I have a problem. I am a performer who hates performing. The reason I hate it is also the reason I love it, and why I keep doing it: it terrifies me. But while performing may frighten me, performing my own work makes me vomit. Literally.
I always feel the need to apologise for my work. Apologise for taking up space and time. Apologise for the shameless self-promotion. Apologise for having an opinion about the world that undoubtedly some people consider either ludicrous and offensive, or completely unoriginal and boring. Apologise for the time I spent banging my head against a wall whilst writing the bloody thing that probably could’ve been better spent fighting social injustices. Apologising for what felt (to me) like masturbating on stage – self-indulgent and egocentric.
I think this of the biggest obstacles for emerging artists. We – and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’ – don’t feel like we have earned the right to our own art. So we don’t make it. Or make it and don’t show it to anyone. I have a habit of working in isolation for that very reason. For years, my various drafts of various projects have sat in an obscure sub-sub-sub-sub-sub folder on my desktop where I can safely relegate them while they fester and while I became more and more disgusted by them and convinced that I must’ve been deluded, drunk or just plain shit. It’s safer that way.
I find there are two different paradigms of creative process. One emphasises the words ‘outcome’, ‘performance’, ‘results’, ‘audience’ and ‘show’. The other encourages ‘progress’, ‘experiment’, ‘ideas’, ‘art’ and ‘work’. Small and Loud was the first real opportunity I’ve ever had to actually perform within that latter paradigm. It was encouraged for me to take it as an opportunity to throw shit at a wall and see what stuck. But it was more than that. Throwing shit at a wall isn’t a new idea. All good ideas are built on mountain of shit. You need to allow yourself to be shit. But to allow yourself to be shit in front of other people when you’ve never shown it to anyone before… Oof.
The warm, compassionate and receptive environment that is fostered in that little back room of The Worker’s Club allowed exactly that. It feels like you are in your living room, showing a bunch of your closest, most intelligent, discerning and artistically minded mates. People were actually watching me throw shit and sitting forward in their seats. I couldn’t believe it. Their direct feedback with me and other artists at the end of the night is considered an invaluable resource, which means they have a stake in your work. They care. And because they care, you feel the freedom to throw your shit harder and faster and further.
My current project, How Can You Sleep At Night, is very personal. It’s a solo performance of my own creation. (Help. Me.) It deals with my fraught relationship with sleep and the existential crises that wake me up at 3am, specifically that spiralling, runaway train of a voice that reminds you there is an end to all things. Insomnia and the apocalypse. Small things really. To be honest, I was not very far away from relegating it to one of my sub-sub-sub-sub-sub folders, never looking at it again and pulling out of Small and Loud that night. I was over it. Which might explain the little vomit I had before I performed.
I presented some excerpts from my current draft, two of which I had been banging around in my head for far too long. I could feel myself apologising the entire time. But when the feedback conversations began I realised there had been no need to apologise. The feedback was so warmly constructed and facilitated it renewed a little flicker of hope that I might be onto something; what I had presented wasn’t quite crystallised, but it had potential. The discussion revealed that what I thought were the weakest sections were actually the most provoking, and the material I had been sure of since the first draft, while not being necessarily bad, but had the effect of being confusing and disengaging.
Not only did the conversations review my work up until that point, but also discussed it’s future trajectory: “Would you consider performing it in the dark?” “Would you consider writing an entire script then performing it without text?” “Would you consider having another performer on stage?”. All questions that only seemed obvious to someone on the outside of my previously insular, isolated process, but have heavily influenced where I’ve taken the piece now.
This is the first time I have ever taken a creative project to full term on my own steam, outside of the deadlines of university. I never realised what a kick in the arse performing raw, unpolished ideas could be. It’s invigorating. I had been so terrified of creating something that came across as self-indulgent that I isolated myself so I could ‘get it right’. But I don’t know how I thought I could create something in isolation that would be for anyone but myself.
There is surprisingly little of the script I performed that night in my current draft. And most of what I have now may not exist when I perform it at Melbourne Fringe Festival in September. And it may be shit. I won’t pretend I’d be okay if that happened. I’d be gutted. But my process is getting better. Other people are now an integral part of it. As many people as possible. All of the people. Sure, not everything is helpful, and you have to be careful about which cooks you let into your kitchen, but many hands make light work. Which is great when you need to build a mountain of shit to put something little and shiny on top of.
(First published, August 2016 in response to a performance slot with an independently run Melbourne scratch-night, 'Small and Loud' [which you should definitely check out: https://smallandloudblog.wordpress.com])