I guess you could say Alaska the show exists because I never learned how to talk about how I really feel with people. I never did when I was a kid: I wrote poems instead. That started when I was about eight or nine, and I never stopped. When I was very grown – 32 – I started going to a psychiatrist on the NHS, and kept on for the next sixteen years. At the end of those sixteen years, my psychiatrist said I had never talked about my feelings – only about symptoms, and how to control them. I think I did Alaska because I never felt able to talk about my depressions outside a doctor’s office.
That’s not what I thought I was doing when I started working on the show. I had just had an invitation from Commonword, a grassroots publisher in my adopted hometown Manchester, to publish a collection of my poems. I’ve been a playwright and director for years and years, but I started out as a performance poet in a workshop run by Lemn Sissay [currently Associate Artist at the Southbank] at Commonword. Going to that workshop turned out to be crucial: I got my first Arts Council grant for a writing residency, my first professional playwriting commission, my first few professionally-produced plays, my first published poems – all from the Identity workshop at Commonword.
I only went to the workshop because I didn’t want to be a difficult-to-understand ‘page’ poet, as my Cambridge training had made me. I wanted to write things that were both intricate and accessible. If you needed a university degree to understand something, then to me that ‘something’ was lacking. Work could be complicated and imagistic and intellectual, and still be understood in one hearing. That was my goal.
That was my intellectual goal. But the most important part – the emotional drive — was being understood. Writing was the only way I could tell the truth about how it felt to be depressed, suicidally depressed. And if you write it, or perform it, no one ever asks you any questions about it. You can hide in plain sight, and I desperately wanted to hide the depression. I felt that it worried my friends and family, and downright panicked a lot of my doctors. But being a performer is the true Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility – you can say almost anything, as long as it’s within the sacred circle of the stage, and it is as if someone else said all those things, not you.
What complicates all this, is that the performance of normality that was going on all this time – acting like everything was OK – well, it was an act and it wasn’t. If you’d seen me, you would have probably seen me laughing. A lot. Having fun with my friends, having fun at work. Drinking a bit more than I should, but having a hell of a good time. And that was true, too. Both selves were true.
And getting that deeper reality into Alaska the show is what surprised me about doing it. When I started thinking about it, I wanted to do a poetry-play, that used a lot of the poems that are now in the book Alaska. But when I started work with my director, Darren Pritchard, he had me lay all the poems out along the floor, and put them in chronological order. Then he asked me what was happening in my life at the time I wrote each one. He immediately saw that the stories behind the poems would make the better play.
Darren and I really worked very closely together to craft Alaska. I’d describe it that I wrote and performed, while he devised and directed. I could never have written the show without him. More specifically, I couldn’t have structured it. His sense of how to put together a show that juggles impressions to create a whole was essential. Darren had worked several times in collaboration with Quarantine, especially on a play he performed with his mother, Susan + Darren. Quarantine create shows with both trained and untrained actors, based on people’s own life stories. They’re strong on visual imagery.
There’s a flavour of that in Alaska: it’s full of images and worlds created by words, and full of fun and dreaming and imagination, and singing and dancing on the moon. And the truth about how it has felt for me, growing up a depressive.
Doing the show has been loads of fun. It’s changed my life – Alaska is leading me to places I would never have imagined going before — to rural tours in the Lake District, to a Fringe Festival in Plymouth, to being part of A Nation’s Theatre here at the Albany this spring. It’s given me a team – Darren and my producer, Jayne Compton – that supports me in ways I didn’t even know I needed support. It’s led, indirectly, to our team founding the Black Gold Arts Festival, to give that same kind of support to other black performance artists in the North.
And all because for once I wanted to be able to talk about my feelings as well as I can write about them.
By Cheryl Martin
Co-Artistic Director, Black Gold Arts Festival
Alaska is coming to the Albany on Tuesday 19 April, 7pm & 8.30pm.