Angie Smith: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Angie Smith, Theatre and Dance producer at the Barbican. I'm here to introduce another fascinating conversation from our inspired series, where we ask an artist to invite someone who's influenced their creative lives to share the stories behind their connection. In this episode, the London based artist Jamie Hale and award winning comedian Hannah Gadsby.
Jamie is a curator, poet, writer, performer and director and is an expert in disability health and social care policy. They first performed at the Barbican as part of transpose a showcase that shines a spotlight on the talents of trans artists and their allies. They then later developed a solo show not dying through our open labs programme. This was performed in the pit as part of cryptic pet party, a mixed bill of work by disabled artists which they also created. They’ve also performed at the Tate Modern and Lyric Hammersmith, and were part of the Graeae Ensemble.
Hannah Gadsby is an award winning comedian, writer, actor and TV presenter from Tasmania, Australia, with a comedy career spanning over a decade. Her 2017 stand up show net won the award for Best Comedy at the Adelaide, Melbourne and Edinburgh festivals. It toured internationally and went on to have an Emmy Award winning Netflix special. Hannah's 11th solo show ‘Douglas’ received widespread critical acclaim, selling out the Royal Festival Hall in London, the Opera House in Sydney and the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, and was yet another Emmy nominated Netflix special. Over now to Jamie and Hannah.
Jamie Hale: My name is Jamie Hale, and I'm a poet, storyteller sometimes comedian, who did a show at the Barbican called ‘Not Dying’, which was about not dying. And when I was asked by the Barbican to think about an artist whose work had really inspired and shaped my own. The first person who came to mind was Hannah Gadsby, whose construction of narratives of trauma and humour in Nanette, really helped me think about how I would approach talking about my own experiences of coming very close to dying, and then not. And of having what felt like quite a tight for prognosis that then became a lot more open. Having been influenced by Nanette, being able to speak to Hannah Gadsby was a great opportunity, because I wanted to think about the things that we had in common in terms of turning trauma into art, being disabled and/or neuro-divergent, and how it is to be an artist who is not what the arts worlds would not even see as normal, and what it means to create work from that perspective.
JH: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this, I will admit that I was a bit like, I'd really like to talk to have Hannah Gadsby, but that's a bit of a long shot. And Bernie, one of the Theatre producers, just said she would see what she can do. And here we are. I put solo show on at the Barbican in October, of last year that I was kind of writing the year before. And while I was writing it, I watched ‘Nanette’ along with probably the rest of the world. And my show was called ‘Not Dying’. And it was very much about a period of time when it looked like I was dying. And then the effect of a radical new treatment, changing things and maybe not dying and that back and forth. But it was also very much framed around taking people from like the sort of tragedy of mortality, into this challenging look at disability politics, and the world, and throwing everything upside down. And so watching Nanette was really helpful for me in terms of how to structure, kind of turning trauma into art in a way that doesn't let the audience get away from their complicity in the structures that cause that trauma.
Hannah Gadsby: I watched the link you sent me.
JH: Thank you.
HG: Yes, it's fantastic.
JH: It was a really interesting piece to do.
HG: I certainly did clock that you're not backing down on the sort of discomfort, I like it
JH: which I don't know if I'd have really had a sense of how to structure if I hadn't kind of sat down with ‘Nanette’ and a pen and paper and gone ‘Right, so you go to do this bit here. And then you go back to this story later, and then tell it in a in a different way’ and that kind of framing and reframing of narratives of trauma.
HG: Yeah, well that was the centrepiece Nanette, you know… I mean, it came from life. You know, like I realised the damage, that protecting other people from my trauma was only compounding my trauma. So I'm super glad you got that out of that, you know, for yourself and your audiences.
JH: And I think it's may be quite easy to kind of package one's trauma in a palatable way when making art, that allows the audience to kind of see the trauma, but without having to really grapple with it, I could very easily have done the show about like, this is how miserable it is to be in hospital and people are gone. Oh, poor Jamie. And that would have been that.
HG: I think people struggle with narratives that are unfamiliar to them. And I think there's a lot of experiences of trauma that are unfamiliar to too many people. So for example, in my show, I talked about a specific, traumatic experience of mine. But you know, having said that, it's not necessarily the bravest thing I could have done in that show. Because as far as things that have happened to me, it was one I knew. To a certain extent, people could grapple with, I was, you know, beaten by a stranger. Whereas there are other where harm was done to me by people I knew, and that is a much more difficult trauma to sort of push people into that space, but also pushing people fairly, into fairly difficult territory. So I wouldn't call it a complete wuss out. But you know, it's difficult with that, because you need your audience, you need to bring them along with you. So it's, you know, the more sort of you're pushing, the more difficult balance it is.
