How to Be a Better Human show grew out of processing grief and divorce

The year 2019 was a pretty challenging one for Leeds-based spoken word and theatre artist Chris Singleton. Over a period of just a few months not only did he lose his father to bowel cancer, but his relationship with his wife also came to an end.

It is those two devastating experiences that form the basis of his solo show How to Be a Better Human which is currently on tour around Yorkshire. “It was a particularly rubbish time,” says Singleton.

“I got the phone call to say that my dad had been taken in to hospital, then we were told it was terminal and he died not long after. I was just getting through picking myself up from that and was then hit by the breakdown of my marriage and an impending divorce.”

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While on a trip to Canada to visit his sister and to scatter some of his father’s ashes out there, Singleton had a bit of a revelation. “I was sitting in a café one day and I thought I would just start writing about this – it was a big part of processing the grief.”

Spoken word artist Chris Singleton whose show How to Be a Better Human is on tour now. Photo: Tom Woollard

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It began as a cathartic way of dealing with the traumatic events he had faced over the previous months but gradually it became something else. “There were moments when I would sit at my desk and just cry, then it slowly developed into the show,” he says. “As with anything I write, I always ask myself why I am writing it, what is the point of it and whether it will be useful?

But as I started sharing it with people at scratch nights, they started telling me their own stories of loss and grief. “Hopefully the show will help people to have those conversations. The show was supposed to tour in 202 but I think it feels even more relevant post-pandemic.”

It combines spoken word performance, comedy, powerpoint presentation, original music and animation to explore Singleton’s personal journey through bereavement and divorce. He says it was important to him to leaven the challenging nature of the show’s themes with a few laughs along the way.

“Humour is a massive way of coping and always is for many of us and looking back over a period grieving, there were many funny moments even in the very dark times,” he says. “At the same time I kept a very careful eye on making sure the gags don’t go too far. I wanted to be sensitive and respectful.

“I don’t portray anything that didn’t actually happen to me and at the end we signpost people towards organisations that might be able to help them.”

While there is a movement to encourage people to talk more about death, dying, loss and grief, Singleton feels that we still have quite a long way to go. During that first lockdown in 2020 he contacted Leeds Bereavement Forum and the charity Cruse, as well as attending some online Death Cafés – a safe place where people can talk informally about grief and loss.

“Somebody said at one of those that we have actually got worse at talking about death,” he says. “In the Victorian era for example people would go through quite a long period of mourning and would talk about it. Today I think we try and put that in a box and ignore it. I am not that kind of person.”

The show, which has been nominated in two categories in the prestigious Saboteur Awards, is just as much about human resilience and the fact that even when we may think we have lost everything, we can still somehow find the strength, with the right help and support, to rebuild and start again.

“The response we have had so far has been wonderful, so positive and quite overwhelming really,” says Singleton. “I hope that audiences hearing my story will be able to reflect on and talk about their own losses and bereavements with others.”

How to Be a Better Human is at Rotherham Civic Theatre on May 6 and Cast, Doncaster on May 12. It also goes to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer and will be at Summerhall in

August (except August 15 and 22).