My family in Essex think I’m nuts. Funny but nuts. They don’t understand what I’m trying to do as a career, but (luckily) they love the idea of it. “…Our Michelle’s a playwright and an actor!” Therefore I become an idea. An idea of who they think I am. “All actors are a bit odd or seek attention or are self-involved or… [insert other family member’s thoughts here] … aren’t they?” They think my passion, ambition and sensitivity is because I’m nuts, and not that it’s in fact a byproduct of various mental health issues.
When writing about living with poor mental health, it’s hard to not think that you’re being self-indulgent or wallowing in it. You almost feel guilty for wanting to talk about it or air it. But that stopped for me when I started writing Full Circle. I wanted to put those living with mental health issues on stage, with all their very human qualities.
My journey properly began as I sat in my GPs office, after being dragged there by my mum at 21 years old. The short story is, my GP didn’t believe me and told me to phone the Samaritans. Thanks Doc. Thanks a lot. Four years passed and I got worse. Lots of panic attacks, I lost weight very quickly, I cried all the time… This is when I was recommended a therapist by a friend, but I felt that I was undeserving of therapy. I wasn’t Amy Winehouse, or any amazing tortured artist, I was just Michelle from Essex, who gets a bit sad sometimes. Therapy helped. The drugs she prescribed helped. (Even if they did make me go up a dress size, and that makes me cry because, you know… Victoria’s Secret models?!) But it took me so long to get proper help. Luckily I have a very supportive friendship circle and a good family, so I was a lucky one. I just worry for the young people fobbed off in the way that I once was, that perhaps don’t have as good a network around them as I did… Or maybe they do have good people around them… But it’s about people recognising signs and wanting to listen.
So, Full Circle. Nicole is 21. She can’t decide if she has no mates because she’s crazy or crazy because she has no mates. So she does the only logical thing she can think of and sets up a peer support group in Essex to make friends and start talking. But Amy’s got the hump and Skye’s real name isn’t Skye. How can they go from three to a full circle without advertising to the world that they’re… well, mental? — Each character has their own story to tell, a way in which they handle their illness, and their own opinion on suffering. They are characters who have various mental illnesses, but importantly, are not defined by them. The danger with theatre about mental health is that it is sad or hard to watch and they sometimes become a literal or stereotypical translation of ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’, but I wanted Full Circle to be different. Full Circle explores these illnesses with all their very human qualities. They are people first, and the illnesses happen to be with them. I’ve always used comedy to help me combat how I feel, especially in front of other people, and this creeps in through my writing.
Mental health problems can take many forms, in many different people and I wanted to explore this in a way that can be understood by even the most sceptical of audience members.
Full Circle will be premiering at the brand new Brewery Fringe, Romford on Friday 23rd February, 3.30pm and Saturday 24th February, 7.30pm. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://www.thebreweryfringe.co.uk/artist/michelle-payne/