JH: Yeah, I found that I had to tone down some of the more angry sections of my show, because sort of early feedback was that I was slightly losing my audience, because they were either feeling like, we're already doing the work, why are you yelling at us for doing the work? Or they were like, we're disabled, and we know this already? Why are you yelling at us?
HG: [Laughs] Yeah, that's a tough one. Um, I think, you know, that the process of creating a show like that helps you out, it certainly helped me process my anger, to a certain extent, because you're learning, you know, to share it. And in that process, you really learn the bounds of what other people can take what you have to do in order to, you know, put stuff out in the world, you know, I did in that show, quite a lot of protecting, or just sort of the shape of the show, the structure of the show, had to, you know, was so carefully constructed, to both protect myself and my audience, and particularly people who could be triggered by the subject matter, I was talking about this as sort of a reaction to people complaining about people complaining about being triggered.
And in order to tackle that, you have to talk about triggering subject matter. And one of the goals I set out, or one of the questions I was asking in that show, is it possible to take these things head on? And not do further damage to vulnerable people? And also bring attention to it in a way that people who, you know, often when you're talking about things that are difficult, people will do anything, not to engage with it. So that you know, so I had to create a show where it was impossible for people to back away. But also, not, you know, not do further damage or traumatise people who don't need that.
JH: It's a really difficult line, I guess, also, because you're speaking to lots of different audiences. And you'll have had the people that followed you for a long time. And then all of the new people who like myself, discovered you through Nanette. I came to see Douglas by escaping from the hospital, I took my drip with me and just sat in the corner of the World Festival Hall like ‘I’m not going to miss this’
HG: Wonderful, I'm so glad you got to come and see it. Yeah, because there being in the room is special. Like it's one thing having Nanette on Netflix, it brings it to, you know, such a broad audience I'd never physically be able to perform to, but I still believe in the power of public performance, being in a room experiencing something with a group of strangers. I think there's something very powerful in that
JH: With the whole ‘triggering’ material and navigating it, so someone came up to me after one of the performances of ‘Not Dying’. It was like, you know, ‘all of the material about death, that was really upsetting’. Yeah, I thought that, like you came to a show called ‘Not Dying’, then were upset that I talked about death.
HG: I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who triggered by death, because it is really what's gonna happen. And that's my particular brutal point of view, I think it's just like, you know, why aren’t we talking about dying more, we're all going to like, I just, like - we need more language around, we actually need, I'm not suggesting it's just throwing it in people's faces, but I really don't think we have enough constructive dialogue around death
JH: No, And I think that does a lot of people a disservice in terms of there not having language to describe their own experiences, or not having the confidence to describe those experiences.
Because it's such a taboo subject, I was also like, when you've been making art out of trauma, how have you avoided being consumed by the trauma in the making of the art? Or have you not been able to avoid that?
HG: I don't think it's quite possible to avoid the trauma in it. But you know, trauma is insidious, and it affects your day to day to fix the, you know, if you can't get free of it, then it's not performing, it isn't going to help. I think more people are walking around with unacknowledged trauma than they understand, like, people watch a show like mine, and probably think they don't have trauma in their life. And I would beg to differ, I think, I think there's a lot of trauma, just everywhere. I see it everywhere. I think part of the issue is people think that only extreme experiences should register trauma. And I just don't subscribe to that at all.
JH: I think it's difficult when one's had both the extreme experiences and also experiences that will be kind of not necessarily seen as having been as extreme and what ends up marking you isn't necessarily the extremity of the experience.
HG: Yeah, sometimes I think it's the little micro-traumas that go way down. I think whether the sort of trauma or issues that you have that in order to get over them doesn't seem superhuman. I think that's, you know, I think people in order to acknowledge or understand the narrative around trauma , that they really want to hear something that is, you know, really something they can't imagine having to go through, which makes it really difficult to talk about traumas, when you know, especially when you got - this little thing wrecked me. And people go like ‘eh’. And what's important in the story the, like, the overcoming of the trauma, in those parts, it's like, you know, this little thing wrecked me, and it took way too much effort to get over it. But that effort is what is the story. I think that too many people are like, you know, we're trained with the stories, we tell each other that it has to be excessive amounts of unimaginable pain in order to register as qualified trauma.
