother. And that was I think when I was like, okay, it’s over. That period of time is over. And I think that was when we started to really think we’re gonna make this show.

And then I was cycling and exercising and lifting weights and not drinking, and I had my mum there. And I was living back in my childhood home in the Fens, and everything had kind of gone back to the beginning, in a way, but I had this beautiful baby. And I was listening to the Blindboy podcast, and he did this amazing three part series about transactional analysis, the idea of there being a child, a parent and an adult within all of us, and our scripts are written before we’re five. And whatever those scripts are, we spend the rest of our life replicating and seeking out that script. And it was so profound to me that I sought out a transactional analysis therapist, because I’d always felt like the choices I had made throughout my life weren’t coming from a good place, including going out with Tim, you know, lots of things, and it didn’t feel like the trauma is what needed therapy, it was like what needed sorting out was what I think and feel about myself. 

So that therapy lasted until just this year. And the reason I stopped is because I feel like this will go on throughout my whole life, because I’m a massive believer in therapy and in this particular style of therapy you at first notice when you’re in those modes, then you try to change your behaviour in those modes, and then you rarely consult those modes. And I felt like by the time I’d done three years with this wonderful therapist, what every session had become – which is when now I realise you know that you can step back from therapy for a while – was I was reporting back on how well I’d use my transactional analysis, you know. So I said to my therapist, I feel like I need a six month break, so I can see if I’m able to sustain doing this myself, and I have been able to. So I feel like there will always be the need for therapy but I no longer at the moment use it because I’m very mindful of using what I’ve learned on my way of being myself. Do you see what I mean? 

When you did start making the show did you feel youd processed enough of what had happened to you to be able to do it safely? It seems like theres a bit of a grey area here, if you were seeing a therapist once youd already started work on it, to ensure you were able to commit to continue doing it.

It’s an endless question that my students ask me – how do I know if I’m ready? Well, you don’t f***ing know. You don’t know if you’re ready to get married. You don’t know if you’re ready to have a baby. No one ever knows if they’re ready for anything. Maybe a driving test? I think there was a process with this work that made me remember that I really, truly believe in R&D (research and development). Sometimes I’m like, ‘why do I have to R&D something? I know what I want to make. It’s sometimes quite a laborious process. But in this context, and in a mental health context, R&D is really important. I think the first workshop that Tom and I did – Tom is my collaborator that I always work with, Tom Parkinson – it was me and him in a room, and I just cried the entire time, just sobbed in his arms, because I hadn’t had space or time to really, really think about and, in the real world, not just in therapy, allow myself to be angry and sad. And then the material that came out of that week was basically me just smashing up things in front of an audience and screaming, really vitriolic. And it was never going to be that show, but we had to do that rage to realise that there’s nothing worse than somebody out of control and really angry on stage. And then I had six months more of therapy. It’s almost like the material will tell you whether you’re ready or not, I mean, you want to try and make something and if everything is clouded by agony, and it’s painful to even look at the book that you’ve been writing, then you know you’re not ready. 

So in some way, you have to put it into practice. And there is a fine balance between a piece of art being therapy, and for you, like, in a way, part of talking about your life on stage is therapy, and there is an element of it, maybe 5% of it, that should be good for you to actually also be doing this thing. So I think it was almost like, I’m definitely not having panic attacks every day, and I am an artist, so what happens if I dip my toe into this subject? And what happened to me in that first instance, was ‘I need more time’. And then we did another R&D, where I sort of said, you know, what, I’m really interested in not talking about Tim, because it felt really important to kind of remove it. So I think over the course of two years of little pockets of time, I became ready by discovering ‘oh, it’s not a show about that. It’s not a show about that.’

But I think it’s not an easy question to answer. Am I ready? You just have to try to see if you’re ready. That’s not that helpful! But 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 in a really pragmatic and almost forensic way. Nobody likes watching someone slagging someone else off on stage who hasn’t had the right to reply, it’s such a turn off, you have to be able to think of every possible permutation and opinion on the thing you’re talking about, what might happen in the mind of the audience member, so that every eventuality of criticism, and not just criticism in a negative sense, but the deconstruction of something has already been thought about and you are the master of that subject. So until you can look at it subjectively, that right not know what’s the opposite of the self. 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.

One of the things that struck me when watching the show was that it could only have been made by somebody who already had a lot of previous experience in making autobiographical work, and therefore had the skills to be able to explore that level of trauma safely. Do you agree?

