Laughing in the Dark

Laughing in the Dark

Writer and actor Hope Kennedy-Smith insists that her play Welcome to Self Co. is relatively light-hearted, considering it focuses entirely on the most suffocating aspects of dealing with depression and anxiety.

Desperate for work, two women (played by Hope and first-time performer Tatiana Daniels) take jobs at Self Co., where their boss (Michaela Spratt) is a nightmarish, Miss Trunchbull-esque embodiment of the worst aspects of both mental illness and office life.

Directed by Patrick Graham, the play draws on the absurdism of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and is heavily influenced by the work of controversial writer Johann Hari. His book Lost Connections makes a case that there needs to be far more of a focus on the social causes of mental illness — letting people gain a sense of meaning and belonging, for example.

“He was quoting these stats from America in a recent Gallup poll that said only 13 percent of people in America love their jobs, 24 percent of people absolutely hate it, and the other 63 percent of people are just doing it because they have to,” Hope says.

“If you think about that, the majority of people’s waking life is spent at work, rather than something you really enjoy, and most jobs are about making someone else money at the end of the day so they can have more luxuries.”

This makes Hope’s own political leanings fairly clear, but she’s worked hard to make the play challenging for even the most liberal audiences.

“You always want to make the audience think for themselves,” she says. “You always want to make it subtle and get both sides as well.”

“It’s always good to make the audience a bit uncomfortable.”

The confronting play moves at lightning speed, and is based on the idea that having depression and anxiety to having a full-time job, while also delving into “how workplaces can be quite toxic”.

Hope says that even if the audience hasn’t experienced mental illness themselves, it remains relatable as  “everyone’s had a boss they hate”.

“You can be really lucky with certain jobs where people are really good about mental health things and you can talk about your problems and your work is like, ‘It’s fine, you’re depressed, you need to take time off’. But I think the majority of people don’t work in workplaces where they can do that,” she says.

“It’s quite often that, depending on how high up you get, you get infantilised a lot and people who have shifts that are very very stringent you only get fifteen minutes for a break and you have no control over your work either. That causes people so much stress and can be really dehumanising.”

“It also seems to be a thing that people who are bullies seem to be quite perfect for management roles.”

While the laughs flowed throughout the show at Garnet Station, as we left the theatre, I heard people saying it felt strange to laugh at, and therefore identify with, the play's darkest humour in the company of strangers, or even friends.

My friend pointed out it’s exactly the kind of jokes you'd usually give a quiet like to on social media: you can know that others have felt the same sense of self-loathing, or "existential dread", but you don't actually have to discuss it with anyone.

 The cutest theatre in the world, probably.

The cutest theatre in the world, probably.

Hope says she finds shows and podcasts that deal with mental illness through comedy to be “empowering” and loves hearing creative people share experiences she can identify with.

She cites US podcast The Hilarious World of Depression as an influence, as well as the 90s comedy Office Space for its portrayal of menial work.

“When you’re down and depressed or anxious being able to laugh at your own misery is completely sometimes the only thing that can get you through,” she says.

“I have a really great best friend and we do that all the time. We send each other 15 minute updates on our mental health all day long and they’re always funny and it’s good having someone to laugh with about the absurdity of the situation.”

“I think laughing at depression is a really good way of addressing it: I’ve had lots of people who have seen the show and said it’s an insight into what it’s like for people, even if they haven’t experienced depression or anxiety,” she says.

“But it’s in a comedic way because nobody wants to go and be depressed in a theatre.”

Hope says there’s a potential it will go on to be used as a resource in schools and she’s also applied for the Edinburgh Free Fringe.

Personally, she says the process of creating and acting in Welcome to Self Co. has been incredibly cathartic and that she’s been “so much healthier since doing it”.

“I’ve been finding it’s a really great process being able to somehow capitalise on my mental health to beat it in a way.”

“It’s a way in my head to be able to manage it and control it, writing it all down and forming it into something has worked really, really well… I wish lots of other people could find ways to do things like that.”

Welcome to Self Co. plays as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival until Saturday, February 23 at Westmere's Garnet Station. Book through iTicket