Fear, anxiety, and courage: an interview with Charly Evon Simpson

For Decent Company June: secrets, Charly Evon Simpson will be performing a piece laying bare her struggles with anxiety and depression. Charly sat down with producing director Josh Boerman to talk about why she performs and what it means to be truly courageous.

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JOSH BOERMAN: The piece that you’re doing this month is a deeply personal, confessional kind of piece.

CHARLY EVON SIMPSON: Yes.

JB: Are these things you’ve talked about openly with people in the past?

CES: More recently. So, you know, the piece is talking about anxiety and depression, and I feel like I have both always talked about those things openly but sort of tried to wait until prompted or until a friend of mine is like, “I’m going through something,” and I can be like, “I understand that.” Whereas I feel like what’s changed is I’m more open about it now, without the prompting.

JB: What do you think has caused that change?

CES: I mean, I think just some life events caused the change, where anxiety and depression were front and center in my life in a way that I couldn’t hide it. Not that I had to embrace it, but I guess I sort of did. I kind of had to be like, “I’m a mess right now, guys. This is me being a mess.”

And I’d rather just come out and almost be like, with a shirt that says “I’m a mess” than try to hide it. Because I just couldn’t.

JB: Because it’s so exhausting to try to put on a happy face day after day after day and pretend like nothing’s wrong when in fact something is very deeply wrong.

CES: Right. And I think there’s also something— like, I started getting frustrated with assumptions that people made. “Oh, you’re fine.” And I’m like, “I’m not fine.” Just because I’m someone who can really put on the smiley face and can actually still go to class and do this and do that, you know? I’m a high-functioning whatever.

And I got frustrated because sometimes that higher functioning or whatever, the fact that I could actually get things done, I feel like people sometimes don’t take your anxiety or depression as seriously as others. Even though I may be feeling it just as strongly as someone who can’t get out of bed.

JB: And I think that a lot of that also has to do with sort of the popular portrayal of what depression looks like, right?

CES: Right.

JB: I mean, if you look at your standard dramatic movie or whatever, like movie of the week kind of thing, it is somebody who is lethargic, in bed, or alternately just can’t stop crying. Like, cries at the drop of a hat. But oftentimes that’s not really what it looks like.

CES: Right. Or that there’s, like, these phases. And it’s like, I’ve totally been the person in the bed or on the floor. And a lot of times, I’m that person after going out and having coffee with a friend. And then I go home and it’s like I’m exhausted, and everything I put on is lost. And I then, like, hide in my bed.

So I feel like trying to put it in a strict little box was frustrating to me. And it was also frustrating that I was supposed to— you know, I feel like you’re supposed to hide it. You’re not supposed to show people just how upset you are or how anxious you are, whatever. And you’re supposed to downplay it.

JB: Well, emotional extremes in general—

CES: Totally.

JB: —are discouraged, I think, in our culture.

CES: Yeah, totally. And I think it’s just, like, I was frustrated by that. And couldn’t really do anything to change it anyway, so I was like, “All right, I’m gonna talk about it a little bit more.”

JB: And I think, too, that might be why some people go to the theatre as well, is that we’re not permitted to express those emotions or see those emotions. But there’s something very cathartic about going to a place where even if it’s just a portrayal of these things happening, we can in some way vicariously experience the action of putting it all out there and really letting go.

CES: Totally. Right. The writing of things like this is my form of doing that too. It’s like, I don’t fully let myself go. There’s a way in which I don’t let myself be the person in bed, even though I maybe should be sometimes, you know? Or really want to be, or really feel I need that.

Because there’s a part of myself that is very much still like, “Don’t have those emotional extremes, Charly.” And I guess the writing, and the sometimes performing in this case, of expressing those extremes, becomes the way that I can express those extremes. If that makes sense.

JB: Like, you create it so that you have a way of—

CES: Doing the thing.

JB: Doing the thing. Like, you can experience the thing by doing the thing, almost.

CES: I need a really big cry, I’m going to write something that’s gonna make me cry.

JB: Right, exactly. Exactly.

CES: Not that I actively think that, but when I look at the work, especially solo work, that I’ve done, it’s like, “Oh, well I was mad about this, and so this gave me the opportunity to yell about it,” you know.

JB: Well, that was sort of like the piece that I did the last time around. There were some things that really, really piss me off about the world, and I don’t often get the opportunity to just yell about them, and so I gave myself a play where I could just yell about things. (LAUGHS)

CES: Right.

JB: Which is kind of selfish, maybe. But as long as you’re doing it in the service of something bigger, I think there’s value in it.

