Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Little Bit of a Not Properly Formulated Rant About the Arts and Mental Health

I Was a Teenage Dirty Old Man is currently on at Gasworks as a part of the Midsumma Festival. It is a cabaret piece by Eric Kuhlmann. It was brought over from Adelaide by the Feast Festival, after only six previous performances.

It is incredibly raw. Incredibly. It is unlikely that you'll ever see something this raw again. And that rawness contains the seeds of its success and its ultimate destruction.

It begins with Eric naked (with a figure rather like that of Buddha) curled up, sitting cross legged on a small coffee table, looking rather like those garden scultptures of bald naked men curled up in a ball that were everywhere 10 or so years ago. His electronic backing music began, and his voice - scratchy, hoarse - began almost chanting taboo breaking, stream of consciousness lyrics. The byline described him as "Ian Dury meets Billy Brag in a public toilet" which seemed a good call at the beginning. As the piece unfolded, however, I was increasingly reminded of Daniel Johnston. Eric's nerves were palpable, he was visibly shaking much of the time and rarely opened his eyes at all. The room (the larger space at Gasworks) was totally unsuitable for his material. The show itself wasn't really in tourable condition yet. It suffered a lack of structure which rendered it an onslaught and somewhat exhausting, and could have used some gentle direction and or dramaturgy. I would have preferred to see a gig, rather than the uncomfortable moments of forced interaction.

The piece raised a whole host of issues (not issues it intended to raise) as I watched a performer get totally burnt, as I'm sure he is after the experience.

I have spent some time professionally working with people who have an experience of mental illness. Arts related activities undoubtedly increase participant's mental health, yet I have always struggled with the notion of these processes being staged and ticketed - with the work of Rawcus for instance, feeling that it is morally fraught (beautiful, yes. Freakshow, a bit). I think this area of community arts practice needs some serious scrutiny, professionalisation and training. 
But those ill-formed thoughts aside, it became increasingly clear throughout I Was a Teenage Dirty Old Man that Eric has a history of mental illness, he directly alluded to treatments and medications a number of times. Whilst he remained non-specific about his diagnosis, it was, by the show's end, clear to me as an audience member.
I would suggest (and this may well be contentious) that his mental health, which became such an issue for the show as a whole, should be addressed in the publicity material. It would take the edge off this being revealed throughout the process of the show and would encourage a wholly new and perhaps more forgiving audience (not more forgiving than myself neccessarily, but more forgiving than the audience I was a part of) and Gasworks is, perhaps, the place for it. They are, after all, hosting The Art of Difference Festival in March. This show could find a home in that festival or a plethora of other events supporting mental illness. 
This is very tricky territory for me to be getting into. I'm not suggesting this because he didn't belong, I'm only suggesting it because the show was clearly underdone and he was clearly incredibly uncomfortable and needed support and encouragement in order to fully realise the magnificent material. 
It saddened me greatly to see him there, already with such revelatory material and such vulnerability, with such total lack of support. 
There is a singer-song-writer & visual artist named Heidi Everett who has flourished with the right kind of gigs, support, encouragement and venues. She plays regularly supporting the Bi-Polar Bears and at Roarhouse gigs and her material and performance skills have gained depth and confidence.
I really felt like Eric Kuhlmann will never perform a show again.  
Having said that, like Daniel Johnson, Eric Kuhlmann may not want to flag his mental health as an issue, or to perform at events tailored for performers like him. It just didn't seem like he had the support or the relationships to make it possible, like Daniel Johnston is illustrated as having in the brilliant The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Any thoughts?

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