Arts

Poet and comedian Alice McCullough on Bouncing back after mental illness

Performance poet and stand-up comedian Alice McCullough tells Jenny Lee how comedy has helped her recover from mental illness

Belfast performance poet Alice McCullough is keen to address the stigma of mental illness

FROM the anonymity and loneliness of a mental health ward to sharing her poetry and comedy on stage, Alice McCullough relishes the opportunity to get back in front of the microphone.

The 35-year-old Belfast performance poet's love of the spoken word stems back to being read bedtime stories by her father.

"I love the spoken word. It's a whole other thing to hear things read and spoken aloud. I'm really inspired by other spoken-word artists like Kate Tempest, Holly McNish and Tony Walsh who have really moved people with their work."

But it was visual arts where Alice first excelled.

"I went to Art College in Limavady and started off life as a painter and had a few public exhibitions. But I had a major breakdown when I was there and spent three months in hospital. I've had a few diagnoses over the years – they have now settled on bi-polar, but back then it was schizoafffective disorder and was quite extreme."

Alice turned to writing, and poetry in particular, both as a means of escapism and of pulling herself back to reality. Her award-winning performances have captivated audiences as she plays with the boundaries between spoken word, comedy, storytelling and theatre. Her unique way with words has won her a presence on both television and radio, including a regular slot on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback.

However, after much success, her mental illness once again took hold of her life and put her career on hold, as she was once again admitted to a mental health ward.

"It's strange, with my condition it's not always bad things that will trigger it. I tend to get very overwhelmed and over stimulated with things. I was offered a pilot show on the BBC, and did this big EastSide Arts Festival performance a couple of years ago, which included writing a poem for Van Morrison, and in a way it was all too much."

Now after a two-year break from performing, Alice is delighted to be performing a new adaptation of her critically acclaimed show Earth To Alice in Belfast's Black Box as part of the Bounce Disabled and Deaf Arts Festival, run by the University of Atypical and showcasing new work by disabled artists, musicians, actors, dancers and performance poets.

Audiences can expect laughter, some tears and "a life-affirming kick in the balls" as a determined Alice tackles the stigma of mental illness head-on, combining her show, Earth to Alice, with a Q&A session.

"Me choosing to perform in this festival is a whole other slant on this show which I've never taken before – talking about my illness and the fact I never took that straight-and-narrow route through education and life."

Her show has been updated to include poems reflecting the current political stalemate at Stormont, as Alice works on raising it to a more professional theatrical level, ahead of dates planned at next year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

"The poems I'm sharing in this show aren't necessarily about mental health, but I feel opening up the discussion to mental health is important. There is currently a lot of discussion on suicide awareness, but little activism around talking about people who have been sectioned and gone into psychiatric hospital.

"Largely a lot of these people are voiceless and can't bring themselves together to express what is going on. I've been labelled psychotic, schitzo and I am here now and hope my show is a stepping stone to start to have that conversation."

Rather than feel vulnerable stepping on stage, Alice finds performing very therapeutic.

"When you have had mental health difficulties and been in psychiatric hospital you feel invisible. Getting up on stage is really empowering. A lot of performers are introverted and feel more comfortable on stage. You are more in control – you've worked hard and polished this stuff and know what you are doing; real life, it's a lot harder."

As well as performing her own show, Alice will be performing stand-up alongside Belfast comedian Ross Mitchell when they provide support to this year's Britain's Got Talent runner-up Robert White at the Brian Friel Theatre tonight.

She was inspired to dabble more in comedy, as stand-up helped her with her own recovery, spending hours watching comedy on her laptop when she was in hospital.

"I think sometimes when we have our hardest times, you just really need to laugh. I'm fanatical about comedy and it really helped me through bad times. One of my old time favourites is Maria Bamford, who talks about mental health. Also Ruby Wax and Victoria Wood – people who talk about the human experience.

"For years I've tried writing about mental health, but it was really heavy and felt more like a diary entry. People are scared of the taboo and words like psychotic which are used to this day in a medical model to explain people who have had meltdowns. Comedy is a wonderful accessible way to talk about these things."

:: Alice McCullough will perform Earth To Alice at Belfast's Black Box tomorrow, Friday September 14, at the Black Box. The Bounce festival continues until September 16. For tickets and full festival programme visit Universityofatypical.org/bounce.

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