Interview: Eleanor Hill, 'It’s about truth, and this is my truth'

by Jim Keaveney

Eleanor Hill is a loud, brazen and darkly comic theatre-maker, who has decided to take some terrible things that happened to her and turn them into a play. Sounds pretty intense, right? But it is funny, she promises.

The one-woman play, Sad-Vents, opens at White Bear Theatre on 20 June. It's an immersive show about mental health, heartbreak, and trauma through the lens of social media - and one that encourages the use of phones during the show with live projection, actual instagram-lives, tripods, ring lights, direct messaging from the character to the audience and visa-versa.

Given the technological angle, it's probably appropriate that we caught up with Eleanor via email as she prepared for opening night.

Eleanor Hill in rehearsals for Sad-Vents. Photo: Joe Twigg

Q&A with Eleanor Hill on Sad-Vents.

Hi Eleanor, thanks for taking time out of preparations for Sad-Vents to tell us about the production. What can you tell us about your one-person show - what was it that inspired you to write Sad-Vents?

A series of unfortunate events really, ahahaha. I mean that’s a simplification but it’s also essentially true. My Mum died when I was five, my Grandma died a few years after that, I had and have still, quite an interesting relationship with my Dad, then I had a decade-long abusive relationship with a married man 20 years older than me, I got diagnosed with anxiety, trained as an actor and just as life looked mildly more promising we went into a lockdown during which I got diagnosed with depression had a few more awful things happen to me  I won't give it all away here) and because it all happened when we were all isolating and locked up in our bedrooms, I turned to social media and essentially had a bit of a breakdown on Instagram. I then used that concept and those life events and turned them into a web series and then into a one-woman play. I mean after all I gotta pay for those therapy bills somehow, right? Haha. I have a line that I use, and I know of other creatives who do too. When something bad is happening in life I often detach just for a moment and say to myself ‘Wow, this is gonna make some GREAT art.’

When you’re starring in a show you’ve also written, do you draw a distinction between the writer and the performer?

Interesting question there, so for me, from a mental health safeguarding POV, I like to distinguish between me and the character. I think that’s more important than writer vs performer because the writer and the performer are me, I can’t escape that. 

The character in Sad-Vents is named ‘Woman’ and I refer to her as the Woman, I don't give her my name and when speaking about her I would not use ‘I or Me or We’ and that clear boundary there is to protect my sanity (or what remains of my sanity). It also means that I can ‘wipe my feet’ as it were when I finish a rehearsal day or a show or a day’s writing and not be drawn back into some fairly heavy episodes of my memories. 

In rehearsals for Sad-Vents. Photo: Joe Twigg

The show began its life online - has this influenced how the play has developed to its ‘live theatre’ form?

Yeah for sure, so when I wrote the series it was 25 monologues released daily through advent as, like, a depressives alternative to the happy-clappy advent countdown. The pieces were done by 25 women around the world and they were done handheld on their phones, not editing or intense lighting or anything. The thing that was so great was that the audience got that up-close shot you get from holding a phone, speaking into it, and it meant the connection was instant and intense in a way you don't get in standard film or on stage. I loved that and that inspiration came from the way I use my own social media, you can feel like someone is talking to just you when you watch them like that so I wanted to try and bring some of that to the stage. I’ve tried to bridge the gap between traditional theatre and the theatre of social media in some way, God knows if it will work. This show comes after just three weeks of Arts Council Funded R&D so it could all go wonderfully wrong but that’s the plan anyway!

Eleanor Hill in rehearsals for Sad-Vents. Photo: Joe Twigg

Mental health, heartbreak, and trauma are often challenging for audiences - how difficult is it to address those themes, particularly when you’re approaching them from a semi-autobiographical viewpoint in an immersive setting?

Personally, I think coming at it from a semi-autobiographical POV has helped me in my writing. You see, it’s my story, I lived through most of these events and so I felt the pressure to be sort of precious with things was sort of removed. I haven’t shied away from anything in this play, I haven't sugar-coated anything (much as I was advised to by various industry folk and people I approached for partnerships). 

That doesn't mean this show is about shock and awe, it’s not, it’s about truth, and this is my truth and that might shock and awe but it’s not the point of it, the point is to share my experiences so that maybe, just maybe someone else may feel slightly less alone. 

That’s sort of always been my way with these things. I always seem to have been the one who says the thing, but it’s not because I want to be all LOOK AT ME SAYING CRAZY OUT THERE STUFF, it’s because I feel brave enough or have done enough of the work to be able to say the stuff and I’d like other people to come on that liberating journey with me too. 

It’s also because on a day to day I walk around wondering why the hell everyone isn't just screaming into the air “What the hell are we doing? Are we meant to know what we are doing? How is everyone else just doing life?” And I'm convinced I'm not the only one thinking that, so maybe if I shout it a bit other people will see they aren't alone in thinking that too. Or maybe they will just finally lock me up in a padded cell, can’t be sure on that one but if they do do that I will get free food and accommodation and that would help cos the starving artist thing isn't ideal. 

I think with mental health, heartbreak, and trauma we can go two ways often, one is to romanticise and glamorise and the other is to sugar-coat. In my opinion, both are equally awful. I actually got advised by an institution that I approached for support/partnership that they’d need me to ‘remove certain things from the play to ensure I dealt with mental health in a tasteful way’ and it sort of made me queasy to read that. How do you deal with mental health in a ‘tasteful’ way? And are they suggesting my experience of ill mental health and my expression of what I've experienced is not tasteful? If so should I and others bottle it up? Suffer in silence? Not swap stories? That seems like a sure-fire way to end up in suicideville. Oh, and another place told me to change the title because it sounded too ‘mental-healthy’ and so wouldn't sell, so I’ve had a fair bit of resistance and this is even before the show is out there.

I think for me I’m holding to the story Mel Brooks tells about John Calley saying to him “If you’re going to go up to the bell, then ring” So for me, front and centre has always been; if I’m going to tell my story, I’m going to tell it. 

Eleanor Hill in rehearsals for Sad-Vents. Photo: Joe Twigg

There’s a lot of discourse around ‘theatre etiquette’ at the moment but you ask audience members to use their phones during your show. Do you view that as part of your show specifically, or is it a part of a broader statement about theatre etiquette?

For me, this show is inherently techy and it’s based on a woman sort of having a breakdown online to some degree because that’s sort of what I went through. 

So, yes the phones were always going to be present because of the story and narrative and my obsession with social media and what we show and what we don't show and who it's for, and how we live our lives on and offline. My founding question for the play after all is “ “Why do we need an audience for our recovery? Well, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”  but there was always a huge wider thing for me too. 

I mean, it’s a tough one this. As an actor yes the light of a screen or a Dom Jolly ‘HELLO’ moment when I’m about to ‘To be or not to be’ could be grating and as an audience member for sure I’ve been in situations when someone’s been on their phone and I’ve wanted to do unspeakable things with that phone. 

HOWEVER, the flip side for me and what I’m more interested in is how do we get non-theatre-going audiences into the theatre? How do we make those who didn’t grow up on theatre and so don’t know the ‘rules’ feel comfortable there? I recently got into house music and there is a record label called Defected and they have a slogan, and it says ‘In our house we are all equal’. I love that and I want that in the theatre. I may of course completely change my mind if all the technology goes wrong in my show or I get completely distracted and forget the whole play because of all the phones haha. 

Eleanor Hill in rehearsals for Sad-Vents. Photo: Joe Twigg

Finally, how would you describe Sad-Vents to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

Marmite. 

I could waffle on about how groundbreaking and amazing it is but that's my opinion and my opinion in my opinion is irrelevant. I make the art, I put it into the world and from then on it’s not up to me to decide how an audience feels about it or if they like it, it’s over to them then. (I say this as a human who will 100% be wracked with nerves about what people think because of my mental health stuff but in theory, it’s what I feel) 

A thing I hold on to when I’m worrying about the fact that it’s Marmite is what Alan Cummings says, which is that “My criteria for liking anything in the arts... is gasping. If something makes me gasp, I think that's an amazing thing to do. You've made me have this experience, my body has had this unwitting, visceral sort of reaction, even if the thing is bad - if I'm gasping, I think that's pretty good, you've made me feel alive in some way.” 

That’s all I want to do really, share stories and elicit emotions.

FOR THE READERS AND EDITOR: Sorry if the spelling and grammar and punctuation is awful. I’ve got as well as all the mental health and trauma stuff, I’ve got Dyslexia and Dyspraxia too. What a spicy life, eh! 

Sad-Vents is at the White Bear Theatre from 20 June to 25 June.


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