Laura Horton is a playwright who has written about her own experiences of compulsive hoarding in Breathless, a one-woman play that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2022, where it won a Scotsman Fringe First award and was shortlisted for the Mental Health Foundation Fringe Award. Breathless later transferred to Soho Theatre in London and 59E59 Theaters in New York.

We interviewed Laura in November 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

How was the experience of making Breathless?

It was quite staggered. I was asked by Theatre Royal Plymouth if I wanted to present three 20-minute plays, and I hadn’t even decided to write Breathless at this point. I had two other plays, and I knew that I wanted to write a monologue and I had written a play, a very big play, about hoarding behaviours called Hidden by Things, and it was so big I couldn’t grasp it properly, there were so many different themes going on. And I knew that, as an unknown playwright, I would never get anywhere. 

So I decided, because I had no time – I had a day to write this – that right, I’m going to just write this quite personal monologue. I don’t think I really considered how personal it was until it was on stage for 20 minutes. And obviously it’s a different character and there were things that weren’t true, but it went down so well that that’s when I started to write it as a 60-minute piece. But that all happened so quickly. It was December 2021, and by the summer it’d been staged in Edinburgh for a full month. So I didn’t really have much time to reflect on actually writing it because it had to be written so quickly. And it wasn’t really until afterwards that I really thought about how…. It wasn’t until we got to New York, actually, I remember sitting in the audience and thinking this is so personal, wow. I think in some ways I disassociated from it to be able to stage it.

Can you talk a bit more about that sense of disassociation?

Yeah, I think I just couldn’t… obviously, you know, I created a character that wasn’t me, and I employed an actor that was very different to me, so it felt sort of separated. But there were so many personal things, so many personal stories in the play. I think when I realised how exposing it was, I just had to not think about it. So I just sort of pushed it out my head and I didn’t really allow myself that space, and because I was also producing the play with financial support from Theatre Royal Plymouth in Edinburgh, I was so busy I kind of threw myself into other aspects of the play and didn’t really give myself much time.

I did a couple of interviews. Edinburgh is such a weird beast, isn’t it? I wrote a first-person piece for Vogue, but other than that, all of the press really was more general and about the Fringe First (award). It wasn’t until Soho Theatre that I started to write about it, and then I wrote a lot of first-person pieces about my own hoarding behaviours, and really made the decision that I will talk about it because I will get more press and it will open up the discussion a bit more. But I got quite badly trolled for that. And I think, again, I had to just sort of remove myself from it. I don’t even know whether it was conscious. I just sort had to try not to think about it too much. 

Looking back, would you have done anything differently if you’d realised what you were doing?

No, I still think I would have done the press. I think it might have been helpful to me to put something in place to have someone to talk to about it specifically. Because it was such a success, and the play went really well, it pretty much sold out, we won awards, it looked great from the outside, so I don’t think it really occurred to anyone else that it might be quite hard to be doing it. I wish I had known to have put something in place, whether that’s a therapist or just someone to discuss it. When you’re producing it’s quite lonely because there isn’t really anyone else to talk to and I didn’t want to burden any of the creative team with those concerns. So I think that it might have been helpful to me to have reflected on the process while I was in the middle of it rather than at the end.

If you were going to do another show that explored your mental health, are there things you would do differently? 

Obviously I’m speaking like it was negative, it wasn’t, I think I was in quite a good position with Breathless in that I had been a PR for so many shows, and I’ve seen things go very badly wrong, so I was coming at it from a place of knowledge. And also, I’ve been in therapy and dealing with hoarding behaviours before I wrote the play, and so it wasn’t that I was traumatising myself, it was more maybe I didn’t really expect that limelight. And I think if I had thought a bit more about that it would have been helpful to have had someone to talk to, a mentor or someone who has been through similar things, but then how do you know necessarily that’s going to happen? So it’s tricky.

Was writing it therapeutic? 

