The Cost of Registration: Mental Health and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

©️ Melbourne International Comedy Festival

It’s the middle of November and hundreds of comedians eager to ply their trade are paying the five-hundred dollar registration fee for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Armed with little more than some well-tested jokes and the semblance of a theme, they sign themselves up for the gruelling six-month slog of preparation and producing that leads to their string of performances in March.

It’s a trying time — the MICF tests every participant’s clout as a craftsperson of laughter and sees them ebb and flow between the highs and lows of great crowds and bad shows. Besides the cost of registration, venue hire, props, and costumes, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival exacts another toll — the price of the performer’s mental health.

Stand-up comedian Bella Green

“It wasn’t just comedy that made me want to kill myself,” says Bella Green, a stand-up whose debut hour Charging For It saw her nominated for Best Comedy at the 2018 Melbourne Fringe. Bella has type-2 bipolar disorder, and in spite of the warm reception her show received when first performed, the pressure of presenting the show at the MICF exacerbated her lows.

“I wound up in a psych ward,” she says, and relates a story of the standard interviews one is tasked to complete upon entry to such an institution. The doctor’s had finished their formal questioning and Bella had agreed ‘that was it’ until another doctor picked up her file and noted ‘It says here that you’re a stand-up comedian?’ — “I just started crying,” she says, “‘please don’t remind me about that!’”

Melissa McGlensey in ‘The Briefing’

Melissa McGlensey, an American ex-pat gearing up for the MICF debut of her show The Briefing, gladly admits that her mental health isn’t as much of an issue.

“I don’t think it’s great,” she says, “but I feel like compared to most comedians it’s pretty good.”

Be that as it may, Melissa is conscious of the perils that public performance lets lurk in a festival run. “It is the most emotionally unstable I’ve been,” she says of her first time performing solo. “There were a lot of highs and a handful of lows, but they come right after each other.”

It isn’t unusual to experience this pivot — to enjoy the thrill of a full house one night only to suffer through the torture of a two-person crowd the next. It is especially hard when you’re burnt all of your energy on the sold-out show.

“You get up the next morning and the life has been sucked out of you,” says Bella, “how am I going to give an hour to people again? I know! A handful of dexies!”

While substance use may not be the rule, Bella is hardly the exception. The festival is rife with people wiring themselves so that they can better give the crowd the hour the performers believe they deserve. This deep-seated desire to offer the best of themselves is something that unites all the performers I spoke to.

Sketch group ‘Hit By A Blimp’ — Caitlyn Staples, Jayden Masciulli, Tiana Hogben (L-R)

“We have such high standards,” says Tiana Hogben, of sketch group ‘Hit By A Blimp’. The group consists of her, Jayden Masciulli, and Caitlyn Staples.

“You’re trying to live up to what you had last year and build on it,” says Caitlyn.

“People see the show and…they might love it but it’s not the number one thing to them. They go off on the rest of their lives but this is everything we’re doing right now,” Jayden adds.

“You want people to say it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen,” Caitlyn continues, “but you have to accept that that’s not true for everybody.”

Bella has found something of a solution to this pressure that emanates off an audience of strangers. Charging For It is billed as offering “everything you wanted to know about the adult industry but were afraid to ask”. While Bella concedes that she puts pressure on herself to perform at her best, she says “this show specifically, it’s for other sex workers”. Knowing her audience so keenly has offered Bella a powerful metric by which she can rate the success of her shows. While other comedians rely solely on ticket sales, professional reviews, or the polite feedback of punters, Bella knows that if the people her show is meant to speak to heard it, it’s worked.

The power of other people — a sense of community — seems integral to the personal success of producing a show.

“Doing it all is so hard,” says Melissa.

“Surround yourself with people that are going to make you feel good about your show and not put stress on you, because you’re going to do that anyway,” echoes Caitlyn. When asked for her advice that she would give a first-time festival participant, Melissa offers the following: “Are you doing a solo show? My first advice would be don’t.”

“That’s why we do it in a group,” says Caitlyn, “so there’s someone there that you’re living through it with.”

Unfortunately, the impact of collaboration cuts both ways.

“All the people that have given their time, their money, their energy to your project,” says Melissa, “that weighs on me. I need to make this good, I need to finish it for them.” The pressures of the festival can also counteract those that collaboration relieves during the lead-up.

“It’s hard during the festival to be like ‘how’re we feeling?’ You’re just in it, and we’ve got to do it again tomorrow,” says Jayden.

Pressure from collaborators aside, there also exists the pressure of the hundreds of other comedians, some giants, that you perform alongside over the course of the month.

“Always go first half!” says Caitlyn, referring to the option to perform in the first or second two-weeks of the program. Waiting until the second bracket runs the risk of you leveraging your artist pass to see some of the many amazing acts you share the space with. “You see something and you’re like ‘fuck, our show isn’t as good as that’ and the we’d try and fix our show and not trust it’.

It’s best to leave this kind of reflection until after your show is finished, preferably until you’re preparing for the next one. There’s no denying that the March deadline is a potent motivator for improvement, professional and personal.

“I’m trying to get sober at the moment,” says Bella. “I want to do this show, I want it to be good, I don’t want to end up in a psychiatric hospital. I want to be happy and having a good time. This is what I want to do with my life so I don’t want it to be something my mental health can’t handle. I need to be the best me I can to handle how fucking stressful the festival is.”

The other performers I spoke with have also made goals, the better to stay sane during the 2020 festival.

“I’m hoping to be organised,” says Melissa. Of her 2019 Fringe run, she notes that “I struggled to feed myself”. Next year, “I’m going to be so prepared”.

Hit By A Blimp are “comparing what we did last year and what we didn’t like about it and what mistakes we made…traps we fell into that we’re trying actively to avoid,” says Jayden.

“We’re still trying to figure out the best version of us,” adds Caitlyn.

That desire is inspiring, and it’s clear that the benefits of the festival far outweigh its difficulties.

“The energy that takes over Melbourne during the comedy festival is like nothing else,” says Melissa, lamenting the absence of a similar festival culture in the States.

Bella refers to her performing as “a big unburdening” and is looking forward to rewriting her show more honestly in anticipation of a fresh catharsis.

The joy that washes over the Blimps’ faces as they reminisce about the time they went from zero pre-sales to fifty in the space of several hours exponentially exceeds any expression of regret that they share about their shows.

When the season ends, Tiana says, “the relief on your body and mind is just huge” but Caitlyn counters that “We had hit goals just by being in the festival”. At the end of the day, everyone who puts their hand, wallet, and sanity up to bare their wit on stage is in pursuit of the same noble goal — the hunt for laughter.

“Just have fun,” says Bella, when asked for her advice. “Having fun? You can see that on stage.”

Matt Young is a writer and performer based in Melbourne, Australia.

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