Mental health, archaeology, and representation: in conversation with Ladybones’ Sorcha McCaffrey

In the wake of her wonderful show ‘Ladybones’ at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I sat down with writer and actor Sorcha McCaffrey. In the comfortably busy Black Medicine cafe, we talked about representation in theatre, OCD, and how to get your audience to join in.

LV: Could you tell me a little about yourself and your show?

SM: I’m Sorcha, I’m from Yorkshire but I live in Manchester. I trained as an actor but I’m now working as an actor and a writer – Ladybones is my first play. It’s about a girl called Nuala, who discovers a human skull on an archaeological dig, and how that affects her life and her mental health. It’s based on my experience of growing up and living with OCD, but there’s also other stuff woven into it so it’s not just about that; there’s some definite artistic license in there!


LV: As it’s your first play, could you talk about your writing process – I hear that you wrote it on your phone?

SM: I’ve always written little bits and bobs, but I’ve never written to give it out to the world. With this, I wanted to write something that felt truthful to me, so I mostly wrote it for myself. I was temping to pay the bills in a pretty tedious office job. I got up really early and finished really late, and so between when I got home at 8 and when I went to sleep at 10, I’d sit over my bed and hunch over my laptop and type out some bits, and on the trams I’d scribble on my phone. I ended up with a sort-of-first-draft of a sort-of-play, and then thought, ‘what do I do now?’ So I sent it to a director who I’ve worked with before, and he helped me come up with a plan of how to make it happen.

I wanted to write something that felt truthful to me.

LV: Given your history of mental health and OCD, what were your intentions with this play?

SM: I think a lot of media about mental health shows the dark stuff – that mental illness is a struggle, that it’s really difficult to go through. This can all be very true, but I think I wanted to show a character who was more than their condition or their disability, or illness. And also, because OCD is so misunderstood – we’ve all heard the expression, ‘I’m so OCD’. I wanted to show that OCD is a really serious thing, but that it’s completely possible to find recovery; that there is hope, basically. There’s lots of resources out there. Rather than just showing the dark stuff, I wanted to show that you’re not just stuck in one point in your life.

LV: You also show the unseen sides of mental illness – that point in the play where you get the audience to simulate the chaos of an OCD brain is really effective there.

SM: Yeah! So because I’ve had OCD since I was about four or five, I’ve always had a sense that it was something that I couldn’t talk about, that it was not normal, but at the same time I thought maybe everybody had it as well. I just didn’t have the language to explain what it was like. In that sense, I wanted to find a way to show how noisy it is inside your head, battling your own brain, which takes up a lot of energy.


LV: The show revolves a lot around archaeology – why this subject?

SM: Oh! I love archaeology, I’m a bit of a history nerd! When I was ten, I was like, ‘I’m gonna be an archaeologist!’ I’ve since worked out that archaeology isn’t always as exciting as you want it to be – not much actually happens, it’s quite a lot of science and maths. But it is really cool, and I’ve always been fascinated by the history side of things, and what we learn about people from what we discover – and how people in history are just like you. I found that so thrilling when I was ten!

The good thing about being an actor is that you can be anything, especially if you write it. I also wanted [Nuala] to have an interesting job because I feel that twenty-somethings are often seen as being a bit aimless. And even though she’s got a serious mental illness, she’s able to have a career, and she’s got a life and complex relationships with people outside of just her diagnosis. But I also wanted her to have a job that was quite fascinating – I’m totally indulging my inner nerd!

LV: In relation to the content of medieval witch trials, does that feed into your perceptions of Nuala as a character, what she’s struggling with?

SM: Absolutely. I think, particularly because of the mental health stuff, I’ve always felt slightly different, or weird, or not accepted, when in reality I’m a lot less weird than I think I am. It’s that idea of being cast out for whatever reason – the way that people with mental health issues are treated sometimes, along with the way the witch character isn’t really a witch, she’s just got anaemia so people think she’s a bit strange. I like that the more Nuala finds out about the girl, the more she finds out about herself.