Yeah, definitely. I find it really useful to use some of the more painful things that have happened and write about them. But I think the crucial thing is that you do it when you’re at a stage when you feel like you’ve dealt with that yourself. I don’t think it’s therapy. I would only write about these things years on, when I have found my footing with it. I worry when people are working through things and writing about them and they’re very raw. I think that’s when it gets concerning.

What therapy have you been through, if you don’t mind me asking?

I was seeing a psychotherapist to try and understand where the hoarding behaviours started, and so that was really useful because I was seeing her for years, which really helped me to figure out what that was. And once I knew that, I was really keen to talk about it more widely. And it was an entertaining piece, I wanted to write a comedy, I wanted to draw attention to it. And it did work, I spoke to so many people who came in (to the show) that have similar issues and wanted to discuss it. The other part of that, I guess, is that sometimes after the shows people want to talk to you for, like, three hours, and the boundaries thing I think I had to learn quite quickly. Because it’s lovely that people want to come and discuss it with you, and there’s a bit of time for that, but you can’t be someone else’s therapist as well. I wasn’t fully aware of what to expect, I think it would be great if there were case studies for people to be like, okay, this might happen if I put the show on and maybe I can put things in place to anticipate those conversations.

How did you cope with people who wanted to talk to you for such a long time after a show? And how would you advise other people to deal with that? 

At first I spoke to everyone for as long as they wanted to. And then I realised, I can’t do this. So I just had things in place. Polite turns of phrase where I could be like, ‘thank you for sharing, I’ve got to…’ , or I would put things in the diary like meeting friends for coffees so that I had to rush away so I literally couldn’t stay and spend that long, but also having specific Q&As so that there is dedicated time that people can come and listen. So yeah, there are polite ways to speak to people. And I think it’s just about shutting down conversations before you’re three bottles of wine deep into someone telling you their life story, which is lovely, but a lot, you know,

Was it just the sheer amount of time it was taking that was the problem? Or was there an emotional toll?

It’s a lot, some people’s trauma, because everyone has different reasons for hoarding. And some people’s life stories are very, very harrowing. And I’m a sensitive person. So I was very much taking that on board and I think it was quite emotional. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to put the play on, but you have to protect some of your energy, especially in Edinburgh,

Were there particular positive reactions to the play that stood out for you? 

There were loads of people who would come and say, I hoard, or my partner hoards, and thank you for staging this, that happened a lot. And there was a person in Plymouth, a man in his fifties, who came and spoke to me after the Q&A and said he didn’t normally go to the theatre, he’d come because he’d seen the subject matter. His wife was concerned about him going, he had hoarding tendencies. I said something like, why did you come? And he said, I wanted to feel less alone. That really touched me. I’ve seen him around a bunch of times, a very lovely man, and I just thought his openness was really touching. And then we had a woman who came to a show on her own, and it was the day that Hoarding UK were in to host a discussion. And we had quite a tearful conversation. She was like, I’ve got too much stuff, and this has made me realise that I might have hoarding tendencies, and can you help me? So I was able to introduce her to someone from Hoarding UK and then hopefully, you know, she started her journey. But yes, stuff like that happened a lot. There were hundreds of conversations, but those two, particularly because they were quite early on, stuck out.

What do you make of the increasing number of shows like yours, which touch on particular mental health issues? 

I think it can be very positive, and I think it’s great to be showing lots of different experiences in a theatrical manner. I think the downside to that, sometimes, is that people are staging things that are very truthful, without dramaturgy, and not creating them in a way that’s entertaining. If you’re just putting your trauma on stage, I think that can be quite traumatising for an audience, and then I think it becomes quite difficult with things like criticism. Because I worked in PR I would see it a lot. I think critics could be quite scared sometimes to critique something if it wasn’t actually very good as a piece of theatre but it was very openly about someone’s trauma; there was a fear around not upsetting the artist. And I think that’s where it becomes a bit tricky. Because, you know, I don’t think that’s the space to explore that. And I don’t know how you get around that because in Edinburgh, obviously, anyone can take a show up (at the Edinburgh Fringe) and put it on. But I’ve seen that happen a lot. And then critics really criticise themselves for not giving a show a good review and it can become quite toxic. And so I think it really depends on the reason for wanting to make the show and the considerations that the artist has made. And I think sometimes, in theatre, when there are trends for things, people sort of jump on thinking they’ll make the show without thinking about, you know, it might make them quite vulnerable. It might be quite hard to read reviews, it might not be the right time to be making the show. So I think it’s mixed. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but I think it can be tricky.

