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Open Mic

Confessions of a Five Foot Two Actress

Mental health – or to say mental illness – is a subject frequently explored in theatre, particularly in recent years. It is not an easy subject to tackle given the varying forms and degrees of mental illness; the diagnoses are so vast and interconnected that there is still so much misunderstanding around many mental health conditions. There is, even in 2019, a lot of stigma attached to the open discussion of mental ill health and a lot of fear too.

Yet, the discussion is one so exposing of a person’s inner world that it lends itself to the form of a one-person show.

Produced by Apricity Theatre, Open Mic follows the story of Lottie (played by Matilda Dickinson), a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, as she attempts to perform at an open mic night. Yet, just as she is about to perform an original song on the ukulele, Lottie suffers a…

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Opening Up

Open Mic. opens a week today. I’m so excited to put it out into the world, to have people hear Lottie’s story, see her brought to life so beautifully by Charlotte Turner-McMullan. I am equally completely terrified.

It’s always scary to put something you’ve made out into the world. Making a piece of art is a bit like making a horcrux, you put it out into the world asking people to look at this little piece of your soul and hopefully like it. But this one feels different.

For Open Mic that feeling is intensified, because Lottie’s story is my story.

Talking about mental health – especially your own mental health – never stops feeling a bit uncomfortable. I’ve done it a lot through the process of making Open Mic, and little by little it has become easier to talk about in the rehearsal room. Does that make it easier to talk about in other rooms? Not really. But it has helped me to get in the habit of it, see the value in it – not just for me, for other people too.

Anxiety is a pain in my ass. It always has been. There are little things that are hard every single day. Like, getting out of the car. I have no idea why that’s hard, but it is. So I end up just sitting in there for ages, staring off into space, totally incapable of opening the door and stepping out, and I have no idea why. Just this sense of terror and the tightness in my chest that keeps me anchored to my seat. But as a general rule, on a day to day basis I’m pretty high functioning. You wouldn’t have a conversation with me and walk away thinking “she has mental health problems”. It’s hard to recognise, but that’s the point isn’t it? Mental illness is invisible.

No one can ever truly know what’s going on in someone else’s head. So, if we want to try and share those experiences we have to talk about it. I always assumed that the way I think, the insecurities I have, the obsessions, the nerves that make me throw up, the voices in my head telling me I’m selfish and awful and useless, the innate and all-consuming dislike of myself, was ok, because everyone thought like that, just other people were better at hiding it. That they were stronger than me – are stronger than me – because they could carry on through it.

It took long, hard conversations with friends, family, doctors, to realise just how low my self-esteem was in comparison to other people, to realise that some people don’t have to fake like themselves, to realise not everyone assumes they are about to get disowned when their parents ask them “are you free for a chat?” To realise that maybe my brain isn’t quite normal and to give that a name.

I worry that it means there are people in my life who don’t feel like they can talk to me about their mental health worries – or general life worries – because they think I’m not strong enough to handle it without having a breakdown of my own.

I worry that sharing the way I have struggled in the past so openly and publicly will accentuate that. And

I worry that people don’t feel like they can talk to me because they feel like it’s my “thing”. Like, Hattie’s the one in the group with anxiety so no one else can have anxiety because that would be stepping on her toes? Which would be stupid, and I’m sure isn’t true. At least I really hope it isn’t true. I hope I’m not so self-involved that I wouldn’t notice if someone else was struggling, or wouldn’t be able to focus on their shit without bringing my own into it. But I do worry about that. A lot.

I’m constantly torn between thinking I’m a freak who is crazy and no one will ever love because of the weird way my stupid brain works, and thinking that I’m an attention seeker who has nothing wrong with them and I’ve somehow managed to trick or manipulate all of these people into thinking I’m crazier than I actually am and really I’m just a phony, and I’m normal and just making too big a fuss and as soon as someone gets close enough they will see through me and work it out and so no one will ever love me. I do come back to the no one will ever love me quite a lot.

Somewhere in there I should have made the point that mental illness can happen to anyone, and it’s not necessarily about the things that have happened in your life and what you have or haven’t been through. You don’t have to have traumatic things in your past to be depressed or anxious or schizophrenic or have OCD. You probably do to have post-traumatic stress disorder, but so many millions of things can cause trauma that it doesn’t have to be what people might assume. I look back through my life at the things that have always been there – my obsessions, my reaction to stressful things, my reactions to not stressful things like birthday parties or answering the phone… – and I think I have a pretty solid case for the idea that I’ve always had a form of anxiety, that it was genetically determined. The chemicals in my brain do weird things that make me feel weird ways. Which means it could have happened to anyone, anywhere, and at any time. There’s a comfort in that in a strange way. It’s not something I have control over, so it’s not my fault. For the part of me that is still a sceptical scientists daughter and has a lifetime of cultural conditioning about mental illness not being “real” or “proper” to fight against there is a certain level of validity in the idea that it has a biological cause.

