3. IMAGINARY FRIENDS

The Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2017 lineup

The Glasgow International Comedy Festival 2017 lineup

Four years ago I didn’t know what improv comedy was. I understood the terms improvised and comedy but I didn’t know what it looked like or why a person would do it. Fast forward to mid 2016 and I am an active member of ‘Imaginary Friends’, an improv group founded by then boyf, now husband, Joe. When it began, he recruited friends from his uni days, many of whom had performed in student theatre. They started practicing these games and putting on occasional shows at a local pub. I helped in my own way by collecting the £3 fee (from our very dedicated friends) to get into the shows. Over time, folk moved away or didn’t have the time to devote to prancing about in a room

pretending to be Catman at a volcano’s edge, a lion with self esteem issues or a plum.

The improv died. Last year it was resurrected with some new blood. In my wildest dreams I had entertained the notion of joining in, but was deterred by my own lion issues, but also not wanting to attach myself to every aspect of my husband’s extra curricular life. It took a lot of encouragement to finally take the plunge. Mind you, eventually it was pretty difficult not to be involved since the sessions were often happening in our living room.

For the first practice I chose my clothes so carefully, did proper makeup, I was becoming increasingly nervous all day. These people - the Imaginary Friends - were already my actual friends but I still had to concentrate on looking like

I was playing it reeeeaaal cool

by the time they arrived to play improv games. I was terrified. Unnaturally and disproportionately terrified. Now a practice is something I look forward to and never prepare for, I don’t worry about how I look or what happens in the practice, I just enjoy hanging with my pals.

With improv performances I have to allow myself to fail, to relinquish control. I don’t like that. I hate failing and looking stupid (doesn’t everyone?), I need to be a team player and go along with the ideas presented, whether I like them or not. I suppose I don’t often have to deal with that. Usually I am working on my own, at my own pace, to my own rules and caprices. Sure, clients can surprise me or a job takes a lot longer than it should, but it gets done inside a framework I have some measure of control over.

I find improv tough. Every single time we perform I get myself into a bit of a fankle and say things to myself like

“I’m just not feeling it”

or “I’m not ready”. It’s never easy, despite our brave exteriors. We performed this month as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival and it was our most popular show. I actually lay down for five minutes before I left the house, just to try and quell the nerves, but after that first laugh I got from the audience (yes, it’s cliché) I started to enjoy myself. The audience is on our side. They’re our pals! There’s something about performing that allows for bigger risk taking and heightened creativity. That night I was Guy Fawkes on a dating show, I was an ancient Egyptian God buying sandals and an alien who had to come out to their friend after 32 years.

The fear of being out of control is the most powerful barrier to enjoying improv – but with a lot of other aspects of my life too. However it’s also that lack of control that creates the sassy new characters, wacky situations and amps up the creativity of the whole team. It’s taken me the longest time to realise that’s on me. It’s a job for each one of us. I will probably always be afraid of failure and I’ll almost certainly never stop worrying about being judged, but I realise more and more it doesn’t matter. It’s within my power to recognise it’s just my own perception and that it can change. It’s on me. I can be a hilarious sexy spacehopper or whatever I want. The great thing about improv? If it’s not funny, there’ll be another topic coming along in a minute.

Follow Imaginary Friends on Twitter here or have a look at the Facebook page.
 

2. BURNOUT

blog - mental health march 2017 rosemary cunningham web res.jpg

A major project I was heavily involved in for a large part of 2016 was inspiring and huge in terms of scale for me as an artist as well as personally. Its focus was mental health and building an imagined positive future for its treatment and care. I got to meet incredible people and work with them. I learned such a lot, it was amazing.

However, it was during the course of the ten months of the project that I began to (ironically) notice my own mental health degrading. I’m not blaming the project entirely (it was many factors, being 31, being lonely at work, my perennially predictable creative existential crisis,

“what is the point of me?

and a general feeling of events being out of my control) but certainly the workload was staggering and I really struggled through a lot of late nights and early mornings, sometime drawing upwards of ten hours a day with very few breaks. My wrist felt like it belonged to someone else and I had a genuinely revolting blister peeking out from under the skin of my calloused finger. At one point my (utterly wonderful and understanding) husband, Joe was doing all the cooking and cleaning and evening tea-making as I only stopped to visit the toilet, to feed myself and then have fitful sleep. It sounds ridiculous, but the intensive drawing and emotional state I found myself in made me completely overwhelmed.

Freelancing can be lonely. Many self-employed folk are lucky to have varied jobs, stints in offices, travel, meetings and so on, but often I find myself on my own, in a chair, at a desk with only podcasts for company. (I can recommend some superb ones.) Now couple that feeling of being alone with having heaps of work to do and having no one to ask for help. Tight deadlines, important clients and this isn’t your only work. No one could take the work and help me do it, I couldn’t see a way out. I muddled through but near enough burnt myself out.

Things are better now.

I have my studio manager, Amy coming in to assist me one day a week – this makes such a difference. We chat, have a dance, listen to music, we talk about decisions I have trouble with, she makes suggestions and just takes some of the workload off me. I went for a round of CBT. I have brilliant people around me that understand these things. Now I take time. Even if I’m really busy (which is pretty often) if I feel myself spiraling into an anxiety whirlpool, I treat it like a cough. Stop. Have a cup of tea, take a couple of hours off. Go for a walk or rest. Sometimes I even dabble in deep breathing or meditation. If symptoms worsen, take some more time off. It’s all health, right? Hopefully with this approach I can stave off the worst of it, when I can’t remember how to sleep, have crippling IBS*, panic attacks and when I think no one likes me.

I’m not writing this for sympathy, or to show off how millennial I am, but to prove it’s OK to ask for help from people around you,

it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and it’s OK to talk about it.

To ‘admit’ it**. It should be something we can ‘own’, that we’re aware of and look out for, especially as so many people I know (whether they know it or would admit it) have suffered from some kind of mental health fade at some point.

*I was gluten free for nearly two years and it turns out I don’t have to be. I’m sensitive to wheat, but basically I was stressing my body into not working properly. Yup. Intense.

**I don’t like that word in this context. It implies guilt – should a person be ‘blamed’ for their mental health?

1. WRITE ON

Writing is something I have always done since I could even do it. It’s part of who I am. I often go months without writing anything, but then I return to it inevitably. I have buckets of journals and diaries stretching all the way back into the early nineties when I used words like brill, doofus and ace and my biggest concern was my sister hitting me. I’ve more than dabbled in poetry in the past too. Haven’t we all?

My first (and until now last) blog was all about my early twenties and my travels in China, living there and experiencing everything I thought I knew anew. Now in my early thirties, it feels like time to blog again, but this time about living where and how I am now and experiencing everything I thought I knew anew, anew... What?

It’s not all going to be about work, but it also won’t be a personal diary (sorry to cheat you of gossip). I don’t really know what it’s going to be, but I’ve felt compelled to write about a few things already, so see this as the BIG INTRO, the first of many pieces to come! I’m going to use it as an opportunity to do a wee sketch or experiment. Like this gif of some pencils. I actually don’t get to play with images much anymore, but I’m trying to make it part of my job again.