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Comedy, depression… and a goldfish?

Described by Ruby Wax as “hilarious”, Black Dog Gold Fish is a touching comedy tackling issues of mental illness through the tale of three men and a goldfish.

Here, the play’s producer and general tech-innovator-cum-theatre-hero, Eva Liparova, shares her take on making a play with your mate, normalising anxiety and crowdsourcing “100 silly things we did when we were depressed”…

Exactly a year ago, Black Dog Gold Fish by my theatre company Parrot in the Tank got funded on Kickstarter. Back then, the idea was to make a little show with a big heart to tell a tender story about depression.

And so we made this for the Vault Festival 2015.

Since then, we got Arts Council funding to open the show again in London, which happened yesterday! But looking over the year, it’s been even more brilliant to see that we’re not by far the only story in the arts that has brought depression to the public attention. On the contrary, the topic has literally exploded amongst theatre-makers, writers and artists.

Bryony Kimmings and her fiance Tim made Fake It Till You Make It, Ruby Wax is on at the Arts Theatre now with Sane New World, Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive became a bestseller, Dogs Of War by Tim Foley were brilliant as was My Beautiful Black Dog from Brigitte Aphrodite. Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan and Paines Plough was one of my theatre highlights last year. The Arcola has recently done Technically Speaking about male mental health.

I think this is all fantastic news. But two thoughts occurred to me.

1) What can we do to continue normalising depression after the ephemeral lives of the performances? How can we bring all those audiences to one place that lasts where they can see it’s normal to feel depressed?

2) Having spoken to a journalist friend and assessing how saturated stories around depression in theatre have been, how different is the story of Black Dog Gold Fish to the shows above? And if not, does it deem the subject matter less relevant today?

I’ll start with point 2.

THE STORY OF BLACK DOG GOLD FISH

Well, it all started like this.

My dear friend Sam Bailey, our company’s director, wrote a script based on his own experiences of living with clinical depression. He was diagnosed about three years ago, following his departure from Parrot, job and his home. It took him two years to tell us what was going on.

Not only was the script a personal confession to us as mates, it was also a life hack type project to help him understand what he was actually going through.

I must admit, I was a bit averse to it before reading it. You know when you go a bit like… “Hmmm, is this going to be a bit self-indulgent… If it is, how on earth am I going to tell him… Oh my god, how can I even think that… That’s so wrong… That thought makes me a horrible friend… Oh God, I’m an AWFUL friend.”

And then I read it.

Tears of laughter.

It was brilliant.

IMAGE: Eva Liparova

IMAGE: Eva Liparova

Mad as a bottle of crisps but never mocking depression. Monty Python-esque comedy skating tenderly around moments of humble realisations. The sort of writing that makes you clap instantaneously at the end even thought there’s no one else around in the room.

It was set in a fading seaside aquarium and told the story of Remy, a troubled employee who hates his job and spends his days afloat by releasing the captive fish back into the sea. Until one day he finds that he’s accidentally sunk towards the ocean’s bedrock himself.

It had the DNA to help normalise the stigma around anxiety issues. Or so I thought.  As a producer, I felt it would have been criminal not to put it on.

COMMITTING TO MAKING IT HAPPEN.

We signed it up to the Vault Festival and launched the Kickstarter campaign. For the first time, Sam publicly confessed to a chemical imbalance in his body (that’s what chronic, clinical depression is) and announced the show to the world.

We were shocked at the way and speed that the sharing was happening. Statuses from friends such as “Sam talking very eloquently about things I find difficult to talk about” was incredibly humbling.

We met the target within 7 days.

Meanwhile, a few amazing actors and our good friends jumped onboard.  Andrea Foa, A Gaulier graduate, Joe Boylan of Barrel Organ, Kyle Shephard AKA Dafty and Joe Connor from Parrot. It took us 12 days to make a show we were happy to share as a work in progress.

IMAGE: Zak Macro

IMAGE: Zak Macro

The response truly delighted us. All 7 shows were sold out. But as with the shows I mentioned above, we were most moved by audiences stepping forward and confessing to their own dark secrets after they’d seen the show. In those moments, the label of depression had been lifted and ‘depression’ as such stopped existing. It was perfect humans talking about perfectly human things. The show created a safety net for the heart.

But these don’t last long. Which is partly the beauty of theatre, but it’s a frustrating trait of it too. It goes away just as you really want it to stay.

But what happens to those people who can’t make the show at all? The wider community beyond the seat numbers of a limited run at a set location?

Zak Macro

Zak Macro

GETTING PRACTICAL, COLLECTIVELY.

Is our story more unique than others? That’s not for me to answer, but it’s been most healthy to see how inclusive the humour is. If Black Dog Gold Fish wasn’t a comedy, it wouldn’t make as many people speak up. Why? If you can make someone laugh about your own condition, you invite them to do the same or make them want to learn about it.

And those two actions are key to making depression – or any other social ‘abnormality’ – OK.

This is a call for help – a shout out to the other fantastic shows about depression and their audiences. A shout out to our friends. A shout out to amazing organisations that help people with depression every day. And a shout out to you who have just stumbled on this blog or across the show.

With your help, I want to crowdsource a bible of 100 silly things we did when we felt depressed.

Sam Bailey wrote a comedy that shows a lot of silly things he did. I’m so proud of him for celebrating that. I’d now love to know your idiot story. What silly thing did you do when you felt depressed. I’ve created a site where anyone can post that silly thing anonymously. The deadline for submissions is 21st March 2016. Go ahead and click: 100 silly things we did when we felt depressed.

I will put these together into a post on my blog or follow me on @evaliparova on twitter. If you feel like it, please share it with your friends – the more idiots, the less silly this becomes!

Please note that you don’t need to have a ‘diagnosed’ condition to contribute. What matters is all of us have felt down at some point in our lives. I mean, rock bottom, shitty, don’t want to be here, down. So we might as well connect over that rather than segregate into ‘depression’ and ‘sadness’ boxes.

Black Dog Gold Fish is showing at the Hen & Chickens until 27 March. Tickets here.

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