For a long time, I struggled with a personal issue from which acting was one of my escapes. From that starting point, acting then became my career.
I was at a festival in an ensemble show this summer and caught a solo show by a visiting international performer that really blew my mind. It was focused around a very similar issue to my own, and was by turns hilarious, brave and ultimately inspiring. Although the performer grew up in a different country from me, and our life experiences are different, it made me reflect on the fact that I have never told my own story to friends and family, never mind on stage.
On the way home to my digs I began to plan out a show in my head. At the moment, it feels a bit similar to the other show, but I have made a promise to do it next year. Can you advise on making it concrete, and more importantly, unique to me?
Watching a performer with the courage to tell their story in a creative way often encourages others to step out too. That cross-pollination has the potential not only to enrich the world of theatre but society as a whole.
I’d find ‘enriching theatre and society’ a high bar to aim for at the beginning of the process and not conducive to feeling free to explore, so let’s start off from a far less pressured place.
First, an important caveat: highly personal shows are often described as ‘therapeutic’ by performer and audience, but theatrical performance and professional therapy are two different things. The former is no substitute for the latter. If you haven’t talked publicly about your experiences before, I would strongly suggest finding professional support first. Artsminds.co.uk, of which The Stage is a founder, is a good place to explore what help is available.
If you do choose therapy, some of the ideas and issues that come out during the process may inform your show later on, but I stress the ‘later on’ element. It is not easy to take the audience through a journey in an effective and engaging way if you haven’t taken the journey yourself and had a chance to process what you discover safely.
Once you feel ready to share your story on stage, I don’t see a problem with using the basic structure of the other show as a framework to help shape your own story into a theatrical format. As you play with the material – and as long as you stay open to exploring the unique elements of your own personality and experience – you will usually find that the end result looks less like the production that originally inspired you.
When you are ready to run the show in public, even if it is just for a few trusted but honest friends, the experience of telling the story out loud will often suggest further refinements. It’s always good to be open to feedback, but remember that it’s your show, so you don’t have to take every single idea on board. Allow yourself time to work with any revisions you decide to make, and don’t feel shy about getting the same people back to hear your next version.
I’ve been a test audience member for several shows like this and there is no greater privilege than seeing something develop from an often awkward and rough first run into the kind of powerful, confident personal statement that you found so inspiring in the first place. It might just be the catalyst another artist needs to follow in your footsteps.