The dark side of #Edfringe: Loneliness, lack of sleep & depression

In Edinburgh Festival, Features, Opinion, Regional theatre, Scotland, Special Events by Daniel PerksLeave a Comment

It has been three weeks since I left the bubble that is Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 to return to the much larger bubble that is London. And ironically, the manic, fast-paced lifestyle of living in the capital is a relaxing break from the utter madness that was Edinburgh for the month of August.

So why am I still feeling depressed, lackadaisical and exhibiting such polarised mood swings? Shouldn’t the relative calm of London life be enough for me to unwind after existing as a coiled spring for the entirety of the fringe – running between shows, writing like a person possessed and surviving on a mixture of very little sleep, far too much caffeine and more than a couple of drinks to temper my energy levels?

 

I’ve done a lot of reflection since returning from the addictive chaos of the fringe and I’m very proud of my achievements up in Scotland. I wrote 112 reviews and six features, about 56,000 words in total, over the course of the month. For those that claim they can’t possibly write a review of every production they see, I would like to offer evidence to the contrary. Sure, it wasn’t pretty (neither was I for the majority of that month), but if theatre makers take the brave step to present their work to the world and offer up tickets to the press for free, they deserve constructive feedback as the bare minimum in response.

Lyn Gardner aptly summarises it in an article for The Stage, “A free ticket is a privilege and not a right, and one we should use thoughtfully”. Lyn eruditely poses the question as to whether productions are entitled to a published review in exchange for a press ticket. I believe that companies deserve something in exchange for the offer to see the show, even if it is offline feedback or a discussion between theatre maker and theatre reviewer. Otherwise, as many have argued, it is simply sponging.

This, however, is by the by, and not the reason for my writing this post. The summary message is that there is a lot for me to be proud of. Yet all I can remember are the dark times, the times when popping pills and swigging gin turned sinister – a method of escapism without any care for my physical health, but fully in the knowledge that my mental health was severely suffering. For those who saw me at my worst, I can only apologise, even though the overriding message that comes from the societal ether is not to feel apologetic for showcasing your vulnerabilities. British tendencies are deep-rooted I suppose.

During the first week of the festival, where emotions are further heightened and pressure is piled on all those involved in the industry, Lyn gave us all some much-needed advice – Let’s Look Out For Each Other. She once again aptly highlights that many of us (me included) feel completely isolated and alone amid the crush of individuals making the pilgrimage to the origins of fringe year after year.

Lyn focuses on those without any support network, whom I believe are often overlooked or summarised in other pieces about mental health in theatre today. Performers have it tough, no two ways about it. But many theatre companies come to Edinburgh in groups, finding solace and support in their fellow actors, creatives and supporters within this collective. Solo shows have but one performer by their very nature; freelance writers, PR professionals and journalists alike often make the journey solo, staying either alone in hostels, university halls or with professional contacts and spending the majority of their days by themselves.

As a freelance journalist, I can attest to this. I came up to Edinburgh by myself, stayed in a flat with one individual whom I knew in a professional capacity and two new people who I had not previously met (or, I’m ashamed to say, heard of). This post is nothing against those three – indeed, I don’t think I would have survived the fringe at all had it not been for their warmth and kindness. Another positive in my Edinburgh experience is that I have truly found three great friends that I am lucky to know. As New Diorama Theatre’s Artistic Director David Byrne so beautifully phrased in an early fringe tweet of hope, love and solidarity: “We’re all in this together”.

 

But, as I mentioned above, this positive outcome is lost in a sea of negative, depressing and sinister emotions that are still to this day swirling around my head. My memories are dominated by the less cheerful moments – spontaneous crying while walking for no apparent reason; sitting in my room late at night swamped under reviews, alcohol in one hand and some form of drug in another; my head in a toilet as I try to vomit up the regretful decision I inevitably made under a haze of helplessness and despair.

Why post this?

As theatre professionals, we externally express ourselves, put our ideas and thoughts out to the universe in the hope that it generates conversation, sparks debate and eventually leads to change. Or we generate some form of creative product that emphasises the passion we feel about something. We hope to hold a mirror up to society and reflect the feelings of the time in our creations and we take note of the trends coming out of the here and now. Mark Shenton rightly observed that theatre is tackling mental health with vigour at present. Indeed, in recent interviews I conducted with Jamie Eastlake and Sarah Milton for Miro Magazine, mental health and the struggle to self-identify were never far from the topic of discussion.

I suppose in many ways, this is my conversation generator, my experience of what seems on the surface to be a highly successful, exciting and joyful month of beautifully crafted productions, brightly coloured purple cows and a vibrant scene buzzing with creative energy.

Or maybe this is my note to anyone who felt (and still feels) similarly low, a reassurance to those who think that they are alone in holding onto these issues even though Edinburgh Fringe is put to bed for another year. You are not alone in feeling this way.

Or maybe this is simply therapy, a way in which I hope to exorcise some demons and rid them from running rampant in my otherwise addled consciousness.

Who knows? What I do know of is the catalyst that spurred me to right this post, three weeks after the biggest arts festival in the world drew to a close for another year. And it’s a reminder that my support network is still very much present back in my home city of London.

The inspiration to write this today was a parcel I received from a close friend of mine, one who is a fan of theatre but who is not professionally involved in the world. This brown paper package (not tied up with string for those who, like me, immediately sang the lyric) reminds me that we all have a support network. For those of us who felt alone in Edinburgh, who went up alone and existed alone – our support network may simply not be in theatre. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – it just gets lost in the madness during August.

So maybe this is a post of thanks. Thanks to those who remain supportive of my continually difficult choice to pursue a career in this world; those who are on hand to listen to me moan; those who sit in silence with me before making me laugh and realise the joy that life has to offer. Thanks to those who I thought about after swallowing the pills and the bottle of gin, whose voices I heard in my head as I decided to keep fighting, to not give up and to battle through another day. Thanks to those who reminded me to live.

Without prompting, this friend sent me a bar of chocolate and a note of hope; a message of support; a piece of advice that I will end by sharing with you all:

Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it.

Daniel Perks on Twitter
Daniel Perks
"Corporate by day, culture by night" is the strapline for Daniel Perks’ website, where he’s been blogging for several years independently, covering "opera, ballet, contemporary dance, interactive theatre, musical, Shakespeare and everything in between’. Daniel contributes on a freelance basis to several publications including The Reviews Hub, Exeunt, A Younger Theatre and Theatre & Performance, and he is an assessor for the Off-West End.com Awards (‘The Offies’). Daniel tweets @dperks13.
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Daniel Perks on Twitter
Daniel Perks
"Corporate by day, culture by night" is the strapline for Daniel Perks’ website, where he’s been blogging for several years independently, covering "opera, ballet, contemporary dance, interactive theatre, musical, Shakespeare and everything in between’. Daniel contributes on a freelance basis to several publications including The Reviews Hub, Exeunt, A Younger Theatre and Theatre & Performance, and he is an assessor for the Off-West End.com Awards (‘The Offies’). Daniel tweets @dperks13.