JH: And for me, it's often not been necessarily the life threatening hospital admissions that have been the most traumatic bit, but it's been the admission for a weekend when I thought I'd gotten out and escaped and everything was well again, then you just go in with a minor infection, you're like, ‘oh’, so I think it's also the traumas that disturb our perception of our realm of safe within the world, that even if we've experienced massive traumas, it's the ones that come into spaces maybe that we thought we were okay. And whether that's walking down the street at night, but you're in a familiar space, or in your own home, I feel like it's those ones for me, at least that have been the most significant.
HG: I believe that's kind of what trauma is, is feeling unsafe. And when your community or your world doesn't help you feel safe again, or, you know, suddenly takes that safety away, whether it's circumstance or willful ignorance, then that's traumatising. And when you're already exhausted as I imagined you were, then that's when what seems like a, you know, in the scheme of your things, a little thing, it's not, because it's compounding.
JH: It doesn't make nearly such good art though.
HG: No, true. It doesn't. Doesn't.
JG: I guess that's the challenge. It's fine. If for me, at least, it's been choosing the traumas to turn into art that are either, will work best as art as well as…
HG: I could argue with you on that because if you're in a a straight white middle class European situation, then the tiniest of traumas people find really thrilling. Like, there's so many stories of like, ‘Oh, my girlfriend left me and like’, I just don't feel sad, mate. But they get films after films after film. So you know, that's the training of the audience, as opposed to, you know, anything else?
JH: And I guess also the audience you're expecting? Because I think, because you I think with Nanette, is it fair to say that you suddenly got quite a lot of different audiences? I don't know, had you had those audiences? Prior to Nanette?
HG: Yeah, look, I had a fairly broad audience, I've been building up over the years, in my stand up career, but it wasn't a huge audience. But I had a fairly, you know, as queer as I situated myself and felt it wasn't, you know, I get a few mums and dads in there, you know. But it's the space of stand-up comedy that is really straight.
That world is really heteronormative to the extreme, you know, of course, there are exceptions, but the spaces, particularly when you're, you're starting out, you know, people always point to the exceptions that have made it, you know, like, there's such and such and such and such. But when you're starting out when you're working the clubs, you know, and don't even get me started on disabilities, like they're literally inaccessible. Just on my experience of, you know, having undiagnosed autism, those spaces were hostile, and I had no idea really why I did, you know, I didn't understand the way I was, you know, processing the world. But yeah, you know, so it's all the things that make it fairly you know, hostile environments
JH: I suppose I, because I, I kind of came up through trans art spaces and disability art spaces, I was very used to speaking to an audience that was, at least in theory, sympathetic to my message, like in practice, very few gay spaces are actually accessible. But sort of queer people at an event at the Barbican would at least like to think that they're doing the right thing, even if when they actually examined things, they weren't at all. And with Not Dying, while it was in as part of a disability arts showcase, I got, I think, probably a lot more non-disabled people there than I'd anticipated. And realised that I was trying to reach to very divergent groups with the same message
HG: It's really hard, hard thing to do. But that is the power of storytelling. You know, telling a story means that you can invite people in. And what's extraordinary to my mind, about the response to Nanette was the diversity of people and experiences that found their way into you know, finding something of worth from that show, because when I wrote it, it was really angry. And it was meant to, it was meant to alienate people, because I just had enough of accommodating.
And so it still blows my mind that, you know, I remember once I was in LA, doing the rounds as you do, and this Australian woman who's over there, been over there working but she was like, just not my kind of person at all like, she was very tall, and classic Sydney blondes, you know, I googled her and she did have some kind of Instagram, a lot of floral frocks and drinks with fruit in it, I don't know how else to explain her because I just don't have anything to do with people like that. Nice enough, but just like wow, and enthusiastic about stuff. Don't register.
But she was sort of like, saying to me, and it felt a little condescending, ‘oh, we're all so proud of you, you know, you've done us proud’. And I'm like, I didn't do it for you. Who are you? But of course, I didn't say it. I practice filters. But it is extraordinary that you know, someone like that, who is almost the person I was going ‘shut up’ to, still managed to find something. So I guess, understanding who your audience is something you have to consider in order to then not consider.
JH: And I guess that also speaks to what you were saying about how many people have kind of been disclosed and unexamined trauma in that they're like people that people are finding that in your show, even if their experiences are very different.
HG: Yeah. Yeah. That's so it's a very humbling lesson for me to learn.
