Debs Gatenby has just driven across the Yorkshire Dales and, as this interview takes place, is staying at her mum’s. It’s an appropriate location, givien that the topic of conversation is Hi, Anxiety – a show Gatenby wrote based on her mother’s (and her own) struggles with mental health.
“There’s my story and then it goes into my mum’s story… and I’ve made it into a bit of a comedy, because even when you’re in the darkest times you always find that a sense of humour seems to come in.” The piece actually started as a TED talk, which Gatenby then developed into a longer biography about a time that she describes simply by saying she “didn’t feel very well”. And soon as she’d come through that period of anxiety herself, Gatenby’s mother fell into her own struggles with depression, leading to a stretch of difficult time that the writer had to address head-on as she wrote this show. Something easier said than done. “I remember first starting to write it out, and when you’re writing you have to take yourself back to that moment… I did find myself getting quite emotionally churned up by it again.”
“I found it difficult,” Gatenby continues, “because you’re trying to be honest and there are moments in it where I’ve talked about my mum wanting to die or not wanting to be around any longer… then I think, you know, I’ve made a promise to be honest so I need to stick to that.” However, she found that after a while the process of the writing began to become less painful and actually helped her move on from some of those hard memories. “Some days I sat and rewrote stuff and rewrote stuff and I cried a lot, and I said right, rewrite it again. And I kept rewriting till I stopped crying… In a way it was actually cathartic. It was hard but I’m glad I did it because it does help heal stuff.”
And not only for herself – she’s been encouraged and moved by the response from people who’ve seen the play so far. Audience members have come up after the show and told her things like “I’ve been through that” and “I’ve experienced it”, or described feeling comforted to see that someone else has gone through the same things as they have. “That’s been really amazing”, reflects Gatenby, “seeing that you’re not the only one who suffers with anxiety and depression, that there is that darker side to life.” It’s not all doom and gloom though, there may not “be a bundle of laughs, but there will hopefully be some!”
After all, Gatenby has experience in the funny side of performance – before she started writing she worked in stand-up comedy. “I did go and do acting training, and then didn’t get any work. I came out of college and I wasn’t getting any work so I thought, well, I’m not sitting around waiting for it to come to me! So I ended up doing comedy by accident.” The competitiveness and knock-backs of the acting world shocked a young Gatenby, and she ruefully describes her younger self as “not strong enough” to deal with the pressure. “I think some people are very good at it and accept the fact that they’re going to have knock-backs and get better at handling it, but I thought ‘oh god I’m really not strong enough’ – I did take it personally, which was very silly!”
After so many auditions and trying figure out exactly what directors were looking for, Gatenby says that she far prefers writing her own shows – where she has ownership and control, but she sends a word of warning out to young people about to jump into the foray. “It’s so highly competitive. I just couldn’t handle the rejections. I don’t know how people do it. I was 25 and it crushed me… I found it too painful.” She says that her best piece of advice is to do something she never got the hang of – “learn how to be very thick-skinned and believe in yourself above anything that happens to you.”
The other piece of advice she has to offer is that if you’re not getting anywhere with auditions, go ahead and make your own work. In fact, she thinks it’s not just an alternative option – it’s a very important and necessary one. “It will keep theatre alive and kicking because then you’ve got young people and their voices and their experiences as young people now… which I think is far more useful than repeating all the old plays! I think it’s more important to hear young people’s voices and young people making shows themselves – and it doesn’t take that much money, you can beg, steal and borrow, and you can ask people for help with things.”
After its performance at the Canada Water Culture Space, Gatenby wants to take Hi, Anxiety around some out-of-the-way rural venues: “I’d love to go to lots of village halls in really obscure little villages where theatre doesn’t really go. I want to go down the back roads!” She laughs, and muses on the possibility that Hi, Anxiety may grace next year’s Edinburgh festival. “Edinburgh has broken me in the past… physically, mentally and financially broken me! So my ultimate goal is to get it to Edinburgh.” And after that, a quite different writing challenge: “After this piece I’m making myself write something completely opposite to this – I’m writing a show about happiness!”
Hi, Anxiety is at the Canada Water Cultural Space on 10 October. For more information and tickets, visit the website.