It’s not unheard of for an artist to come from nowhere and to make the most profound and spellbinding and complex piece of art. But I think that, over years of making, you have a sort of understanding of the audience, perhaps. I don’t think it’s about your artistic skill, because people can be creative and imaginative and brilliant just from the off, and they are; it’s an understanding of what these lights plus this music plus this text plus this costume plus this tone of voice creates in an audience and I think that actually is less about how much art you’ve made and more about how much time you’ve spent on stage. Okay, the hundreds and hundreds of tiny incremental changes in your own works over 10 years means you sort of become a master in his manipulating emotion. And that comes from practice, in any sense, things come from practice, a tiny change in the temperature of the mood, you can start to feel when you’ve done it a lot. It’s the same as riding a bike or running a marathon, actually, experience of performance, it really teaches you about telling stories, and I think that perhaps it’s not necessarily that I’ve become a better artist, it’s just I’ve become better at reading and understanding an audience. Does that make sense? 

Yes, definitely. Can you talk more about the R&D process, and how that evolved into the final show?

So first of all I was like, I think I need to make this show, then it was, let’s get some help from a little theatre, the BAC can help us, we did some R&D, the rage show came out, then we parked it. Then we did another one, just Tom and I again, and between that, he and I had gone to see The Encounter by Simon McBurney. And I was getting better, and feeling more inspired and wanting to make a piece of work. And also having had that mid-scale experience of making A Pacifist’s Guide at the National and having an opportunity to really up the scale of my work. 

And then, having that feeling of ‘I’m going back to making solo shows again’, I had a really strong, visceral reaction to watching those male solos, which wasn’t negative. It was, god, isn’t it amazing, when people have a lot of money, you know, and they have that scale, and people listen to them? And I couldn’t remember a show I’d ever seen or studied where a female performance artist or a female performer had had that scale. And because the show was about something, in a way that felt so epic, and so life-changing, and so mythical, and kind of large, it felt really important to the next phase of the R&D. 

So the third phase was really like, ‘Okay, this is becoming the story of this woman being reborn,’ that it had to have that scale, it had to take something that was so small, considered to be politically and culturally so small and insignificant, and give it the elevation of something of the scale of The Encounter – that artistry, that budget. I was like, I’m not making this if it’s me  getting two pieces of wood and knocking them together again, I can’t do that, it deserves this big scale. So once BAC had said, well, you know, actually, we’ve got this budget, and because I’d made something with Complicite, I was like, this has to be epic. It has to be massive, as massive as I can make it. And I think that then what it became in terms of R&D was like, what is that? How do we push that? Tiny story, massive stage, tiny lady, massive platform. Can we create the female version of those male, dick swinging kind of massive shows? And then, I think it was that point, where we were starting to get creators around the table that had worked at that scale, that it really felt that this wasn’t R&D for trauma. I was like, no, we are ready to make it and we’re going to start holding it outstretched in the palm of one’s hand and saying, what art, what art form and what storytelling form? And also what big, theatrical things can we apply to what was then quite a sorted story, you know, it was like, okay, this is a story of a woman who thinks she’s untouchable, who goes through the worst experience of her life and comes out the other side. Almost unscathed, but totally changed, man. And that was when it became a little bit more like work rather than therapy.

But then you had to perform it, and to do so many times. How did you prepare yourself emotionally to do that?

Well, I made a mistake. I didn’t take that seriously enough. And so during the process of making it, I felt half of me was there and half of me wasn’t yet there. And I sort of ambled through the creation, because I was surrounded by my best friends, and we were all supporting one another. And it’s such a beautiful space to be in when you’re all together making something. And we made the decision that if we were going to make something it wouldn’t be, oh, the lighting guy comes in at the end, or, you know, the sound comes later, it was all of the creatives in the studio the whole time. And so it just felt very joyful and held. And, then, of course, we open it. And I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have to do this every day.’ 

