The Fringe is a place to share personal experience, explore ideas and broach uncomfortable topics. This is exemplified in shows like Jack Rooke’s Good Grief, a comedy storytelling show with its origins in the sad loss of his father at a young age. Exploring the world of bereavement, and co-written with his nan, it’s also part of Death on the Fringe, a series of shows about the topic throughout August. We spoke to Jack about this sometimes awkward subject matter…
Grief affects people in different ways, but you turned to writing. Had you always written?
Well, I started writing a diary after my dad died of all the weird things that were happening – the odd ways that people behaved around me and times where I felt really upset. This became my “Dead Dad Diary”, which lots of the stories in the show are lifted from. I’ve tried to make the show sound as much like the 15-year-old Jack as possible.
How did you find writing and performing helped you?
I suppose it’s an outlet, but also it’s kind of a way to talk to other people about it. There’s definitely a “grief closet” – a group of people my age who’ve also lost parents tragically at a young age, and don’t talk about it in fear of creating awkwardness or upsetting others. I’m out and proud from my grief closet, I’m like, “something shit happened but a lot of positivity can come too.”
I’ve made lots of friends with people who’ve also lost parents and siblings and we can kind of laugh about grief. That’s what I want Good Grief to do, to start conversations between people who can identify with the bizarre nature of bereavement, alongside those who may have never experienced a loss.
You have obviously found humour in grief. What about your audiences? Do you ever sense awkwardness or discomfort on their part when you are discussing such personal sadness?
Ha ha! YES I DO! Which is why the show has an ‘awkward-o-meter’ on stage. This is to gauge how everyone in the room is feeling, and to kind of make fun of awkwardness. I love awkward silences, but they are also a really dangerous, upsetting and powerful tool in preventing people from grieving properly. My show is about embracing your awkwardness, and making people laugh about it. I mean, the day of my dad’s funeral the town I lived in was voted “The Happiest Place To Live In Britain”…… AWKWARD!
You co-wrote the show with your Nan. How did that work?
Last year on Father’s Day me and my Nan had a buffet in her little council flat in West London and we filmed a mammoth interview which forms the structure of the show. We just sit around the table and eat loads and speak about my dad, and about how people treated us during bereavement. She’s a right laugh, much funnier than me. She’s a no-shit kind of gal. So her honesty is beautiful and I think we both represent two of the most vulnerable groups of people during bereavement – teenagers who traditionally shouldn’t be experiencing grief, and the elderly who we presume are de-sensitised and used to death.
What sort of stories do you tell in the show?
The stories are about adjustment really, how bereaved people adjust to their loss but also about how the outside world treat the bereaved. I look at how my neighbours treated me, how school-friends and teachers treated me, but also how the government deal with vulnerable bereaved people. The stories are meant to mix humour, satire and truth. I don’t tell any lies in this show, which has actually been quite hard. It’s just an honest account of how grief shaped me as a person, from 15-year-old Jack, to 21-year-old Jack, the performer. The stories are hopefully funny though. It’s very much a comedy-theatre hour about my experiences, rather than another “dead dad” show.
Through your work with various organisations – CALM, Death on the Fringe, Childhood Bereavement Network, the Plan-If Campaign – you are obviously an advocate for greater understanding and discussion about these issues. How much does that campaigning element influence your work, and how much is it about simply wanting to entertain?
For me, I have no theatre or drama degree. I’m not making a show because I spent three years learning about how to do this (that’s not to negate anyone who does have a drama degree!) but this show has been developed because I feel we need to assess how we treat vulnerable bereaved people in the UK. We need to have measures in place within the school system to support bereaved children to not feel like fuck-ups who can’t achieve their goals, but to guide them along to pursue what they want. To help them to not feel like their identity is defined by bereavement.
In the show I definitely play a bit of a character – “The Boy Whose Dad Died” – and the show is about saying that this character is not me, and at school I felt like that is how my peers defined me.
Thankfully I was lucky I had a school that looked out for me, but working with other bereavement organisations I can see that some young people aren’t as lucky. A huge proportion of young people who experience a bereavement go on to struggle with long-term mental health issues, some of them take their own life – which is how I became directly involved with CALM.
I feel really strongly that more open discussions on grief, and more government influenced support would change lots of young peoples lives. Good Grief is protesting against government cuts to Widowed Parent’s Allowance, a weekly welfare payment for low-income grieving families – a cut no-one is talking about because widows aren’t sexy, zeitgeisty topics of political discussion. I’m here to support the Childhood Bereavement Network to say the government should not be making vulnerable grieving families going through their worst nightmare of losing a parent, a target for cuts. It’s just wrong.
It’s hopefully a long time before this happens, but how would you like your friends and family to grieve for you?
I’d like them to laugh lots, eat whatever the hell they like, be sad when they feel like being sad but ultimately celebrate their own life. I celebrate my dad all the time. That’s what good grief is to me.
Follow Jack on Twitter @JackRooke