I saw an excerpt from Stuart Waters’ touring show Rockbottom last Friday in the Marlborough’s black box theatre in Brighton. Stuarts commitment to this rollercoaster of a piece of work is extraordinary, as entertaining as it is disturbing. This theatre-dance performance, tells the story of Stuart’s own tussle with death resulting from a wide range of factors – not least the impact of ChemSex, which alarmingly is resulting in 2 deaths a week in the UK.
In telling the story of his personal struggle with depression and addiction he takes on a number of guises; as himself, as chat show host, as drag artist Crystal – moving effortlessly between intense drama, depicting drug-induced psychosis and states of withdrawal, intertwined with a parody of the media tendency to sensationalise and limit any discussion of the issues to judgmental platitudes and inane headlines.
Stuart also happens to be a compelling and warmly likeable performer to watch. He has an ability to embrace his audience – and in turn to get his audience to give each other a hug. Rockbottom is essentially an incredibly humane piece of work.
I worked with Stuart during an initial research and development period some 15 months ago – producing an overview of the larger concerns of his ‘Rockbottom’ project looking at safeguarding around mental health issues within the Dance sector as a whole. He talks eloquently of how the physical demands of choreographers and the Dance industry places pressures on the mental health and well-being of its dancers – and his bid to take that message to dance schools and build relationships with universities, vocational performing arts colleges and conservatoires.
In telling his story, Stuart evokes hedonistic aspects of gay culture with pure joy, mixed with the alarming consequences when fun becomes addictive and a mask for deeper-seated issues of isolation and self-hatred. Rockbottom reminded me of how much has changed in a relatively short amount of time. I recall going to gay discos in my teens and early twenties in the 1970s in South London. They were a largely do-it-yerself affair with a bit of tinsel and a mirrorball or two. Ten years later and suddenly we had clubs like Heaven and the Gay biker scene was in full swing. I remember the head honcho in white lording it over a sea of black leather and of feeling attracted, appalled and alienated by the whole thing at one and the same time.
We had Soft Cell and Donna Summer and then from the mid-1980s AIDs hit the gay community with a vengeance. The backlash was immense and although the Thatcher administration embraced harm reduction measures with syringe exchange and methadone maintenance, its alarmist advertising campaigns only furthered homophobia. So many of the resulting deaths were frankly, terrible.
Stuarts hard-hitting autobiographical piece, evokes something of that history with sensitivity and a well thought-through wrap-around introducing a panel to support discussion of what we do now to educate, in the hopes of safeguarding younger, vulnerable people against peer pressure and those who seek to exploit.
Activist Ash Kota was present – a playwright, film maker and poet who is leading the #AIDSMemoryUK Campaign. He spoke of his own efforts to understand what is happening with ChemSex; those who are endangered by it. He talked about his own experience as a 15 year old and of being taken under the wing of drag artists at the Black Cap in Camden. It seems those pre-internet times were a lot less predatory and more innocent in some ways, perhaps. Alongside Ash were Dawn Hayes from Mindout and a local community policeman both talking about how the problems are escalating with the increasing withdrawal of services under the governments’ austerity program.
As a piece of socially engaged practice Rockbottom is an important move towards opening up a taboo and stimulating conversation about some difficult stuff. As Ash remarked “with the lack of public services, it’s important that we look at ways that we as a community can support those who are most vulnerable.”
For this short tour of Rockbottom the production has captioning and audio-description available, so the production team are keen to get Deaf and visually impaired audiences along to the Old Fire Station, Oxford on Wednesday 6 March and the Bethesda Chapel, Uley, Gloucestershire on 8 March