Performing Autobiography

Two Destination Language, Declining Solo | Photo: Alex Brenner

Kat Radeva, of Two Destination Language, reflects on autobiography and the self on stage.

In the past two years I have been becoming more aware of the ways my biography rubs against the biographies of others. It is fair to say that all my theatre work has always started in some way with something that has happened to me directly, or to ‘my people’ slightly more generally. ‘My people’ meaning those with whom I align, the people with whom I share heritage: not only the place I come from, those whose stories are so close to mine, but also those who share my experiences of migration, identity, social class struggle, looking for a better future, and leaving behind home and family.

The shows that I make with my theatre company, Two Destination Language, a collaboration with Alister Lownie, embody this inspiration. Near Gone is based on a true story of my family, a story of a near-death experience of a little girl, spoken in Bulgarian and English, using 400 fresh white carnations. Likewise, Declining Solo is a desperate attempt to remember and bring back home my slowly fading father, a series of physical and visual snapshots on a background of a sculptural set made of paper and a ton of coal – a dirty, messy portrait of sorts. Native Birds traces my migration to the UK from Bulgaria, juxtaposed with the life and struggle for justice of the five Bulgarian nurses falsely imprisoned and tortured in Libya. In Fallen Fruit my story is intertwined with those of many like me, born on the cusp of the collapse of communism and the beginning of what we have now come to call post-socialism – a weird capitalism within a twisted version of democracy.

My process begins by reflecting on my experiences (the experiences I believe others share with me) and asking myself what might be of interest to others (to those who share in those experiences, at least partially, and those who are ‘other’ to me, and do not share them) as much as it is of interest to me. Often the answer has been, ‘Well, it’s not, in and of itself, but what is interesting and relevant is…’ and I fill in the dots with some sociopolitical context that affects all of us, whether we like it or not. I don’t think I could make a show about ‘that moment on the bus when something happened’. I can make shows about what that moment might have meant.

Back in 2005, Dorothy Max Prior wrote ‘I Am, I Said’ about autobiographical performances. She wrote about four very different practices – by Bobby Baker, Franko B, Joshua Sofaer and Jane Bacon – and about her own experiences too. Of Baker’s work, she noted: ‘The personal experience is clearly seen to be part of the universal picture. We share her joy, her pain, her awareness of the extraordinariness of ordinary everyday life and the “terrible mess” that is the world we all inhabit.’

Back in 2005, this interpretation was a kind of resistance: resistance to the idea of postmodernity, to fragmentation as politics. By making the disconnected, fragmentary nature of experience part of the ordinary everyday, Max identified something – the call for acceptance and belonging – at the heart of Baker’s work. It’s a theme which has, I think, only grown in importance in the years since.

Right now, we are in a really beautiful moment of British theatre and performance. There is a lot of work on the small-scale (the scale I know best; the scale it sometimes feels my work is forever stuck within) which is tender and raw and often drawn from someone’s true story. I love a true story. But I am getting pickier. I am getting pickier because in my love of a true story there is a great amount of desire for a good story and good theatre too.

Re-reading ‘I Am, I Said’, what strikes me is this language around a relationship between the personal and the universal. Joshua Sofaer’s investigation into his name, and his own histories (familial, cultural, religious), wound into the story of the only other person to share that name, demonstrates for Max his identity as: ‘at one and the same time a unique individual and someone placed within a larger human constellation’.

The late 20th Century, consigning humanist concepts to history and foreseeing a technical age, might have preferred a metaphor with fewer lines between its dots. The constellations, though, seem very apt to me: theatre is a chance for people to come together in a room, and each joins the dots slightly differently, in overlapping patterns about which they can tell stories. Sofaer’s playful approach to what it means to be himself was part of a performance of intimacy which forges connections between us and the work on stage, and with one another, which we are still enjoying.

Or not, of course. Autobiographical theatre is not for everyone, and not every piece will please all admirers of the form. The constellations are, like the best theatre, mostly space. Too much of the personal crowds out all the other voices which haven’t been privileged through the space of the stage. Get the balance right and the personal connections that pervasive platforms like Facebook and Twitter now desperately try to replicate lift the personal from self-indulgent to enlightening.

Since 2005, much has changed in the theatre landscape. The voice of the (self-proclaimed, often self-performing) author has become a theatrical form with well defined contours on theatre stages up and down the country. The intimacy of small-scale spaces lends itself to this. At the mid-scale I would say the ‘self’ still comes way behind any play. Max also writes about American solo performer Spalding Gray and his collaboration with Elizabeth Lecompte (founder member of The Wooster Group). Their experiments with playing on a canvas came to an abrupt end when Gray committed suicide. Gray was always ruthlessly honest in his performance work about his personal mental health struggles, but we have no idea if his suicide was related to this, or to his deteriorating physical health and disability, following a serious car accident. The fragility of mental health, once it becomes subject of the art, can quickly dominate and overwhelm audiences, and even the artist themselves.