LV: Your show hinges on comedy quite a bit; how do you feel that works in relation to portrayals of mental health?

SM: I didn’t write it necessarily as a comedy, but I did want it to be funny and light, because I think it’s easier to invest in a heavier topic if you’re having a good time! I think as people, the more we can laugh about things, the more it allows us to talk about them, and understand. And people always laugh at different things that I don’t really expect or anticipate! Sometimes someone will be Irish and will howl at all the Irish references, or it’ll just be one person – it’s nice that different people find different things relatable.

The more we can laugh about things, the more it allows us to talk about them.

LV: Ladybones features several characters with disabilities. How did you navigate the line between positive representation and the token inclusion of disabled characters?

SM: I mean, I hope I do it well! A lot of the characters are made up, but several are based on real-life experiences. For example, I was very close to my uncle, who had Down syndrome, and so my sister in the piece, Orla, does. As a writer, you’ve got a choice whom to show. Instead of just a white, able-bodied, middle-class-ish woman, there are other characters that people can relate to. I wanted them to have validity as people, rather than just being tokens.

LV: It definitely feeds into the theme of normality in the show, that everyone is just a person getting on with their life…

SM: I quite like that Orla is the cool one who’s got herself together, and she’s settled in herself, and Nuala is the one who’s a bit all over the place. I want people to be more than their condition, and to be seen as a whole person. I think it’s very easy to think of somebody as ‘a disabled person’, or ‘a queer person’, or ‘a mentally ill person’, or whatever, before you actually know them, and then as soon as you actually get to know somebody, it’s hard to think of them as just that label, because you’ve got a connection. I’m wanting to make connections.

I want people to be more than their condition, and to be seen as a whole person.

LV: Nuala turns out to be a queer character – would you characterise this as a queer show?

SM: I think so – I mean, I’m a queer person! I don’t think I really thought about it. I wasn’t out when I first wrote the show, so I started writing it, and came out in between. I often find that I write things slightly ahead of where I’m at in my brain. For example, when I was twenty, I was doing a show and we were writing monologues, and in retrospect mine was about someone who had OCD, but I just didn’t know I did yet – I only found out a year later.

LV: You didn’t know you had OCD until you were twenty-one?

SM: No – and I’ve had it my whole life. I’m pretty sure I had it when I was a baby as well, but obviously I don’t know, I was too busy being a baby – but I just never knew. I had only ever heard of OCD in the context of other people joking about it, which is obviously something I couldn’t relate to. I was on a train back from a rehearsal somewhere, and had downloaded some documentary to watch about four young people with mental illnesses, and one girl had OCD. I watched it and was like, ‘it’s my brain!’, which was so crazy. I got on Google found the charity that we’ve partnered up with for the show – they’ve supported me throughout and helped me find a diagnosis. I know labels aren’t always helpful, but for me it was really helpful to know it was a legit condition. The label validated me, and helped to get help.

LV: Dialing back to the queer element – how do you feel about labelling your play as LGBT?

SM: I find I get impostor syndrome a lot – who am I to tell this story? – and I haven’t really marketed it as a queer show, which I find quite nice in a way. It’s got queer characters, but it’s not exclusively about that. Whereas I am definitely trying to say something about OCD, in terms of being queer, I’m not trying to speak on behalf of anyone. I wanted to write what was my normal, and if people relate to that, great, and if they don’t, at least there’s a version of that normal out there, you know? Girls like girls! Hurray!


LV: We’ve touched on this, but in terms of showing these versions of normality, what do you hope this will bring to people who have similar conditions?

SM: I think if people have OCD, or anxiety, or related issues, I hope that it shows people that they’re not alone. People have said that, which is really nice – people have come out at the end saying that they thought they were the only ones with these problems, which is what I spent twenty years thinking. Being isolated is the worst thing! So I hope people come out feeling a little less lonely. And also, because we’ve partnered up with a charity, and we’ve got leaflets and so on, we’re actually teaching a little bit about the condition. On Sunday, we’ll be doing a workshop with OCD UK for that as well.

