Claire Smith meets the performers challenging the stigma around mental ill health and teaming up for a unique benefit show supported by The Scotsman – including Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn, who tell Susan Mansfield about raising awareness while raising a laugh
It is not compulsory, but comics, actors and cabaret artists can, if they choose, draw on their innermost anxieties to make the rest of us laugh – and there are a lot of performers talking about mental ill health this year.
“It is common in our industry – but I think it is common in any industry,” says comedian Felicity Ward. “In other jobs you can’t be very open about your mental health. In the comedy industry we take in all sorts and people are very accepting and open.”
On 16 August, Ward will compere A Gala For Mental Health, a unique show at the Pleasance Courtyard in which a group of Fringe performers will join forces with the Mental Health Foundation, the anti-stigma campaign See Me and The Scotsman to encourage the rest of us to talk more honestly about what is going on in our heads.
Ward and her fellow performers – Carl Donnelly, Le Gateau Chocolat, Bryony Kimmings and Mike McShane – all have first-hand experience of living with mental illness.
Ward’s own show at the Pleasance, What If There is no Toilet?, begins at the 2010 Fringe, when she began every performance of her show The Book of Moron, with a ten-minute panic attack. Ward has irritable bowel syndrome, and her phobia about having to go to the toilet unexpectedly meant she was wearing leggings and two pairs of pants under her stage trousers. “I was going full-crazy,” she remembers, “but I didn’t quit stand-up.”
Ward mines the toilet humour for all it is worth – at the same time describing an episode of extreme anxiety that was really quite serious. “Although my show is about mental illness the main thing is to be funny. I want people who don’t have a mental illness to be laughing and people who do to be able to relax and laugh at themselves.”
Last year, Ward made a documentary for Australian television, Felicity’s Mental Mission, which explores the way mental health issues affect people, taking her own fears and anxiety as a starting point. The film will have a special Fringe screening her show on 12 August.
One of its most touching moments comes when beautiful, talented Australian songwriter Missy Higgins describes how her depression can sometimes be so devastating she is barely able to
Despite talking to “a tonne of psychiatrists” during the making of the documentary, Ward was hit hard afterwards by a period of deep depression, which she barely recognised at the time. But talking about her anxieties has definitely helped. “I have had a bunch of people coming up to me at gigs and saying, ‘I’ve got that toilet thing too’. I found out that it is a very common symptom of anxiety and it was such a relief.”
Also taking part in A Gala for Mental Health is flamboyant Nigerian cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat. The cross-dressing baritone will be performing an extract from his show Black, at Assembly Hall, in which he explores sexuality, body image and depression as well as his love of black music.
Performance artist and comic Kimmings will appear alongside her boyfriend Tim Grayburn, who has severe depression; they will perform an extract from their jointly created show, Fake It ‘Til You Make It, at the Traverse, which is about living with someone with a mental illness.
McShane, meanwhile, will be assembling an improv troupe for the evening, including Richard Vranch, a fellow long-standing member of Paul Merton’s Impro Chums (who are back at the Pleasance from 13 August). Vranch has promised to take part in the gala show “as long as he doesn’t have to play the piano”.
McShane, recognised as one of the world’s finest and most exuberant comic improvisers, was sent to a hospital for disturbed adolescents when he was a teenager. It has left him with a lifelong interest in mental health issues.
“I was a kick-ass kid. I could have done with some counselling – but I ended up locked up,” he says. He is remarkably sanguine about the experience, which he sees as the reaction of the older, depression-era mindset of his parents towards boisterous and rebellious behaviour they could not understand or control.
In his early career McShane and Greg Proops worked in improv clubs in Los Angeles alongside Robin Williams, who was already a big star. “I now realise he went along with us,” McShane says. “He was generous and he was collaborative. For me and for a lot of other people it is good to remember everything he did when he was living. That gives you the measure of him as a person. The improv we will be performing is a tribute to Robin. It is a tribute to his belief in imagination as a freeing agent. To be an improviser is a very free, open way of making people laugh and relieving some of the human condition through performance.”
Williams’s death, on 11 August last year, was a reminder that anyone – no matter how talented, how successful or how funny – can suffer from mental distress.
“I think it shows that mental illness is not discriminatory,” says McShane. “It doesn’t matter how big your bank account is and how much you are lauded by others, how much you are loved. All of those things are of little use to the person who is suffering from that illness.”
Stand-up comedian Donnelly will also be appearing at A Gala For Mental Health. Donnelly, who has always exploited his social awkwardness on stage, has decided to talk openly about his own depression in his own show at the Pleasance, Jive Ass Honky. It will, however, have plenty of jokes.
“I have always suffered from periods of depression and I wanted to use my new show to talk about that in as silly a way as I can,” he says. “I want to make it as normal as possible.”
Donnelly’s anxieties centre on a hormone imbalance which began at puberty and which meant he had larger than average nipples. “When I was 13 I felt like my nipples were the biggest thing in the world,” he says. In Jive Ass Honky, the comic talks about divorce, therapy and antidepressants. There is a section of every performance that makes him feel extremely anxious – but he’s glad he’s done it. “I have had quite a lot of guys message me and say they have had similar experiences. If you can do it in a funny, normal way then it makes it OK to talk about it. I think one of the problems with depression – particularly with men – is that in social groups they rarely show their insecurity.”