So, the first run at BAC, you’re buoyed up by a five star Guardian review. And you’re happy that people are buying tickets, but I had the feeling of like, ‘this doesn’t feel healthy. This doesn’t feel right. It feels like having a scab and picking it, and then being like, why did I pick that scab?’ I was drinking a lot. I was exhausted. I was living in BAC, which isn’t…. you know, it’s lovely that they provide accommodation, but it wasn’t what I needed. And then they were like, we would like to do another run. And I obviously knew I wanted to tour it and had already booked lots of gigs. And I was really not feeling it. I was devastated by ‘why am I doing this to myself? I’ve just been through it. Like, I’ve just had it happen.’ That’s when I found my new therapist. And at first we just did some really simple interrogation as to why I was doing it. Was it a sort of a self-flagellation thing or a kind of negative thing? Or was it coming from a place where I really wanted to share that and help people? 

And when I decided it was just I didn’t feel like I was looking after myself enough, we just put in some really simple before and after self-care, and an access rider, and just some more informed decisions about things that you don’t necessarily as an artist always think about, like, where do you return to once you’ve finished the show? Is it a digs? Or is it actually a luxury hotel with a spa? How much sleep do you need every night? What’s a good way of coming down from it? What do you need to remind yourself before you go on stage? 

Self-care was really important. I hadn’t made a show that was quite so triggering. I’d just applied my normal looking after yourself techniques – do a couple of stretches, practice your songs, go on stage, do the thing and have a beer afterwards with everyone in the bar. And it just became really clear that this wrap around stuff wasn’t holding me in the right way. 

But then also within the show, I started to put in small CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) moments. What can happen, I think, is each scene ramps you up into more and more trauma, and the audience don’t necessarily even know that’s not part of the show. And that’s not helpful, it’s not doing anything to the audience, and it’s not necessary that it happens. So is there a way to still get the artistry of it and still tell that story, but at little points in the show, you can just have a moment where you remind yourself that you’re safe, and that was a piece of art is now finished and button it? 

So, there were a few moments where there were little fluorescent stickers on little parts of the set, and I would remember that after that particular moment when there’s a video on or there’s something like a scene change, or something where I’ve got a moment that perhaps before I was going, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, it was just like this, the fluorescent dot, this is a stage. Are you okay? Some self-soothing, maybe some tapping somatic pressure points no one would notice. Just really taking it seriously that actually this has the potential to destabilise me mentally, I’m happy that I’m doing it and want to do it. 

Because by the end of the BAC run, it was like being in a prison of not wanting to do it anymore. And then having to go on stage is such a horrible feeling, you know, wanting to run away. So yeah, it was really important to kind of put in… I think that’s good for any artist, not just in a mental health context, constantly checking that this is as good as it can be, but also that you are as good as you can be at that stage, that the show isn’t finished, it’s always an amorphous beast that you’re kind of always having to check in on and there might be tweaks to the text but there might also be tweaks to how you look after yourself. 

Then it was fine after putting those simple things in place, and the balance was readdressed and I was able to perform, and even in Edinburgh where, you know, you’re performing every day and you’re in a very different environment, a very full on visual environment, physical environment,  I still managed to just look after myself but it I had to take it seriously, and I don’t think I had.

Was the Edinburgh Fringe run a positive experience?

It was actually. The only things I didn’t love were the fire alarms. But no I really, really enjoyed it. I enjoyed, of course, the egotistical clapping and standing ovations and sell out tickets. That’s really good for your mental health. It is very helpful. I don’t know what it would have been like if everyone had gone ‘that’s a piece of shit,’ I think that would have destabilised me; part and parcel of being an artist is that you need positive feedback. But no, I really, really felt… like a good artist. 

For every show I’ve made there’s a couple of moments where I’m like, this is exactly… this is  good, land it’s not all the shows, often I’m like ‘if only I’d  had have had more time I would have solved that problem – too much exposition or too obvious or whatever, but every now and then, a few scenes in each show, you’d be like ‘that’s a f***ing good bit of art, that is.’ And this one, I really felt proud myself and my creative team and how we’d managed to move people. I felt like an artist for the first time, you know? Not a charlatan, not scraping by by the skin of my teeth or force of personality. This is a good show. Sometimes Tom will say, you’re managing to make that work because you’re charming, but you’re really turning on the dazzles to divert attention from a gaping hole in a narrative or whatever. But this one felt like I wasn’t having to force, and the material was doing it for me. I felt powerful and like I’d done a good job. So that Edinburgh was fine. And I was really looking after myself. I was not getting pissed every night and eating crap, I was going home and I was practising meditation. I don’t think I even drank, maybe had couple of sparkling wines. Then I went out then the last night of Edinburgh and went f***ing mental.

