Rob Gee is the creator of ‘Forget Me Not — The Alzheimer’s Whodunnit‘ , he is described on his website as a Comic, a Poet and a Psychiatric Nurse . I had to open our conversation with which came first?
Well its all a bit of a chicken and egg thing really. I started doing poetry as a hobby when I was a student nurse. For years I did slam poetry – there was a period of time on the comedy circuit, I was part of a double act doing the clubs and we were managed by a comedy agent who knew me as a poet. We split up over musical differences and I started to do stand-up poetry. Which is sort of like stand up comedy but it rhymes!
Being a Psychiatric Nurse must be a very stressful job?
I suppose if you think about most occupations you’d really either not mind it or you’d really hate it. I really liked it, I got paid for going to sleep. I was about seventeen and I took a job doing sleep over shifts in this psychiatric home in Derby. I had my own bedroom upstairs, it was all a bid dodgey, I’d get paid in cash.
I understand that you provide a conference service where you will write a poem in a day about the themes and the points discussed at a conference. Where on earth did that idea come from?
I am going to put that one down to Leicester Comedy Festival. It is a it bizarre but as a writer it is nice to get challenged and I get asked to do a lot of health care bits, so most of the conferences I do are health care conferences. There are not a lot of poets who know the clinical minutia, particularly about mental health and stuff like that. Nor are there a lot of mental health professionals that can string a rhyme together! I like it because you get to write about things you would normally never get to write about.
I got to write a comedy sing-a-lone about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which you might think is an ambitious subject for a conference poet.
I am getting the impression that you have cornered a niche market here.
Without a doubt.
You bring your shows across the world, do you notice differences between countries in their attitude to mental health?
That is a really good one! It is difficult to say generally, I tend to tour those countries through their fringe festivals. I see North America through the prism of its fringe festivals which is quite a unique way of seeing it. It might also be because I am surrounded by performers and artists… but I suppose, more than anything you find that there is an awful lot of commonality. Systems are different, and health care systems are particularly different, but people are similar, we all have the same sorts of fears and prejudices but I think we are different in our attitude to humour and telling jokes about mental health.
Let us talk about ‘Forget Me Not’, the show you are bringing to the John Peel Centre on 10th July. What is it all about?
The one sentence pitch is that its a whodunit set on a dementia ward. I play fifteen characters who deliver a series of red herrings, clues, plot flaws and all the rest of it. It is a full on whodunit, it stacks up with all the tropes you’d want in a murder mystery. Jim’s wife, a patient on a dementia ward has died of what appears to be natural causes. Jim is a retired police detective, he smells a rat and is determined to investigate one last murder. Unfortunately he also has dementia!
It is based on a dodge old elderly ward I worked as a student nurse in the mid 90s. There is a lot I want to say about how we respond to dementia but originally I was going to write something quite serious and I’m glad I didn’t. I had also wanted to write a whodunit as well and realised that for a whodunit to work you need to have an enclosed environment – a castle or a train or an island – so that characters can’t wander off. So I thought what better than a dodgy old challenging behaviour ward in the back of an old institution exactly like the place I worked.
That place where I worked for two months, I left under a cloud after reporting the treatment that I saw there. But it made me think – I was punched, kicked and assaulted more in that two months than in twelve years as a registered nurse. So it made me think about the burn out rate in elderly settings and what we could do about it.
And then the NHS picked up on this and use it for training!
Yes! It is really nice, in a couple of NHS trusts we use it to train health care staff in ethics and in particular in reporting concerns – what we used to call whistle blowing, we don’t call it that any more. So the participants get to see me do the show and then I lead these breakout ‘what would you do’ kind of questions based on all of the ethical dilemmas it raises in the show.
Having written the show based on my experiences of reporting issues and to now have it used to help others voice their concerns is quite a nice thing. It is where the artist in me and the nurse in me have coincided in a really satisfying way.
Did you have to change the show in anyway to suit the NHS training?
No. Not at all. It was funny when I did it, I went and met about six or seven managers, fairly high up managers from Leicestershire Partnership Trust and said the only way I can do this for you is to do the show. So I did the show in their conference room, which was one of the weirdest experiences ever, normally it takes place in a theatre type venue with lighting and sound – so that was bizarre, an audience of seven in suits.
You are not just touring with Forget me Not, you also have ‘Kevin, King of Egypt’, ‘Death, a Romantic Comedy’ and Pandemonium – do you ever get the shows mixed up?
No – its funny that, I get bored quite easily. My personal business model as an artist is that I don’t do tours. I’m based in Leicester which is handy to get to most places relatively quickly, so rather than write a show and tour it this year, I’ve got about seven shows, three or four are still current. Forget Me Not has done about two hundred performances – but if I do, for example, a run of Kevin it is quite nice to do Forget Me Not so that each show is fresh because you are constantly doing different ones – its like spending a different evening with each of your favourite children.