The Hobart

That’s DR Hannah Gadsby To You

by Sarah Aitken
That’s DR Hannah Gadsby To You

From Smithton to Netflix and the Emmys stage, Tasmanian stand up comic Hannah Gadsby has forged an unlikely path. Following on from the massive success of her shows Nanette and Douglas, Hannah brings her new show Body of Work to Hobart this month.  

It’s been a big year. For the entire world. For Hannah Gadsby, it’s been a mixed bag of a year. On one hand, a pandemic is not a great time for a touring artist. On the other, she’s been bunkered down in regional Victoria in a newlywed bubble – in January she announced she’d married her producer, Jenney Shamash, who is “very funny and is really talented at reciting facts.”

Our interview takes place just before Gadsby’s new tour. Slated to take her around Australia and New Zealand, then to the UK and Europe early next year, at the time gigs were getting cancelled all over the shop. It’s become the new normal.

“I have had to cancel a lot of stuff because of…well, you know. I can’t really complain but I do feel like the pandemic ruined my trajectory,” she deadpans. “But did I really want to be going that fast? No!”

“The tour may just be Canberra to Tasmania, and back again…and back again, while everyone else sorts their shit out. I’m not fond of being alive during this moment of history. I might go back to the 80s when we were ruining everything and getting ready for this moment.”

Nanette, Gadbsy’s 2018 Netflix variety special (and the show for which she won an Emmy, beating Beyonce), was meant to be her final show before retiring from comedy. She was tired of putting herself down for laughs. She went out guns blazing. Instead, she hurtled to international fame.

Full of depth, intelligence and, of course, humour, Nanette included devastating stories of assault and trauma, and her often difficult childhood and adolescence in North West Tasmania, where there was not much room for a lesbian with (at the time undiagnosed) autism.

So how does she feel about Tasmania now? How might all these years away on the mainland, then touring the world and living in America, shape her perspective of the island she once felt quite stuck on? “Well, you have to be careful about what you think you feel about something that is so much a part of you, I don’t think you can ever get enough distance to have the perspective to understand,” she says.

“Tasmania was the soup I stewed in. So I feel very connected to it. In the North West I still feel a little claustrophobic, but there is definitely a sense of connection there. I always feel like I come home when I go there but at the same time I am always happy to be leaving! But I think that’s more to do with the nature of how I operate as a performer – I like to go home and then leave again and travel and then go home.”

“The air is the best air I’ve ever had the pleasure of breathing though, and I breathe a lot, it is actually one of the things I do, and Tasmanian air is a tonic.”

The follow up to Nanette, Douglas concentrated on her autism diagnosis from 2016, amongst a variety of topics (included the ongoing struggle with the patriarchy and of course the show’s namesake, her dog.) The value of having somebody publicly share their diagnosis of autism after having reached such critical and popular success is immeasurable. “I think part of what is driving me to be so open about this is that there don’t seem to be a lot of people with autism speaking for themselves, often they have to be a savant or a burden, when most of us are just in the middle,” she says.

“It’s a lifelong thing so at different ages you have different struggles, like typical people, but I think a lot of damage is done in early life, because the development is different but that’s seen as ‘slow’. A lot of what is traumatic about being on the spectrum is the misunderstanding of what it means to be on the spectrum when you’re in a very vulnerable time of your life, which is your adolescence and young adulthood.

“Clearly I’ve stumbled myself into some sort of grace. I’ll take it, I’m not going to give it back and say I don’t deserve it. Hardly anyone deserves success but nobody deserves to be on the struggle bus needlessly. I think a lot of people are giving the spectrum a nudge and don’t know it because we’re only taught to understand the extremes of it, the extremes of the negative and the extremes of the positive, and that means there is just not enough support for people who are in the middle.

“You know the saying ‘if you’ve met one person on the spectrum… you’ve met one person on the spectrum’. I can’t speak for everybody on the spectrum. But on the same hand Scott Morrison can’t speak for all Australians, that is clear!”

Some might think intense fame and autism are not a great match. Gadsby says in some ways they are. “Because of my success I’m more able to create a more buffered life. The perks of show business are eerily similar to just…assistance. Which I never had when I really needed it. So I feel quite compelled…it’s not in my nature to be an activist but when I put my mind to it I speak quite strongly, as we know!”

Gadsby credits the local comedy scene as a terrific foundation for her comedy career – a career that has allowed her to speak out to an enormous audience about pretty much whatever she wants now. “Australia honestly has one of the best comedy cultures in the world. You see a reasonable diversity – not much racial diversity, sadly, but definitely along the gender and sexuality lines we’ve got it good. The danger now is that everyone has the Netflix dream! But the reality is that I was only able to navigate into that space by way of small local industry and festival infrastructure.

Hannah and her partner Jenney Shamash. Pic: Instagram

“And I think that is something that Tasmania has in spades – it’s the local makers, it’s the craftsmen. There is so much craft in Tasmania that I think gets lost in the conversation that the MONA episode has sort of thrust upon Tasmania but no, the creativity has always been there, and people have always been plying their craft in whatever way they could. I think that spirit is well served before dreamin’ big.”

As with each of her big shows, there is very little information about what we can expect in Body of Work, which leads us to wonder whether it might be being filmed for another Netflix special. Gadsby won’t commit to an answer on that one.

“It’s only just started, I barely know what it is!” Gadsby laughs. “I’d like to think they [Netflix] will be keen for another one from me but these sorts of things are a long time in the pipeline. I made a decision after Nanette that I’m a touring artist, that’s what I focus on, and if you get the gravy at the end then that’s even better.”

Having the talk with Douglas. Pic: Instagram

Many of her shows are sold out, but possibly more exciting than that is the news that Gadsby will be given an honorary doctorate whilst here. “I’m looking forward to becoming a doctor. I’m stoked. I’m taking it. I’m going to be known as Doctor Gadsby  and I’m going to resubmit all the forms, refill them – drivers licence, everything – It’s gonna say ‘Dr Hannah Gadsby’, and I’m taking it!”

Hannah Gadsby performs Body of Work at Hobart’s Theatre Royal on August 4,5 and 6 at 7:30pm, and on August 7 at 5pm and 8pm. She then takes the show to Launceston on August 15 at 4pm, and August 16 and 17 at 7:30pm. Head to hannahgadsby. com.au

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September 2021

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