I remember you telling me about a fire alarm going off during one of your performances in Edinburgh. Can you talk about that, because its an interesting example of how disorientating an interruption can be as a performer of a story about trauma. How did it feel when it happened?

I think one part of it is, you’re annoyed and disgusted that you can’t complete your art. For f***’s sake, I’m doing something important here, thanks. I wanted to give people a good show, I want things to feel very professional, and held, and that you’ve had a nice night out and it was worth the ticket price. But also, in terms of acting, you’re in it. Every bone in every sinew is performing. And you’re not yourself. You’re performing a sort of artifice of yourself inspired by our own events. You’re in a trance, it’s the same as being interrupted if you were doing a wedding speech, you lose the thread. And that was difficult in itself, just the interruption, but I think there was, in that show, a fine balance of being in a story and out of a story, triggered and totally anxious but completely in control. And always tipping on the balance of that is what I think made that show good. You go through the trauma of it again. And then you get to the end and you need the end scene to sort of button yourself back up again. 

There’s moment where I get the costume out that I was wearing at the beginning. And I sort of hold it and say, you know, I’m a bit her. And there’ll always be a bit of me that is still her, and I’ll take her with me when I go into the new phase of my life, and she will always be there. But there’s also another woman who’s replaced her and she’s also sort of a little bit shit and bruised and kind of f***ed up. And that part is for the audience, but it’s also for me to look at that and go, I survived, I’m still here.

So without that part, I remember going back to the dressing room and being a bit like a Border Collie, running round the table. It’s obviously something adrenaline based and something physiologically happening to you, because that is what happens when you stand on the stage. You know, you flood your brain with dopamine and adrenaline. And that’s why after a show you’re on fire. You’ve got to purge out all of those feelings. But at least if you’ve told the story, you’ve buttoned it and yeah, packed it back away, and you’ve had your claps. And so you know, there’s a moment I think in any show, when you say the final line, the lights come down, and when those lights are down, I guarantee every performer goes like, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. And then the lights come back up. And you know this when you watch performers, suddenly they’re not that performer anymore. They’re that person again, and you’re like, whoa, especially when actors do it and they’ve been this other person. And then all of a sudden you see them bowing and you see this little flicker for who they are. That is again another very important emotional moment of shedding, shedding, shedding and then you go off the stage. And then you might come back on again, like there’s all of this sort of ritual that has a kind of cultural history to it, but also is a sort of a safety for the performer to kind of go, you know, when you shut the dressing room door there’s another level of decompression that starts to happen as well, especially in autobiographical work. So when the fire alarm interrupts that sort of process, it’s like you’re skating on a skateboard and someone just pushes you off, you know? 

That’s really interesting. These rituals are for the performers as much as the audience, arent they? It’s that psychological journey a performer needs to go on, to get into the zone, and then be able to get out of the zone again. Decompression is a good word for it.

Yeah. It’s like a decompression chamber, isn’t it? But yeah, I think the thing that keeps people… maybe not good, and maybe not feet on the ground in an egotistical way but sort of sane is, I think – and maybe this is just me – that I go back into the dressing room, and I remember what I wanted to do to the audience, and sort of weigh up, you know, like, after a football match, the manager might be like, ‘Okay, well, you know, Ronaldo, you f***ed that up, and you need to work on your, your crosses. And… I don’t know, I don’t know any footballers. And… David Beckham, you need to stop being such a wanker, or whatever it is, and you kind of deconstruct it, right? And that’s the same for any actor, or performer, they go back into the dressing room, and they think about what’s happened. That was funny when that lady fainted, or that was strange. That didn’t land… you’re deconstructing the match, basically, in your head. And think it’s a really good opportunity. What is going on in your mind is, did I achieve within the hearts and minds of those people what I set out to achieve? And then then the technician will come in normally. And, you know, you give them your microphone and you say, how do you think that went? And they’ve got to write the show report. So there’s all this sort of reporting and evaluating  that’s always happening – I think we need to change that cue, I think we need to change that scene. 