LV: I was going to ask about the charity actually!

SM: Yeah! They’re very good at helping people find therapists and follow treatments like CBT and so on, which is really useful. They also do an annual conference. I went to one and it was the weirdest thing being in a room full of people who have OCD, and not being the only one. I think at one point they said, ‘people with OCD, there’ll be a talk for you in this room, and loved ones, there’ll be a talk in this other room’, and so all the people with OCD walked to one side, which was so crazy! To think you’re such a weirdo, and to see that actually loads of people have OCD – I think it’s something like 1 in 100 have it – is so encouraging. OCD UK is a pretty small charity, but they’re really good at getting back to people, and advocacy – there was some advert by Virgin Trains that came out the other day promoting quiet carriages so people could ‘indulge their inner OCD’, and the charity helped to change the ad.

LV: It’s strange how normalised it is to say things like that.

SM: It’s never intentional, either, it’s just because it’s in social codes. No one ever says ‘oh, I’m so cancer’, you know? I think the misconceptions about it, that’s it’s really funny or quirky, are really frustrating. Especially as normalising it makes it a way to not seek help when you do have it, because if people play it as not being a big deal, you’re there like ‘so why do I feel awful? It can’t be OCD’. I think there’s lots of struggles with every mental illness – perhaps we use the word ‘depressed’ in the wrong way as well – but I think there’s less distance between what people think depression is and the actual feeling of it. Whereas with OCD, it’s quite polarised between saying, ‘I’m so OCD’, and what it actually is.

LV: it’s great that the show helps to dispel some of those misconceptions.

SM: Definitely. And I’m not trying to set it out as an educational show, but I’m trying to show that it’s serious, and despite the fact that it’s a comical show, I’m not trying to cheapen it.

I hope people come out feeling a little less lonely.

LV: The show also uses a lot of audience participation – why did you decide to feature this so much?

SM: I think that, rather than people just watching the character, I wanted people to have the experience of what it’s like to experience OCD. I also realised that the audience have to help Nuala in her journey – if they don’t join in, she doesn’t progress. Because a lot of the play is about supporting people – my character is very supported by her mum and sister, and her friends – I wanted it to be about the solidarity people have for each other. I wanted to find ways for the audience to find ways to experience what it’s like rather than being told. It makes it easier to connect with the material.

On another level, we definitely wanted it to be optional. Asking people if they’re up for it gives them some faith that I’m not going to make them look like a prick onstage. It’s funny, because I’m usually quite shy, I don’t want to go into something that I don’t want to do, so being on the flip side of that is interesting. Also, I start by introducing myself to them, so we break the ice a bit, and let people enjoy it rather than sitting stressed out for the whole show wondering if they’re going to get picked on. I think once people have had a part in helping move the plot forward, they’re invested, so it’s easier when it comes to the rougher stuff to get them involved. It also changes the show! It’s different every day.

LV: what would you say is the most memorable thing that’s happened?

SM: The funnier things are the unexpected ones – I ask people to do a Scottish accent for my therapist character, Julia, and sometimes they are Scottish, which is always funny. The other day, the guy playing Julia – I think his mates were all up at the back, and he started and they started shouting down, ‘we can’t hear you, speak up!’ and he started shouting back, ‘send her out! send her out!’ and it became a whole thing. People get quite carried away, which keeps it fresh, and keeps me on my toes, which is really nice. I think I also underestimate the fact that if you’re onstage and asking people to do stuff, they just do it! There’s a weird level of trust that’s really wonderful – there’s some sort of magical theatre contract with people where they kind of just go with it. It’s fabulous!


If you think you might have OCD, please head to OCD UK to find out more about symptoms and how to get help.

Ladybones runs until the 26th of August at The Pleasance – buy tickets here.


PHOTOS: Ladybones

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