What would you say to somebody who was considering writing or making a piece of theatre about their mental health?

I think they should really think about where they want to put it on, the creatives that they want to work with that they feel safe with, what safeguarding they might need to put in place while they’re making the show, the audiences they’re putting it in front of, and how they’re making the audiences aware of what they’re putting on stage so you’re not going to be traumatising someone who’s coming in. And also things like, do you want to get it reviewed? Maybe you don’t, maybe it’s just something that you want to put on in a light way at first, and just be gentle about it and figure out audience reactions, rather than take it to Edinburgh, engage a PR, get loads of press, and then it not be the thing that you really want to make. And also, I think, really interrogating why you want to do it. I think that’s the most important thing.

And what would you say to venues programming this work? What should they be thinking about?

It’s very hard, isn’t it? Because, at the end of the day, people putting on work are adults. I’ve seen it happen with venues, when they’ve supported a piece of work when I was a PR, and things have gone wrong, or the people putting on the plays weren’t in the right headspace to do it. And it’s such a tricky thing, because, you know, sometimes the artists just didn’t realise that they weren’t equipped to do it. You don’t know sometimes. And it very much depends on if you’re going to be in the show as well. 

I have noticed there have been changes to the way venues are working and I think that’s great. So they will really sit down and discuss with the artists that they’re working with – some of the venues that I’ve worked with anyway – like, this is a great piece, but why are you doing it? What can we do to help? At the National Theatre at the moment they have an in-house therapist. Obviously a lot of venues would never be able to afford to do that, but it’s great that that’s there for people who might need that support. And I think there are venues that are taking that on board, and not just seeing a vulnerable person with an interesting story and thinking ‘great, that’s a play’, because I think that definitely has happened in the past. People were used for their output and there wasn’t anything put in place to support them. I do think we have more knowledge now. And I think there are diligent people out there.

How would you describe the relationship between your mental health and your creative work?

Oh, that’s tough, isn’t it? I think writing is so personal. And it’s so intertwined with my experiences and mental well-being, it’s very hard to extricate it sometimes. Yeah, I do find that difficult about theatre, that you have to give so much of yourself even in rehearsals, and everybody does, from actors to directors. It’s such an open industry and it’s wonderful that people are so open about their mental health but sometimes it can tip you off guard, and you’re like, oh, gosh, there wouldn’t be another industry where… it feels sometimes that your skin is turned inside out and you’re so vulnerable all the time. So I think it’s very intertwined with my creativity.

This last question sort of relates to that, but what aspects of your creative life have the biggest positive impact and also the biggest negative impact on your mental health?

I feel very lucky to be able to work as a writer at the moment, but I love exploring… I don’t know if I’m going to say this very well, but the last year or so I feel like my confidence has grown. And with that, through this creativity, my ability to be a bit more playful and lean into creating work that’s a bit weird or might be perceived as strange. And I really love that play and that, you know, digging into psyche and not just my own, I’m not just writing about my own experience. That’s the play that I started with, but, you know, researching and exploring different storytelling methods, and also the audience development part of that. I really enjoy thinking about the experience of the audience and I love writing, I feel like it really helps me to try and make sense of things and the world. And that is really positive for me. And I think the downsides are it’s a very underpaid industry, and there are no set routes to do anything. There’s very little demystification of how to get anywhere. And I think because of that, it creates a lot of toxicity and sometimes a lot of jealousy and infighting. Counter to that, it can also bring people very close together and the best people I know work in theatre.