Patrick Sandford has had an illustrious career as one of the country’s most respected directors and Artistic Directors and is about to return to Brighton Fringe with the debut of his new play Blooming, which follows the success of his moving autobiographical play Groomed at the festival last year and will shortly be opening at London’s Soho Theatre.
Taking a break in rehearsals, Sandford spoke to Glen Pearce about both shows, the pain and the reward of staging such deeply personal shows and the role of theatre in promoting wellbeing.
The run up for any new show is always hectic, but for Patrick Sandford, rehearsals for his new show Blooming, opening at Brighton Fringe on 19 May, have been even more unusual.
“It’s not helped by the fact that I am in Scotland and my fellow artist is in London,” he explains. “We’ve done a Skype rehearsal this afternoon and, while it is very good for concentrating the mind, it’s less good for concentrating the moves because you can’t really see what the other person is doing.”
Rehearsal by Skype may have its limitations but it’s something that Sandford has found revelatory. “I’ve never done it before but we’ve done it two or three days this week and I’ve really enjoyed it. It forces you to concentrate on what you are saying and how you’re saying it.” It’s something he thinks other performers should try. “I think actors should use it more because it doesn’t half cut out the pauses and when you do have have a pause you know you’ve earned it,” he laughs.
Laughter is an important tool in Sandford’s toolbox. His play Groomed, which premiered at Brighton Fringe last year, won universal praise but its subject matter, the true tale of Sandford’s sexual abuse as a child, was brutally and poignantly candid. The praise was something that caught him by surprise.
“I genuinely had no anticipation that Groomed was going to be received as well as it was. I thought I had written a little show telling the truth and suddenly people started to get excited by it, and that was rather wonderful,” Sandford confesses.
The success of Groomed, though, does bring its own set of drawbacks as the writer, actor and director explains. “It’s always difficult to follow one’s self but Mankind, who are the charity in Hove who funded Groomed, very kindly and generously last year, said they really wanted me to do a sequel.”
It wasn’t a request Sandford initially jumped at. “First of all I said no, but they twisted my arm. I said I had to write a more cheerful show, something about recovery or happiness, so I said I’d write a play called Blooming.” That happiness, though, brings its own challenges. “The problem with writing a show about happiness is at the end of the pantomime we have a line ‘and they all live happily ever after’ but the happiness bit you never see because the happiness bit is boring unless you’re actually in it. What is interesting is the bits leading up to the happiness,” Sandford explains.
The key for Sandford was to draw once again on his own experiences. “ I discovered that I had to remember what the experience was like for me, and so it becomes very much about recycling. When you have had negative patterns, no matter how good your life gets, no matter how many awards you win, you can still feel insecure at their next performance. And no matter how much therapy you may do and how much more balanced you may feel in yourself and how centred and your relationships might be going better, there was always the possibility that you get tired – in my case it’s particularly when I get tired – that the negative stuff can come back and that the lowering of the self-esteem or whatever can come back.”
Sandford firmly believes that we have to take responsibility for our own happiness and wellbeing. “I don’t think people can make your life happy. You have to go out and get it, and I think that’s true of anybody irrespective of their psychological history. I think this is true even more now than ever before you don’t get happiness handed to you on a plate, even if you inherit large amounts of money.”
An inspiration for the play came from James Hillman’s book We’ve Had A Hundred Year’s of Psychotherapy – And The World’s Getting Worse, as Sandford reveals. “He says that recovery is when your demons are still there but they’re on the other side of the road, they’re on the pavement on the other side of the road, they’re not sitting on the steering wheel or crouching on the back of your shoulder it’s grabbing your neck. You know them, you understand them, they will come and visit you from time to time but you understand and can stand them and it’s not a case of that you magic them away and suddenly the Fairy takes you to the ball, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve come to terms, you accept and by accepting you can transform.”
The performing arts attracts people who want to hide behind their art.