JH: I, when I put ‘Not Dying' on, I was quite angry at the point of actually doing the show because I was doing it five months into what turned out to be six months of specialisation. And so much of the stress of the Barbican, whether I would make it on stage that night depended on how effectively I could sweet talk the doctors in the morning. And so I would get that and I was just, I was putting it on, I was just like, all of this anger that I wrote into the show, partly for structure and impact rather than emotion, with suddenly, actually there is an emotional experience of performing the show. And when I was kind of re watching Nanette, I was thinking about the ways in which you express anger, and then dial it back. And I was curious about the expression and the feeling and moving in and out of that space each night.
HG: Well, I performed that show so many times. And there's two parts of that. One was that at a particular point in the show, the last 15 minutes, the reaction of the audience was always the same. This shocked silence.
And that feels the same to me every time. So there became a, in certain point in stand up, unlike theatre, it's responsive performance. So, you know, you don't deliver the lines the same way every night, because your audience is different, you respond to the audience. And I think that's one of the chief differences between stand-up and theatre. So doing that, as a stand-up comedian was, is incredibly difficult because my gut, you know, my instinct. And that's not just an instinct, it's my, that's how, you know, it's my skill set, it's what I do, it’s like, when there's extreme tension, I know how to break it. And when you're working as a comic, you, you really want that tension. So then you can smash it through the punch line. And so what was really difficult for me and was not breaking that tension.
So that in itself sort of built me up, you know, this level of, you know, fear, I guess, and it never did, it just didn't ever not affect me to talk about those things in front of strangers. Every time I was leading up to the real punch, we'll call it, is that, you know, I was scared, I was scared, because in the early phases of the show, I did get heckled. I once got heckled at Soho Theatre in London, it was brutal. It felt brutal, it felt like it, you know, this man just basically said, you know, one of these songs is like, bullshit, you know, and it was just like, you know, everyone just like… And I then tore strips off. And because I'm in this heightened state, it was just, it was just awful. So that happened a few times. Enough for me to feel genuine fear going into the show, but not enough for me to stop doing it, to know that for most of the times, it will work.
The other thing about it is that the creation of something, it's like, the way that you write something is not necessarily how it's going to be on stage. That's certainly my experience of stand up. And so it's always a dialogue with the audience. And the fear, I felt going into every performance of work, gave my performance a certain edge, every time. the one that the most different performance of Nanette a sort of release hit at home at how consistently it went across, was when I performed it, after it went out on Netflix, and I went to the Montreal Comedy Festival. And so it's the first time I've performed it live where people had seen the show. So there wasn't that shock, or that, you know, a curveball, we'll call it, that most people experienced in the theatre. And people began applauding set-ups! And I might say singing along with the punch lines, but the stand-up equivalent, and the show just doesn't work. There’s no no tension. I mean, people enjoyed it. But for me, it's like, I'm like I don't actually understand how to communicate this now.
JH: But yet when I re-watch Nanette, it was really interesting because I was able to watch it as a piece that I could explore and examine knowing the end at the beginning, which gave it a completely different zone to be in. But one where I didn't feel like any of the tension was lost to understanding it better. But then I think maybe that's a difference in being in a big audience versus just being in a small room watching it. And
GH: The difference is that I can't respond to any like… So in the room like, because I'm not having a conversation anymore. It just is a document, almost. Almost, but in the room when people are responding my you know, you just don't get the same rhythm you like, I'm used to this thing that I'm saying to land the certain way, and then interrupted halfway through, I think someone yelled at me halfway through, a guy: ‘you want a hug?’ I'm like, no, what are you doing?
JH: I found that when I've performed vulnerability on stage, people have responded with sympathy as if that was what I was looking for, rather than as if I was performing it as a, as a part of something bigger.
HG: I think that, you know, these kinds of reactions are people trying to diffuse their intention. Yeah, you know, like when people sort of, like, hecklers, they cannot, they cannot deal with, you know, not being in control of, of the reaction. And that's the thrill of performance.
JH: One of the reasons I was really keen to talk to you was also because as somebody who is very much a disabled artist, in the sense of kind of the social model of disability, and the idea that it's not that there's something wrong with me, it's that I'm disabled artist, because the world doesn't create accessible spaces.
HG: They really don't do they…!
JH: If everywhere was accessible, then I would no longer be disabled by definition. And I'm also, it's a, it's a strange categorization as a neuro-divergent artist. I was very interested talking to you and wondering where you saw yourself around autism and disability arts.
HG: And I mean, I'm careful not to place myself, I don't think that's the job of the performer to place themselves. But what I'm striving towards is opening up a space when neuro-divergent people can create art that is neuro-divergent. And that goes beyond just speaking about experiences, but actually creating pieces that makes sense to people who don't think typically.