But I think the thing that helps – and this is why I say keep your feet on the ground, or keep you good, or keep you kind of out of your own arse, and therefore mentally well, I think, is ‘did I do what I set out to do? Did it land? Did people take what I wanted them to take from that?’ And so weirdly, what began to start needing to happen in the later stages of doing the show was, whereas before I hid in the dressing room, like there’s no way I’m talking to a f***ing soul, because I’ve been going into the bar after the first run and  it felt really weird. I actually needed to go and do the merch table. And I had a guy who would come and do it for me, and I said to him, I’m going to come out the last week, I’m going to start coming out because in a way I needed to know more than just the laughs or the crying, I needed to see people and hold their hands and check, because I felt like it was going well but I also wanted to know that I had actually…you know, you can fool yourself into thinking you’ve done anything, but to go out there and have… I felt resilient enough to have women weep on me or I felt resilient enough to deconstruct a particular moment, or to sign books and have a conversation. And it felt suddenly really important to even more kind of go into ‘have I done what I wanted to do?’ 

It’s interesting that you only did that when you felt ready to do so. One of the things that creators of mental health shows talk about a lot is to what extent they have a responsibility to the audience after the show, if youve shared something to do with complex mental health issues and there are people who have also experienced that who really want to talk to you about it. What responsibilities do you, as a creator of this material, have to your audience after the show?

I know you’re talking to James, the vacuum cleaner. I remember really loving the fact that there was tea and biscuits after his show Mental, which I think was at the same Edinburgh festival that Tim and I were at. And obviously, in Edinburgh, that’s really tricky, but he was on a different site, it wasn’t in a theatre where you have to f***ing ship out and the next guy’s got to come in and they’re already waiting to move the set and stuff. But in BAC, we’d always be like, ‘stay as long as you want, you know, really use this space as yours, no one’s gonna make you leave.’ And I think some people needed, when I was ready, to see me afterwards. Not in that, like, ‘oh there she is!’ way but more… like I needed the applause to come out of the feeling of that show, they needed to see me, that I was sitting at a table laughing and writing. 

Yeah, aftercare for shows is really, really necessary. And, again, it’s sort of testament to whether or not that artist has thought about their audience as to whether you get that or not. And I think if you’re really going to be moving people and wanting them to be moved, you know, ‘I want you to feel something’ you can’t then be like, ‘thanks for feeling that, bye!’  If you are moved and you are crying and sobbing… and people would come out of that show, not often, but really sobbing, or they couldn’t leave the auditorium… of course my responsibility is to go and sit with them. And to talk to them. Like, you don’t get to just do that and then be like ‘see ya!’

How do you manage that though? Isnt it potentially quite exhausting for you?

Most people are very respectful of others, you know. Very rarely will you meet someone that just wants to offload an extremely traumatic story without a trigger warning, and really sob on you for ages. People, especially British people, are so respectful and so embarrassed that they’re even doing that. So I think mostly people are like that, they’re very embarrassed about even taking up space a lot of the time. So actually, I feel like sometimes that job for me is just essentially saying to people, ‘you are very welcome to tell me your story’. You know, you’re really welcome to sit and cuddle for a while, you have the right to do that. 

I mean, my partner Will would say I’m too empathetic in that way. Like, I would listen to somebody for a really long time. And maybe that is ADHD as well. But I couldn’t imagine not doing that, you know? There’s not been a time where it’s felt so painful for me to do that. If it was something that was really just like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t actually think I can deal with this. I think you need to go to a doctor, or you need to… is there somebody I can ring?’ I think I’d know when I’m not actually the person that can help. But mostly people just want to say ‘I’ve been through that also’. Often it’s just holding someone’s hand and they’re crying and you give them a cuddle, it’s a nice experience for both parties. It’s not a duty so much as just a human exchange, isn’t it? 

Audiences want acknowledgement, dont they? They want you to acknowledge how your show has made them feel.

Of course. And I reply to their emails, I take the time to walk the walk. It was the same with the show with Tim. We did a lot of pastoral care. But we kind of have a duty to do that. I think you can’t take and not give back.

Having made both of these shows, and found ways to support yourself through it, what support do you now think artists need? What support would you want someone in your position to have, from programmers and venues for example?

I think there is a level of understanding missing in venues. And I don’t want to shit on venues too much because actually, they’re stretched very thin. But well, it’s difficult, because I’m neurodivergent. So there’s a sort of element of that, that is also kind of… maybe not everybody needs what I need, but I think one of the main things from a venue is human contact and support. So you don’t want six different people coming to see you – I’m the lady that organises the tickets, I’m the lady that that’s going to tell you where the fire alarms are. They’re all sort of faceless women of a certain age who are sort of bumbling around. And actually, I’ve always really appreciated it when the person that’s booked me has come to see me and said – or called me before and asked – how are you feeling, what’s going on? That sort of human contact that I think people struggle with, it being a sort of professional job for them – ‘if I filled up the fridge with the Coca Cola she wants, I’ve kind of done my job.’

