Get To Know: Sarah Milton
Following a highly acclaimed run at Edinburgh Fringe 2017, Tumble Tuck, written and performed by Sarah Milton and presented by BackHere! Theatre, is coming to London to headline the Who Runs the World? season at the King’s Head Theatre. Tumble Tuck is a funny, brutal and heartfelt one-woman show that seeks to examine the self- worth of young women today. It's inspired by Sarah's own experiences of swimming as therapy for her depression and panic disorder, and the journey she's taken to find the act of exercising positive rather than punishing. We caught up with her to talk about body image, mental health, and the road to feeling comfortable on stage in a swimming costume.
Hi Sarah! So, tell me about Tumble Tuck.
I’ve been asked this a lot over the past week or so, and it some ways it’s the same every time: it’s a play about a young woman struggling with understanding what success means to her, what makes her a successful human being. But as time has moved on, I realise it’s also so much more than that. It’s about mental health, betrayal, and the disorienting change that happens within our relationships as we grow older. It’s about our relationships with our bodies, particularly as women, as things begin to shape out and move. It’s about how we become far more aware of our flesh, how big it is, and that moment of becoming conscious as we move into adulthood.
I know that feeling all too well. When did you start noticing that change in yourself?
For me, it was the ages between 19 and 25 that I really started becoming conscious of my body - what it is, what it feels like, and specifically what I hated about it. I think a lot of women can relate to that. We had lots of mothers and daughters watch the Edinburgh show and it’s weird because that teenager is starting to experience the kind of story that Daisy’s telling and that mother has been through it themselves. Lots of mothers sweetly told me that it was a moment of bonding for them with their daughters.
I can totally imagine that being a really valuable experience because so many teenagers inherit difficult relationships with their bodies from their mothers. Do you relate to that?
My mum actually features in Tumble Tuck a lot. There’s a moment in the play when Daisy’s mum refers to her as looking like ‘a breeching whale’ when she tumbles at the end of the pool and her bottom comes out of the water. That’s a comment my mum made to me once when we were swimming together. 26-year-old me absolutely knows that it was a joke, but 22-year-old me didn’t. 22-year-old me was in that oversensitive period when I was consumed with how other people perceive me.
How does your mum feel about the play now?
Firstly, she’s super proud that she managed to donate so much material. It's a combination of being proud of me, and sort of mortified, I think. But ultimately, If our relationship wasn’t as fantastic as it is, the show wouldn’t it exist because I wouldn’t have the confidence to explore that material. The play is in no way autobiographical, I just stole some dialogue from a conversation with her. She knows it’s being used in a way that’s serving the narrative. That breeching whale was funny, I remember laughing! But I do remember, a couple of hours later, looking at my arse in the mirror thinking ‘maybe I shouldn’t tumble at the end of the pool.’
When you’re in a state of consistent anxiety for a prolonged period of time, your brain goes over and over the things you may not have thought much of at the time, but a few hours later, a few days later, a few weeks later, you think of those things and turn a small comment into something malicious.
Much like for Daisy in the play, swimming has been a big part of your recovery from anxiety, right?
Yes definitely, but I think to be honest I started swimming out of vanity - I wanted to lose some weight. It started as a punishment. I thought, ‘I must swim because I must not be fat,’ but over time it has become self-care. It makes me feel good - I get endorphins, it feels like I sweat out my anxiety. Now, I’m there to treat myself.
I learned that swimming promotes mindfulness without you even purposefully engaging with mindfulness. You don’t have a phone, you can’t listen to music in water, it’s just you. That was definitely the start of my road to mending and maintaining my mental health.
And is that realisation what led you to write Tumble Tuck?
I started writing Tumble Tuck when that serenity was interrupted. I was swimming one day and this local team were in the water absolutely pounding it. For every lap of mine they were doing two or three. I was so thrown - my head went into overdrive comparing myself, my speed, my body to theirs. I totally forgot to focus on my own time and why I was there. I didn’t go for a couple of days after that and went back into that depression mode, and that’s when I started writing Daisy’s race. I wrote what it feels like to move in the water - just the physical experience of front crawl, and I went back straight after that. I let go of all of that competitiveness.
I so admire that you’ve turned that feeling of comparison, that anxiety into a show that exposes you both in terms of the story and physically - you’re up there in your swimming costume!
It’s very Gok Wan How To Look Good Naked isn’t it? Basically, Tom (our director and my former peer at Soho Young Writers group) asked me back in 2015 if I’d be interested in taking Tumble Tuck to Wilderness. It was never my intention to perform in it myself but it's what made sense at the time, financially. We performed there to 250 people, and that moment - being in a swimming costume in front of 250 people - went so quickly that there wasn’t really time for me to think about it.
There was a conversation that I’d had with Tom though where I was wondering if we could get me a swimming costume that has shorts that would come just above my knees. I was very conscious about the cellulite on my bum and pubic hair - I was totally immersed in the idea that people in the audience would be able to see my pubes! The anxiety flooded back.
I realised that I can’t get caught up in self-consciousness and serve the character at the same time. Before her race Daisy’s scared, she’s worried about jiggling next to her slim teammates and actually my body serves that. It wobbles, it jiggles, I have a bit of cellulite on my bum. I move because I have flesh. It became very important to me that Daisy is exposed in that way because we have to see that represented on our stages.
Has doing the show changed how you feel about your body?
Completely. My one concern up in Edinburgh was that I was going to be cold! That experience was empowering for me, and I hope it's empowering for women in the audience who may feel uncomfortable in their own skin to see me doing my thing with all my wobbly bits out!
Totally! It's so important that we see representation of all kinds in the theatre. What other kinds of stories would you like to see?
I’d love to see a more diverse range of work. And by diversity, I don’t just mean in gender or in colour, I mean in class and cultural experience as well. The same goes for creative teams as for the actors. We need a wider variety of people leading our theatres - it’s still very white and male and middle class, and although many of them are listening, I don’t think real change will come until there’s parity in the upper levels.
I do a lot of work with a company called Generation Arts. They work with vulnerable young people aged 16-25 in London who aren’t in education, employment or training and programme year long acting courses focused on getting people into drama schools. Last year they had a 100% success rate! They’re a great example of an organisation who are cutting in early and are working from the ground up to change the outlook of our industry.
What have you seen in the theatre recently that really blew you away?
This was a little while ago now, but I saw Turkey by Frankie Meredith at the Hope Theatre and I just think she’s a stunning writer. I remember reading an early draft of the script years ago and it really came to fruition in an amazing way. She put two homosexual women at the forefront of a beautifully crafted story.
Finally, why should The Tung readers come and see Tumble Tuck?
For all the Speedos and Kit Kats! It’s a funny, relatable, fast-paced narrative that’s honest and full of…chocolate references!?
Catch Tumble Tuck at the King's Head Theatre as part of Who Runs The World? from April 24th - May 12th. Grab your tickets here.