The idea for Black Dog Gold Fish came through a side plot to our last major show, Champagne Breakfast. The main protagonist was a darts champion, who had to face up to his failures after he accidentally spears a gold fish at a fairground stall. That scene got dropped, but the image of the gold fish stayed in my thoughts.
Completely separate to this I had a nervous breakdown and had to admit I needed help. Throughout my recovery I wrote down the thoughts and feelings that were spurred on by an unraveling mind. The Gold Fish had always felt like an antagonist for some reason, so it slowly became the face for my own mania, until eventually, the script for Black Dog Gold Fish was born.
Even though the source material for the show is from my personal experience, the freedom of using the Gold Fish analogy meant that we could focus on telling the story of the relationships surrounding the breakdown. It felt more interesting to explore the impact on friendships in relation to depression. The danger, however, is the personification (or caninification, which is definitely not a real word) that comes with referring to depression as a ‘Black Dog’. It is easier to give it a face to be able to shout back at it, but really it’s all very internal and chemical.
This was something to be mindful of; not to profess to having answers of how to win at depression by pacifying it like a creature, but to learn to coexist with a condition like a destructive friend. After all, Black Dog Gold Fish has become a show about choosing your friends wisely. I am sure a lot of us remember having a childhood friend who we only now realise bullied us to keep us close.
The process of making Black Dog Gold Fish was a lot of fun – we started over a year ago working towards a scratch at the Vault Festival, and underwent Arts Council funded development a couple of months ago to get to our current run at the Hen & Chickens Theatre.
Sharing the weight out with the company was something that allowed ownership across the board and for the show to become bigger than just an idea of mine.
At Parrot in the Tank, we have always worked very closely together and our best work comes when we collaborate. My main focus was to redefine what the writing and directing role entailed alongside the designing process. For me, directing within the circle of Parrot is more about the actors’ performance onstage, rather than an overview of the entire project.
Writing it was a big cathartic mess, and it took some big questions from the team to keep it on course. Knowing that I could always step back and tell the story of a friendship with an utter bastard meant that it wouldn’t get too bogged down in self indulgence and thus too removed from an audience to enjoy.
The script actually went out the window this year, the second time round we’d approached it, and the whole company descended into the room with ideas and things to play with. Notably, helium and two way mirrors. This was enough to redefine the story we had discovered the first time round and make it more ‘Parrot’, a dreamlike and surreal characteristic where lighting, sound, staging and acting are equally balanced.
Unknown to the company, I underwent another bout of depression midway through this second development, which in some ways forced me to be a little more challenging with the subject – it became more important to be more honest with the theme than to just polish the show.
Every time we stage this show, we are approached by more and more individuals who have had similar experiences, and it is great to hear people resonating with what we have produced. It has further reinforced that there are far more people who suffer in silence than ever imagined, but has definitely helped as a starting point for myself to speak more openly about it. The whole company have been super comforting about it all and have in many ways saved my life, or at least saved me from having a wasted one.
If you track the peaks and troughs of the play, it actually mirrors the cycle of depression. Manic fun and reckless invulnerability, into self-doubt and confusion, to then shutting down entirely and becoming numb and non-responsive, only finally to slowly resurface with the hangover, but with ignorance and forgetfulness to what has happened.
I would hope that people would see the show and feel more comfortable to talk about it a little more than when they went in. Maybe to reach out and chat to a friend they think might be hiding something along these lines, or if they ever felt this way to feel comforted that they aren’t alone.
Black Dog Gold Fish is at The Hen & Chickens Theatre 15-27 March.
Image: Zak Macro