I was a tiny bit starstruck meeting Alison Bell. I watched the first season of her show The Letdown through bloodshot sleep-deprived eyes. I’d just given birth to my first child and the sense of isolation was palpable. The show offered a kind of solidarity I struggled to find in the real world, and along with countless others I’m eternally grateful to Alison and co-creator Sarah Scheller for bringing The Letdown to life.
Creating and starring in a successful TV show about the challenges of parenthood while navigating the challenges of parenthood is very meta and makes my head hurt. It’s not a venture for the faint of heart. Alison laughs a lot, which must help with the long hours. Her laugh is melodic and brimming with feeling, with the power to lift her out of darker moments like some brilliant colourful bird. I presume.
Alison and Sarah have just landed a development deal for US network FX for a brand new show. It’s set to be produced by none other than Sharon Horgan’s company, the genius woman behind the likes of Catastrophe, Pulling and Motherland.
I caught up with Alison at Cibi in Collingwood to talk life as a mum/show creator, maternity leave, secondary caring and the spectrum of parenting feelings.
*Editor’s note / trigger warning : we touch on postnatal depression in this story, in relation to Alison’s character in The Letdown.
How do you and Johnny share the parenting load?
There’s no way I could make that TV show without John Leary. He’s been the primary carer for the last three years. I’m very hands-on when I’m home, and carry a lot of guilt around my absence if I’m completely honest. Even though it’s a very normal position for men to take, to be working massive hours and that kind of thing. I still have the feelings associated with wanting to be a different kind of mother. I think that really feeds the show.
I’m really proud that my little boy is being raised equally by his parents. I was far more hands-on in the first two years, even though I was writing The Letdown at the same time. But as the show went into production my hours became enormous, and Johnny stepped away from work, and said ‘no’ to work, and I don’t know many men in my industry who would do that.
I’m really grateful to have a partner who values my career in that way and sees the long game. He’s been an enormous support. That’s how we’ve done it. I don’t believe we’re necessarily getting things right, but we’re trying to manage this very strange itinerant life of ours with this beautiful little kid, who is exceptionally adaptable these days. We’ve lived in so many houses in so many places in his lifetime. I can do it because I have a partner who is willing to be a parent.
How do you work through the guilt that comes with being away from home?
I am no role model there. It’s really, really tough. One consolation, and this is going to sound overly earnest and ridiculous, is that I believe in the work that I’m doing. I know not everyone has that luxury. I’m in a very privileged position where I get to practice my craft and make something I believe in. It does help to acknowledge that fact and recognise this great opportunity I’ve got. I can’t pretend that the feedback doesn’t help. That probably sounds ego-driven, but I don’t want to make work that doesn’t speak to people. I don’t want to put all of my creative/work energy into something that no one connects with.
I felt a very strong desire to write these stories from the start. To be part of a movement that was addressing a huge, glaring problem in our industry in terms of female representation and authorship. I’m really proud that I’ve been a part of it. And it’s all about timing and opportunity. I’m really lucky I get to do this.
Is it weird to go to work to be a Mum?
(Laughing) It’s a very different thing. Those little babies are whisked away from me every five seconds. They’re divine and their parents are incredible and always there. And yes, a big part of my day on set is pretending to be Mum to these little people, but between scenes there are so many other aspects to what I’m doing, which I love. It’s such a joy to work with my team, who are an incredibly talented group of people at the top of their game. Half my day is spent in problem-solving mode, discussing rewrites because something isn’t working or a location that’s fallen through and we have to come up with another idea. I love the production side of it. It’s exhilarating.
The stories are so much more about the women than the kids. When the babies are on set it becomes more an exercise in how we’re going to get the scene. With babies you might have a window of five-seconds before they start crying. You’ve got to almost shut off the maternal side of your brain, in a way and work as efficiently as possible with the crew and cast to get the necessary baby shots.
Was part of writing The Letdown to bring forward the woman, as opposed to the mother?
I felt that dislocation from myself very strongly when I became a mother. There was an external manifestation of that as well in terms of my industry. There’s no maternity leave in the theatre/film + TV industries. They don’t stop. I did hear whispers of ‘she’s having a baby’ or ‘she’s pregnant’, about other women, and three years on her name might come up for a job and people would say, ‘Oh no, she’s a Mum now. She’s out of the game.’ And it was like, how do you think those mothers support their families? You work solidly for 10 years and you have a baby then you’re unemployable. So, there were external factors fueling this idea that my identity had radically shifted.
I find that stuff fascinating. The transition into motherhood is very interesting and different for different women, but a major thing seems to be that identity shift. I’m still in the process of figuring out how to incorporate the old self with the new self in a way that’s cohesive.
It’s like at the end of Season One when Ambrose (the midwife played by Noni Hazlehurst) says, ‘You’re still you.’
Does Audrey have postnatal depression?
Some people have assumed that. And Sarah and I laugh with horror and say, ‘Oh well I guess we had it too!’ Undiagnosed. Where is the line? We certainly didn’t write the show with any diagnostic intentions, but we did a lot of research into postnatal depression.
Our intention was to write truthfully about the challenges of motherhood, (the identity crisis, the struggle to manage expectations) and to make them funny. The absurdity and the humiliation and all the vulnerability, because vulnerability is the essence of comedy. We wanted to look at that stuff. For us, it’s not the story of a woman with PND.
One of the key things to me that suggests she’s not depressed is her desire for social connection. She was desperate for friends. So desperate that she returned to a mother’s group where she completely embarrassed herself. I’ve always hung onto that as a signal that she’s not depressed. That doesn’t mean that people who are suffering postnatal depression won’t relate strongly to this journey and see themselves in her. There are many varied opinions on whether Audrey has something clinical going on.
I think the reason people see that about her is because we highlight the challenges. And maybe that’s an error on our part. Maybe we didn’t get the balance right. Sarah and I were aware that we are inundated with blissful images of motherhood. That people talk ad nauseam about love.
I know. It’s like, we get it, you love your kid.
Yeah so that was a given for us. I hope we never give the impression that Audrey doesn’t love that little baby. That’s not her struggle with motherhood. It’s around the expectations she has of herself as a mother and the ones she has of her partner, which are not aligned from the very beginning. A lot of the people we talked to discover they’re not really on the same page as their partner in terms of expectations. Then, you know, throw extraordinary sleep deprivation into the mix.
Comedians say the equation for turning pain into humour is Experience + Time. I’m in awe that you were able to have that perspective as it was happening. How did you do that?
I think that comes from my personality. I am a mix of tears and laughter at all times. Sarah and I like to make each other laugh, and we often turn the mini traumas of our days into anecdotes. There’s cultural agency in Australia in not taking yourself too seriously. There are moments in The Letdown that have come from my life or from Sarah’s life that are deeply sad. I will absolutely go there at the time and have the tears and experience that moment. But because I enjoy making people laugh, I’ll twist the story so I can make fun of myself. It’s how Sarah and I communicate. We try and make each other laugh with the stories of our failures. It’s a way of coping with them.
It probably would have been a completely different show if you made it on your own.
Yeah because a lot of the stories came out of our conversations. Things that had happened to us or we’d heard about our friend, one of our sisters, they came out of those chats.
That desperate need for connection, that’s where those opportunities arise. You share your vulnerability and see that other people are just as vulnerable and then have a laugh about it. In isolation it’s harder I think, to find the humour. We need people to laugh with. Otherwise what is the point?