An exciting, relevant and revealing show is about to make its way to Chapel Off Chapel. A warts and all journey into the sometimes harrowing world of mental illness and mental health by two performers who know the landscape all to well. Presented by producer and director, Matthew Briggs, and his aptly named company Under the Microscope, Mental As Everything & Scarred For Life is a must-see cabaret double-bill focusing on mental health. The significance of shows like these are evident because, as Briggs states, there is still a strong stigma attached to issues of mental heath.
Both shows are about transparency and truth. For performer, Damon Smith, his show, Mental as Everything, is super personal since being diagnosed with OCD and Bipolar 2. For Smith, the show is an epoch to the motto: our challenges can make us stronger, while still being an entertaining, fun and life affirming affair for both audience and himself.
“After performing and co-writing more simplistic, tribute (ish) style shows, I wanted to challenge myself with a project that had a subject I could be creative with, and my inspiration was my own personal, elephant in the room, my diagnosis of and struggle with mental disorders,” he says. “As a sufferer of these often misunderstood and debilitating disorders, being OCD and Bipolar 2 disorder, Mental As Everything became the perfect conduit to help remove the stigma attached to mental illness, while entertaining an audience behind my piano with original songwriting and off the wall buffoonery. I am frightened, excited and super proud about the prospects this show may deliver.”
Josh Belperio’s show, Scarred for Life, is also a personal journey centring around his PTSD and anxiety caused by a traumatic bicycle accident. Belperio created the show essentially on the advice of his psychologist. “I had been seeing her to work through the post traumatic stress of my accident, and she said a good way to work through it is by talking about it – with the caveat that I use ample humour,” he says. “My close family and friends and my partner, Matthew, had to live through it, so I didn’t want to continue going on and on about it to them, as I tried to get my head around what happened to me. So I decided to talk about it to a roomful of strangers.”
Navigating through mental illness is a harrowing experience for individuals, families and those suffering the illness. For Smith, his show has become a cathartic brew that seems to have fostered a strong desire to acknowledge his mental illness and embrace it.
Smith acknowledges a genesis moment when the show became a reality in his mind and needed to be born. “The last few years have been a struggle for me and by saying that, I don’t mean ‘Oh my life is sooo hard, I have things I have to deal with that no one understands’…In fact, it’s the opposite, “he says. “As far as my mental health goes, the pain my family goes through with regards to my obsessive compulsive nature, not to mention the extreme highs and lows experienced with being bipolar, is as crippling to me as the disorders themselves…does that make sense? Its now time for me to stand up and say, I am mentally Ill but I am also a great transparent and descriptive storyteller, pull up a chair and lets have a drink, we need to talk.”
Jeff Kennett and his Beyondblue, as well as Lifeline support, and others, have done a lot to dispel the mystery about, and, perhaps, fear of mental illness over the years. Vocabulary about this subject has certainly become more positive, and conversations that are taking place are more about empowerment, seeking help and seeking support than ever before.
Engendering these types of conversations is important for both Smith and Belperio.
Smith: ” In a one on one conversation regarding these sorts of topics, hot potatoes if you will, some people will discuss easily and some will choose to hurl said potatoes over the shoulder out of view. I personally want to shower the audience with these potatoes, perhaps mash them first as to not hurt anyone!? I want to draw a parallel between the person with a broken, bandaged arm and the person with a depressed state of mind. Both people deserve an empathetic response and yet a lot of us don’t want to talk about someone’s mental state and a lot of the time it’s because they don’t know how. Men with big bushy beards do cry, really…I saw one once although they are few and far between! I’d be happy to see our audience filled with men and beards!”
Belperio: “So, first of all, I do not identify as a person living with a mental illness. I identify as a person who has lived through events that have compromised my mental health at various times – otherwise known as life. And I think it’s important to talk about this, because all of us go through this at some stage, often multiple stages – whether we open up about it or not. So that’s exactly why I’m talking about it: because one of the most insidious and toxic things about having poor mental health is its silence.”
As far as style of show, Smith admits he’s always been keen to make people laugh and his love of music was just a natural inclusion. But his show will challenge some and will exorcise some myths about OCD.
“I always look for the humor in the given subject and embrace it,” he says. “I’m all about being ‘on the fly’ and I work way better when I am creating on the spot. The nervous energy brought on by improvisation works very well with the topic of ‘my’ Mental Illness. It’s not that it’s a laughing matter, because OCD is not, but my description of what I may go through on a daily, minute by minute basis, can be laugh out loud funny although rest assured, I’m also going to tell you how crippling it is and how frustrated the OCD community currently is with most people’s view of what having an OCD actually means, which I can tell you is not necessarily being anal retentive when it comes to organizing ones cutlery drawer or the like.”
