LIVING ROOM RECAP – PRIVATE = PUBLIC: PUTTING YOUR OWN STORY ON STAGE
Elizabeth Willow, an emerging theatre-maker and past Rumble Student Ambassador, attended our final Living Room of the season. She shares her thoughts on the session with us in this special guest post. Read on for Elizabeth’s take on the risks and rewards of making public theatre about private lives.
Many of us know the feeling: Going to audition after audition, never feeling like any of the work available is quite right for you. No one is telling stories that represent you, compel you, or excite you. What options are left to those of us who feel backed into a corner by the established theatrical enterprises surrounding us? Do we find another path or allow ourselves to sink into despair, knowing that there is nothing else for us but being an artist? A dear friend and director once said to me: “Who cares whether the cart or the horse came first? Fuck it. Let’s be both.”
The theme of Rumble’s last Living Room of the 2016-17 season was “Putting your own story on stage”. The discussion featured two amazing artists both known for pouring their hearts and lives into their work:
Emelia Symington Fedy (co-Artistic Director of The Chop Theatre), and Tetsuro Shigematsu (best known for his show Empire of the Son). The discussion was moderated by the wonderful Pedro Chamale (co-Artistic Director of rice & beans theatre). They all spoke about why they felt the need to make their private lives public.
Tetsuro stated that “theatre is the one place where we can gather as a group to explore the fullness of our humanity”, and that the process of telling your own story in a public setting is a vehicle to de-other yourself. This is especially potent for those who feel that the established canon of western theatre does not represent them and their lives, which he felt leading up to writing Empire of the Son. Emelia spoke about how whatever story lives within you, it probably lives within someone else too, and that putting that story on stage can be a profound way to form a connection and make others feel less alone. Taking that kind of risk can be terrifying, but an artist’s job is to voice the things that others will not or cannot. As artists, we have a platform, a skill set, and it can be a remarkably healing experience for both the creator and the receiver. For the creator, it can also be a dangerous, emotionally vulnerable experience. Emelia emphasized the importance of allowing yourself to have space from traumatic experiences before trying to put them on stage, even though there can be a desire to get things out there as quickly as possible. You must protect yourself as a human being and an artist, and ensure that you can perform the material safely, and in a way that holds space for your audience to be able to feel.
Tetsuro spoke on the very practical, but often murky, issue of gaining ethical permission from those who feature in your story; it may seem like an easy thing, but often it can get quite messy.
Someone may say yes when asked, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like the final product. Both artists stressed that this is the area in which it is easy to make costly mistakes in terms of your relationships with others. You must be vigilant, they said, about having a deep and profound respect for those about whom you are writing, and that it is important to listen to your gut about what may be “too far”. Tetsuro also reminded us that we must be willing to let things go in these cases, that “truth” is less important than your piece being compelling and accessible.
My biggest take-away from the evening was the importance of having a trusted co-creator/director, someone that you can expose yourself to, who you can make an utter mess in front of, and who can effectively hold space for you to do so. It must be someone you trust completely, who knows you as a person and an artist, and can help you veer away from your tendencies and natural impulses if they don’t serve the story. This person must be willing and able to help you “kill your babies”, so to speak. Now, this may not be an easy person to find, especially when you very well may not have anything to pay them. So, find someone who is willing to work for less, because they are equally passionate about the story you need to tell. Start a piggy bank. Put all your tip money into it, all your spare change, take out a line of credit, or dip into your savings. If you have a story within you that you feel is vital,
you will find a way to make it happen. But before you dive in, ask yourself: “Why this story? Who is it for?” As Pedro explained, it is essential to need your audience, and you must understand what that need is while you are creating.
There is one piece of advice Tetsuro gave that I feel I will always remember in my endeavours as a theatre-maker: “Art is a lie, which tells the truth. Your only task as a writer is to bear witness, and be truthful.” So, if you are feeling beaten down, like you’ll never succeed at being an artist within the current structure of your community, remind yourself of this. You have so many stories within you that have a place and a purpose, and you have the amazing ability to bear witness to life. This is something not everyone cultivates as they move through the world, but it is essential to an artist. Let that be your guide, and at the same time throw your hands in the air and say, “Fuck it! I guess I’m going to be both the chicken and the egg.”
Elizabeth Willow was one of the emerging artists who participated in Tremors 2016, acting as “Reba” in Dry Land. She also served as one of our Rumble Student Ambassadors in 2015-16.
The Living Room is a mixer-slash-mingler-slash-meeting for emerging artists to hear from established artists on topics that are important to our theatre community. Connect, network, and share news in a casual and fun environment. Rumble Theatre invites all artists who self-identify as “emerging” to join us for these fun and stimulating evenings of conversation and community building. Each event centres on a specific theme.