08/07/2013 12:01 BST | Updated 07/09/2013 06:12 BST

Comedy From the Heart - How I Turned a Crisis Into a Comedy


Just over 9 years ago on in the early Summer of 2004 I woke up on a lovely sunny Sunday morning and had a heart attack. I was 36 at the time and fairly fit (I was still working as a dancer and regularly running and cycling). As you can imagine it came as a bit of a surprise.

I had just finished a long tour around Europe and the UK and had been doing a lot of additional teaching work because my partner Cheryl was 8 months pregnant with our first child and I was, to put it mildly, a bit panicky about having enough money and generally being grown up enough to have a kid:

I had, like a lot of performers, lived my adult life with all the responsibility of a teenage girl at a fairground (filling my face with metaphorical candy floss and trying to get a snog off the guy who does the waltzers) and that was all about to change.

As it turned out, it did so in a slightly more abrupt manner than I expected.

Jump forward to last summer and Tom (the other half of our comedy double act New Art Club) and I had started working on a new show that was in some way about the human body.

It was going really well and material was flowing and then Tom said, "I think you should tell the story of your heart attack. I don't think we can ignore it".

My initial response was that I was worried that it might be a bit self indulgent and boring.

Coming from a background of contemporary dance theatre/live art I have seen a lot of bad shows that revolve around some personal tragedy that is only really interesting to the sufferer.

This concern though was just hiding a fear of approaching the subject matter. After the initial attack I spent the next 2 or 3 years thinking there was another one just around the corner (I did have quite a few scares in that first few years). This fear still rises to the surface every now and then, usually in the middle of the night with a coinciding racing or arhythmic heart beat, but largely lurks somewhere in the back of my mind where I prefer it to stay. So I don't really like to talk about it.

Normally, in our comedy shows, if Tom and I use personal stuff its because its already funny and becomes a springboard for further comic material. But this didn't seem obvious meat for comedy. Personally I hadn't found the whole thing that funny.

But Tom persisted and so began quite a tough but rewarding process of both of us treading through a world of stuff that for the last 9 years I'd been trying to put behind me.

The story takes up a 15 minute chunk of the show and is very funny, but when I first told it in rehearsal it took just over an hour and made both of us cry more than it made us laugh.

It is tough being tough on personal material but in the end you just have to separate yourself from it and treat it like any other story. If it's funnier to change or exaggerate a detail then you have to do it. It's about keeping some essential truth in the story whilst making the journey of the story worth listening to.

It was particularly tricky because there are a lot of parts to the story; the actual heart attack; the hospital recovery; the complications; a couple of operations; further returns to hospital; ambulance rides and more over a period of a few years. Most of these do not make it into the show. Like when I woke up in a hotel in Beijing at 2am, my heart racing and beating in the irregular rhythms of a free improvisational jazz ensemble. And I thought, Oh shit, its happening, I'm going to die, here, alone, thousands of miles from everyone that I know and love (apart from Tom who was just down the corridor, but I didn't know where). At which point I started wildly pressing buttons on the phone whilst berating myself for not having the foresight to learn the Mandarin for 'heart attack' and 'ambulance'.

But as I say that story didn't make it in.

The show is 80% other funny stuff about bodies (ours and the people in the audience's), largely led by Tom whilst I twat about behind him like a cross between Bobby Ball and Iggy Pop, and 20% heart attack stuff. We think we've got the balance of intelligent, thoughtful, idiotic and moving stuff just about right. Though it's a tough balance when part of your material is about nearly dying and part of it involves a man talking to his own arsehole.

New Art Club will be performing their new show Feel Your Body at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Assembly George Square from July 31 to August 25