Bristol based performance artist Viki Browne knows what it’s like to come undone, to feel your world unravel and struggle to piece the puzzle back together. So much so, she has created a vibrant, one-woman show to deal with the complex yet so often misunderstood human condition – in all its vivid darkness, with a sensitivity and poise.
For one night only, Viki’s original performance ‘HELP!’ will be coming to The Wardrobe Theatre on 9 April. An autobiographical account of Viki’s own life experiences, she seeks to challenge our assumptions surrounding depression and anxiety. In doing so, she has created a uniquely perceived piece of art – that will both resonate, alienate and then merge the two dichotomies beautifully back together.
We had a catch up with writer, director and performer Viki Browne.
When did you decide to portray your personal struggles in a stage show, and was the concept a straightforward one to convert from page to stage?
I have always been interested in working with autobiography, and have personal experience in all of my performance work, even if previously it was hidden behind a character. HELP! began in January 2014 when I made a piece called ‘By The Book’. I undertook an anthropological experiment where I read self-help books and tried to apply their theories to my life in a series of experiments, to see if any of them made me feel ‘better’. After performing this at The Bike Shed Theatre I realised that the self-help-book-experiment was a device I was using to hide my experiences of anxiety and depression. I realised that this was the story screaming to be told and so started working on HELP!.
Do you feel that this particular show of yours, connects with live audiences in ways that are more powerfully moving than perhaps you might have expected?
Yes, I have been amazed, and a little overwhelmed by how audiences have received and responded to HELP! across the U.K. The first time I performed it I walked into the bar after the performance, and was greeted by people publicly sharing their experiences. I hadn’t realised the power of sharing a personal narrative, and the way it really invites and encourages other people to share their own stories. This was when I realised the piece had quite clear social impact, in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness through open, public conversation. I have a whole collection of letters, emails, poems and pictures that people have sent me in response to the performance and I am very grateful to everyone who has taken the time to contact me.
Your own struggles with anxiety and/or depression have informed this show – have you aimed to keep it only loosely based in truth, or do you imbue your performances in an honesty that can only be drawn from personal experience? HELP! opens with the line. ‘Today I am going to tell you the truth, but I’ll never be able to give it to you entirely, my version of the truth is wrapped in a 60 minute play and I’ll sell you a seat so you can see it’. I go on to share the letter I received from the Devon Depression and Anxiety service when I was discharged. There is a push pull with truth telling, I am telling a true story, but it is on stage and so that in some way naturally warps the truth.
In devising this piece, has it given you distance and understanding on the experiences you have been through, and has it opened up new ways of understanding yourself and others?
I am coming to realise that I make performance as a way to try and understand things that are happening in my life. HELP! was about understanding and processing the loss of self that occurred when my perceptions of reality were challenged by mental illness. The performances are my way of talking about things that I wouldn’t be able to talk about in real life. Things that I don’t have the language to convey or communicate in casual conversation. I suppose performance is my way of saying the unsayable, and I hope it gives other people a verbal and physical language or at least a reference point from which to begin their own conversations.
Your show will be coupled with a series of talks from key figures in the field of mental health – is this a new addition to your show, and in what ways will you hope that this will give a deeper dimension to your work?
After the confetti cannon has exploded, the tin foil has been used up and the lights have gone down, leading mental health charities and services will make their way to the stage at The Wardrobe Theatre to discuss ways in which to seek help, narratives of recovery and to debunk some mental illness myths. Claire Barnard the Outreach Advocacy Co-ordinator at MIND and Laura May Brain the Young People’s Participation & Rights Worker from Off The Record Bristol will be appearing with me on the panel. I will also be hosting ‘The Mad Lunch Club’ this will be at 1pm at The Old Market Assembly and will be the opportunity for people to share their personal narratives and continue the discussion from the night before.
What has been the most challenging part of communicating these ideas on stage, and in what ways has humour and a light-hearted approach given your ideas flight?
I wanted to find a way to communicate about mental illness without it seeming scary. I want people to engage with the work and concepts at play rather than rejecting them as ‘other’. I think that humour, clowning and the ‘entertainment’ format can be powerful tools to use in communicating difficult topics. Giving people clear reference points to hook on to. I have always been a bit of the class clown, telling stories about my life in a humorous way. I think that humour also allows people to open up emotionally, your senses and emotions are heightened and I think that allows space to also tap into sadness.
What would be your advice for anyone out there who might be struggling – and specifically, in what ways can performance art be a useful method for overcoming demons and developing new coping strategies?
I think the most important thing to remember if struggling from some sort of mental illness, or even just having a bad day is that you are not alone. Other people have felt like you have. When your perceptions of reality are challenged by mental illness you can feel very, very alone. Everyone develops their own personal strategies for helping themselves and feeling better. For me, a big thing was trying to understand what had happened and develop a language in which to communicate my experiences. That is what making this performance helped me with. Yet I wouldn’t have managed any of it without the support of my mum, a helpful university lecturer, an NHS Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, my partner, friends and family.
When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a stage based career and have you maintained to stay true to this original desire?
I am an artist first and foremost, but I can make a mean coffee and pull a pint. I suppose I’ve always wanted to work in performance. In a diary entry aged seven I wrote that I wanted to be an actress, and then in brackets it reads (or a vet). I am less interested in being on stage and more in the making of performance, and performance theory. Despite this I still find myself on stage performing my work because of its autobiographical nature. I am currently obsessed with the concept of living remains and the way that archive images can be re-animated by performance. I’m basically a geek and an artist who secretly wants to be a Spice Girl. I call myself a performance artist.
HELP! at The Wardrobe Theatre on Saturday 9 April. After the performance, Viki will be joined by a panel of representatives from mental health related charities and services to discuss themes and topics brought up by the production. (Previously attended by Rethink Mental Illness, MIND, The Devon Depression and Anxiety Service, Recovery Devon and Time to Change).
Time: 8pm. Tickets: £8 available: www.thewardrobetheatre.com
For more information on Viki Browne: www.vikibrowne.com