Interview: Comedian Deborah Frances-White

Charlie Kenber

“It’s a bit like eating one salted peanut. Just don’t eat any salted peanuts if you don’t want to eat the whole bag!”

We spoke to comic writer and performer Deborah Frances-White ahead of her latest, and most personal, show…

London Calling: How long have you been working on this show for? Where did it all begin?

Deborah Frances-White: On October 23rd 2012 I stumbled across some information about my birth mother – which is basically how the show starts. I’ve known I was adopted for all my life, I’ve had a name for a few years, but I Googled it and I stumbled across this information. Basically someone had archived the electoral records from the time of my birth, so I could see where my birth mother was living in Brisbane.

Once you’ve got a little bit of that information you can go on a treasure hunt because one thing leads to another.

A couple of days into that process I did All Day Edinburgh, where you’re meant to go and do twenty minutes of your Edinburgh show, sort of a best of. But I just couldn’t talk about anything else! On the way there I saw the first picture of my birth mother – all night and all day that’s what I was obsessively doing. So when I got to the show I said “I think I’ve just found a picture of my birth mother what do you think?” and passed my phone around the audience.

It was such a heightened time of my life. I was so gripped by it.

I’m so glad I did that because the show has evolved. Lots of people have come to see the show lots of times, to keep on seeing the episodes. The one I’m doing in Edinburgh is a 75-minute version of it, which is a sort of now I’ve lived it all out, condensed the full story within 75 minutes.

LC: Had you always wanted to dig into your family history before it was possible?

DFW: The reason it’s called Half a Can of Worms is because I discovered I couldn’t open that. I wanted to have a look. I didn’t want to find anyone.

And then once I saw pictures of people who looked like me I just got totally drawn in. I got sucked up into it. So you can’t open half a can of worms, that’s what I discovered. It’s a bit like eating one salted peanut. Just don’t eat any salted peanuts if you don’t want to eat the whole bag!

LC: With new websites and programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? there seems to be a real trend of people finding out about their pasts. Why do you think this is?

DFW: I think it’s absolutely the internet. Before the internet you had to want to do it, and go to an adoption agency and ask them to find someone. Whereas now we do it all the time – oh I’ll just have a little noodle and see what my old school friends are doing. Do you contact them and go “Hi Dave! I’ve just been going through your holiday photos. I noticed that you’ve put on weight and lost your hair.” No you just have a quick look at them.

Everyone’s doing it, it’s just if you’ve never seen anyone related to you it’s extra compelling. The internet has made a browse available. In the past you had to be quite proactive, and now it’s almost like how could you not look.

LC: Has the experience changed your outlook?

DFW: Yeah it has. It’s a sort of wholeness I feel. Some of it was giving up that part of my identity that was that I’d never seen anyone related to me. Part of my persona was that I didn’t know anyone related to me, and I thought “you’ll give that up and you’ll get something better.” Sort of like finding a missing jigsaw piece.

Without giving the show away there were amazing things I discovered about my history that really made sense of my current self. And I would say there is a big part of me that thinks genes will out.

LC: You started in improvisation – was it a clear decision to move into stand up, or has it just been a natural progression?

DFW: I just discovered that I never had more fun than when I was talking directly to the audience. And I thought I don’t really want to pretend to be a twelve-year old boy with a dog actually, I love being a hyped-up version of myself on stage – you’re never quite yourself on stage, you’ll turn the volume up on something. But I love it! It’s just so thrilling, it’s such a wonderful thing to do. It’s how I imagine surfers feel on an ocean. You’re just hanging on: you get these great crests of a wave and you could fall at any time but you don’t.

With stand up you can build the show, you can hone the show, you learn to land lines, you’re always making something better. With impro it’s always square one every day.

LC: Finally, why should people come to the show?

DFW: Everyone seems to relate to it. It’s mostly funny this show, I would say it’s 90% funny, but where it’s not funny it’s really not funny, and I can see people crying. It’s 90% hilarious and 10% heartbreaking. The question at the heart of the show is ‘who is your family?’ Specifically for Londoners, the people who you rely on every day, the people who will take your call, who are there for you, are also not related to you. So this show is really about the surprising places that you find family.

Half a Can of Worms is on regularly at RADA Studios until the Edinburgh Fringe. Further information and tickets available here.

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