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Annie Siddons tells us How (Not) To Live In Suburbia

How (Not) To Live Suburbia just wrapped up a successful run at Soho Theatre – attracting praise from the likes of the Times and Theatre Weekly – and we caught up with playwright and performer Annie Siddons to talk about art, loneliness, collaboration and community.

Tell us about How (Not) To Live In Suburbia, Annie…

It’s a hilarious, brutal and poignant show about chronic loneliness (my own). It features me and Nicki Hobday on stage, some excellent video by Richard DeDomenici, and some banging tunes. We opened it in Edinburgh last year and then did it at the Soho Theatre in London in February and August and now we’re touring it.

How does theatre allow us to approach themes of loneliness or mental health issues?

This is an excellent question. I’d say mainly in these ways: Going to a live art event – theatre, music, poetry, standup – is an intensely collective experience. So there’s that – a sense of sharing something with other people – a temporary community – which can make people feel safe and held in a space where difficult issues can be explored in a (hopefully) entertaining and hopeful way. In the theatre, you’re not going through that alone, you’re going through it with the other people who booked tickets for that night. There’s a strength in the community of that.

Secondly, I’m putting myself out there – literally – in front of an audience, talking quite frankly about what I went through. Because I’m there, bearing witness to what happened, I’ve clearly survived it and come out the other side. I’ve had a lot of audience members thanking me for doing that, saying that I’ve basically been talking about their own lives and their own mental states, or those of people they care about. I’ve done some of the work, forensically analysing what happened to me. I’ve thought about it and sifted it and made it into something, we hope with some skill, with my collaborators. So I’ve kick-started the process for the audience, hopefully.

It can be very difficult to make sense of what you’re going through when you’re suffering an extreme mental state, and I’ve tried to signpost – with showbiz – what that might look like. So in the work of making the show, we’ve tried to decode some of the bewildering array of feelings and symptoms of loneliness and shame, and to demystify them. With lolz.

Thirdly it’s in the form – theatre is very free ranging, and this show has spoken word, video and performance, all of which allow us to look at the theme in different ways. We can be playful in our approach because the form allows it. I think this can help with the deep exploration of the issue.

And with that in mind, how did you approach making the show?

The M O was just to be as frank, and as entertaining, as we could about what I went through. And to work with brilliant collaborators who could help me shape the show in the way it needed to be shaped.

Nicki, who is in the show but also co-directed, was instrumental in helping me fathom out how to present the live show. The show was made because I was trying to tell everyone that I was profoundly and dangerously lonely, and at that time I found no one really wanted to talk about it. Talking about it felt dangerous and profoundly isolating, because people found it so embarrassing, as if they were afraid they were going to catch loneliness from me. I found this interesting as at the time I started making the show – three years ago – people were already beginning to be much more open about mental health issues. There had been a shift, definitely, in our media and public and private discourse about mental health. But when it came to loneliness, that felt like something shameful, or something that was only a problem for socially isolated elders. To be sociable, gregarious, and yet dangerously lonely, felt at that time to be too difficult an admission. In the way of things, since I made the show the conversation about loneliness has massively opened up, and that’s great, so now I feel like I’m just one of the contributors to that conversation, in a very specific way.

It’s an intensely autobiographical piece of work – what steps did you take to look yourself and your own well-being?

Well, I feel protected in the form of it. I’m digging deep but in quite a controlled way. I’m essentially narrating. Nicki is doing all the acting. So that protects me from some of the material when I’m doing the show. We’ve had a LOT of conversations as well about what my responsibility is to audience members, and we’re still working on that, making sure that audience members feel supported AFTER they leave the show – by signposting, talking, hugging, writing – but also my primary job is to deliver the show. I can’t sort out everyone’s individual loneliness issues, much as I would like to. It’s a process.

I take care of my mental health, now, in a way that I really didn’t when I was in the thick of it. We kind of hint at that in the show. For me, it’s a heady combo of exercise, not drinking, therapy, and being more courageous, and less macho, about what I’m feeling, when I’m talking to my close people. That was a really hard process. I was very macho. I feel that it’s important I say that in a men’s health forum, even though I am a woman. I felt that as a single parent I had to be this strong, capable, invulnerable force for good, that I had to endure whatever was going on without cracking. I had to earn money. I had to represent for my kids. I had to be ok. Those standards were so high and I was destined to fail. I don’t, any more, punish myself so much or drive myself so hard, although those tendencies are deeply hardwired into me.

What’s next for you and the play?

We want to get the show out there to as many people as possible. We’re really proud of it as a show, for one, but also the conversation about loneliness is only just beginning. Loneliness is endemic across all demographics and it needs to be talked about a LOT, so we want to enable that in some way. We’ve done some work with some psychologists around the theme and we’re looking to do more kind of cross disciplinary work where we present the show in a context of general talk about loneliness, from a research perspective. Also, I’m trying to get it made into TV at the moment.

I’m also working on a new show, which is called Dennis of Penge, which is about addiction, friendship, ecstasy, and revenge, with the same team of excellent collaborators, and some new ones. It will be ready sometime next year. It’s early days at the moment.

How (Not) To Live In Suburbia will tour in November:

November 1 Norwich Arts Centre
November 10 Harlow Playhouse
November 17 Lincoln Performing Arts Centre
November 18 Live Art Bistro Leeds
November 21 The Marlborough, Brighton

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