Girl, SchminterSchmupted at the Sydney Comedy Festival
The grandfather of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, once gifted us with the wisdom that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Beth's brain once gifted her with the wisdom that sometimes you need to eat two family bars of chocolate and three servings of spaghetti bolognese and then go for a run at 11.30pm to feel better about life. Who got it right? Who knows.
At one point in her life, Beth was mad certifiable. Now, her and her brain are mad BFFs (mostly). Part sketch, part musical, part storytelling, part performance lecture and part therapy session (jks), this is a show inspired by mental illness. Because sometimes our brains and the inconvenient things they tell us to do need a good fun-poking.
Carly spoke with comedian Beth McMullen about her upcoming solo show and how she uses her comedy to shine a light on some deeper truths. Read the full interview below:
In creating Girl, Schminterschmupted, what were the key issues you knew you wanted to focus on and why did you feel that it was time that these areas of mental illness were discussed?
When I first started the process of writing a solo show, I could not for the life of my get past my own personal story. That made me feel very self-involved and navel-gazey, so my main goal quickly evolved into trying to give a platform to the mental illness I live with (Borderline Personality Disorder, or “BPD” for the sake of a cute acronym), which - until now - has had very limited positive representation in the media. Furthermore, a lot of the representation that is out can be quite stigmatising (something I talk about in my show!) and is often created by people who don’t actually have any lived experience with the illness. BPD is both complex and intense, and it’s a label that can carry a huge weight of shame for sufferers. But one thing I’ve realised in my years and years (and years!) of therapy, is that the “behaviours” that make up the diagnostic criteria, actually exist on the spectrum of normal human behaviours, but in someone with BPD, the dial is simply “turned up”. I wanted to write a show that reclaims the narrative and breaks down the barriers of confusion and complexity surrounding the diagnosis to present what I hope is a relatable, human experience on stage. As for the timing, I’ve done a butt-tonne of work and healing to get to a place where I can talk about it with both pride and relative levity, which feels like the best time and place from which to start a conversation like this.
In what ways do you feel comedy is a great way to allow for these discussions to occur? Being that you have performed in a wide variety of shows and across other forms of theatre, what do you think that comedy allows for that other forms perhaps don’t and why have you chosen this form to express the themes and issues you focus on in Girl, Schminterschmupted?
I truly believe that comedy is the most beautiful and honest place from which to tell a story. Humour connects us with our basic humanity (it’s all in the etymology of those words, along with humble and humility, i.e. “humus” - which is latin for “ground” or “of the earth”). Plus, laughter (alongside crying, I bloody LOVE a good cry!) is the most delicious form of emotional release. Therefore, I chose to go with comedy as a way of making the content as relatable and accessible as possible. But comedy is also the most difficult medium to execute well and the risk of falling flat on your damn face is a very real one. So I’m sure you can imagine the existential crises and fraud complexes I’ve had to carry while trying to write a “funny show” about mental illness! I’ve had let myself off the hook so many times through this process and try to relax, knowing that all I need to aim for is the truth, and the comedy will follow. And remember that you can’t hear a smile or a nod of agreement. It also helps that I have a bunch of improv comedy and sketch-writing experience under my belt, so I back myself in being able to form the basic mechanics of a joke.
In creating a new work, what is your process? How do you decide what will make it into the show and what must be left on the sidelines? How do you begin a new piece? Where does one start?
Since I tend to write from my own personal experience a lot, I have one big and important rule, and that is to write from my scars, not my wounds. From there, I’m a big subconscious creative, in that a lot of my work is done inside my brain and on the notes app of my phone before I start to turn it into solid content. I first started thinking about this show after seeing a bunch of solo shows at Sydney Fringe Comedy in 2017 and thinking “I should try that”. Interestingly, the first thing I came up with was the title and cover image before I had even written my first bit! I then spent months mulling it over before smashing it out over the course of two days (a process I would not recommend) by looking at all the ideas I had collected, putting them in a relatively coherent order to fill 45 minutes and then performing the first draft at the Sydney Fringe Comedy in 2018. I was so overwhelmed I had to recruit my mum to buy all the props! I came away from those shows both proud of what I’d created, but also humbled in knowing that I had to do so much more to get it to where I wanted it. Since then I have taken it to the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival, developing and tweaking it along the way based on audience responses to different parts. Through this process there has been some killing of my darlings, but that’s all necessary in making the best show for the audience first, my self-expression second. I’m very excited to bring the final, polished version of my show home to audiences at the Sydney Comedy Festival as it has come a long way since that first trial run at last year’s Fringe.
What do you hope that audiences walk away from this show thinking about? Why do you think that it will be relevant to a wide array of 2019 audiences and what do you hope to encourage them to continue discussing after the 50 minute comedy show?
My main hope is for audiences to watch my show and be able to have a laugh at their own brain and the inconvenient things it tells them to do. I also want people to start considering mental illness as more than just the “consumable” versions we hear a lot about, such as depression and anxiety. Not that it’s a competition among sufferers, but I believe complex and chronic mental illness, such as personality disorder, is something that needs a lot more attention and understanding if we’re trying to aim for real equality. I think 2019 is the perfect time for a show like this because audiences are starting to grow weary of cheap gags and the status quo, eager to hear diverse stories and even open to being challenged at the same time. Finally, as with anything in the vast and complex issue of mental health, just having a conversation is the first big and important step towards helping people who struggle find the right help, move towards recovery and start to live a life they can be proud of. If I can encourage audiences to be more confident in “owning” their stuff, or supporting a loved one in that process, then I’ll be very chuffed.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
I’m going to go with my favourite comedy show for this one and be very cliched in saying Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette - I saw it live at the Sydney Opera House last year when she was taping it for Netflix. It blew my mind and I came away totally inspired by the realisation that the most powerful use of comedy goes above just finding the gags.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
As I’m in the middle of touring this show, the exhaustion levels are high. All I want to do right now is go to a schmancy yoga retreat in Hawaii or California for some namaste, nature and R&R.
Dream show to perform in?
Revolt. She Said. Revolt again.
Plays or musicals?
Plays. I think. I don’t know. It depends. Both?!
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Yoga! And studying self-help books. And making my own kombucha. I’m a caricature of myself.
What’s next for you after this show?
Writing my next show! And then hopefully moving to L.A to have a go at that bloody dream (I won the green card lottery, so that’s kewl).
Girl, SchminterSchmupted opens at the Factory Theatre on May 15 as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. You can get your tickets here.