This June, Tess Humphrey’s first play comes to RADA Studios in London. Tess describes it as ‘not for the faint hearted’, however, it looks set to be an incredibly important piece of work shining a light on issues of mental health and depression, read on to find out more about her journey in working on this piece.
Interview by @AmieAmieTay 2016
AT: Thanks for speaking with us at LGBTQ Arts – firstly, perhaps you could tell us briefly how you came to be a writer?
TH: Thanks for speaking to me! That’s a funny story – I’m autistic and school was a really bad fit for me, so I attempted suicide when I was thirteen and was taken out of school. Then I was on my own a lot and I had this feral imagination and all this anger and injustice I needed to get out, so I started writing very vicious and very unsubtle social satires. Soon, writing became what I did, how I framed everything I saw. Wait – maybe it’s not a funny story…
AT: What have you worked on previously?
TH: I’ve been writing and producing since my teens. At university I wrote and directed a radio play called The Prince of Humberside, which won the BBC’s Kevin Greening Award, that was sort of my first moment of recognition.
Now there have been about 20 productions of my plays. Most of them are black comedy and expressions of societal problems, but I do venture further afield sometimes; my last play The Lionheart Phantom was a farce about a gay bar that pretends to be haunted to get more custom. And the director of Winter of Our Discotheque and I first met when we did a play called Unisex, where people anonymously submitted anecdotes about their sex lives and we made them into short plays. He danced completely naked to Baby Got Back. He’d do a lot for theatre, that man.
This year I was made the Resident Writer at Grand Dame Theatre in Manchester, where they do amazing high-quality accessible theatre – with that and Winter of Our Discotheque, 2016 has been a good year.
AT: Winter of our Discotheque is on at RADA Studios this June, what inspired you to write this piece?
TH: This was actually the first play I ever wrote, so it was completely bound up in that outsider angst that I had as an autistic teenager with a mental illness. It’s about a boy who is sent to a new school after he’s expelled from Eton, and how he can’t fit himself into the new culture he’s in. At first he’s doped up with heavy medication, then as the play progresses he slips further into this untamed depression, and you see the people around him evolve from curiosity to fear to outright prejudice and in some places the despair of having a suicidal friend.
Of course it’s also a comedy. When you’re depressed, it’s impossible to be happy, but it’s easy to laugh, so I place great importance on comedy. In a way, when I wrote it I must have been thinking “I dare you to laugh at this child self-harming, I dare you” – like the audience become complicit in the prejudice.
AT: Who is it for?
TH: We definitely say no one under fifteen. A family came to see it at Edinburgh Fringe, and they stayed through the self harm, the fights and the gun violence, but left during the overdose. It’s not for the faint hearted.
I am happy when people say to me that they’ve experienced mental illness and the play captures it perfectly, but I don’t want to preach to the choir all the time – I’d like it to change perceptions, so in that sense it’s for anyone.
Because it’s set in an English boarding school, so I suppose it’s easier to get for audiences who know the background of school stories and the British aristocracy. It’s a semi-parody of those old high school stories where one of them’s gay, one of them’s a drug addict and CURRENT ISSUES!
It has queer characters and themes, but I cringe when I see queer theatre that treats LGBTQ+ issues as something from an after school special, so I hope I’ve made it funny and relatable.
AT: What do you hope people will take away from watching?
TH: I’d rather make people think than tell them what to think. The director was saying to me the other day, the crux of the play is that it shows all these harrowing things through comedy, and at what point do you stop laughing? I think that is it exactly – everyone who sees it will have a different point at which they begin to think “This isn’t comedy, it’s tragedy.”
AT: If this play could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
TH: I suppose all those years ago, the underlying reason I wrote it was to impart just how awful depression is. Someone says in the play that depression is worse than the death of a loved one, because grief eases over time, whereas people can suffer crippling depression their whole lives.
And so often people in the worst phase of their whole lives are perceived as self-indulgent and attention-seeking, but you’re functioning with your most basic instincts – you can’t think clearly, you’re just grasping onto things trying to stay alive. The play tries to get that across.
If anything, I hope someone goes home and is nicer to people with depression.
AT: What are you working on next?
TH: There’s lots in the pipeline in Manchester with Grand Dame Theatre. They’re producing two of my plays as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe – The Lionheart Phantom (10th 11th July) and Britainland (19th – 24th July). I’m also going to be teaching a few classes on play writing – more to follow! Then in September, we’re doing a new political comedy called Bullingdon Revisited, at 3 Minute Theatre in Manchester. Yes, it is Brideshead Revisited with Boris and Dave.
AT: Where can we find you / your work on social media?
TH: Winter of Our Discotheque is on Facebook, and on Twitter as @TambourgiProd. And you can read scraps of my stuff and follow my writing-related musings by searching ‘Tess Humphrey writer’ on Facebook and clicking like!
AT: Thanks so much Tess for speaking with us today. If you’d like to book to see The Winter of our Discotheque on at RADA Studios 9th-14th June 2016, you can reserve tickets for the show by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.