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How to… create an autobiographical show

Chris Woodley. Photo: Nicholas Dawkes

1. How is the story bigger than you?

The key question in the play will be: what is this particular story inviting your audience to consider? You will want your audience to have a connection with the work and you most certainly will want them to invest in it. Does the play ask questions about society or politics? In The Soft Subject (A Love Story) I ask: what are our ideas about love? How does our culture shape our feelings towards love? I also ask sillier questions like why do couples insist on sleeping on ‘their’ side of the bed?

2. The truth hurts

My play is a love story, however it took me about six months during the writing process to admit my suicidal thoughts after my relationship ended. Writing that was complicated. I’d felt an incredible amount of shame and fear around the topic, but it ended up being liberating to tell that truth. I’ve learned that often the thing you are afraid to say or embarrassed to say is usually the most interesting. Sometimes the truth isn’t for everyone, but you’ve signed up for it, so get involved.

3. Be self-critical

No one wants to see a show about people saying how great they are or feeling sorry for themselves, or, worse, people constantly justifying themselves. It’s important to be self-aware. Yes, check yourself, but please don’t wreck yourself. Get a loving team on board. I got a brilliant dramaturg to keep me on my toes, who was familiar with autobiographical work. She knew my previous work and she was on hand through the whole process from start to finish. I’m terrible for wanting people not to think badly of me. The truth is, I’ve had some horrendous things happen to me and I’ve bounced back. I’ve also made some great choices as well as just staying in a boring limbo. We are all a work in progress. We want to see people be honest about their mistakes, failures and successes.

Chris Woodley is performing his show The Soft Subject (A Love Story) [1] at 16.25 daily August 3-13, 15-28 at Assembly Hall, Edinburgh (Venue 35). He was talking to John Byrne