In 2014, I had what would commonly be described as “a breakdown”.
More specifically, “a mental breakdown fuelled by a toxic combination of the anxiety disorder I was stubbornly denying and the alcoholism I used to deny it”.
It’s the classic tale, told and retold in countless Broadway and Hollywood classics: the bright-eyed ingénue who arrives in the Big City, only to be caught in the gnashing teeth of the Fame Machine, chewed up and spat out the other end.
Or, in this instance: the writer of mild success, who decides to up and move to Sydney and NIDA from Melbourne, drinks up to 15 standard drinks on any given night because he’s terrified, and caps off his year being hit by a car while so drunk he can barely stand or raise his head to see the headlights approaching.
At the heart of my play Home Invasion sits June, a character inspired by the real-life Paula Goodspeed (née Sandra McIntyre).
Goodspeed’s obsession with both singing and Paula Abdul was so intense she lost her life for it; leaving for Hollywood and battling mental illness as she pursued her dream of stardom.
Early in American Idol’s run, she became one of the first auditionees to be crucified online as the video of her failed audition was shared through email and social media; overflowing with cruel commentary.
After a resulting downward spiral, Goodspeed took her own life outside Abdul’s California home. Just before her suicide, Goodspeed sent flowers to Abdul: trying desperately to be noticed by her hero until the last.
Again, it’s the classic tale, told and retold in countless corners of the Internet: the bright-eyed young artist who was told to never give up at any cost, so they didn’t, sacrificing themselves in the process.
My fascination with – and empathy toward – Paula Goodspeed grew from identifying elements of myself in her, and that sneaking, uncomfortable feeling most people will have in their artistic career. That sneaking suspicion that gnaws at you in the dead of night, questioning: ‘what if it’s all just been sheer, dumb, luck? What have you got to say that hasn’t been said countless times before by people smarter, wiser, better than you?’
Home Invasion is about the relentlessness of obsession: with people, but also with an idea. The idea of fame, fortune, and brilliance. The idea that ‘notoriety’ and ‘success’ are interchangeable words. Above all, it’s about the hideousness and uncertainty of wanting something so desperately and feeling like there’s a chance, no matter how small, that you won’t get it. That you’re just not good enough. And that that’s a matter of fault; of blame.
Our artistic culture is broadly centred on success as a marker of achievement; as if “success” isn’t a distinctly different thing for each individual human, but a target towards which everyone hurls themselves without hesitation. We’re dangerously obsessed with “winning!”, as Charlie Sheen once snarled.
We see this at every level from the top down. We see it in the side-eyes at opening nights, the dreaded, loaded question from someone you only tangentially know but once saw in a show one time: “so, what’s next?”
Growth and introspection aren’t valued anywhere near as much as mass production.
You’re a one-trick pony, and you’ve got to keep performing that trick with gusto, until your rapidly diminishing 15 minutes are up.
My time at NIDA helped to fuel this anxiety by introducing me to an unspoken and unachievable pathway that each student had mapped out for themselves. Upper-end independent work post-drama school. Mainstage show by 30. International fame by 40.
The irony being that as these pathways were being mapped out, next year’s auditionees were preparing themselves to come and replace you. The irony being, of course, that progression isn’t a straight line and success isn’t a race.
I don’t have the solution to any of this, but I think it starts with a conversation. And that’s what Home Invasion aims to be. A grotesque, camp, intense conversation – but a conversation nonetheless, filled with tragic, gaudy figures. People cut down by the fame machine, who didn’t get the cruel memo: that we’re all told to go out there and win, but the law of averages states that not everybody can.