I’d like you to stop looking at me now

By Helen Duff

An instinct we’ve all felt at some time, whether tripping over the flat-as-a-pancake pavement – “must be something wrong with my shoes. No, seriously, these shoes have been playing me up for ages. It’s got nothing to do with the way I walk; I walk well, better than most, in fact. These shoes are just clinically defective” – to revealing something far too personal to the family dentist – I’ll let you fill that gap in for free…

It shouldn’t come as a shocking revelation that comedians feel the “please don’t look at me” instinct as well – hey, despite the high-class glamour of a cold ham and cheese toasty on the post-gig train home, we’re real people too! (I’ve never had a cold ham and cheese toasty on the train home. I don’t like ham. Please like me!) In fact, I’d say the instinct to hide yourself away gets stronger and more imbedded the better you become at putting your jokes on show. Jobbing comics may appear to expose themselves to personal scrutiny on a nightly basis, but laughter is a great way to divert attention from what you’re most afraid of. Don’t forget that most comics started learning their craft in the classroom, where being ahead of the joke – even if it was being made at your expense – was the best way to avoid being its butt.

So far, so typical joke as defence mechanism – “he’s only teasing you because he likes you honey!” – a maxim I learned early, because it was asserted in every episode of Sweet Valley High (generally by the “smarmy” twin Jessica, who touted her wares like an over dressed (read 90’s) lady of the night while her identical twin Liz – never Lizzie, because she had smarts! – played Miss Priss. Ah, what a plethora of feminine ideals pre-teen telly presented (sorry, my mistake, presents).

I was asked to write this article because things on the comedy circuit seem to be changing. More comics are making mental health a part of their sets than ever before and it’s definitely trending on twitter. A wave of transparency is washing over our stages, with public figures like Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry talking openly about their on-going battles with depression and a greater sense of awareness arising across the media. But I’m a cynic and suspicious and one of the reasons I get on stage is to poke at the world, rather than accept how it appears to be. And there’s nothing more suspicious than a trend (OK, there are a lot of things, like trench coats worn with dark glasses and a rifle holster, but we’re not picking apart the 3rd instalment of the “Taken” film franchise here).

I’m very suspicious of trends. Especially when they involve spinning good copy out of something deeply personal. Something that’s often impossible to communicate in coherent sentences, let alone 5 tidy paragraphs with a space for snaps on the side. I’ve heard enough witty one liners about why someone’s hair colour makes them look like Skippy the kangaroo to last me a life time; I don’t want mental health issues to become the go-to gambit for new comics saving face on the scene. Which is why it might seem strange for me employ clowning in my first solo show, Vanity Bites Back; a piece inspired by my experiences of anorexia that takes the form of a TV cookery pilot. Yet, for me, as the smarmy Sweet Valley twin would say, it was a no brainer (Liz with the smarts would not say this, for obvious reasons, primarily: if you had no brain you would be devoid of speech).

In its purest form, clown builds an honest and immediate relationship with its audience – acknowledging that something’s flopped, sharing the joy of that failure and building the show from there. It’s also the opposite of my experience with anorexia, which was rooted in a need for control and an inability to act spontaneously for fear of not knowing what might happen next. Clown presented me with a double challenge – it forced me to act on my instincts as an improviser and pushed me to stay in contact with the audience when broaching a topic that until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t admit to suffering with, let alone consider making a show about. No chance to run away into your “don’t look at me unless your laughing” defence mechanism. Witty one-liners that deflect attention from the unfinished, imperfect bits, see ya later! Throughout the show, my biggest test is to remain present to the room, accepting how the audience is responding to my material and celebrating the fact that they’re there to make it with me. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean I monologue about my inner torture from moment to moment (attending a therapy session dressed up as a comedy show is my idea of living hell). Or do worry, worry a lot, then come and see the show and stop for a bit.

We’re living in a world that’s increasingly self reflexive and insular. Less touch. Less allowance for levity. Fewer reminders of the idiocy that appears in a moment, tickles us with its simplicity, then disappears into the day. More than enough VLOGS, GIFS and MEMES – all of which sound like something you’ve regurgitated and quite regularly watch like them, too. The e-version of spontaneous performance, available on continuous repeat. Watched through your mobile browser, on a friend’s Facebook feed, at x-o-clock in the morning. A “friend” you’ve never actually met, whose holiday snaps you’ve definitely envied. It’s no wonder comics are seizing the stage, breaking through the technological bubble and taking the mind-set it incubates as its main target. Being able to perform in front of a live audience and take an interest in how they’re responding to your show is a gift. To acknowledge that you’re both there, together, making the best of things. Or not. Which is bloody scary and exposing to admit in the moment. But ultimately worth it, I hope.

For tickets visit http://www.vaultfestival.com/project/vanity-bites-back/

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