Before Hannah Gadsby begins writing a new stand-up show, she has already worked out what she wants it to do and how she wants to leave her audiences feeling.
With Nanette, a career-defining show when it landed on Netflix in 2018, she wanted people to leave feeling as if she had punched them in the guts, which she absolutely achieved.
For follow-up Douglas, named after one of her two dogs, Gadsby aimed to make them feel like she had rummaged around and reordered their thinking a little bit, “not in a destabilising way but in a playful way, although it was still a hectic thing and I wanted to disorientate people”.
Given where the world is at her latest show, Body of Work, is all about wanting audiences to feel like they have just had a hug and a bit of a break.
“I’m not trying to solve any problems, I just don’t have the answers and I hope people don’t expect me to, so I’m just delighting in storytelling,” Gadsby says. “And I recently got married, so it’s a little bit on that.”
Gadsby tied the knot in January with producer Jenney Shamash, under a tree in their front yard where they live in regional Victoria. The couple escaped “the petri dish” of Victoria in time for Gadsby to perform Body of Work in her childhood State of Tasmania, where they have remained until the WA leg, starting in Albany tonight with dates in Bunbury and Mandurah before a season at The Regal Theatre from September 9 to 11.
The extra time in Tassie gave Gadsby a chance to continue working on her book, a memoir wrapped around the road to Nanette as she stepped her way from small-town Tasmania to the world stage. It has also taken material from a previously unfinished book the comedian tried to write years earlier, but her lack of focus because of undiagnosed autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder proved to make the process too difficult.
“By the time I got a grip on my idiosyncrasies and atypical situation, Nanette ended up happening and then I had to write it again because that’s what people are interested in,” Gadsby explains.
The process of diagnosing her autism and ADHD took place over the course of 2015 and 2016, during which she took some time to understand exactly what it meant before sharing the news publicly.
“People don’t understand autism and they’re very quick to negate your experience if you’re an older woman,” she says.
“So it was a long process that involved quite a bit of grief and re-engineering my understanding of myself. I think it’s very much part of what ended up making Nanette a thing. I had to change the way people understood me on stage because I’d built a fairly difficult persona on stage, so to speak, because I hadn’t understood myself.
“It was a real untangling and I’d really recommend people get diagnosed earlier in life. It does help in the end, but it is very jarring and uncomfortable.”
So when Gadsby stood on stage in the deeply personal Nanette and announced she was quitting comedy, it was more about her quitting what comedy audiences had come to expect from her.
“At that stage, my life was just going to the same festivals each year, writing a new hour and touring it around, so it wasn’t me quitting comedy but a way to tell my audience, who technically I’d had a relationship with for years, that this pattern was over for me,” she clarifies. “I couldn’t have continued in the way that I had been. I don’t know what would have happened if Nanette had not been a success. I honestly think I would have had to take a sabbatical and got some more shifts at my brother’s fruit and veg shop.”
Fortunately, Nanette turned into a global success and gave Gadsby the capacity to design her own brand of comedy show that was more accessible to someone on the spectrum.
The downside of Gadsby’s international popularity explosion, more than 10 years in the making and which saw her win Emmy and Peabody awards, was that it sent her into two month-long major depression episodes, probably exacerbated by the fact she could not step completely off the treadmill.
“I had a really great team around me, so together we were able to pick up the pieces that were me,” Gadsby reveals. “In the past, when I’d had those episodes, I was managing on my own, so while the intensity was really difficult, the network of support I had made it easier.”
Her experience with Nanette was certainly on Gadsby’s mind in 2019 when she started working on Douglas (filmed in Los Angeles for Netflix in February last year), so she made a promise to herself to chase her curiosity before chasing what people expected of her.
“But my curiosity pretty much always landed on what people expected of me,” she laughs.
“It became really playful and by that stage there was no way I could live up to Nanette and it would have been a fool’s errand to try to make it a similar show. To be absolutely honest, Douglas is technically a better show. It’s not as potent, because Nanette was of a moment and something different, but there are layers in Douglas because I wanted a show that could hold up under several viewings.”
Gadsby, who has a degree in art history and hosted three art documentaries, was inspired by the depiction of women throughout art history when it came to taking the striking black-and-white publicity photos, pictured left, for her latest show, Body of Work.
“They’re always depicted with just their bodies, and in the ancient relics their head and arms are missing,” she says. “So I took the premise of a bust, which are always made for people you assume are important; ye olde men across history, mostly. I wanted to take off my glasses and all the trimmings people associate with my identity, to remind people that I’m not the precise thing that a public persona suggests.”
Gadsby stresses that, despite appearances, she was not nude for the photo shoot and had simply removed the straps on a singlet to convert it into a boob tube. “So it was all business from the bust down,” she says. “It was quite fun, but I’d just come out of hospital after having a total knee reconstruction, so I was still on painkillers, to be fair.”
Hannah Gadsby — Body of Work is at Albany Entertainment Centre on September 1, Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre on September 3, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre on September 4 and Regal Theatre from September 9-11.
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