Belperio, too, confesses he just can’t stay too serious for too long and, in fact, this mindset was present even through his illness and recovery. “I may have been in pain and down a few litres of blood, but it was still bloody hilarious when my boyfriend had to help me pee into a bottle; or when he had to help me walk, and I was wearing one of the hospital gowns that open at the back, and as I inched my way up and out of the room, like the moon rising over the horizon, my backside gradually came into view of first my parents, and then the entire ward,” he says. “And really, I remember realising in hospital that humour is almost a form of currency when you’re really sick. We see this also in marginalised communities, for instance the queer community: our sequins and satire and sass are as much a survival mechanism as anything else. That’s why during the Plebiscite I wrote a song, the aim of which was to use comedy to disempower the heartless and bullying actions of the Prime Minister and his government, whilst also providing the opportunity for an anthem of joy and resilience for the community. So I suppose it’s in my DNA to use humour as a way to get through a tough situation. I’ve also found that comedy helps in communicating an important message – in the way that it disarms an audience and puts them at ease.”
Each show has been in preparatory mode for some time. For Belperio it has taken about nine month of work to complete but Smith’s journey, to this point, has taken some years.
“The research for this show has been intrinsically important because a much as I’m comfortable being transparent and honest with my experiences, It’s not my place to broadcast other peoples opinions and experiences,” says Smith. “Between myself and Adam, my co performer in the show, we’ll be covering important statistics pertaining to these topics. As far as the shows creation goes, it’s been years and years in the making and I am very excited that I can help to make a difference with some real, learned experiences to share.”
Smith’s ultimate aim is to make a big deal about how mental disorders can be misinterpreted. “That they’re not adjectives,” he stresses. “You can’t be ‘Sooo OCD’, I mean it’s grammatically incorrect to say I’m ‘so Bipolar’ not to mention offensive when we sufferers of bipolar see someone wearing a t-shirt saying “I thought I had bipolar but it turns out I’m an asshole.’ I mean come on!!”
Belperio is coming at it from the angle of mental heath and his own battle with depression and anxiety.
“My challenges are no different to the challenges that everyone has to face, because life is hard sometimes, and too often, our society exacerbates life’s challenges. I really and truly believe that our individualistic, competitive and fragmented society is the culprit for the epidemic of depression and anxiety that we are seeing.
Although I do not profess to be an expert in mental health, as far as I am aware, for issues such as depression and anxiety, the discussion is turning from talking about the mental health of individuals to the mental health of the community. My friend, Adelaide arts critic James Murphy, once wrote ‘increasing rates of depression are a symptom of an increasingly sick society, not chemical imbalances within individuals.’
So what I’m doing is about providing a space to recognise that we are not alone. According to my psychologist, anyone who has been through a sufficiently traumatic event has realised that life is random and we could be killed or injured at any moment. And that is a terrifying realisation – and for me, was a big part of my post-trauma depression and anxiety.
So I’m sharing that, for anyone who has come to that realisation – because it’s therapeutic to talk about it. Because shared experiences are the antidote to a toxic, fragmented society. And it is difficult to have these open discussions about our mental health – but that is exactly why we need to.”
Music and humour is clearly a big part of both men. As creative, Smith loves music that is raw and unbridled in its delivery and he also loves talking to people that are happy to disclose the finer details of a conversational topic. His admiration for Belperio in this light is evident: “Mental As Everything is being billed with another great show, Scarred For Life, and its creator and performer, Josh, is a perfect example of a person standing on a stage delivering a message, a personal message, spoken with clarity and poise all the while blending humor with tragedy,” he says. “I have been told for years and years that I have very unique and honest way with my discourse with others…Perhaps that’s just a nice way to say I’m opinionated and pushy, though!? Heh.”
For Belperio the creative within him enjoys the stories that explore what it’s like to be beautifully scarred. “And to be beautiful because of your scars, ” he elucidates. “To explain how we can be beautiful because of our scars, give me 65 minutes, a microphone and a piano!”
Singer/songwriters, Smith and Belperio have devised a unique double bill experience that will leave audiences a little more educated and a whole lot more entertained.
Says Smith: Please, please, please come along and witness my nervous cohort, Adam and myself, try to deliver an important message with humor and tragedy, all delivered with clarity and poise 😉 Na, but really…Mental As Everything, if anything at all, is an enjoyable hour of original music designed to create mental health awareness by two people who despite their anxieties and disorders, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but on a stage performing to an audience!”
But the final line is left for Belperio, who succinctly says about his show: “Andrew Bolt wrote about it ‘man falls off bike, becomes star’. ‘Nuff said!”
Mental As Everything & Scarred For Life
Date: Saturday the 4th of August
Times: 2pm & 7:30pm
Venue: The Loft, Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran