It’s lunchtime in Edinburgh’s Old Town and I’ve swapped comedy for something more serious. On stage, psychotherapist Rachel O’Connor draws a picture of the brain while people in the room share stressful moments from the first fortnight of the fringe: flyers arriving late, nightmares about missing their own show. Soon, we are all releasing tension with some diaphragmatic breathing.
While punters enjoy the buzz of the fringe, others often have a much tougher experience. Those working here deal with low wages, fragile living arrangements, long shifts and constant rejection. Performers face a potent mix of financial stress, pre-show anxiety, pressure to party, and the dread of a two-star review. Comedy production company Objectively Funny is working with O’Connor to provide support.
Many shows draw upon difficult personal experience, and re-living that daily can be punishing. “Last year I was doing a show [that] talked about my own depression,” says comedian Martin Willis, founder of Objectively Funny. “Even touching on it fleetingly was enough to make me depressed. The social aspects, the constant sense you should be doing something, made it worse.”
Willis didn’t know where to turn at the time. He later conducted a small survey of comedians – 89% experienced poor mental health at the fringe, but nearly a third hadn’t accessed support.
Along with Maddy Bye, Ellie Brayne-Whyatt and Michael Julings – the other members of Objectively Funny – Willis began planning ways to change this. They partnered with Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm) to create free sessions – some led by O’Connor, others offering yoga or meditation – and booklets containing personal stories, practical tips and directions to professional help.
They emphasise peer support: creating a community and looking out for signs that others need help. With pressure to win awards and five-star reviews, performers can feel cut off from friends with whom they compare themselves. “I’ve seen it completely destroy people,” says Bye. “Mental illness can come out in ways that are not so obvious. It’s easy for people to turn their backs.”
“We need to talk to each other differently,” Willis adds.
Two years ago, Jamie Firth had a similar thought after bumping into a friend on the last night of the festival. As they greeted each other, she burst into tears. “She hadn’t been talking to anyone,” he says. “She was on her own, bottling it up through the month, then it came pouring out.”
In 2018, he started FFS Livestream, a chat show encouraging mental health discussions between performers, flyerers and reviewers. Their motto: “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”
Crucially, guests are banned from plugging shows. “When you meet other performers in Edinburgh, you immediately launch into your PR routine,” says Firth. “But you leave out all the bad bits and don’t realise what that’s projecting on the other person.”
Firth has now teamed up with Fringe Central, the Fringe Society’s participant centre. Wellbeing events have been on Fringe Central’s programme for the past decade, but 2019 saw a big increase in its offering. “When people start talking to us about their official fringe business, it often ends up covering wellbeing,” says artist development manager Katie Queen. “Our teams were equipped to signpost, but not to handle the stresses of artists, especially concerning mental health.”
This year, five people were trained as mental health first aiders, offering one-to-one sessions. Consultations also revealed the need for meetups to tackle isolation, and space to recharge in peace. Fringe Central has introduced Mindful Mondays, networking sessions and a room for silent work.
But reaching those who need these resources is a big challenge. “You can become blinkered when you’re performing at the fringe,” says Rachel Sanger, head of participant services at Fringe Central. “That 55 minutes [of the show] becomes the be all and end all of the month. It should be the most important thing, but the challenge is trying to get the word out that there’s more beyond it … there’s support here.”
Firth and producer Tamer Asfahani view FFS Livestream as a growing online resource. The more episodes there are, the more viewers can see that different strategies work for different people and that one difficult fringe isn’t the end of the world.
Objectively Funny tempted some people into their physical sessions, but had the most success handing out 5,000 mental health booklets. “Some people ask for several to share with friends,” says Willis.
They’ve also taken a compassionate approach to creating shows. David McIver and Tom Mayhew, two comedians working with Objectively Funny, are tackling deeply personal material on stage. Willis encouraged honest conversations about the emotional toll of performing it. “Comedians have a powerful voice in mental health,” he says. “If we’re able to support people to create narratives that go on to better inform about those experiences, that’s great.”
Back in the room with O’Connor, we finish with five minutes of mindful movement. As we emerge into the unsteady sun, Willis and co grab their mental health booklets and approach the nearest flyerers. There are still many people to reach this August. “I can’t stop now,” says Bye. “I want it to completely change and I do think that will take more than one year. But this year there are already many more options, so imagine next year!”
Objectively Funny is running drop-in sessions at the Forest Café, Lauriston Place, until the end of the festival: Mondays 10am–12pm, Wednesdays 4pm–6pm and Fridays 2pm–4pm.