The challenge for Sandford, and his co-performer in this show, actress and musician Lauren O’Dair, is transforming the show from the textbook theory into something theatrical. Sandford has been impressed working alongside O’Dair, although he’s still trying to find a way to incorporate one of her skills. “She can, if I want, swing upside down from her legs as she is a qualified aerialist and trapeze artist!” Sandford Laughs. “ Unfortunately the ceiling in Sweet Dukebox is certainly not strong enough to take a bar in which to swing from. So there is no aerial work in the show but if we transfer who’s to say!”
While there may be no trapezes yet, both shows must still be emotionally draining but does Sandford also finds it therapeutic is something he answers with an immediate and resounding yes. “Yes of course. Yes, it is liberating; it is, of course, cathartic, but that’s not to say it’s not also troubling. The one thing about Groomed I have felt every time I do it is why am I doing it, why am I doing it? Is this indulgent, is this just me shedding tears in public and I have to be reassured that no, it’s not indulgent, it’s actually helping other people.”
The fact that the pain of sharing such a dark personal memory helps others must be a gratifying feeling. “Oh incredibly so, because I would say at every performance somebody came up to me afterwards, generally privately and said this happened to me, or my brother is struggling with this and that gives me a sense of responsibility, Oh my God what am I supposed to do now? Of course, I can’t rescue these people, I’m not a therapist,” Sandford shares. “ But what I can say to people is I hear you, I believe you, I hear what you’re saying and I hope that what I’ve said has chimed with you, which clearly it has, and I hope you’re going to go out and help yourself. I do think that’s what Groomed does, and maybe Blooming will, it holds space for the audience to consider their own situation. They may not get the answer from the show but they can get an awareness that their situation matters, that it is real and that they can set out to do something about it themselves.”
In a time when there’s a growing debate about the need for improved access for people to talk about their issues and mental health, does Sandford believe that theatre has a role to play in that provision? His views are, not surprisingly, strong. “Without offending hundreds and thousands of actors, directors, designers and musicians, I do think the performing arts attract people who have insecurities. I do think the performing arts attracts people who want to hide behind their art. Most theatre directors I know are fairly mentally unstable, maybe not as mentally unstable as I am but they’re all on a spectrum!” he laughs. But behind the laughter is a serious point. “ We say actors are insecure and want to be loved and those are just cliches, but actors, if they’re any good, tend to be extraordinarily sensitive. I think that makes them empathic towards other people’s mental situations and I think that if you are mentally ill then theatre is a very good place to be as you’ll get immediate understanding and support. I think that if there is a way that society at large can tap into that then that can only be for the good of everybody.”
Sandford doesn’t see that move as a new thing, but one that should be nurtured. “I can remember a time 15 or 20 years ago when the Arts Council wanted theatres to become like psychiatric wards and I said at the time, hey look I do work with people with addictions, I work with people recover from sexual abuse, I work with people with sexual problems, I work with people with gender identity problems – and that’s only the front row of the audience. And I think it’s very true. I think that people who go to theatre tend to be interested in themselves, generally, they are questioning, slightly introspective people who are interested in what it has to be human and I think that includes what it is to have difficulties in being human. So I personally think that theatre has a huge role to play, whether it will ever have the structures to enable it to do it as effectively depends upon who gets elected at the next election.”
There’s a real sense of belief in the power of theatre to heal and healing is central to Blooming. What does Sandford hope the audience will take away from the new show? “Oh, I hope they would take away three things,” he confides. “ I hope you have a good night at the theatre and have an interesting night at the theatre. I hope they will have a realisation that blooming is possible, that things can get better, really very dynamically better. And I hope they would get a sense of their own responsibility in that, that if you want your life to get better you have to set out to meet it, you have to take steps to do it, it isn’t going to just happen for you.”
And for Sandford, that’s a key message. “That’s the challenge, really; if we want to bloom then we have to put ourselves in places where we can bloom and we have to do what we can for ourselves to make ourselves bloom, and that of course often involves seeking help or seeking other people.”
Blooming runs at Sweet Dukebox as part of Brighton Fringe 19-21 & 25-27 May 2017
Groomed runs at London’s Soho Theatre 13 June -1 July 2017