I don’t have the monopoly on mental health issues or on what anxiety looks and feels like of course.

Sometimes, when someone is open about it it can feel a bit like they do. When you’re sitting in an audience listening to someone standing up on stage talking about their mental health it can feel like they’re giving the definitive account of what it’s like to have anxiety, and if the way you feel or handle it doesn’t fit into that exactly – which more often than not it doesn’t, because of COURSE it doesn’t – then if can feel like you don’t actually have what you think you have, or you’re getting having anxiety wrong. Which is not true. I can’t express enough how not true it is. I would hate to think that someone sitting in the audience for Open Mic hears Lottie sharing her experiences of depression and anxiety and thinking that because theirs is different it isn’t as valid, or they’ll get told off for having it wrong, or that “your anxiety looks different to mine so that must mean you don’t have anxiety”. Which is bullshit. I spent so much time not talking about the way I felt because I thought I would just get told that there’s nothing wrong with me, or “that’s not what anxiety is”, or that I was just trying to use it as an excuse for my behaviour.

No one has said those things to me. (Ok full disclosure, that’s not actually true. Occasionally people say some of those things out of ignorance. Very occasionally people say all of them with full understanding. But for the one person who said it, there have been countless others who haven’t, who have been understanding and supportive and validated me.) No one will say those things to you. And if they do, just remember, it doesn’t make it true.
If you come and see Open Mic – and I really hope you do – you might find that Lottie’s story is a bit alien to you. You might think find it interesting, but not applicable to your own life. But you might recognise that you’ve felt something similar sometime. Or it might just help you to see that there are people who will sit and listen.

 

By Hattie Taylor, writer and director of Open Mic.

See Open Mic. at The Curfew Pub, Bath Thursday 16th – Saturday 19th August. Get tickets at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/open-mic-tickets

My treatment journey

Hattie Taylor is the writer and director of Open Mic.

100 Days of Writing

As we start amping up towards Apricty’s new show, Open Mic., I can’t help reflecting on the journey I’ve been on with my mental health over the past 4 years or so. Part of that journey is internal, sure, and to a certain extent controlled by me and my thoughts. But part of it – the treatment part – is a lot more reliant on outside advice and input.

The path to overcoming mental illness is unique to every individual walking down it – it makes it hard to talk about without worrying that someone is going to tell you your way is wrong, or will hear your words as someone telling them that their way is wrong. But there is no wrong, just different. You do you. As long as you’re on the path you’re doing great.

My path looks a little like this:

I was initially on medication for…

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Happy Mental Health VISIBILITY Week

As you may have noticed, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Which is wonderful – mental health is something we should all be talking about more. But sometimes when these weeks roll around I can’t help but feel that – much like weddings and funerals – they’re more for the outside world than the people they’re directly about.

Not that that’s a bad thing, because it isn’t. More people speaking out about their struggles with mental health helps to widen the conversation, broaden understanding and decrease stigma. It gives other people the courage to stand up and say “yeah, I feel like that too, it’s totally normal”. Shame is a bugger and anything we as a society can do to make it less embarrassing to admit you see a therapist or have panic attacks sometimes or you had a little cry in the frozen isle of Sainsbury’s earlier because you couldn’t decide what to have for tea (we’ve all been there right?) is a good thing to do.

Awareness though. That’s a weird choice of word. If you struggle with your mental health – even if you haven’t named it – then you’re aware of it. It’s impossible not to be. You may not call it anxiety or depression or PTSD but you’ll be aware of the cloud hovering over you, the voice in your head telling you that everything is wrong, that you are wrong. That voice is inside you, that feeling is inside you and you can’t get away from it and you can’t ignore it. Sometimes, all you want in the world is to have a week when you AREN’T aware of it. A week where the crushing weight of the things inside your head doesn’t even occur to you. A week where you don’t think about your mental health at all, because you don’t have to. What a relief that would be. A week off from the constant battle with your own brain. I wish I could have that. But also I don’t, because my struggles with mental health have shaped and moulded me. They are integral to who I am, and I think I’m okay with who I am, so that means I have to keep them.

So awareness might not be the right word. Maybe visibility is a better one. Mental Health Visibility Week. And aren’t we all always saying that one of the worst things about a mental health condition is that it’s invisible?

The other good thing about visibility is that (in an ideal world) it comes hand in hand with representation. It’s important for people who don’t struggle with their own mental health because it helps them to understand, and it’s important for people who do because it lets us know we’re not alone – YOU ARE NOT ALONE –  and it helps to give them words to express how they feel. It is indescribably helpful, when you’re trying to articulate an abstract feeling that you will never find the words for, to just point at a book or a song or tv show and say “That. I feel like that.”

