It all started when I realised just how much I wanted my life to end.
My name is Annie Cheung and I am an actress from Hong Kong. In 2017, I received a prestigious scholarship to study at Mountview, one of the best drama schools in London but despite this opportunity to pursue my dream, I am still a very unhappy person. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement; I suffer from high-functioning depression.
I have never attempted suicide but always welcomed the idea of all kinds of fatal accidents befalling me. I still feel ashamed to admit to having these thoughts because I know that many people who have died in tragic accidents would have loved the opportunity to live. And I am afraid to tell people about my unhappiness for fear that they will think that I am ungrateful, self-pitying and self-indulgent. After all, that’s what I think of myself.
Every day I put on a smile and arm myself with positive thoughts. As an actress, acting happy and confident is something I have been able to pull off quite convincingly and to be honest, I see it as a necessity: who would want to be around a sad and negative person? And also, fake it ‘til you make it, right? Sometimes it does work. Just like what we call the ‘outside-in’ technique in acting, what you do really can affect how you feel. The endorphins produced after yoga or running also help me, but not enough to make me love my life.
Whilst training at drama school, I undertook something called the ‘Creative Project’, which required me to combine practice and research and craft this into a creative performance. To start with, I had no idea at all what I should do. All I wanted was to find a way to become a happier person; I was so sick of crying alone in my room. I turned to Google and searched for ‘depression’ and ‘drama therapeutic performance’. This was how I came to realise that I had all the symptoms of high-functioning depression and discovered a genre of theatre called ‘self-revelatory performance’ which merges therapy and performance.
Over the course of six sessions with a drama therapist, my fears and struggles were gradually uncovered: I feel unwanted as an actress, I feel unwanted as a wife, I feel unwanted as a human being. Since the day I was born, I have been trying so hard to make myself worthy of being wanted and whenever I realise that I am less than perfect (which I guess everybody is!), I question the meaning of my existence in the world. Through these six drama therapy sessions, my solo performance, DOTS, started to emerge.
When I tried to turn these intimate and personal materials into an artistic theatre performance, I was confronted with another fear: would it become a self-indulgent show? Would the audience think, “Oh my god, please leave this shit to your therapist! I don’t want to know that!”? As the writer/performer/director, would I be capable of making the show entertaining, truthful and insightful? Fortunately, the laughter and tears of my first audience at Mountview did reassure me that I do have a meaningful story to share. Their feedback gave me the courage to bring the show to the public, to share it with more people. That is how DOTS came to Camden Fringe. It’s really something truly unexpected. Serendipity, I would say.
I can’t say all my problems are solved and I am completely turned into an optimistic and happy person because of the six therapy sessions and this show. No. Life is more complicated than that. However, I do feel that I have changed for the better. I have started enjoying the process instead of just caring about the result. And as a person, I finally feel that my life has something to contribute, that I have something to offer to the lives of others because now I have the urge to create something and share with people. I think this is good enough. And looking back, I am grateful for having this horribly dark period because such experience forcibly drove me to create. In Chinese, the term for the word ‘create’ involves a character which could mean ‘wound’ (創) and another character which means ‘work’ (作). To me, this is true. All my creative work, be it a song, be it a play, originated from my wounds. And now I understand why. Because art heals and brings hope.
DOTS will also be playing the Maiden Speech Theatre Festival at the Tristan Bates Theatre on 1 December 2018.