Raising the dead in spirit of laughter

Remembered for his stints as ringmaster with Circus Archaos and TV persona Monty Cantsin. Picture: Contributed
Remembered for his stints as ringmaster with Circus Archaos and TV persona Monty Cantsin. Picture: Contributed
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Angie Dight’s tribute to husband Ian Smith won’t be morbid, but it will tell the truth about depression

THE first anniversary of the death of a loved one is a painful experience for anybody. Most people will tell you the best way to cope is not to try to ignore it but to confront it head on – to talk about, and celebrate, the life of the person you lost in the most joyful way possible.

Angie Dight and Mischief La Bas are doing just that. For three days at the start of August, they will take over the CCA in Glasgow for The Festival Of Ian Smith, a tribute to Dight’s husband, with whom she formed the much-loved Scottish street theatre company in 1992.

“I really want to focus on the good things,” says Dight, although her initial “ad hoc” plans hadn’t involved anything so expansive. “There was always the idea after he died that we would have to do an exhibition, and it would be quite low-key, and then gradually it was getting bigger and bigger.”

There are two reasons for this. The first is the vast amount of material Smith left behind, from props to short films. Faced with the dilemma of what to bring from Smith’s studio to the CCA, Dight and friends decided to bring everything – the studio itself will be recreated, alongside costumes for Smith’s numerous comic characters.

The second reason is the degree of love and respect so many people felt for Smith – his charisma, his warmth, his humour, his brilliance as a compere of the National Review of Live Art, and the sheer range and invention of the work he and Dight made together over three decades (after meeting in a Brighton club where Smith was dressed as a Minotaur, and falling in love on a trip to Glastonbury). The Festival Of Ian Smith will feature performances by a host of Mischief La Bas friends, such as Diane Torr, Pauline Goldsmith, and David Hoyle (aka the Divine David).

The artists listed above will not be paying direct tribute to Smith, but taking part in a Saturday night cabaret called Death, performing pieces about their own experiences of death and grief. For Dight this is part of “moving forward” with life on her own, by putting her own stamp on the event. Death is inspired by her love of Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies. “They’re celebrating the spirit of the person after the person’s died. And they carry on doing it year after year because that’s your ancestor, your father, your brother, and they’re still important. You’re honouring them.”

While the rest of The Festival Of Ian Smith is very much in his image – the format of the film programme is even modelled on the Saturday morning local cinema screenings he loved as a child – Dight isn’t sure a Day of the Dead type tribute would be quite his thing. “Ian was into the British style of things,” she says; a key family ritual was having a fireworks show on Guy Fawkes night each year. “Ian absolutely loved fireworks so we always had to have a fireworks night even if it was just the two of us on the beach letting off one rocket.” The annual family fireworks was, by all accounts, an institution. “He’d spend the whole weekend rigging everything,” Dight recalls fondly, “I would be on catering.” The tradition continued without him last year, but Dight and her children, Stan and Lily, also visited Smith’s grave with friends and made decorated skulls.

What Dight wants to celebrate, she says, is that the divide between life and death “is not black and white”. “I just feel that when a person dies their spirit lives on. Their work lives on, everything about them lives on, apart from their physical presence.”

What Dight is touching upon here is something intensely painful – that she began to lose her husband long before he died, as a man once full of daft jokes and endlessly creative ideas was hit by severe depression. This was not public knowledge. “Lots of friends do know, but I think other people are shocked. He was seriously, properly ill. He never went back to being himself again, ever.”

As far back as 2010, she says, her husband began to struggle. “He was really proud of being able to make a living making art, but also felt the pressure of being responsible for other people because he was a responsible person. Then he came to some sort of crisis.” Dight did everything she could to help. She reels off a list of treatments they tried, including hypnotherapy, psychiatric sessions, acupuncture, and the Hoffman process. Nothing seemed to work. “One of the things I loved best about him was that his brain was so active, but it was totally overactive so he was playing out loads of worst case scenarios and they were all awful. His parents would be dying, Mischief was going under, there would be no more ideas…” This was stressful for Dight too – what got her through, ironically, were the treatments intended to help her husband recover. “I was getting better and that made it even harder for him. But that’s because he was ill and I was just having a hard time.”

This is a crucial point: Smith had a serious mental illness, one still not adequately understood, treated, or talked about. If it had been, he might still be alive. Instead, the couple endured four years of hell as his condition got worse and worse. “He was unable to admit to anyone trying to treat him how bad he was because he did not believe they could help him or that anyone else had ever suffered from the same condition,” says Dight.

In October 2013, when he was at his worst, Dight agreed to have her husband sectioned. “I told the truth and sort of incriminated him, but he was suicidal,” she says. Smith spent the rest of 2013 in hospital. In the end, it didn’t help. “He was scared in there. There was no stimulation, he just felt he’d been locked away with people he had nothing in common with.” At the beginning of 2014 he was discharged. He took his life seven months later.

This October, Mischief La Bas will perform at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, an annual event led by the Mental Health Foundation. For Dight, it’s a way to publicly acknowledge what Smith went through, while continuing the company’s work with all the energy and enthusiasm he gave to it before his illness.

The performance will be typically funny and irreverent, not solemn. Smith’s funeral had a similar spirit. The party afterwards, Dight says, was so upbeat that “a friend kept calling it ‘the wedding’”. The coffin was painted with flamingos, palm trees and a tropical beach – and a cartoon of Smith’s face looking through a porthole. The end of the coffin had two model feet sticking out. “When the coffin came in everyone laughed,” she recalls. “I think he would have liked that very much.” n

The Festival Of Ian Smith is at CCA, Glasgow, from Friday until 2 August. www.cca-glasgow.com, www.mischieflabas.co.uk