You know, and, it's a, it's really difficult space, because often our understanding of you know, particularly autism, is through, you know, often it's being written about, and by straight white men. And often, more often than not, it's been written by neurotypical people. So what that has created is a lot of art about neuro-diversity is about what it looks like. It doesn't look like what people think it looks like, because it's an experience. It's where you bring the world in, process it and then turn it back out in the world and to witness neuro-diversity is to witness difference.
And but witnessing difference is not the same as experiencing difference. And I think, if there's a hope I have, it's, you know, to shake it up, I know, some people you know, it because my voice alone is not going to do it, we need, we need an appropriate amount of people.
Because, you know, my experience of autism is not everybody's, obviously. I mean, the reaction from people like, who don't want to like me. It's been interesting. I've been told all sorts of different ways that I cannot possibly have autism. And usually, it's because I am not Dustin Hoffman, you know, pretty much. I mean, if they're of that age, I've ever been told that I'm too fat to have autism. That's my favourite. I'm obsessed with that.
JH: This is possibly the most confused face I've ever pulled.
HG: Isn’t it stunning, it's a stunning thing to say to someone… I have so much to unpack. The implication being that they've reached out in order to let me know that they don't want me to have autism. Which is an interesting impulse, first and foremost, in a way to silence me by not allowing me into a group of people who are silenced regularly. So it's kind of incredible.
JH: I guess, to me, kind of coming up to the disability Arts Movement. I've encountered a lot of great autistic artists within that. And I was wondering, because for me, it was really incredible to see somebody autistic who was as successful as you, because it kind of said to me that you can experience a lot of access barriers and still be still become very successful as an artist, which is something I've worried about a lot. And I wondered about the kind of access barriers you're faced with as an artist?
HG: well, I think, I often wonder how differently my experience would be, if I'd have understood that I had autism, I think there's this sort of push and pull thing that went on in that I put myself repeatedly into situations and life, you know, trajectories, they're really unfriendly for me, like you really would, you know, so I'd go, the pattern of my touring schedule would mean that for three, four months of the year, I'd be incapable of doing anything, you know, not just performing, but even self care. So it'd be this spin cycle of exhaustion. So I do the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but that cost me three months of my life of being a functional human. You know, but that's not just the world I was in, but the way that I prepared myself was insufficient, because I didn't understand that the world is physically overwhelming and exhausting to me. I just thought that I was lazy, or the fragile mindset or something like that. So there's that question there. So yes, they are hostile, and I probably would have navigated them differently. Had I understood now, I understand that I need time before and after any kind of interaction. But then once you understand that, you can actually maintain a career like that, you've got to, there's not a lot of allowance for time and space. And that even creeps into the more successful you are, you know, I've experienced kind of incredible success of late, it's mind blowing.
But there's this, you know, the pandemic was the only thing that sort of stopped me. So it's like, I tried to create space around like, I can't do anything, I need a rest, I'm exhausted. But even when you try and put it down in terms of like, no, I cease to function, my brain stops working, I cannot, I stopped being able to speak. People don't actually hear that, they don't want to hear that, because they can see you speak, they can see you in a social situation. And so they go, ’no, you're lying’. Because they don't see it. I still struggle with that. And I don't suppose that'll change soon. The one wonderful thing that success has given me is a little bit of financial security, which helps me make better decisions. Because money helps when you have a disability, it really helps
JH: It allows you to take the time you need because you know that you're not going to then be unable to make rent or pay your bills or whatever.
HG: Yeah, and it gives you choice.
JH: I also very much cannot, people beyond a certain level, whether that's performing or anything else. And I've actually found that during the pandemic, I've been so much broader in my creative output than I usually would be. Because I only left my home for something like, I went to a hospital appointment for the first time a couple of days ago, because I got my new wheelchair and I was like, I have to try it out. Because I have to cycle the battery in order to improve the battery life. Which was definitely an excuse, and I'm definitely sticking to it. It was great to start getting out together.
But sort of during the pandemic I ended up, I'm about 30,000 words into two separate novels. I wrote 120 page screenplay. And I got some of my work done right up until November for some of my next deadlines. And I'm certain that quite a lot of that partly will have been because I couldn't be distracting myself with other stuff because there's no way to go and distract myself with, but also partly because a lot of the demands on my cognitive energy were reduced because I wasn't going out.
HG: Yep, exactly. I'm the same. Absolutely. And also, I have a huge amount of social anxiety. That's just disappeared. I have anxiety about where, you know, the pandemic and you know, I actively worry about the well-being of all the people, there's that anxiety, but I may I don't have the social anxiety. It's gone out of my life because there's no expectation for me to be normal right now. Everyone is living like an autistic person right now.