So one point of contact and a real kind of friendship, I think they’re the venues that I really appreciate. When I’ve been there a few times, I know the faces, you’re given a sort of level of home in that building, and you’re looked after. In a way I’ve arrived at your house; are you going to make me a cup of tea and sit me down and make sure I’m warm enough? Or are you just going to be like, ‘hi’, you know? Because we are nomads and travelling, and we’re away from home, often the ‘home’ part of it that really feels distant and strange in lots of venues. 

And the other thing that perhaps is quite tricky, and I don’t tour a lot so it’s not such a problem anymore, and also, you know, I’ve got a level of a name that will now sell tickets without too much effort, but there’s a disconnect, I think, between what an artist expects an audience size to be, for example, and what the theatre is kind of happy with bimbling along. And very often you’ll get to a theatre when you’re on tour in the UK, and your flyers aren’t out and you’ve sold six tickets, and that’s okay with the venue because they’re subsidised. And they’re not worried about it, but they’re also a bit like ‘what did you do to help get an audience in? And you think ‘I’ve never f***ing even been to Wigan so… nothing. I gave you my flyers. That’s not my job.’ And the mental health crisis that can come with ‘we haven’t sold many tickets but it’s alright with us’… it’s actually like, this is my life’s work, blood sweat and tears, I’ve been skint and I’ve poured my heart out, and you’re treating me like I’m an alien who’s got a product that is something you’re selling. Do you know that I mean? There’s a sort of disconnect between the emotional world of an artist and making a piece of art and the booking of that show and the receiving of marketing materials and talking about it like it’s just this commodity. And actually, I think that perhaps there’s work to do around the venue really, truly understanding what the cost is to the artist to do this, not just financially but emotionally, and really being tender and respectful of that. It’s always been ‘we come begging, you give us an opportunity, we’re so thankful’ and actually it doesn’t take a minute to put a comfy chair and soft lighting into a room. 

I mean, the venues that do it, that really think about it, do it so well, they feed you, and they cuddle you, and they’re like, so happy to see you. And it’s often they’re really tiny ones that have managed to get a little bit of money to pay your fee. And they’re so excited. Because, you know, you arrive somewhere, and you want people to be excited about the fact that you’re there, and actually moody faces and conversations about Twitter… artists are just like, but I’m just here like, is it ok if I’m here? Your only job was to get this 200 seat theatre full of people. And if you can’t do that, are you allowed to run a venue? They’re like, this is good for us, that gets said so much. This is good for us. And I think ‘this is not good for me. I wouldn’t be happy with this.’

It occurs to me that the increasing number of artists who are making work about trauma or mental health is perhaps forcing venues to think more carefully about this. Part of what prompted this project was conversations with people from venues and festivals, and them clearly being a bit concerned by the fact that artists are making this work that makes themselves very vulnerable, and how to handle that.

I had nice scroll through Instagram this morning, as I do, and I saw Scottee is training to be a yoga teacher. And he was talking about inclusivity and accessibility and the difference between theatres and the art world and yoga. And actually, he was quite praising of the art world and its ability to begin to really look at itself. It’s by no means there yet, but the conversations that are had are really good, you know, in terms of accessibility and inclusivity, and, you know, looking after people. 

But I think, again, you got to walk the walk, you can’t just have meetings on Zoom about inclusivity, and what to say to a trans person, having gender neutral toilets, if you’re not going to walk into a dressing room and be like, ‘we’re really glad you’re here, we absolutely want you to feel wonderfully comfortable, what can we do to help you?’ 

But I think that perhaps pastoral care isn’t something that an administrator really gets to demonstrate. And maybe it’s a bit fearful for people they don’t quite know, it’s the same with disability, people don’t quite know what to say. So they sort of awkwardly bimble around the edge of a subject and actually, some training in empathy would be good, you know. It’s a bit like nursing, you’re so stretched and you’re so frazzled that you’ve lost that ability to think on your feet and to be a person. I think artists more and more are quite hostile with venues because we can just see there’s a disconnect and it’s very dehumanising.

