Checking the Box
We talk to Andrew Gunn about mania, mental health, and his solo show, Potato Stamp Megalomaniac.
When Andrew Gunn began experiencing a hypomanic episode in 2012, he had no idea what it was. He just knew that he felt great. Really great. It wasn’t something he was concerned about. He didn’t feel the need to explain his mood. “I just felt really, really good."
He stopped sleeping. At the peak of it, he didn’t sleep for a week. He knew it wasn’t his normal routine, but he thought what anyone might think in that situation: Why not? Sleep’s for quitters. With the evening hours stretching leisurely into the horizon, he had infinite space to think. Hours and hours to work on projects. He carved potato stamps. He hung his flatmates' groceries from the roof. He exorcised an acquaintance’s flat.
“It felt really serious at the time,” he says of that last act. He had wanted to do something big, a grand gesture, to bring together what he felt was an increasingly disconnected group of friends. Alone in their house, he poured water around the interior perimeter. He lit candles. He peed in a mug and placed it outside the house. “I had this flippant take on it once I’d finished,” he remembers. “I wrote this note that was like “Cheers – I can’t remember the girl’s name – I hope you had a good 21st. As a 21st present I exorcised this flat.”
Andrew’s playful and theatrically inventive solo show, Potato Stamp Megalomaniac, is an attempt to recreate this experience, but it’s also much more. Rather than showing us what happened, he uses escalating schemes, conversations with friends, and cascading confrontations with flatmates and strangers to create an immersive psychological landscape. We don’t simply watch the experience. We feel it happen to us. And when internal logic fails to meet the expectations of others, it’s not only Andrew that’s confronted; it’s the audience, too.
We don’t simply watch the experience. We feel it happen to us.
Potato Stamp challenges our ideas of what’s considered 'normal', couched in an experience we rarely talk about. It’s hard to know why. Part of it seems to be because we don’t have the same language for mania as we do for depression. It’s also less common and harder to relate to. “Especially the peak points of it,” says Andrew, “like feeling you’re a prophet. It’s not part of our sphere of everyday experience, particularly in a 21st century secular society.”
Because we don’t speak about it as often, there are common misconceptions. “I think our stereotype is the violent, psychotic side.” But mania is unique for how positively it can be viewed at the beginning, and how hard it is to identify or pathologise as a result. “In its early stages,” he comments, “it manifests as real intense positivity, like being pro-social – stuff we really like and validate as a society.”
It can also feel misleadingly, confoundingly good. The diagnostic criteria for a manic episode include inflated self-esteem, a decreased need for sleep, being more talkative than usual, and an increase in goal-directed activity. Symptoms which – taken alone – don’t have immediate negative implications. Andrew describes it as an addictive state. “Mania’s kind of odd in that – to my knowledge – there aren’t many other psychological conditions that people chase.” And because it starts with euphoria and productivity, “if you’re feeling low motivation, you might think: I wish I could be manic again. It can be easy to forget the ramifications of what that might entail.”
Among those is the realisation that the way you’re feeling won’t last and that you'll need to “reintegrate into mundane reality.” He wonders if it’s the tension between those two things that elicits the aggression commonly associated with a manic episode: the difficulty in trying to reconcile two worlds at odds with one another, where you’re “having a really exalted experience and being frustrated that nobody can understand.”
Resuming his day-to-day life as a Religious Studies major in Wellington was quite hard, because he didn’t see the things he'd done as particularly odd, just playful. “But for other people, it’s like: No, you took several of my books and gave them to strangers!”
“It wasn’t very fun,” he adds. “It’s difficult to understand what it all meant, and whether it’s just a biochemical glitch or whether it has more value.” He likes to think it did. The entire episode felt like a search for meaning – one that gave him a greater sense of interconnectedness with the world and that let him explore his boundaries. In some ways, he feels it would’ve made more sense to speak to a priest – “whose job is dealing with existential questions” – rather than a psychiatrist, who he did see after being referred on from student health.
“It was a deeply frustrating process,” he recalls. “Because when you’re in that state, what frustrates you most are people who aren’t attempting real genuine or sincere connection. So when you’re in a professional context, like inside the health system, it can be really frustrating when you’re manic. You’re going through something so intense that somebody does have to be cold and professional, but you’re in a position where you feel you should be holding each other’s heads.”
Andrew is careful to emphasise that he’s speaking to a very specific experience in Potato Stamp. “I’m very fortunate that I don’t have intense, full-blown, recurring manic episodes.” On the spectrum of polarity, he sits at Bipolar II, which involves at least one episode of major depression and one hypomanic episode. Bipolar I, on the other hand, involves more severe, recurring experiences of both mania and depression. Manic episodes under this diagnosis can be marked by audiovisual hallucinations. They last much longer – a week at minimum – and often require hospitalisation to prevent the person from harming themselves or others.
“So what I say is contentious, because for a lot of people, mania is something way more beyond their own control, and it’s far more psychotic. I was entertaining ideas that I might be a prophet, but I still had a grasp on reality. I still had a sense the world was coming to an end, but I was aware it was an odd thought to be having. Whereas if you’re in a fully-blown manic episode, it has more overlap with a schizophrenic experience.”
Still, he wants to challenge how we talk about experiences like this, and how we talk about mental health and madness. It’s something core to Pressure Point Collective, the company he started with his girlfriend Rosie Tapsell in 2013. “It was basically an extension of all the conversations we were having.” Both of them were interested in consciousness and the role of the body in performance (she’s a dancer, he’s interested in martial arts), which fed into their 2014 show, Godbelly, a fierce, surreal, physically demanding debut that explored Rosie’s experience with disordered eating through a 14th-century Italian nun and a modern-day high-school couple. This is their second show, and both connect to their company's titular motif: “You spend a while seeking out the point of tension, the point at which a whole bunch of things gather,” says Andrew. “And then you press on it for a while.”
With Potato Stamp Megalomaniac, the result is a seductive and magnetic experience, a work that offers unexpected possibility and surreal beauty. It also has warmth and levity, finding the absurdity and humour in what’s sometimes portrayed as a one-dimensional experience. “You can take the audience on this journey,” says Andrew, “where they can laugh with you, until it ends up being, like: holy crap,” – he laughs – “How did we end up here?”