‘Working in mental health was a big learning adventure’
‘I think crying might be the new laughter,” says comic and storyteller Martha McBrier.
There have been a lot of tears at her Free Festival show Japanese Boy, which is the story of a pool team she set up at a support group for young schizophrenics in Glasgow. It’s a funny show, but it has a real tear-jerker of an ending and some of the responses from the audience have come as a surprise.
“People have been coming up to me after the show and telling me their own stories. A woman came and showed me a picture of her brother who was schizophrenic.
“I just said I hope the show did him justice and she said to me: ‘He would love it.’”
It’s not at all a preachy show, but a true story, told in a very funny way. But for some of those in McBrier’s audience it has changed the way they feel about people with mental health issues.
“People have also come up to me and tell me they have had a friend who committed suicide and it’s made them think about them in a new way.”
For Glaswegian McBrier, pictured below, whose stories are always woven around true incidents from her own life, there is no reason that talking about mental health means something can’t be funny.
“It’s all life. Isn’t it? That’s another thing people have said to me. I’m glad you put the funny stuff in. I could tell you stories.”
“The humour is still there. It’s life and it’s not something you should avoid or feel bad that you laugh about it. The most crazy people I have ever met in my life are comedians.”
She decided to talk about her stint as a mental health worker after telling the story of The Acorn Street Day Hospital Young Schizophrenics Pool League to her partner, the brilliant storyteller Matt Price, who is also her director.
“It’s about when I was working in mental health in the 1980s and I set up a pool league with the patients who were there. It’s a story about all the characters that were there, what their issues were and how we got around stuff.
“He said, ‘That’s such a great story. You have got to tell that story.’ At one time I was thinking I might write it as a play.”
Price has been a tremendous influence on McBrier’s life. He supported her when her early career as a freewheeling stand-up was cut short when she suffered a brutal attack which left her hard of hearing. McBrier was the first ever winner of So You Think You’re Funny – and was hotly tipped as a rising star. But her style depended heavily on audience interaction, which became impossible as her hearing failed.
He was also there in 2007 when she developed a brain tumour, which she still has, and which is inoperable but has shrunk due to treatment.
It was Price who encouraged McBrier to return to performing as a storyteller, encouraging her to take a turn at a storytelling night he was running in London, where the couple now live. For McBrier the attack, the tumour and the hearing loss had damaged her confidence – but Price persisted, believing she could still find a way to express her comic talent. “It was Matt who encouraged me. He was saying: ‘Come along to the storytelling night and do a bit. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have come back to performing.
McBrier returned to the Fringe four years ago, performing popular and well reviewed shows for children at the Free Festival – The Very Scarible Lollipop Lady, and The Very Scarible Tooth Fairy.
Last year she finally took the plunge and returned to the comedy section, with her storytelling show – Pigeon Puncher – a glorious interconnected set of stories which celebrated straight-talking, tough-living Glasgow life.
She decided to make this year’s show about the Acorn Street Day Hospital Young Schizophrenics Pool League pool team partly as a tribute to the people she got to know at that stage in her life.
The characters she met, and learning to understand the difficulties they had in life, had a profound effect on her as well as still making her laugh to this day.
“The people I met there and the people I still remember. It was a big learning adventure and the best working experience of my life.”
Martha McBrier, more than most people, understands that comedy and tragedy are linked. Her own life experience has been tough, but it has given her tremendous empathy and warmth, which is one of the things that makes her such a magical storyteller. And she’s more than happy if there are tears as well as laughter.
l Martha McBrier: Japanese Boy, Laughing Horse @ Finnegan’s Wake, until 27 August. Today 5pm. A Gala for Mental Health, Pleasance Dome, tonight, 11pm.