Delving into amateur stand-up culture and trying to make peace with a messy brain, Pervasive Media Studio Resident Victoria Melody's joyful and mischievous documentary-theatre show Head Set hits Watershed on 31 Oct. We caught up with her to talk, comedy, creativity and neurodivergence ahead of the show...
As a documentary theatre-maker, you embed yourself into a topic and community for several years, what's the appeal for you?
I am passionate about other people’s passions. I usually come across a community that I want to work with by accident. I discovered northern soul on my hen do. We were staying in caravans in Cleethorpes and we just happened upon a northern soul all-nighter. Big burly men were spinning around with the grace of ballerinas to the most incredible music. I thought I need to make a show about this. I became a funeral director when my dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness. He asked me to organise his funeral and I became fascinated with the industry. Don’t worry it turned out to be a misdiagnosis, dad’s still alive. And the same has happened for beauty pageants, amateur stand-up, pigeon racing, historical re-enactment, championship dog shows.
I know when it’s the right community because I get this rush of energy that courses through my body.
I then ask myself the question, I’m going to be in this World for at least 4 years, is there enough about it to keep me interested?
It’s a big commitment to properly embed myself and make a show and so I need to feel excited. Also, I always choose communities that are on the brink of change. There is a clash between traditional methods and new ways of thinking. They are in the process of having to decide how they evolve to survive.
Ultimately, I want to shine a light on these lesser known communities, the incredible characters, the traditions and rituals. I want to create a record of them.
Tell us a bit about Head Set, why did you create the piece?
After a really difficult show I made with my dad called Ugly Chief I’d had enough of making theatre and touring. I’d turned 40 and I was done with feeling overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. I decided to become a famous, well paid mortgage worthy stand-up comedian. I thought “oh I’m naturally funny, it’ll be easy”. How wrong I was! Stand-up and starting again from the bottom, was hard. But the amateur open mic scene is fascinating. I got that rush of excitement again.
However, I felt like my communication was holding me back. I’m terrible at ad libs, what I think in my mind isn’t what comes out of my mouth, so to help with my comedy, I went to see a speech therapist. This led to an ADHD diagnosis. I started to take the medication which killed my creativity and turned me into a robot. I don’t want to pill shame people because the meds work wonderfully for some people, just not me. I noticed that after I performed, I felt amazing and then I made the link. In very simplistic terms, ADHD is a lack of dopamine. Telling jokes along with the fear and exhilaration releases dopamine. I felt like I found the cure.
What everyone with ADHD needs is to become a stand-up comedian. I then started to work with a neuroscientist to try and prove this, and that is the premise for Head Set.
Did performing stand up help with your ADHD? If so, how, do you think?
I worked with a neuroscientist called Dr Silvana De Pirro to explore pharmaceutical versus natural treatments for ADHD. I explained to her how I can feel amazing after I’ve performed a stand-up gig and questioned whether we could prove that stand-up can give people with ADHD the same effect as the medication. She came with me to experience first-hand what open-mic comedy gigs are like and she said: “We go to the gig. I sit down in the basement of a pub for 20 acts and the comedians look awkward and tense before performing. But then they go on stage and they look completely different. It is impressive how the experience is transformative for them and how much they gain from the experience.”
Scientists have said that people with ADHD fail in modern society because we are not built for sitting at desks. We are risk taking, thrill seekers. 3 million years ago, we would have made the best hunter-gatherers. Which is annoying, because now I know I peeked too early! But maybe stand-up is our hunting and gathering?
What is the social model of disability?
Scope says “The model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people's attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can't do certain things. The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for disabled people. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control.”
In other words, it’s not us who are disabled, its society that makes us feel disabled.
My issues are that I can get very overwhelmed and over stimulated, and this makes me exhausted. It takes a lot for me to be able to process what people are saying. It’s not obvious that I am neurodivergent, okay I seem a bit quirky, but most people wouldn’t guess that I am ND. But this comes at a cost. Keeping up with people and the world around me is exhausting. I used to plough on and either have meltdowns when I got home or turn to alcohol. Now I know about my condition, I can manage it. Some venues like Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed have a room where you can go and just lie down, perfect for when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
I also find it hard to sit still. In meetings I need to be walking around stretching maybe. Some businesses and organisations might find this unprofessional. If I feel forced to sit still then all my brain power is used up concentrating on sitting still. Therefore, I am unable to contribute my full potential to the meeting. I am older and bolder now and so I will announce straight up in a meeting that I am ND and I might need to move and walk around. But other people don’t yet feel they can voice their access needs. We need to get to a place of radical self-acceptance and radical societal acceptance.
Kristy Forbes, an incredible autism specialist I interviewed, thinks that at least 70% of the world are made up of neurodivergent people and that neurotypicals are in the minority and that in the future we will realise that.
In that case it seems mad that we are living in a world that is set up for neurotypicals where only 30% of people can thrive.
Why do you think women are often underdiagnosed with ADHD and Autism?
Women have been being misdiagnosed with the wrong conditions for years. Most of the tests were based on the male brain. Most medical tests are based around the male body. Seatbelts in cars, for example, are designed using crash test dummies that are based on the average male.
Women are more likely to mask in order to fit in than men, therefore female symptoms go undiagnosed. There is also a myth that autistic people feel no empathy. This is absurd. Just like the condition itself is a spectrum, so are all the many different symptoms. I for one am over the top empathetic, it’s the reason I make work to try and change the way people think. Previously, women who had empathy were not diagnosed with autism because they displayed empathy. They instead were wrongly diagnosed with mental health conditions like depression and bipolar disorder.
When Hans Asperger first defined autistic psychopathy in 1944, he was talking about boys. He thought no women or girls were affected by the condition. All early studies were based on boys only. His work has since been discredited.
There’s a lot in the press and media at the moment about there being an ADHD epidemic, it seems like everybody is being diagnosed. The reasons for this are that doctors have got better at recognising symptoms. There’s not suddenly more of us, we’ve always had it, it’s just we didn’t know. I found it extremely empowering to finally understand why my brain functions in a different way. I, like many others who are ND, suffered from low self-esteem. When I found out, everything made sense.
I love my weird and unique brain now I’ve accepted it. I want other people, especially women, to find and feel this empowerment too.
Although NHS waiting lists are ludicrously long at the moment and it’s unfortunately taking people years, I can highly recommend local ND support groups, hanging out with people who are just like you has been the best medicine.
What would you like audiences to take away from your show?
The question this show tries to answer is,
"Is it possible to behave in a way that society doesn't expect, allow or encourage and still be accepted?"
The show tries to answer this question with a big massive YES, we should absolutely be unapologetically our unabashed selves. When we are kids, we are the purest versions of ourselves and then as we grow, we learn to stand in line and conform to society’s expectations of us. Imagine how much more fun and less repressed and frustrated we would be if we were our truest selves. It would be goodbye small talk and imposter syndrome, hello dopamine fuelled mania journeys…. imagine what we could accomplish!
I want people to walk out of this show with every kind of brain and for them to say right, ridicule or not, I’m not going to hide that part of me anymore. I am who I am and I’m unique, weird and wonderful. I want people to stop measuring success by a measure that’s not mine. Let’s stop trying to force our brains into the wrong hole and just be the people that we really want to be!