Hello reader! My name is Steph Tisdell. I have been doing comedy on and off for the past 3 and a bit years. I’m a creative at heart and comedy has been the single most important vehicle for my self-discovery and self-confidence.
My comedy journey has many parallels to my real life and my own personal journey. A journey stunted and stifled by – but ultimately defined and strengthened by – mental health struggles and a gradual education to accept and embrace vulnerability and find great strength in it.
Comedy wasn’t ever something I had thought about growing up. While I had toyed with ideas like acting and performance, the idea of comedy and the creation of work that was so easy to critique and judge never appealed to my self-critical and anxious brain. When I finished school, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in life. I wanted to incite change and challenge apathy; I wanted to get involved in Aboriginal advocacy, human rights and even policy writing.
I studied law and journalism at university but I hated it. Law wasn’t about justice as I’d always thought but more about precedent, loop holes and money. Or maybe I just didn’t have the wherewithal and commitment to see it through and get to the bit where I could make a change.
I was lonely, depressed and having up to five panic attacks a day. I wasn’t achieving well at uni and I was disillusioned. I sought out therapy but wanted to put the theories into practice lest I learn the rhetoric and never follow-up with action and therefore repeat the same pattern of thinking, over-thinking, thinking about my over-thinking and then over-thinking my over-thinking.
I decided to backpack alone through the UK and Ireland without planning or booking anything. The single most anxiety provoking situation I could put myself in was how I would give the proverbial middle finger to the anxiety and depression that had latched onto my brain like a parasite.
For the first time in my life, I had to rely on myself and myself only. It also meant I could celebrate all of my little ‘wins’ as my own and nobody else’s. I decided to live like a ‘Yes Man.’ In my case, I became a ‘Why Not Woman’ following an incredible conversation with a stranger who remarked that living in the present and jumping through every open door was the only way to take life in both hands and wring joy from it. She said the only thing you should ever say is “Why Not.” I got a tattoo of a snow man saying that on my wrist the following day so I would never forget.
If you’re wondering why this tattoo and this holiday relate to my comedy journey, it’s simple: for 3 months I wasn’t allowed to say anything at all apart from ‘Why Not.’ I had loose rules but mostly nothing was off-limits. So when some drinking buddies dared me to do Stand-Up Comedy, off the cuff, in a bar that didn’t do comedy, didn’t have a microphone and was full of 10 stoney-face regulars just enjoying a Thursday night at the pub… Well, I said ‘Why Not?!’
This single act changed my life forever.
That night, standing in the corner of a random pub, telling stories and chatting with the audience – I fell in love with comedy. There is an opportunity to create passing little happy connections with strangers, to invite them into your brain for a moment, allow them to see the world from your perspective for a moment and therefore reflect on their own.
I came back and did a few open-mic nights and figured I might actually be not-terrible at comedy and I had well and truly caught the bug. I was told to enter the Deadly Funny Competition (for Indigenous acts to try comedy) and I won the National Title in 2014 on my 8th ever gig. It was an amazing experience and I was excited beyond belief to succumb to the comedy bug. But, as ever, my mental health had started to decline and I found myself struggling to grapple with the self-doubt and self-sabotage that followed me. So, on a whim, I made a decision to move to Edinburgh, Scotland. I figured that I could have a new start and explore comedy without any expectations. I gigged a lot, I made a lot of friends and I challenged myself constantly. It is pertinent to mention that during this time I had a lot of support from my family who knew that if I could get out of my head for a moment, I’d probably be alright to re-direct the train onto the tracks. That undying faith in me was and has been the most special thing in my life.
There were a lot of serendipitous moments that affirmed to me that I was pursuing my passion. I lived with a comedian – by chance – and he taught me that talking about my culture, specifically from the perspective I had always thought about it – was hugely important and would make me a better comedian. For that I will always be grateful because he was right.
After some mild success in the open circuit in Scotland, I opened for ‘Scottish Comedian of the Year’ at the Adelaide Fringe. That was a generous and kind opportunity given to me by Daisy Earl who saw my potential and wanted to nurture it. Again, these serendipitous meetings hugely impacted my journey.
When I returned to Brisbane from just under two years’ travel and independence, I lost sense of myself and the black dog bit like it had never bitten before. I had a break-down that last about 9 months and I refused to do any comedy, fearing the judgement and critique too profusely.
I got medicated, I got therapy and I found creative outlets like writing and painting to focus my brain. Weirdly enough though, it was actually fishing that helped me most. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know that I move, talk and think quickly and I can never just be still or quiet. But when fishing, that’s all you can do: practice patience, take in your surroundings and just stop for a moment.
I started gigging again and I found a new sense of purpose, drive and passion. Every gig I wanted to work on allowing myself to be more and more vulnerable on stage; I wanted to express the most authentic side of me. I wanted to open myself up to the audience and know that their judgement and critique could never truly hurt me because I was the only one who was really dishing it out.
As soon as I learned to be myself on stage, audiences actually started to connect better, my material was sharper, my stage presence was brighter and my audience interaction was easier. And as I learned to open myself up on stage and find the strength in my vulnerability, so too did this become true in my personal life.
Comedy has allowed me to get in touch with my true self and learn and grow. Such is the power of allowing yourself to completely give your all to any creative pursuit. I am an artist, a creative, a comedian. And there’s no other me to be.
Thanks to the guidance of my ‘Comedy Dads’ as I call them, I have been able to rub shoulders with some of my heroes and ask the guidance of some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.
If ever you get an opportunity, say ‘Why Not?!’ And if ever you feel unsure, break down the wall and find strength in your vulnerability. This is my comedy journey and I’m excited to see where it takes me next!