“You’re a very good leader and you’re very good at listening to others”. Ellie Stamp has just met me, but she tells me this ‘fact’ based purely on the numbers of my birthday. It sounds lovely, and part of me wants to believe it. I’d be in good company. Elvis Presley – the King himself – was obsessed with these ideas of numerology and destiny numbers, and its an idea Stamp runs with in her interactive show Are You Lonesome Tonight? “We believe in numbers but the things that we assign to those numbers might not necessarily be correct.” Damnit. Qualitative data really isn’t any good for discussed changing things, like human personality. I may not end up being Prime Minister, then.
After having “run away from the world” for a while, Stamp created theatre and headed to university before becoming a part of Stamp Collective, a group which made work collaboratively (when I ask what her background is, she tells me that “My background is in people, and interactions, and making games, and making a mess of theatre,” which is a pretty great CV in my opinion). In 2010, as a Christmas present, she was given a book by a family member diagnosed with schizophrenia, who told her that she was the “secret love child of Elvis”. Now, following discussions with various academics, she has made a show which “explores how belief systems are formed”. In short, it attempts to ask the audience: “Who do other people think you are? When are labels useful and when are they constricting?”
If this sounds a lot like Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation, don’t be fooled; Stamp and Thorpe are good friends (he’s invited her for tea to dampen nerves) but she insists that they’re two “very different shows talking about similar things”. Now that Stamp has suggested she might be related to Elvis, for example, people constantly find a family resemblance. “I don’t look like Elvis,” she asserts, and she doesn’t. “But I’ve said that I do. I’ve told you, so now it’s true. We see what we expect to see.”
Though this show at Summerhall has thematic similarities with the solo piece across the road, the form is vastly different. Including singing, group games and audience interaction, Stamp hopes Are You Lonesome Tonight? is a “pleasurable experience” and lifts towards some kind of collectivism at its climax. “A lot of my practice has always been about choice, which is why I make interactive work – do you choose to talk to me or not? Do you choose to do this or not? Obviously it’s not yes or no; there are hundreds of choices.”
This notions of choice are important to the themes underlying the piece regarding mental health. At the heart of the show, Stamp is trying to understand how much of a choice we have over the beliefs we hold, the beliefs others hold about us and the ability each of us may (or may not) have to help those with particular diagnoses. All this relates back to the place the show germinated. “All the statistics show that if you help someone in this early-intervention crisis state, then you can stop it happening. But once you tip over this line, it’s very difficult to go back. This could happen to anyone and the more we understand this and talk about it, you realise there’s nothing wrong with you – it’s because you’re human.”
Our personal delusions – or not – are interrogated and questioned throughout the show, which is why Elvis is such a perfect example, being both a sex god and a fat man in a seventies jump suit all at once. A delusional belief, Stamp tells me, is “an idiosyncratic idea not held by others,” which means that in our everyday lives we look for validation in our opinion to stop us from feeling ‘abnormal’. This need to be grounded in a chaotic world is perhaps why we look to numbers and astrology. “Science and maths are really complicated,” Stamp argues, “and we like them but we’re afraid of them. It’s the same with mental health; we have this fascination with madness but we’re afraid of it. With music, however, you can all listen to an Elvis song and know how it’s supposed to make you feel.”
This final point is a response to a question I ask about language and words, about how the way in which we talk about something can help or hinder our understanding of it. “That’s why art is important – because we’re trying to find things that aren’t necessarily just words,” Stamp says, as we discuss the intricacies and subtleties of linguistics. In concluding a discussion about the show itself, she returns to this idea. “It’s not really ‘theatre’. I don’t know what it is. We don’t need those words – they’re silly. You can be like ‘I would write some words about Ellie but I can’t because Ellie says that words are strange things’.” If only it were that easy.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? is at Summerhall until 22 August. For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.