An Evening with the Voices in Annie’s Head is the creation of the Manchester-based No Door Theatre Company. The Student sat down with producer Georgia Affonso, director and writer Sarah Teale, Stella Ryley and Dominic Varney, who play the characters Annie and Ken respectively. They were asked about how the production is close to their hearts and why they wanted to bring their show to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
Can you explain a little bit more about Annie, the main character?
Stella: Annie is a twenty something year-old woman who struggles with her anxiety, in a way that I think a lot of people do, but to a very extreme degree in that she analyses every aspect of her life. Annie does spend a lot of the show getting quite badly bullied, because Ken and Kendra voice her anxieties through two really over-the-top TV presenters. Ken and Kendra are her imaginary friends that she made up when she was younger, and now [that] she has grown up… Kendra is incredibly manipulative and controlling. Ken is very lovely and bubbly but they are also just very mean to Annie. Interjected into that is conversations that she has with her friend Bethany, and those are written how Annie sees them, so they are very stilted, [constituted by] one word and very slow. It is painfully awkward to show that this is exactly how she feels when, to the outside world, it looks like she is having a normal conversation. For her it’s horrible because she is so anxious.
How did the show start? When was it written?
Sarah: I don’t want to be like ‘this show is about me’ but… it really was genuinely me talking to myself and thinking ‘oh you’re quite funny there. These horrible things that you are saying to yourself would be hilarious if they were said by two fictional characters, and then blown massively out of proportion!’ Just like that, and then I wrote it [down].
Is it a comedy?
Sarah: Yes. I think it is, but then I’m always worried that I have a really twisted sense of humour and some of the things which are said are actually quite mean. It is a comedy, but with a point: that everyone should like themselves more. That’s the message.
The show is about mental health. Is that an issue which is quite close to all of your hearts?
Georgia: With No Door Theatre, what we are trying to do is push plays which are not necessarily about a diagnosed illness, so it is not a case of ‘this is a play about anxiety’ or ‘this is a play about anorexia’. It’s a play about how various things to do with your mental health might impact your daily life. So Annie isn’t necessarily someone with diagnosed anxiety, but she is someone who is incredibly anxious. Within the play there are no doctors or therapists. That’s not what it is about. It is about everyday people. I think that what was amazing about it was that so many people come out of it and say ‘I wouldn’t say I have anxiety but I do think those horrible thoughts on a daily basis’.
Dominic: By keeping it relatively vague on that aspect [of diagnosis], it just allows more people to engage and connect with it. People have come up to me after seeing it who suffer from a particular mental illness and they will say ‘this really resonated with me’ and people who don’t [have a diagnosed mental illness] will say ‘I totally connected with that’. So it connects a broader audience. We are not trying to offer a solution to mental health. We are just offering an insight into what it could be like inside the mind of somebody who is suffering from such things.
Sarah: I think that a lot of the time with mental health now it is more like a defining feature and people often find that it has to be a defining feature for them. It is something to define themselves by, and we are moving away from that. I always feel like it’s quite scary to feel like ‘oh I feel like that, so that must mean that I am this’ or ‘oh I’m not that, so that means I am not allowed to feel like this’.
Have you always been planning to bring the show to the Fringe?
Georgia: Yes. I think that [we decided to] as soon as we put it on for the first time, probably even before then. When we performed it for the first time in Manchester, at university, I think that it was just ‘Fringe-esque’. It needed to be at the Fringe. We just wanted to do the show again, I think that was the other thing. Everyone seemed to want to do it again.
Dominic: Again, it was the response as well. That really motivated a lot of us to take it up because we had a wonderful response from people who really resonated with what the message of the play is. We thought that we really wanted to take this up [to Edinburgh], and see how this message and this insight resonates with a bigger audience over a longer period of time.
Stella: It was conceived at university, and so many of the people I know at university have been very affected by mental health. It has definitely become more ‘trendy’ now, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it is a lot more… like, a couple of years ago, it would not be normal for someone to be saying ‘I am feeling anxiety right now’, whereas now it is an accepted term.
Dominic: People are talking about it more now, which is great. The conversation has over the last five years I think got bigger and better and we are talking about it more. We just want to add to that.
Do you think creative arts has contributed to mental health being more openly and commonly talked about?
Dominic: So much. There are so many more plays and books and films created about mental health now. They are not necessarily aimed directly at that, but at the exploring of it and discussing it, especially from lots of young people. A lot of the student plays that I have seen in Manchester have more explorations of mental health, which is really encouraging.
Is it the same people working on the play now as it was when it first started?
Georgia: We have two new cast members who are lovely, and it’s exciting to work with a few new people. I think that was such an easy way of bringing in a little bit of newness into the show. Because obviously, it is a danger of repeating something that it will feel a bit stale. But… it feels like the same show, but also totally new in a different way, which is cool. Generally, Stella and Dom and Mia [who plays Kendra Kenderson, Ken’s co-presenter] were all in it the first time round. Sarah and I have not changed [laughs]. I think this is basically us doing it but with more theatre experience, because Sarah and I started doing… well, we left university and started doing student-based things, but as non-students. It has been [a case of] learning how to play that game.
Has the extra experience paid off?
Sarah: Yes – well we will find out in the next two weeks!
You touched on the character of Ken a little earlier on. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?
Dominic: Ken is one of the imaginary TV presenters whom all of Annie’s really anxious thoughts manifest themselves into. He is extremely passionate about what he does. He absolutely loves presenting. It is genuinely his favourite thing to start an episode of The Voices in Annie’s Head, address the viewers, talk about what Annie is feeling rubbish about herself today and just really rip into her, in the most flamboyant and colourful way possible. He aspires to be one of the absolute best and legendary presenters in the world. Obviously, he is just an imaginary character in somebody’s head, but looking at him… it’s all he wants to be. The play starts really well for him, and he does fantastically, him and Kendra are bouncing off each other. Then he starts to mess up a little bit, and muck things up every now and then, and Kendra lets him know about it and tells him off. As the play goes on, it just gets a bit worse and worse. So even Annie’s imaginary presenters start arguing with each other. Ken slips up a bit more, and Kendra will get very annoyed. He is desperate to please Kendra, because he thinks that she is the best presenter in the world. He wants to be just as good as her.
So the deteriorating relationship between the two imaginary characters… is that reflective of Annie’s own state of mind at any given point in the play?
Dominic: Totally. Everything we say is so upbeat and flamboyant and amazing [in terms of its delivery], but everything we do say is horrific. It is really horrible.
Sarah: The idea is that as Annie tries more and more to get further in her life, and as her anxiety holds her back, we see the presenters disintegrating with her state of mind.
What do you think audiences will get out of your show?
Georgia: What we really hope will happen again is that people will say – not in a sad way, because we don’t want people thinking horrible things – but we hope people will admit ‘I think those things’ and ‘how stupid is it that she thinks those things when she is beautiful and clever and all these things? How stupid is it that I think these things on a daily basis’ and just talk to each other.
Sarah: Or even something like ‘it’s ok that I think those things’ because everyone else is thinking those things. It is totally normal, we can all talk about it and all be kinder to ourselves and to each other.
Georgia: From watching it so many times, hearing those voices and hearing your own voice and going ‘that’s the voice.’ It is amazing how many times I say that now to myself. It’s like there is a new voice, telling the other voices to be quiet.
In three words, how would you NOT describe your show?
Sarah: A washing machine.
Georgia: Insert funny answer.
Dominic: Depressingly draining nudity.
Stella: Male boxing match.
An Evening With the Voices in Annie’s Head
Paradise in Augustines (Venue 152)
Until 27th August (not 20th).
Image: Dominic Varney