Anthony Burgess remembered a saying the Irish community in Manchester were fond of repeating back when he was a lad:
‘Would you like the truth or the Big Noise?’
That could be wrong as it’s a while since I read it but I quite like my recollection.
This probably sums up my thoughts on autobiographical performance at the moment: I think most people’s lives have the potential to be very interesting material for performance; on top of what really happens to us we misremember, embellish and falsify events all the time. Subjectivity is invariably more dramatic / exciting / diverting than objectivity (at least, most of the time).
Now the idea of watching or making autobiographical performance has sometimes made me feel faintly queasy in the past because I often worry that people will try and represent the objective truth as accurately as possible and imagination will be turfed out. Cynic that I am, I imagine many people equate autobiography with ‘true story’ without thinking about it (unless you read one so obviously flawed yet entertaining like Adrian Brooks’ book on his time with the Angels Of Light). Thankfully most good performers (and writers, and musicians, and sculptors…) understand that that won’t always make an entertaining outcome.
The idea of 10 performers performing the autobiography of someone else is pleasingly perverse and awkward. What we produced wasn’t completely objectively ‘truthful’ but it was still autobiographical and there were surprising commonalities between all our teenage selves which made it possible to plausibly satisfy the aim of the workshop. We were all 80% water and 20% dread and awkwardness at that age, it seems, and not just the performers; when we went back into our heads I could feel the recognition emanating from the audience too.
I like the idea of re-writing my own history.
It’s part of defining where you want to go, rather than being defined by where you’ve come from. I feel that this workshop has confirmed my intuition that autobiographical performance does not need to be strictly true; that it in fact benefits from artistic license.
One of the main appeals of attending Neil’s workshop (aside from working with Neil) was the possibility that we would be equipped with the tools to mine our personal histories for the purposes of making engaging performance. I wanted to come away from the workshop feeling that I would be able to find some trace of myself. My teenage years have the character of a fog: a hazy appearance, a not-quite-there presence, a shapelessness that is by turns frustrating and liberating. I spent a lot of time carrying around secrets and trying to blend in to such an extent that it seemed like a buried myself under so many layers of self-obfuscation that I well and truly covered my tracks. This weekend I started to retrace them again.
I found many of the methods we used for generating material from this difficult period very effective. For instance, presented with a simple stimulus (photos of ourselves, objects we owned / and loved) I found my memories beginning to unfold naturally; the act of remembering begets more remembering.
It was interesting to observe this process happening in myself and other members of the group, noting down the reactions as they happened. For instance, watching Neil remember what he was afraid of at that age and noting the shortness of breath, the repetitions, the tumultuous emotions gave me an anchor I felt I could return to in the performance (one of my other recent preoccupations has been my use of voice, and using my own breathing based on Neil’s was a good exercise for the performance). As a solo artist it’s more challenging to record this information in myself but it’s not too difficult to record this independently nowadays.
Assembling the material collaboratively also revealed interesting techniques that I think I can take away for my own performance. I particularly liked the cut-up patchwork of material we assembled based on our responses to the questions and stimulus we were posing to ourselves. It kept the material fresh and surprising for ourselves as well as the audience. It allowed us to exercise creative freedom over the autobiographical material and puts me in mind of Nabokov’s method of writing on index cards and then ‘dealing’ himself a novel at the end of the process.
Of all the techniques for generating material I’ve found asking my 13 year old self to finish a simple sentence particularly effective. I’ve used this technique in the past week to generate some more writing and found myself jotting away quite comfortably for a good hour. It allows me to enter a certain mindset and focus on a subject for a time, before moving onto another one as whim dictates (for writing invariably begets more writing).
It was a pleasure to be part of the workshop group. I really enjoyed meeting and working with such a diverse range of artists and it was creatively rejuvenating to spend time away from Manchester and spend some dedicated time working on a new idea with an established artist. I continue to find the DIY series of workshops instrumental in my development as an artist.