HOME in the Fringe

I've been looking forward to seeing Home / The Hilarious Comedy About How I Nearly Killed Myself / A Play About How I Nearly Died But Didn't Then Learned A Lot About Life Afterward in the Fringe Festival for months, and I was not disappointed.

The play, written and performed by local actor/theatre and film graduate/sometimes rapper Freya Desmarais and presented by Hungry Mile Theatre, was mind-blowingly good. I'd probably go as far as saying it's the best piece of Fringe theatre I've ever seen.

The first-person story about Desmarais' mental health struggles gives the audience an emotional yet often hilarious insight into what it's like to reach your lowest point, and to come back from that. I found the honest, confronting way she delivers her story to be extremely brave, and it really sets the standard for the way we should be having conversations about mental illness.

Without giving away too much more, I'll leave it to Desmarais to explain the play (see the Q+A below). The play is also destined for Auckland's Fringe and I really hope it will return to Wellington for a longer season in future.

Can you explain what the play is about (without giving away too much)?

Simply, it follows me from my descent into despair and suicidal depression in early 2012 and my gradual recovery throughout last year, at my family home in Tauranga.

I look at the funny side of mental illness, and some of the strange experiences that come along with it. It's a play about my experience, but I think in essence it's about everyone.

There is this great saying that art should comfort the distressed and distress the comfortable - I think this play reminds us that we're all the same in lots of ways, but that mental illness is a thing we should confront more readily as a society.

Why did you write a play about this?

It's all in the title really - I wrote the title before I wrote anything else! I learned so much about life (and better ways to think about and approach it) in the course of my recovery that I wanted to share it with more people.

It's the play I could have done with seeing 18 months ago. I can't stand the hushed tones in which depression and mental illness are still talked about, so I wanted to come out and say "Hey! I wanted to kill myself! That blimin' sucks, eh? Let's look at what was going on there" in a really frank and honest way. It takes the monster out of mental illness a bit and makes it feel like it's not something we have to deal with alone.

What's it like playing yourself in it? Why did you decide to do that?

I thought it'd be really easy to play myself but it's definitely not as easy as it would seem. I'm a generally pretty open person though, so I don't feel too uncomfortable about sharing my deepest darkest feelings. In fact, I'd say I find it comforting to know my story is also experienced by other people as well.

I couldn't imagine any other way for the play to be but a one-woman play performed by me. More actors would become props, which would be unfair to them, and I think it would have undermined its purpose if I'd got someone else to speak frankly about my depression. That totally would defeat the purpose in my mind, if I were to let someone speak for me about what I experienced.

What has your experience with mental health issues been? Do things *really* get better?

Yeah, I think they do. It makes me sad to think all I could have missed out on if I had passed away. I wrote a play. I got it programmed in two of the coolest theatres New Zealand has. I became a rapper who raps about feminism and wears a dinosaur onesie onstage. I found a dollar on the ground. I saw Justin Bieber grind up on Nicki Minaj in the Beauty and the Beat video. I saw Bill Bailey in a cafe in Auckland (he had a flat white and the big breakfast and I considered stealing the cushion he'd sat on). I would have missed out on all that stuff.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Of course, everyone has different issues they must contend with, but I do believe that human beings are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for. We've evolved to be fantastic at adapting, and our minds are incredibly powerful things. Stephen Fry described it in a letter to a depressed fan that it's like the weather - sometimes you just have to wait it out, but the weather will clear. Unless it's a nuclear winter, but that's unlikely and we just have to keep North Korea under control with that. Shout out to Kim Jong-un - be cool man, be cool.

A big thing I learned though was to ask for help. I didn't want to put anyone out, which was nearly fatal for me. Like with anything, you have to fight, and if someone doesn't understand, then talk to someone else until the message gets through. There will be someone who can help you.

How has writing the play helped you?

It gave me something to do! There was a lot of time in 2012 when I was recovering where I was still pretty agoraphobic and had no pep in me but to stay in bed, where I felt safest. Writing the play gave me something to look forward to and a time to reflect on and digest some very important life lessons. It also gave me hope that I might be able to reach out to someone else who has felt the same way.

Why is it important to talk about mental health, and what do you want the play to contribute to that discussion?

Because if we clam up about it as a society, then so do the sufferers, and that can kill people, which is really, really crap. Our attitude towards mental illness has still got a long way to go. It can be just as fatal as cancer - it is an affliction that affects a huge number of New Zealanders and I think that the fact we're culturally averse to talking about our feelings and fears and have one of the highest suicide rates in the world are mutually inclusive. They're absolutely related.

The more we talk about it, the more we take the demon out of it and are better able to help each other. I also want to encourage people to laugh, because mental illness, life - everything - has a funny side, and it is much more soul-enriching to go through life with a sense of humour than otherwise.

What do you think needs to change to improve mental health outcomes?

I'm not an expert on this except from what I have myself experienced, and I think it is a wider social and cultural shift that needs to take place. It has definitely come a long way even in my lifetime, but we still have a long way to go, and the more people who stand up and talk about it honestly, the better.

What has the feedback about the play been?

I am incredibly proud of this piece. I already feel my team (producer Abby Rainbow and director/designer Penny Lawrence) and I have triumphed because we have done what we originally set out to do - to talk about this stuff, and have a bloody good time with the audience in the process. It's kind of a mixture between theatre and stand-up comedy.
I have received emails from a surprising number of friends, acquaintances and strangers saying that they're inspired and relieved that someone has written something about this kind of experience, because they went through the same thing too. That's success in my book. And if we make some people laugh and some people think in the process, then that is just blimmin' awesome.

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