Ipswich: Taming the Black Dog, new play takes on depression

I Had A Black Dog, by Matthew Johnstone, is being turned into a play

I Had A Black Dog, by Matthew Johnstone, is being turned into a play - Credit: Archant

When a friend slid Matthew Johnston’s bestselling book I Had A Black Dog across the table, it proved a revelation for Mark Curtis in more ways than one.

“She thought I’d get a lot from it. I put it in my bag and didn’t think anything of it for quite some time. Eventually I found it, read through it and was amazed to find out the book was about this one man’s experience with depression and the many different ways it shows itself to people – this black dog that keeps turning up.

“I realised ‘God, I’ve actually suffered with depression’. I just thought I was a bit low, a bit sad, a bit weird sometimes during my younger 20s. It turns out I’d been suffering a sort of anxiety disorder and the onset of early depression.”

Re-reading the book, his life started to make sense, compelling him to write to the Sydney-based author. They began exchanging emails and then Curtis, who formed Peterborough-based Small Nose Productions with fellow actor Jason Webb two years ago, asked if Johnstone had ever thought about turning the book into a piece of theatre.

“He said ‘somebody once made it into a film and it wasn’t very good but no, nobody’s every mentioned that’. I said ‘would you be interested in letting us have a crack at it’ and that was it. The conversation happened with his literary agent and the next thing we do we had a contract signed and sealed.”

Work then began on the research and development of The Black Dog Project, funded by The Britten Partnership, which works within education to create links with businesses and employment in the east of England.

“The aim then started to become about raising awareness by putting the play out there, then creating lots of little spin-off outreach workshops, an education pack that could surround it,” says Curtis, who was on on his way to Southend to work with vulnerable adults who have suffered with depression.

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“We thought what would be a really good idea is if we create the first 30 minutes, get our theatrical ideas together, how we as a theatre company want to present this to an audience.

“Let’s show several audiences our early ideas, let’s get in touch with MIND, with all the mental health organisations out there, show them what we’ve done. Then, hopefully we can move this on to a full-length production later in the year with some other external funders coming onboard so we can approach the Arts Council for an Arts Council bid. That’s the stage we’re at, that’s what we’re bringing to Ipswich.”

The 35-minute scratch performance, which they hope to turn into a full-length version later this year or early next, is at the town’s HEG High Street Exhibition Gallery from 4pm today and will be followed by a post-show discussion.

“It’ll be like a really decent trailer,” laughs Curtis who, with Webb, works with theatre companies across the country devising new shows.

“In the same way the book was given to me, that gentle sliding across the table, we’ve decided to keep it like it would when an audience comes to watch a play. To all intents and purposes it’ll be a 35-minute production, at the end we’ll come back on stage and say ‘okay, these are the things we found really interesting’...”

Still at the research and development phase, the next step is getting in the rehearsal room and fusing what they’ve learnt from talking to mental health organisations and sufferers with the book’s strong imagery and overall message while also filling in some narrative voids.

“The book is really good at showing one man’s experiences of depression, what it doesn’t show is the man’s life. We’ve stuck to the book rigidly but we’ve also tried to create this man’s life because people who suffer from depression don’t have it all the time, it turns up...”

Curtis admits he was very lucky, taming his black dog without seeking professional help; the result of support from family and friends.

“There are people out there who will feel very lost and lonely. Because the book is so well known... we felt it would be a really good vehicle to raise awareness, get people to look at it. Then, when people are paying attention, that’s when really good outreach really begins and the lines of communication open.”

For more information about the group visit www.smallnose.net