EDINBURGH 2019: Martha McBrier Q&A
Glaswegian cussing, crowd work extraordinaire MARTHA MCBRIER is the Queen of the Free Fringe. Her show at this year's festival launches a campaign against the perennial HAPPINESS BULLY in her hard-hitting and hilarious show about suicide, country music and not smiling just because the office idiot told you to cheer up.
Tell us a bit about Happiness Bully.
I first became aware of the term 'Happiness Bully' whilst watching Nashville, the fabulous drama about country music stars. One of the characters, a depressive drunk, accused his niece of happiness bullying when she was skipping around him telling him to cheer up. He had just lost everything, so her timing was a bit off to say the least. Then I realised it was an actual thing.
Happiness bullying is the act of pressuring someone to feel better when they have every right to be feeling bad. It's positive thinking advice taken to an inhumane level. I can't abide it. Another way of describing it is 'bright siding' - when you insist on getting someone to look on the bright side when they are in the depths of despair. I have no time for the pathologically positive. Don't be told how you should feel. When we are free to feel our feelings, we can begin to feel better. Do you feel me?
The show is directed by my hugely talented nephew Matt McBrier and that has been great. He is really clever and theatre-y.
Suicide isn't known for being hugely funny- why make it the topic of a comedy show?
If suicide isn't considered to be hugely funny, well, that's news to me. Anything can be funny if it's handled well. I doubt there are many topics which have not been discussed now in comedy. I like that. Suicide is maybe the last taboo. I have had many experiences of suicidal events that have been comedic. People are very funny, even when they are in despair. When I was very young, I thought about suicide a lot: not only because of my bad circumstances at the time, but also in the existential sense, of life not really being worth living.
When it was discovered I had a brain tumour and didn't know what I would be facing, I made a plan to end my life. This would be in the event of having to live with the unbearable. I believe an individual has the right to end their life - the right to self-determination. I am a great believer in quality of life. I have stared into the dark abyss and emerged cynically perky. I have worked in suicide prevention for many years. I know about this stuff. I think if you take a subject, look it right in the eye and laugh at it, then it holds no power over you. If we talk about suicide and get it out in the open, we can help prevent it.
Some of the most hilariously slapstick moments of my life have been during suicide prevention incidents. If that hasn't got 'funny' written all over it, I don't know what has. Half of my takings are going to be donated to my beloved Samaritans. So I hope people give generously, for both our sakes.
How does country music play a part in it?
I love country music due to the raw emotional honesty of the songs. There is no emotion too ugly to be featured in a country song. Jealousy, infidelity, loneliness, depression and murder - it is all there! The breadth of the human condition with no judgement, accepted in all its glory. It's a beautiful thing. Country music has been much parodied and with great comic effect. Have you seen Bo Burnham's Country Song? It's brilliant. I also adored Otis Lee Crenshaw. He is darkly, masterly funny.
Country music is great to cry to. The best country song ever written was Ode to Billy Joe by the wonderful Bobbie Gentry. She was one of the first female artists to write and produce her own music, so she was quite a gal. When you end every verse of a song with "Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge" You. Have. Written. A. Song. Gentry called it a "study in unconscious cruelty" and she studied Philosophy, so she should know. This song is very relevant to a situation that happened to me, the story of which I tell in the show. Also, inevitably I have written a country song. From my heart, and that.
4. What are the benefits of performing on the Free Fringe?
Taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe is a labour of love. There are many benefits to performing a show with the Free Festival. Performing at the Fringe is expensive no matter how you do it and even free entry shows have costs. However, they are cheaper to do than a 'paid venue'. The absence of fear of financial ruin is a strong incentive to do a free entry show. The shows are free to attend and a collection is taken at the end. You don't have to give money if you don't want to, or have no dosh. All the money goes directly to the performer. Some comics in the bigger Free Festival venues have made a lot of money doing a free entry show, which is great.
Also, free shows are not derided now. With so many shows achieving 4 or 5 star reviews and award nominations a free show is no longer assumed to be a shit show. I was the first performer to achieve a 5-star review in 2006 (get me.) The standard has been raised every year. So, it is likely that you will see a show that is every bit as good as something you might pay a pricey ticket cost for.
Also there are some great venues on the Free Festival, like the Counting House and Free Sisters. Alex Petty has been very good to me and given me a room every year.
5. Who would you recommend comes to see Happiness Bully?
I would recommend Happiness Bully to anyone. It's a comedy show. It's not a niche appeal. If you like to laugh, you will enjoy the show, although I won't bully you into having a good time. Not if you don't want to. My style is storytelling-y and observation-y. They say "misery loves company" so come and join me and be as downbeat as you like. No pressure. You'll be amongst friends.
I would welcome lovers of Country music, people who hate being told what to feel and anyone affected by suicide. It won't trigger you. It will be life affirming. Totally.
Martha McBrier's 'Happiness Bully' is at Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 1st -25th August. Tickets and more information: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/martha-mcbrier-happiness-bully
Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne