It’s the time of year when a large section of London’s theatre community relocates underground to the dank caverns and pungent tunnels beneath Waterloo for Vault Festival and its bamboozingly huge programme of new work.
This year, as in previous years, a quick skim through the listings reveals shows about violent sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, grief and mental illness, many of which are to some extent autobiographical.
While all art requires the artist to give something of themselves, there is something about the mode of theatremaking that dominates the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and by extension the Vault Festival, that at times feels like it fetishises the confessional, putting pressure on theatremakers to mine their lives for material.
This is presumably, at least in part, a consequence of budgetary constraints and a funding process that actively encourages the centring of identity. Making a show about your life is both economically viable and an ‘in’, a way of getting a foot in the door. While the results can be as cathartic as they are candid, there have also been times where I’ve questioned the rigour and readiness of the work. Rawness can make for heady theatre – it can be exhilarating – but it can also leave you worrying about the psychological implications, the emotional toll.
‘Do I really have a responsibility to be making socially conscious work because of my background?’
Obviously there are benefits to living in a culture where mental health, bereavement and trauma can be openly discussed rather than sheathed in silence or blotted out with whisky and Valium, but there is also a moral knottiness that arises from framing these discussions in a festival setting, parcelling out pain into consumable one-hour chunks.
Last year, at Vault Festival, Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s show Opal Fruits, which delved into her working-class background, explored some of these issues. “There were a lot of times,” she says, “when I had to ask myself: ‘Who is this show really benefiting?’ And as someone who has been systematically conditioned to believe they don’t deserve to authentically exist in upper/middle-class art spaces, it has been a long process to come to terms with the idea that it might be okay if the answer to that question is simply: ‘Me.’ As long as it’s making people think, maybe that’s enough and it doesn’t have to completely change the world.”
If work that presents people’s realities – by, say, exploring what it is to be non-binary, or of dual nationality, or to live with bipolar disorder – makes us more empathetic, than that’s hard to argue with. But, as Beasley-Garrigan says: “Unpicking something so personal takes its toll.”
She asks a number of probing questions about her own work, creative process and identity as a working-class artist. “Do I really have a responsibility to be making socially conscious work because of my background? Is this the only type of work someone like me can really be permitted to make?”
She concludes that it’s much more interesting to make a show that asks: “How the fuck did I become part of the problem?”, to sit in that uncomfortable place, and expose my own shortcomings as someone who contributes to and exists within a flawed system.”
‘The consuming of someone’s story is an intimate act, but also a voyeuristic one’
While she was making the show her mother died, adding another emotional layer to an already personal piece. “By necessity it became a show about grief too, because that’s where I was at the time. It has been really difficult to come to terms with the fact that some of the show’s most exciting content exists because someone I loved deeply had died, and it’s hard to revisit that grief now that time has passed.”
Criticism brings its own set of complications to this situation. I vividly recall emerging from Brigitte Aphrodite’s My Beautiful Black Dog, a show about her recurring bouts of depression that fused gig theatre, therapy and exorcism, and feeling desperately uncomfortable about having to slap a star rating on something so messily personal.
Beasley-Garrigan found her mental health suffered a lot during the run of the show, because she was working alone and there was nobody else to share the emotional load with. “Not everybody enjoyed the show and a couple of people were very critical of it – that was hard – because it felt like they were being critical of me and questioning the validity of my identity and experience.”
For Teddy Lamb, whose own show about grief, Since U Been Gone, is at Vault Festival this year, these questions are particularly pertinent when it comes to queer narratives, where there can be a media-fuelled pressure to focus on trauma. “Because we have so few queer, and especially trans, role models, looking for different ways to tell stories or create narratives can often be overwhelming, especially for younger queer people. Why would they tell a new original story when queer stories have been overlooked for so long?”
Work of this nature requires spectators to interrogate their own motivations too. Last year I went to see The Cleaner, a retrospective of the work of legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. The gallery space echoed with the sound of her moaning, roughly tugging at her hair with a brush and repeatedly slapping her own face. It was like being submerged in her.
The most extreme pieces – the notorious Rhythm O – saw her offering up her body to spectators to do with as they would with a series of instruments: feathers, whips, a loaded gun. While it’s an extreme example, autobiographical performance occupies the same sticky continuum as Abramovic’s work. The consuming of someone’s story is an intimate act, but also a voyeuristic one. It can bring the thrill of recognition, but it can also feel vampiric.
When I interviewed Bryony Kimmings last year about I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, her pummelling piece about the traumatic birth of her son and his subsequent serious illness, I was struck by the way she described the role that care plays in the creation of her work – both self-care and audience aftercare. There are some aspects of her life, she said, that she ropes off, that she keeps for herself. She also ensures she is available to talk about the work afterwards.
Caroline Horton’s All of Me, a howl of a show about the cyclical nature of depression and the illusion of recovery, similarly felt incredibly careful in this regard, a work that was simultaneously emotionally and physically exposing but also constructed to protect its creator.
Having been caught off guard by how much creating and performing this show would affect them, Lamb ended up “recontextualising certain moments of the show, so instead of reliving the emotions night after night I was more of a storyteller, taking the audience on a journey but not always going on it myself.”
There’s also the question of whether, in making work that concentrates on individual lived experience, there’s less space for work that sets out to unpack structural and systemic inequalities, though that’s not to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive, far from it. It can however sometimes feel like the fringe focuses on the micro over the macro (and then showers everything with glitter for good measure).
Following their experience with Since U Been Gone, Lamb has made the decision not to make any more autobiographical work for a while. “I need to create more work for other trans and queer actors and performers and not centre myself in the narrative. I’ve also made a promise to myself to not make any more work that focuses on queer trauma, to show cis and straight audiences that trans and queer lives can be full of joy and love too. We are valid without trauma, and we can create diverse and interesting fictional worlds too.”
Beasley-Garrigan also views the experience positively. Because of her experiences making Opal Fruits, “making work that explores the intersection of class and feminism has become something that is now totally central to my practice. And for that I am also grateful, because those stories deserve to be told”.
Natasha Tripney is The Stage’s reviews editor and joint lead critic. Read more of her columns and reviews at thestage.co.uk/author/natashathestage-co-uk/