He doesn’t believe comedians are more prone to mental illness than other people, but says life on the road can lead you into it.
“I don’t think comedy attracts people who have problems but the lifestyle can bring it out. You spend so much time on your own, so much time travelling.
“But if you can talk about things like depression in a funny, silly way then maybe people will be more able to accept they have got some problems and maybe they will be more able to talk about it.” Ironically, even though this Fringe he will be re-living some of his most horrible memories on stage, he says: “I am the most happy and stable I have been for five years.”
A Gala For Mental Health is at the Pleasance Courtyard, 16 August, 10:15pm, with Felicity Ward (compere), Le Gateau Chocolat, Carl Donnelly, Mike McShane & Friends, and Bryony Kimmings & Tim Grayburn. The show is being staged by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with the See Me anti-stigma campaign, the Pleasance and The Scotsman. Tickets are on sale now via the Pleasance box office on 0131-556 6550. All money raised will support the work of the Mental Health Foundation Scotland. www.mentalhealth.org.uk/about-us/scotland
‘It would be easy to make a sad show about depression, but it didn’t seem right’
WHAT do you do when you suddenly discover your boyfriend of six months is taking high-dose antidepressants? Well, there’s coping, or there’s running away, or – if you’re Bryony Kimmings – there’s finding the topic for your next show.
Performance artist Kimmings is known for her radical work drawing on personal experience, including an experiment to stay drunk for a week (Seven-Day Drunk, which explored the link between alcohol and creativity), and the Fringe-First winning Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, performed with her ten-year-old niece, which confronted the sexualising of pre-teen girls.
Her first solo show, Sex Idiot, was inspired by having chlamydia – and interviewing her previous partners to find out how she caught it. So perhaps making a show about her boyfriend’s depression isn’t so strange.
But it is for him. Fake It ’Til You Make It, which toured Australia to rave reviews earlier this year, is made with her partner, Tim Grayburn, an account manager with an advertising agency who has never been on stage – until now. He quit his job to make the show, and through it, to raise awareness of issues around men’s mental health. The couple are now engaged, and Kimmings is six months pregnant.
It all began one day when Kimmings found a packet of antidepressants in Grayburn’s backpack. When she asked him about them, he admitted he’d been battling the illness for six years, keeping it a secret even from his closest friends and family.
“That night he came to the door with this sheepish look on his face, like, ‘Are my bags packed?’” says Kimmings. “But we loved each other, so it was irrelevant in a way. It’s just a thing you have to deal with, like me being untidy.” “Yeah,” says Grayburn, wryly. “I wish she could take a tablet for that.”
Kimmings was touring in Australia with Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model when Grayburn’s plan to come off the medication collapsed and he had a breakdown. “When he picked me up from the airport, I remember saying, ‘I’m not going away again without you, you’re either going to have to learn how to become a technician or you’re going to have to make a show with me’. I remember he said, ‘The only two things I know about are advertising and depression. As soon as he said that, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that would be so good’.”
Grayburn agreed to joining Kimmings in the studio for a development week. But nothing prepared him for his first time on stage, in a scratch performance at last year’s Forest Fringe in Edinburgh. “It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I can remember just hearing the audience fill the room, I was behind a board waiting to come on, I was shaking like a dog.”
It has to be said that Kimmings makes no small demands on her co-performer: Grayburn has to dress up, dance and sing. As well as achieving his ambition to learn to play the guitar, he had to master Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-style dance routines (recently modified to accommodate Kimmings’ pregnancy). At the core of the show is a video of a candid discussion between the couple soon after she found the pills. “It would be very easy to make a sad, depressing show about depression, but it didn’t seem right, did it?” Kimmings says. “It goes quite dark, but [people can see] we’re still here. You know he doesn’t die because we’re both still on stage – and I’m pregnant. You can feel safe in that.”
Grayburn was diagnosed with depression when he was 23, after suddenly experiencing paralysing sadness, insomnia and acute anxiety. “I just thought I was being a bit of a wimp, that I wasn’t coping as well as my mates were. I was very tearful all the time and I couldn’t understand why I was crying. I thought: I’m alive, I’ve got great family around me, I’ve got a job, I’ve got great mates, there’s nothing to cry about. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me phsyically and emotionally. I got to the point where I was considering just ending it all.”
He says researching the illness for the show has been therapeutic, and hopes it will encourage others to speak out about problems around which there is still “a huge taboo”. Statistics suggest that as many as 70 per cent of men with mental illnesses never seek help, while suicide is the biggest killer of men under 40 in Britain.
Kimmings says her motivation for doing the show is the same as the rest of her work: a belief that honesty will kickstart important conversations, and a refusal to accept that things can’t be changed. “I find that really problematic: ‘Oh, we don’t talk about men’s mental health, that’s just the way it is’. That makes me want to say, ‘No it’s f****** not, that’s just the way you think it is’. It annoys me, this view that the world is an unchangeable thing. A lot of people would argue that art doesn’t change anything, but I think that if you do it the way I do, it can.”
Fake It ’Til You Make It is at the Traverse Theatre, until 30 August, times vary. Kimmings and Grayburn will also appear as part of A Gala for Mental Health, Pleasance Courtyard,
16 August, 10:15pm
Published in The Scotsman on 8 August
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