And then if you’re making work that’s about autobiography and being a human, and then you’re also having to try and sell it and, yeah maybe it’s about training, it’s just about artists coming in to say ‘this is the experience from the other side, and what would have really helped me is this’ Because I think maybe they don’t understand what it feels like to be an artist, perhaps it’s just simply that, you know, Let’s walk you through what you’re feeling as an artist when you walk in the door and what you’re greeted with, what’s the first thing that happens? Is there biscuits? Is everyone going to come and say hi? Or do you feel like you’ve been pushed into a dressing room and then some very cross technician is going to be a wanker to you all day? You know, because actually, that’s, that’s not that nice, is it?

I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but I do want to ask a couple of final questions. Hearing you talk about both of these shows, it seems to me that there’s probably no way of making a mental health show without an element of risk. It seems like you and Tim took as many precautions as you thought you could with Fake It ‘Til You Make It, but because life is a process of learning and you were not fully aware of the mental health impact it was having on you, there were still things you got wrong. You’ve also said you made mistakes on I’m A Phoenix, Bitch. How do you reflect on all that now?

Yeah, I think, can you make an autobiographical show that isn’t about mental health, that’s about anything to do with your life, safely? If you are the subject, and your life is the material, then there’s always going to be a modicum of exposure and risk. It’s not like writing a play and pretending to be a person, you are literally the subject. And so risk isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Risk is what can make things amazing, managed risk. 

So I think, more and more, that real self-awareness, honesty with oneself and one’s mental state, and knowledge of one’s own true needs, a love of oneself, to not sell-flagellate and deny what one needs… all of those things will really bolster your ability to keep checking in with your own emotional state. Your emotional state, especially as a woman, is always in flux. One time in the month you feel like the most powerful person in the world, the other time of the month you feel like you could jump off a cliff and no one would care. So it’s a real awareness about your own triggers, your own mental state, and your own needs. It is alive, the show, you are alive, so you’ve got two living breathing things that are constantly in a state of flux with one another, surrounded by people that also need to be able to be well versed in who you are and what you need. 

So actually, probably the most vital thing is self-awareness, rather than the machinations of the rules which you’ve placed to look after yourself, because one day you might need a sofa in your dressing room, and the next day you might need a dressing room that’s on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. You have to know how you’re feeling. 

So, putting the effort into a kind of amorphous plan – where does my mental health lead me? – feels more empowering and necessary than ‘I have biscuits after my show because my blood sugar’s low, and I need a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge and I need to do my mantras beforehand’. Deconstructing the show afterwards and saying, ‘Okay, I think for the third night in a row, me saying that has really triggered me, I think I need to replace that line’. Like, it being a growing and living thing, because I think what I realised with both the shows is, my needs changed. I became more aware and less aware, and you know, needed more, needed less, all the way through. 

So perhaps it’s at each stage of creation or delivery of a project you’re checking back in, and it’s not set –  these are the things that made me feel safe today. But as I’ve grown in awareness of myself, what’s gonna keep me safe is my knowledge of myself. Because I didn’t know myself when I made Fake It. So I couldn’t ask for what I needed because I didn’t know what I needed. In Fake It I began in the same state, and then realised I needed more and adapted it. Now I know I’m ADHD, so that’ll be another adaptation I put in, and my creative team know me better because I know myself better, so I can be more honest with them. 

I actually think that, in a way, therapy and healing and knowledge of the self is key to being able to do a project about your mental health. It doesn’t feel like… it’s a bit like the reason I don’t work with a director very often. I’m the boss of me, only I know how it felt to feel those things. There can’t be someone above me telling me how to perform what it means to be me. So it never works for me to have a director at a level when I’m creating. It’s okay for the polish, and it’s okay for the artifice of something, but actually, someone else telling you how to be you is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. So it’s almost like you’re the boss. And the more you know yourself, the more you know what to ask for. And you can create a space where you can ask for those things. That feels like the right way to go into a show about mental health. 

But maybe I’m only just learning this by saying this out loud now. And I think the next time I make a show, I mean… the show is about anxiety anyway, climate anxiety, but I think having a bit of a growing and living plan… I just wonder if perhaps a piece of paper that tells someone your access needs isn’t enough. Like you have to call them the week before the gig and say ‘right now I’m feeling like I’m in quite a depressive mood and actually what I need to talk about, what I said on that plan, actually, maybe what I need is this instead. You know that it’s not just a sort of set thing, because mental health isn’t a set thing. It’s never a set thing. So perhaps being able to treat that as a really important and integral part of it, because you’re the machine that’s making the output. So if the machine is broken, the output doesn’t work.