Bryony Kimmings is perhaps the highest-profile maker of autobiographical work in Britain at the moment. Her work and her life are interwoven, and at both the small- and mid-scales: this works to best effect when a complete world is created. Her Total Theatre Award winning show Sex Idiot was a combination of objects, sounds and costumes (the tears pouring off her face as she collected them in a wine glass, thrashing the flowers on her head, wearing that bullfighting-inspired jacket), which recreated the fumbling excitement and uncertainty of dating. Kimmings made the audience complicit, at the same time opening unforeseen intimacy, through collecting their pubic hair to wear as moustache. More recently I’m a Phoenix, Bitch brought an inventive visual imagination – play with scale models and clever projections – to a story of illnesses and recoveries.

In the years since Max first argued for the universal in the personal, this idea has developed a nuance. Sex Idiot is about the encounters Bryony Kimmings chose to have, and a second round of those she was pressed into by an infection. The idea of choices made in our lives has become far more important in recent years. As the fluidity of sexuality, gender and work have become more apparent, so climate change has become harder to wrestle with. The fragility of the individual on stage, and the authenticity of their experience, combine to clarify the limits of personal choice in encounters with political and social forces.

Don’t get me wrong: that our lives are inherently a series of politically significant choices wasn’t invisible before. But as the body of autobiographical work has grown, part of the critical approach has become about the material subject itself – the life lived. Exposing one’s experiences to the audience isn’t a neutral thing: it’s offering those experiences to be critiqued just as much as the way in which they have been presented. As importantly, there is a sensitivity around experiences one hasn’t had, about which one cannot perhaps create a valid piece of art.

Autobiography, to me, means an artist draws what is in front of them but the picture is translated through the artist’s experience of it. Say, in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the sky and stars are more dramatic than they might have appeared in real life but his impression-translation of them almost implodes the canvas, as if they are going to burn through the fabric on which they were painted.

In 2019, I think we are seriously attached to true stories – not least because the television screens are filled with this or that reality programme where we as voyeurs become invested into someone else’s life and story. The culture of celebrity is ever more present and the coarseness and vulgarity of figures like Putin and Trump, spinning their twisted versions of truth, inevitably has an effect on our awareness and understanding on what ‘truth’ is.

I am reminded of Third Angel’s Department of Distractions (which the company describe as ‘a conspiracy-theory documentary-exposé detective story for the 21st century’) where a subtle and layered interplay of questioning ‘What has happened?’ began to rub against ‘Did it happen?’, ‘Has it happened?’, and ‘Was it true?’

I would argue that it’s through the twisting of truth, its public manipulation for political ends, that truth becomes ever more important for audiences, ever more desired. They don’t want you to settle for simple entertainment, they want to know you. They want to trust that what they see in the stage matches you off-stage. ‘Was it all true?’ is often the first question I am asked at the end of one of Two Destination Language’s shows. Was that really your sister you were talking about? Can you really speak Bulgarian? Are Frida and Stacey OK? Did they get back together?

These are characters in a story, though. Biased, like a portrait, which has been framed, lit and tinted to emphasise what the artist wants us to see. But this is a fine balance. It succeeds if you have constructed a careful frame sourced in your lived experience, also reflecting the experiences lived and imagined by the audience, or better still allowing space for their own life experiences to come in and intermingle with the live work happening right now before their eyes.

The challenge is when audiences are invested in the literal truth more than the truth the piece has created. Questions of veracity obscure the choices made in shaping and staging the show. When I worked with Selina Thomson to create SALT in its early stages, our raw material was simply of a journey undertaken in order to make a show. In one sense, the earliest sharings were the most true to that experience. But the best theatre was where Selina ended up, stirring a complex stew of identities with delicate deliberation. Dramaturgical choices reduced the literal truth while enhancing the truth of what audiences felt and recognised. Not that anything was less true, but it was less representative of the whole slew of emotions: taking out some of the ingredients made for a better show (or stew).

Back to Dorothy Max Prior’s ‘I Am I Said’: she describes ‘the editing of material: cut, cut, cut so that only the essence remains; the difference between word, visual image and action coexisting harmoniously and one mode superfluously illustrating another; getting to the heart of the piece so we knew what we most wanted to say’. The ‘harmonious coexistence’ is a coherent world, and autobiographical theatre usually needs much more than just words. Creating that world for each audience, with all the tools of theatre, making sure it is coherent and as whole as possible: that is the art. It hasn’t changed, it has perhaps just reached a level of greater consciousness. Max writes of Franko B, his whitened body dripping scarlet blood across a white surface. Like my weaving through a carpet of birds, it is the right thing in the right environment. When performance works it’s because the art we physically sense creates the right feeling inside us.

The truth we’re after in theatre – or which I try to create – is an experienced truth. There was no day when I walked through birds (paper or otherwise) investigating the plight of Bulgarian nurses, but I discovered, slowly folding those birds for the first time in Robert Wilson’s residency centre in New York, that doing that on stage could affect audiences, give them access to a sense of sharing the experiences the piece is about.