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An honest talk about self-harm - Katie Wyver interviews Aoife Kennan on 'Scratches'

When a topic is hard to talk about, a stage can provide a space to place it, turn it over, and unpick it until it makes sense. For Aoife Kennan, performance has provided a way of talking honestly and creatively about self-harm. 

Over the last few years, Kennan has been developing Scratches, a new show being performed at the Vaults festival in the Waterloo Tunnels. Rooted in Kennan's own experience, Scratches explores the realities of self-harm without ever sensationalising it. In the run up to the festival, she tells us about self-harm often being misunderstood, how it feels to use your own experience to make art, and how her company, Plain Heroines, uses humour to tell difficult stories. 

Kate Wyver: Why did you want to write Scratches?

Aoife Kennan: When I first started struggling with self-harm, it felt like this really secret, shameful thing that I couldn’t tell anyone about and I ended up creating a lot of slightly outlandish white-lies to friends to try and cover up what was happening. At the time, I thought I was getting away with it, but in hindsight I definitely wasn’t. 

I wrote Scratches because once I started talking about it, I then hated the idea of people feeling ashamed and suffering in silence. We shy away from self-harm because it’s seen as violent, or distasteful, or we’re worried about saying the wrong thing, but keeping quiet only compounds the problem. The play deals with it in a frank, funny and upfront way, and I think we do naturally turn to comedy when we’re telling a difficult story. Writing and developing the play has been a way for me to process things, to share things, to try and change things, and to make theatre with some very brilliant and supportive friends. 

Kate: What has it felt like to make art using your own experience?

Aoife: At times it definitely feels like a shamelessly self-indulgent thing to do. It can also sometimes be weird when you realise that certain bits of your life just aren’t dramatically interesting, and you have to edit the truth to find the good stuff. But overall, I think it’s been really cathartic. I’ve been developing the play over several years, and it’s so interesting to read back over sections that were initially written in a really raw and quite painful moment, and realising that that moment actually doesn’t hold so much power over you anymore.

Kate: What do most people get wrong about the topic of self-harm?

Aoife: I think it gets lumped in a lot of the time with suicide. Someone can obviously be struggling with suicidal thoughts and self-harm at the same time, but they’re different things and one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. I think self-harm can also often be seen as attention-seeking, when more often than not it’s actually a sign of someone hiding away and trying to deal with something on their own. Hurting yourself becomes a coping mechanism, and recovery is about trying to find the root of the problem and other ways to channel what you’re feeling. 

Kate: Have you seen many examples of art where self-harm is dealt with sensitively and creatively?

Aoife: Definitely not. I’ve seen it used to shock audiences- a character pulls a knife, or is covered in scars, or there’s lots of blood, etc. But I’ve yet to see someone unpack what is really going on. 

Kate: Who is the intended audience for Scratches? Might the show be triggering for those who have a history of self-harm?

Aoife: We’ve been very mindful in developing the play as sensitively as we can, and we’ve consulted various charities and guidelines for advice on how to present some quite difficult material. There’s no late-entry cut off point, so people are free to leave and return during the show as they see fit, and we’ve been inspired by the Royal Court, New Diorama and Clean Break in providing our audiences with a digital resource pack. 

At the end of the day, I think it’s honestly up to someone to judge for themselves where they’re at with it. I remember when I was really struggling, I actually had a real desire to see someone talk about it, or deal with it, or to acknowledge it, but I can understand that someone else might find it very distressing. I can only assure people that we’re not here to shock or sensationalise, and we’re definitely not acting anything out. Scratches is for anyone who likes their mental health with a side of funny. 

Kate: What does healing look like to you?

Aoife: For me, healing looks like talking to friends and family, accepting when things aren’t perfect, growing into yourself over time, finding things that make you happy and also therapy. Good therapy. Lots of good therapy. I’m very privileged to have been able to access it, but it genuinely changed my life. 

Kate: Tell me about Plain Heroines. What are the company's ambitions?

Aoife: Plain Heroines are fundamentally a group of friends who really like making theatre together. We banded together to get our work produced, and to try and re-centre funny, complicated female voices in theatre. We are female-led, hence the name, but every project has its own unique feel. 

Our last play was about Northern Ireland, and much more overtly political, whereas Scratches is far more smaller scale and personal. I think what unites us is a sharp, and often quite dark, sense of humour, and using that humour to get people talking about difficult things. We’re all freelancers, so we go where the wind takes us! I guess the ambition is just to keep on doing the thing. 

Kate: What was the best lesson you learnt from the Royal Court Writers Group?

Aoife: The Royal Court was just like a brilliant weekly discussion group, and you get some really great, detailed feedback at the end. My particular group was led by Sami Ibrahim, and we focused on plays that didn’t follow any traditional sort of structure. So I guess the lesson was that there’s no right way to write. If it works, it works.

Kate: What small things currently give you hope?

Aoife: My dog, Maebh. She’s a very small, very needy, miniature dachshund, and she’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Genuinely couldn’t imagine life without her. 

Kate: Is there anything else you think we should know?

Aoife: The show is not all doom and gloom! Self-harm is hard to talk about, but we’ve also got silly songs and dances and multiple confetti moments! I would definitely advise audiences to buy a pint beforehand.

Scratches plays at Vault Festival from 31 January to 5th Feb. To find out more and book tickets, please head here. 

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