The representation of people living with a mental health condition in the media still isn’t what it should be – in terms of numbers and nuance – but it’s getting better. I’ve seen a lot of things this week celebrating art that has been made (especially books) about mental health. And not all of it represents everybody. That’s a really important thing to remember. Everyone’s mental health is totally unique – depression is not one size fits all – so not everything will be reflective of everyone’s experiences, and that’s ok. But, if you are struggling, or know someone who is, or are just interested, then these are some things that I’ve found helpful or that reflected my journey with mental health, even just a little bit, and I would recommend you check them out:

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (if you only look up one thing on this list, let it be this book), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (embrace the fact it’s a musical, and find it on Netflix), Bojack Horseman (this is a bit raw, it took me like 3 attempts to get into because it was too real), the Next to Normal Original Broadway Cast recording (particularly the song I Miss the Mountains), and Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. This is just a tiny selection, and if you have anything that has helped you with your mental health, or has made you breathe a sigh of relief because it shows that someone else gets it, then get in touch and tell us what it is.

And we want to carry on this conversation. Let’s make sure we’re aware of mental health – our own and each other’s – all the time. So that’s what our new show Open Mic is going to try to do. It’s a bit scary to talk about. It’s hard and a bit embarrassing. But more people speaking out is a good thing… right?

– by Hattie Taylor, writer & director of Open Mic.

Introducing the Cast of Between the Armies

The Rondo Theatre, Thursday 20th & Friday 21st September 2018
EMILY MALLOY • Rumour / Kate / Douglas
RUSSELL ECCLESTON • King Henry IV
STAN ELLIOTT • Prince Hal
NJEKO KATEBE • Harry Hotspur
MIKE HARLEY • Northumberland / Westmoreland
JAMES LEYSHON • Mortimer / Poins
ELISABETH WINKLER • Mistress Quickly / Blunt

‘Read o’er these articles’

Ever wondered what’s on those bits of paper that actors wave around onstage?

Every time the script calls for a letter or document or diary entry, I refuse to let the actors use a blank piece of paper. Firstly, it looks rubbish to an audience member if they notice that the letter a character has so desperately been clinging to turns out to be non-existent, but also because, without knowledge of what’s on that paper, how can an actor convincingly pretend that there is? Sometimes though, when you’ve been working with someone for a while and have a good enough relationship with them and their character, you can have a bit of fun.

In our recent show, Fall of Kings, King Richard must read a document, presented to him by Lord Northumberland before the court, that details his crimes and the reasons for his deposition. By this point in the play it is clear that Richard and Northumberland are not the best of friends, and it is left to the audiences to interpret why. The articles, written by Northumberland himself, might offer some clues…

To be hereby read by the former King, Richard II of Bordeaux, as further proof of his crimes against the crown, his people, this State and his friends.
I, Richard of Bordeaux, formerly King Richard II of England, of Ireland and of France, here in the presence of the now rightful King Henry Bolingbroke and the Commons, accept the declaration that I was an utterly crap king.
I understand that no one blames me for this fault, but accept that they are all quite pissed off with me and that I must be sentenced to some alone time in the Tower to think about what I have done.
I will now read a list of crimes that the Commons, the King and State here accuse me of, as well as a few extra that the Earl of Northumberland has added in.
The Commons hath I piled with grievous taxes, and quite lost their hearts. I admit that I have spent all of these taxes and so will have to submit an I.O.U. to all of those involved until further notice.
The nobles hath I fined for ancient quarrels, and quite lost their hearts, but really those rich bastards can afford it so I won’t be paying any of that back. In fact, Bolingbroke will probably use some of it to buy a boat. The rest can go towards family counselling for York and Aumerle.
I have devised daily new exactions, bonds, benevolences and Lord Ross wots not what. But in all fairness, Lord Ross wots not much and actually all of that was 100% legal and did the country quite a bit of good so Lord Ross can go screw himself.
I spent a shit tonne of money on “peace missions” to Ireland, which everyone knows were just week-long benders in Dublin where I spent all of the Crown’s money on hookers and margaritas.
I married Isabella while knowing full well that Northumberland fancied her, and now she will never want to go out with him as she’s about to be shipped off to France to die alone (until Henry V is born and decides he quite fancies her too. But she’ll probably reject him anyway. She’s so strong and independent.)
All this and much, much more I here confess to and declare that I am really sorry for all of it. I will go and think about what I’ve done and return when I am ready to apologise to Bolingbroke, the people of England and Northumberland. Unless some stupid bastard murders me in the meantime or something.
Former King and country-ruiner, Richard.

– by Lord Henry Percy of Northumberland, Fall of Kings, Burdall’s Yard 2018