HG: No I know. That's a broad generalisation. I regret it.
JH: But I mean, I see where you're going with the generalisation.
HG: Thank you.
JH: It was strange, I was very, very anxious at the beginning of the pandemic, I sort of, I knew that I would not be a priority for treatment for COVID, because I use a ventilator part-time already. And so they're going to look at you and be a bit like, if you can't manage without ventilator when you're well, do you really think you're getting fixed or managed with a ventilator when you're sick? So it was nerve racking. But I managed to creat, I wrote a sonnet cycle about that instead of just curling up under my duvet and pretending the world didn't exist.
HG: But that's the gift of creativity, isn't it? That’s one of my sort of biggest anxieties about the pandemic is the already vulnerable people, already marginalised people, already people that we, as a society tend to describe as ‘burns’, it's either going to help or make it so so much worse, but I guess we’re gonna keep talking about it. It's gonna get better.
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JH: I was wondering because we both make art from places where we're kind of seen as different from the normal, in varying ways. And I'm kind of wondering whether you found that that creates space for you, or limits you, or whether that's changed during your career?
HG: The being able to create, it hasn't limited, it's kind of what I do, and how I make sense of the world, I think where it becomes a real challenge, and always has been, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier ,is understanding who our audience is.
So sometimes you just crave to speak to the rest of the people as if they already understand you, and you're sharing something that we all understand. But you have to always seem to explain yourself first. And that, that for me, you know, especially in something as broad, you know, sort of broad audiences of stand up comedy. So every time I walk on stage, like I kind of have to explain myself, less so these days, so understanding who your audience is and therefore it sort of means, what do you create, you're up for, like, Where's it going? Who's it going out to? Who wants it? How far can you push before you lose it all? I always try and come back to being prepared to lose stuff - comfort, in order to be as truthful to my own experiences possible.
JH: I guess I found that I'm kind of invited, to quite an extent at the momen,t to make work about what it means to be disabled or what it means to be transitioning, or what it means to be, to live somewhere in a liminal gender space. But I feel like if I was like, ‘Okay, cool. I want my next show to be about hillwalking or whatever’
HG: You don't get that
JH: No, you don't.
HG: It's really frustrating, it’s like, ‘Oh, you have this experience. Therefore, these are the only ways you can plug into the rest of the world’. I think, you know, like, as soon as you're this you don't get you get you get this platform for this reason. And that's the only way. Hopefully, that won't always be the case. That might not be in my lifetime. But you know…
JH: because to some extent, I mean, I'm willing to benefit from people's desire to have disabled voices in a room where they might not have wanted disabled voices previously, and benefit from spaces being created that allow me to perform, that there is always that wondering about whether I would be allowed a mainstream career. And one of the things I struggled with before I got my break at the Barbican, was the fact that I couldn't do what you would usually do in terms of like upstairs bars and open mic nights and like performing to audiences in a cellar because it was only the big enough spaces that could accommodate me, and even then the Barbican ended up putting a hoist and an adapted shower backstage, because otherwise I would have been a bit stranded. And you're not going to get that in your little local clubs. So it's, how does one become a mainstream for lack of a better word artist?
HG: Oh, yeah. No, there's so many hurdles, literal hurdles, we'll call them. I was lucky here in the sense that my career was sort of set out through the Melbourne Comedy Festival, which is very proactive, had some very proactive programmes. I don't think I would have been a stand up-comedian had it not been for the festival because I wouldn't have sought out those spaces that I had to conquer because they were so hostile. Once I found a space that was doing festival circuits, so I put on shows, I tried putting on the circuit in the UK for a while in Australia you can’t, you just don’t have the population that can support being a working comic unless you can afford to fly every week as it’s such a vast country and that then eats up all your income, so I was trying out the UK and I couldn’t do it because it requires late night travelling as I’m not keen on as someone with my past in trauma, but also executive function, like to coordinaate your gigs… phwoar, you need to be good at business, and I am not
JH: Nor am I, I’m a nightmare at it. One of the reasons that Nanette spoke to me so much was because I’d had a travelling um, I was travelling late one night from a show with Emily, my wife, we were performing together, and sort of been called ‘faggot’ by a guy on the train. And I was like, me? Maybe, maybe not, depending on what day it is and what mood I’m in. Her? No. No, no, other one. And so hearing that story both times, the way that you’d turned it into humour and then challenge, I know that’s kind of circling back to what we discussed earlier, but when you talked about late-night travel it just reminded me of that, and now, when I travel after performances late at night, I do tend to ask for a taxi or pay for a taxi because yeah, travelling the world as a gender non-conforming person or whatever one means by that can be precarious
HG: Yeah, it really honestly is. So once, if you’re looking, you know, when I was scraping a living together, you know, you can’t ask for a taxi because you don’t get the gig. So it's, uh, you know, it's absolutely systemic. But people don't like to hear that, because they're like, you know, if you're not tough enough to make it in the clubs, then you don't deserve to be a comic. It's like, no, once I'm on stage, I'm really, really good.