That’s an interesting point about access riders. You said you had one for I’m a Phoenix Bitch, but you didn’t have anything like that for Fake It Til You Make It?

I didn’t even know it existed.

It is a relatively recent thing, and generally used by people who are disabled or neurodivergent, but there doesnt seem to be a version of it that covers mental health needs.

I think it would be better if it wasn’t called an access rider, because ‘access’ is making the world accessible for people with neurodivergence or disability and actually it’s important that it remains within that territory. If your mental health is disabling, and you’re disabled, then fine, but I think a mental health plan, you know, or a kind of care plan. could be something really helpful because it’s a tricky thing to talk about. And people may have had mental health, but they might not know what this particular mental health is or this person is. And I think the more you empower people around you to understand the language that you use and that you’re comfortable with, the better, because there’s impersonal conversations and greetings that don’t work for everybody. We’re all different human beings. 

If we’re a family, and we’re moving to different homes, then those homes need to also know what our family are, you know, so I think a mental health plan for life is important, it’s not just for theatre. But if you’re talking about mental health, you’ve got to look after yourself, you’ve got to look after the staff at the venue, and you’ve got to look after the audience. And so I think, (we should have) a conversation around, ‘okay, genuinely, this show has certain trigger points, it’s not just writing it on a list and putting outside with a strobe lighting warning. It’s about real empathetic care. Is there a safe space? Is this a relaxed performance? Is there facilities for people to get out and back in again, emotionally? What about the performer? Does the performer always have to finish?’ I think it’s an ethical responsibility for a venue and an artist to kind of state needs and fulfil needs. I don’t think it’s the same as doing a show about a dog who lost his master. It’s somebody’s life, you know. As such, it can be the most powerful and potent, amazing thing ever to watch. But in the same way, it can be the most damaging and unhelpful thing.

Finally, if somebody wanted to make a piece of performance about their own mental health, what sort of advice would you give me to prepare for that?

Well, I’d ask you if you felt like you were ready. And then we’d have a long conversation about what that means. I’d ask you, why this story, why now? Why do we need this in the world? What’s it going to do for people? And then I would ask, what is the story? Like, what’s the story you’re actually telling? 

And then I would ask what form they think it should be, you know, what’s the best way of telling the story? And then I’d tell them, in my honest opinion, whether I thought people would buy a ticket for it, whether they thought it was interesting or not, or if it was something that actually the individual artist found interesting but no one else would. And then I’d ask him to go and speak to a lot of people about whether or not they’d buy a ticket for the show.

You mean people in general, not just people who work in the arts?

Anyone. Look, Ive got this idea for a show. It’s about my miscarriage, but it’s done through the lens of pantomime. And it’s also got some kind of elements of puppetry to it. And I don’t want it to be sad. I want it to be happy. And I want us to talk about miscarriages more.

Yes, I’ll buy a ticket. 

I want to show I want to make a show about our miscarriage how it really derailed me and made me feel really depressed. And I really hate the idea of walking around anymore, because now this baby’s everywhere.

I don’t think I really want to watch that show, you know? 

And then I’d ask them to find a question that they were really trying to investigate about themselves. ‘Why was I so derailed by my miscarriage? And will I ever feel the same again, right?’ Now I’d ask them to ask people that question, ‘if I asked you this question, why do I feel so derailed about a miscarriage? And will I ever feel normal again, or will I ever feel over it again?’ I’d then get them to ask people to ask them all the questions they want to know, when that question is asked. ‘So what happened? When was your miscarriage? How old were you?’ Like, every single part of what that question then warrants will become what you need to tell the audience. 

So without, ‘you have to talk to other people about the subject matter to see if A they’d even come to the show? B if you’re ready, because as soon as you start talking, maybe you’ll just be crying the whole time. And C, so it’s is the beginning of a practice of being able to, to be outside of your body and ready for interrogation. 

And then there’s various stages that I would take them through, to start to offer material to an audience and try and see what that material does. But at the beginning, it’s like, is anybody else going to be interested in this? And what’s it for? But yeah, I think it’s important. 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?