Interview: Jake Donaldson | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Storytelling comedian Jake Donaldson brings his debut, hour-long solo show Help! I’m Trapped in the Body of an Adequate Comedian! to Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle on Saturday 22nd June. Jake is known for his witty and anecdotal standup and this, his debut solo show, explores themes of disability and mental health through stories from his real life. It’s a show about the psychology of why we behave in ways that result in shame and anxiety that has sold out theatres across the UK and was voted ‘The best comedy show titles at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe’. We asked Jake a few questions about himself and the show to find out more.

How did you get into comedy?
I’ve always been a fan of comedy since I was a young kid, and at school when other kids were all talking about the latest album by some obscure indie band, I always wanted to go on about the new Stewart Lee DVD or whatever. It never crossed my mind that I could actually get on stage and do it myself though, until I got to university and I met some other like-minded people. We formed a little group and started doing sketches in rooms above pubs to audiences of 12 people, which wasn’t glamorous but it was so exciting and fun for us! I think some of those old shows are still on Youtube somewhere, but I refuse to give any identifying details that might lead to you finding them! When we left Uni, most of the other guys stopped and went on to get proper jobs but I continued to perform on my own, and one thing led to another and now I’m touring my first solo-show, fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Also, my Brother is in a successful band so I had to pick SOMETHING to disappoint my family more than that…

Who were your comedy inspirations growing up?
I remember my parents showing me old Victoria Wood and Billy Connolly tapes when I was little and laughing along even though I didn’t really understand the jokes. But those sorts of story-telling comedians were a big influence on the way I now perform my comedy. My Mam bought me a Dave Alan DVD for Christmas when I was about 18 and had just started doing comedy and, although some of that material hasn’t aged well, the writing (and the persona that comes through within that writing) fascinated me. More contemporary acts when I was a teenager, like Richard Herring, Simon Amstell and Tim Minchin were also big influences, in terms of comics I saw talking about more in-depth, intellectual or emotional subjects on stage. Then more recently, the work of people like John Robins, Mike Birbiglia, Katherine Ryan, Josie Long, John Mulaney and Sara Pascoe has excited me and made me think about new and interesting directions comedy can go in, and things it can be used for.

What is your show Help! I’m Trapped in the Body of an Adequate Comedian! about?
The show is broadly about mental health; it explores the link between feeling shame and feeling anxiety, and is more specifically about my own experiences of living with an anxiety disorder while also doing a creative job that relies so heavily on things that are out of my control. I know it sounds bleak, but I promise it is actually funny. There’s a good bit in it about a garden gnome, and a load of stories about my Dad, who is the most Geordie man I’ve ever met. He’s the kind of bloke who eats coal for breakfast, like it’s a hand-fruit.
Although the subject matter is somewhat dark in theme, it is an uplifting show, with a positive message running through it. I’m really proud of it and it’s exactly the show I’ve wanted to be able to do since I first started in comedy, five years ago.

Quite a lot of performers from across the arts have come out saying they suffer from anxiety and depression. What do you think it is about the creative mind that makes it prone to mental illness?
I’m not one of these comedians who are all like “Oh, we’re the clowns, man! We feel things more deeply and reflect the problems of the world back at everyone like a fun house mirror of emotion.” But I do think there’s a link between creativity and empathy, and I think empathetic people have a greater capacity to understand their place in the world, and how their actions might affect those around them. If someone is constantly considering whether their actions are going to cause problems for those nearby, it’s understandable that person may develop an anxiety disorder.
I think creative people tend also to be intellectually inquisitive by nature, and so it also understandable that a person might start to ask questions of themselves, about their place in the bigger picture. A lot of art, I think, is about trying to work out answers to questions that are driving us mad, and when that drive for answers isn’t directed creatively then it manifests itself through things like depression and anxiety. People who work in more conventional careers are more readily able to have direction in their work, people to work with, and their jobs aren’t usually as concerned with being all “Look at me, I’m sitting in an old-man pub writing about thinking, and thinking about writing”, so the opportunities for bad mental health to develop are less common. That’s not to say though, that it’s only endemic to creative lines of work. There are obviously other causes of this sort of faulty thinking, and it does affect people from all walks of life, but I certainly agree that the lifestyles and working methods of a lot of people in the arts are a catalyst for it.

That, and drugs.

You said you wanted to do this show five years ago, when you first started comedy. Why have you chosen now to do it?
I was aware from the off that I eventually wanted to do a show about mental health and my experiences with it, but I also knew that it’s a sensitive topic and that I wanted to make sure I dealt with it in as fitting a way as possible. Part of that meant that I knew I’d have to wait until I was a strong enough comic to be able to write funnily, but also truthfully, about it. No one starts off and can write a solid hour of good comedy straight out of the gate; it takes years of gigging and hours of stage time and writing before anyone is really ready to do a proper hour, but there’s also a point where you have to take the plunge if that’s the direction you really want to go with your career. This particular show started life in 2016 as a 30 minute work-in-progress, that I performed to audiences of as many as five, in a disused children’s library in Edinburgh. Then it was a solid 2 years of further previews, edits, re-edits and more previews before it (and I) was good enough to take on tour, or to the Fringe.

You live in Yorkshire but are originally from Newcastle. How will it feel to return to your hometown for this headline performance on 22nd June?
I’m really excited! I love gigging in the North East, the audiences are some of the best in the country, and I’m always really warmed by the reception I get when I come back. This is the final performance of this show before I move on to work on the next one, and the final date after a year of touring it, so it means a lot to me that I can make that happen in my hometown, and at Alphabetti Theatre, which is one of my favourite spaces for comedy. I want to make it a properly special night, and pack out the venue with people who will really enjoy the material….and my Dad, who doesn’t know half of the show is about him yet. So that’ll be fun.

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