JH: It's understanding that equality and equity are different things. And this is not that they need to give every performer a taxi to be cool. It's that every performer needs to have a way of getting home safely.
HG: And the issue there becomes, you know, you don't then get grace to hone your craft, you actually have to be the best as soon as you get on stage. Because there's been concessions made.
And so that puts, you know, even to a certain extent, just being a woman on stage when I was first starting out, like because there's only ever one woman on the bill back in that day. So it's proved incredibly of late, but because you're the only woman on the board, people say you represent all women now. If you suck all women suck, like they're ready to just then say like, you know, your point of difference, you’re representing everyone with that point of difference.
JH:And this is why we don't book disabled people,because you're rubbish.
JH: We had one before, it didn't work. Now, I think one of the um, I am like looking for the silver lining type of people, I think one of the silver linings to me of being unable to do the really kind of grim, tiny club type jobs has been that I have been able to have my access needs met, that I kind of started out doing, doing poetry performance, a trans night curated by CN Lester called ‘Transpose’, which was at the Barbican by that point, and meant that I was able to, I didn't necessarily ask for a taxi, but I asked to make sure there was someone backstage with me who'd be travelling back with me or whatever. And, and being only being in bigger venues didn't mean that I had access to those things.
HG: What is incredible to me is like the sort of spaces that we don't have access to, or, you know, I could get in there, but they, you know, but they're terrific. They're really difficult spaces to navigate for everybody. Like no comic I talk to goes ‘I love backstage’. I love to own those gigs. But somehow that's where it's landed. Like, that's the reality of the world and they're like, this is how it is. it's like it doesn't have to be. it doesn't have to be inaccessible, it doesn't have to be hostile. It doesn't have to be blokes filled with blokes filled with blokes – it doesn't have to be any of these things. People are resistant to change even if it is obviously going to be better
JH: Yeah, especially if that change is going to let new people into the space because the old people are like well we're full no more room, no more, none!
I guess before we wind up, I just wondered quickly, because like I said when I was asked about artists whose work could sort of inspired and affected mine, yours came to mind instantly. I was wondering whether for you there were particular artists that you would look back to their work and think ah, that really resonated, shaped me.
HG: I'm always asked this and it always trips me up because I think it’s obviously something I just think about the least. The way I've approached stand-up is not through stand up. I think a lot of my humour is being shaped, my skills my tools have been shaped by trying to navigate the world with autism. It turns out you know, turns out that's what it was, I had no idea but as far as performance go, without drawing anyone out specifically, the Edinburgh Fringe was an incredible space to be able to perform in. I don't necessarily subscribe to the hellhole swamp of you know draining your will to live the experience actually is, but with a bit of distance, it’s an incredible thing to be a part of in that you can see so much different stuff, like I saw so much theatre and I don't come from a place where there's any theatre. So you know and I was so poor like I've always been poor until very recently, like just being poor.
So going to see shows was outside of my options. And once I started to do comedy, I could see comedy because I was part of comedy. But during the Edinburgh Fringe, I could see all the work and I loved watching puppet shows. And like I was just, you could you go on with your Artists past if you can, and daytime shows, oh I love daytime shows. So that whole experience my first year of doing comedy, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe and did ‘So You Think You're Funny’. And that was really, you know, I don't know that I was there and had that story where I can go, I want to do this. It's sort of like, it sparked a curiosity in me that I hadn't, hadn't experienced before. And it was a really important thing. And of course the Melbourne Comedy Festival where people can just create shows and put shows on. It's not limited, it's not curated.
You know, it's a space that was open to someone like me, who had no experience, no connections. I didn't know people who could help me. The infrastructure was there, so to speak. So that was incredibly important. And then you know, once there, seeing Bridget Christie was a really important performance, for me as a stand-up. And one of my favourite performances is Zoë Coombs Marr: Bossy Bottom. I should make a list, shouldn’t I? What about oyu?
JH: I don't know why I wasn't expecting you to ask me that question. But I definitely wasn't. So I know how you feel with her like. I guess for me, a lot of it has been poetry influences. A lot of kind of procedural poetry, where you're working within a set of rules. The most famous thing was a guy called Tristan Zahra, who literally just pulled phrases out of a bag and called it poems. And, but I found that by setting quite tight rules around what I wasn't, wasn't allowed to write, that kind of forced me to learn what I was doing. I got a lot from Nicaraguan revolutionary poetry of all places. Now, AIDS poetry, reading about how people grapple with mortality, in a confrontational way, was what kind of got me started.
And I was performing poetry as sort of poetry sets, not kind of performance poetry, really, but poetry readings. And then that was through CN Lester, who's been very much a kind of mentor to me, they wrote a book called Trans Like Me, which was really brilliant. And then through that, I kind of got into spaces where I was working with things like directors, and then that inspired me to start looking at how I shaped work. So it wasn't so much that there were individual artists, as each stage I worked with, or once I was at the Barbican it would be a be a lighting designer, and then I'd have to think, how do I want my show to look,and that would force me to start considering the visuals. And then at some point, a producer at the Barbican said I should apply for their residency, and try and get my working for solo show. So I did. And then that was kind of how that happened.
HG: That's a you've just described also how most people dig themselves out of trauma is like, it's mosaic of, of grasping, really. So that's kind of a great way to, you know, view, inspiration, you know, maybe that's why I struggled to just put it down to one person because I know there’s so many different experiences that are seemingly unrelated to what I do. Yeah.
JH: Yeah, or I'll read a poem and catch a phrase. And then three months later, I've written a poem that was inspired by that phrase, and I won't even have realised it because it was three months ago.
HG: I don't remember the context is came about, but people were talking about what helped people get out of a deep state of depression. I believe it was a podcast, because I wasn't involved in the conversation, but it made me think about a moment that did it for me, and for me what it was like I ordered something online, and it was just a thing for a little fad I was going through, and then by the time it arrived, I was no longer doing that thing. They were clamps, this box full of clamps that I could I still I didn't know then I don't know now, like what did I want these clamps for?
But I had this box of clamps as a nice reminder of like, that's actually made me laugh for the first time in about six months when I got those. And that's what jumpstarted me out of a very deep funk I'd been in. Deep funk makes it sound fun than it is
JH: It does, doesn't it? Yeah, well, I once read a theory by a depressed physicist which said that what he did was every time he chose to do something he clicked his finger. I can't click my finger. So I was like, this isn't going to work for me. But I realised the finger clicking wasn’t an essential part of the experience. It was more like, you did something to mark it. So if you’re so depressed that all you can do is open your eyes,
You did something to market. So here's like if you're so depressed that all you can do is open your eyes, choose to open your eyes and then mark it by clicking your fingers.
And that as you notice yourself making all of these little choices, you start to feel like you've got more control of your life again, which helps you get more control over your mood. And I found that really helpful when I've been in deep depressions - not just to mark that I can actually still make a choice even if that choice is just to rumble go away at any oncoming me.
HG: Yeah, it's it's a little battles. It's me clicking. I might end up making a different sound.
JH: I don't even think the sound is essential. I think it's just doing something.
HG:I think it has to be physical to externalise it, though.
Yeah. Yeah. Like I remember at one point just fall asleep like counting sheep.
JH: I can fall asleep anywhere. It's dreadful. With the second night of ‘Not Dying’, I was on stage. And I start the show on stage. And suddenly, my support worker in the wings realised that I've fallen asleep on stage while the audience was filing in, just a bit like how am I going to wake up my performer, but luckily, the Barbican like pre show announcement woke me up.
HG: Nerves must inspire you, in a roundabout way.
JH: I think it's ventilation and breathing. If I'm still for too long, I don't breathe very well. But it was a bit like, I need to make sure that I don't start my show asleep on stage because that's not going to bring me into the right mood, or the audience now, how long will they sit there watching me sleep before they're like, 'hang on'?
HG: That's performance! Ah.
JH: Thank you so much. This has been a really, really interesting discussion.
HG: And it's been wonderful to talk to you. I've learned.
JH: As have I.
That was Jamie Hale and Hannah Gadsby on the Barbican podcast, Nothing Concrete. Next week, actor and winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, Dickie Beau – best known for breathing new life into lip-synching, will be speaking to his mentor and friend, Fiona Shaw, the actor and director, perhaps best known for her extensive work with the RSC and National Theatre alongside popular roles in Harry Potter, Killing Eve and Fleabag.
But until then, subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.