CES: Right. There’s a line, right? I feel like as writers and performers, especially in work that is often semi-autobiographical if not completely autobiographical, there’s a line that you’re always walking of like, is this just for me, or is can this be for other people?

And sometimes I’m like, “Maybe this is just for me and I’m just in front of people.” And I acknowledge that.

JB: Yeah. How much of this do you think is for you, this piece? ‘Cause it does seem like it is pretty personal and pretty therapeutic in a lot of ways.

CES: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a lot for me. I don’t feel the same need to share this I may have felt in January. Like, my fire behind– in January, if I had done this piece, it would have been completely for me, 100%, ’cause I just needed to get up and do it.

And now, not that I truly have distance from these emotions ’cause they’re a part of my life, but I’m just in a period where they don’t feel as overwhelming. And I actually think that allows me to take a step back and both be like, this is how I can feel. And I’m sharing that with you through myself, but also so that you are aware of these different ebbs and flows in my life and maybe in yours and someone else’s.

JB: Well, it’s sort of like a piece that A.J. wrote that I directed. Not for Decent Company, but for something else. He wrote a piece about a breakup that he performed. This was like a year ago now. And we’ve talked quite a bit, actually, about how at that time it was such a raw thing still. And for him it was an exorcism. It was a way of getting those things out there that previously weren’t.

But now going back to it, it’s very different. It’s almost like a time capsule of himself that he can go back and look on. And it’s different.

CES: Totally. It’s different. I mean, I did a solo show this time last year, and life changed a lot after that. And it’s funny, because in some ways I’m like, “Oh, I’m never going to do that piece again.” And then sometimes I’m like, “Well, how interesting would it be, or will it be, to do that piece 10 years from now?”

Talking about all these things that happened in my, like, early years with that distance that I didn’t have at that point. I was in it at that point, and now it feels like the past. And how does that change the piece, and how does that change the relation of it?

JB: Right. How often do you do solo performance?

CES: Not too often. I’ve done two, like, on my own solo shows. And they were two and a half years apart.

JB: And those were full-length shows?

CES: One was like 45 minutes; one was like 25 minutes. But they were, like, stand-alone sort of things. And then I’ve done things like this, where I’ve done a little solo piece within a larger thing, maybe this’ll be the second or third time within the last year.

I mean, I started writing solo work because I wanted to act and I didn’t want to have to audition. That’s true. I mean, that’s sort of the thing. I love to act. Acting was, like, what I wanted to do before I was a writer. But also, I’m like, “I’m not made for this auditioning world that you people live in. That’s crazy.”

Like, if you want to cast me, I will be in your play. Otherwise I will continue writing solo pieces for myself.

JB: “You want me to get up at nine in the morning and go to a studio?”

CES: To be honest, and this goes back to anxiety— I had this lovely conversation with a friend of mine where we were talking about auditioning and acting. And I was like, “Oh, I miss it. I just don’t like auditioning.” And I was like, “Oh, to me it’s almost like dating. You go on these first dates and they’re anxiety-ridden and they’re terrifying and all these things.”

And my friend was like, “Oh my god. We think about these two things so differently.” He’s like, “I think of auditions and first dates as these opportunities to, like, meet new people and try new things. And nothing really matters because these aren’t important, maybe.”And I’m like, “No no no, I have to get cast and you must love me.”

JB: “This is the thing.”

CES: “The thing.” And then it was just this hilarious moment where we were like, oh, that’s why you’re able to audition and go on dates all the time, and I’m like, no, I’m gonna write solo shows and be a hermit. ‘Cause that’s better.

JB: But what’s great about this piece that your’e doing is that you are sharing a very real part of yourself with our audience. And you’re willing to put yourself out there in that way, which is a tremendous act of courage in and of itself.

CES: Yeah. I struggle with that. Not because I don’t think it’s true, but I’ve always— so, like, I have a blog and I’m very open on the blog and I get very nice messages from people that are like, “Thank you for being so vulnerable on your blog. That’s so courageous, that’s so brave,” or something.

And I’m like, “It really just feels natural to me. And I don’t know what that means.” And I often wonder if that means I’m not sharing— like, maybe there are things that I’m not sharing that actually would be the brave and courageous things.

JB: Your most secret of secrets.

CES: Right. But I don’t know what those are. And so then people are like, “Well, maybe you don’t have that.” But I think about that a lot, because I really don’t mind getting on— like, as terrifying as it will be in general, I really don’t mind being like, “Hi people, this is my life.”

The only people I would be scared to share that with are, like, people who have just met me that I have yet to introduce to that side of myself. Whereas strangers and people who know me, I’m like, “That’s fine.”

To buy tickets for Decent Company June: secrets, click here.

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