Interview: Leigh Johnstone on Rum in the Gravy Boat

Fluid Motion Theatre Co. is a mental health theatre company specialising in mental health themes, tackling not only the issues themselves, but the stigma that surrounds them, and educating the public about mental health through their shows, events, and workshops. Rum in the Gravy boat tells Fluid Motion’s artistic director Leigh Johnstone’s story growing up with an alcoholic mother. As both writer and performer for Rum in the Gravy Boat, Leigh spoke with Box Five about the challenges of putting personal stories on stage and how humour helps audiences engage with mental health stories.

Why here, why now?

Rum in the Gravy Boat has been a show I have been wanting to create with my company Fluid Motion for the last six years. I first started working on it with my colleague Ali Gill when we were both at university. It was there that I learned about autobiographical theatre making and started to get to grips with the story I wanted to tell, which was how theatre and performing became an outlet and escape from my childhood growing up with an alcoholic mother. The development of the show was put on hold until we had the time and money to start rehearsing, but also because I was not entirely ready to explore some aspects of my childhood, especially the trauma. The other hugely important factor in the timing of the show was how my mum was doing. She had relapsed a few times between 2012 and 2016 and my head was all over the place and I therefore wasn’t in the right frame of mind to start working on it until 2016 when she had ‘got back on the wagon’.

What was the hardest part of putting a personal story in front of the public eye?

The hardest part for me was ensuring that the content was truthful and that I didn’t portray my mum as a monster. It could have been very easy for Ali (who plays mum) to create a version of her that was unforgiving, nasty, the villain and it was important for us to highlight that mum was a victim to the alcohol. It was hard creating the balance of truthfulness vs theatricality; ensuring the show was as interesting as a piece of theatre as it was a retelling of my own life. In addition, it was personally very hard for me to perform the most intimate of moments from my childhood such as the breakdowns and the trauma that I suffered. I found it very hard to open up in the early stages of the rehearsal process and show how I actually felt and that is why the show took a while to put together.

What was the most rewarding part of the process for you as a performer or as a writer?

In a completely selfish way it’s the catharsis I experienced through the process of making the show. I have had counselling in the past and have spoken to friends about what happened to me but none of that was as beneficial for my mental health as creating Rum in the Gravy Boat was. In allowing me to make decisions about what I wanted to show onstage, I was able to take ownership of the story and be in control of the release of those repressed emotions. I set the boundaries of what I am prepared to reveal and discuss. Lastly, I knew that I wanted my family to see the show. I felt it was important for them to understand what I felt like growing up and my mum has now seen the play twice and, although it was obviously very hard for her, I think it played a positive role in her own recovery. My dad also said to me after the performance ‘I never knew it affected you like that,’ and we have had a more open conversation about mum’s drinking ever since.

Do you think humour is important when opening a discussion about mental health in theatre?

Absolutely. We were very conscious of the fact that we needed to have the right balance of humour and seriousness, especially for a show like ours, as it allows the audience to relax, making it easier for them to engage with the theme or subject matter. The last thing we want to do is alienate the audience by making them feel uncomfortable, humour allows the audience to share the story with us in a safe and comfortable way. Humour also helped us as performers to deal with the heavy content during rehearsals and kept us safe throughout the creation of the show.

Where do you see Rum in the Gravy Boat taking you as a writer and performer?

Rum in the Gravy Boat has been the first professional show Fluid Motion has created for several years. It is the first play in the development of our autobiographical work with two new plays being created over the next two years around the subjects of attempted male suicide, motherhood and PTSD. Rum in the Gravy Boat will continue to have a life and embark on a national tour in the Autumn of 2019.

You can read the original 4-star review on Broadway Baby here.

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