Guest Blog: How to Create an Autobiographical Solo Show

For our latest blog, Alissa Anne Jeun Yi tells us what it’s like to create an autobiographical solo show that contains triggering content.

Love Songs returns to CPT on Tue 22 – Wed 26 Jan at 9pm. Click here to find out more.

I first fell in love with performance when I popped my Edinburgh Fringe virginity three years ago. I fell hard. I felt like an emotional, hot-blooded, endorphin-seeking teenager – except I wasn’t chasing kicks from sex and drugs – I was just a little bit high on #art.

Solo shows especially I couldn’t get enough of. I didn’t understand why what I was watching simultaneously brought tears to my eyes along with an immense feeling of joy, but I now think it probably has something to do with the open-hearted, quiet beauty of seeing a well-crafted piece of work that is a total extension of the performer themselves.

In a world full of fake faces and fake values and fake news I crave things messy, honest and vulnerable. I long to connect to stories and ways of telling them that are imperfect and human, and gravitate towards wanting to make work like this too.

As such, with Love Songs, I’ve been forced to quickly learn a lot about making and performing autobiographical material over the past year – and how to navigate the specific challenges making autobiographical work carries. It was at Camden that I first pitched and performed a show very different to the finished product that toured Brighton, Edinburgh and the Soho Theatre; and it feels fitting to return here again just a year on.

A lot has changed; the show and I are much more mature. But there’s something that still bugs me a little, and that’s what I’m writing about today. Performing Love Songs has brought me many blessings, but I don’t think it has brought me closure.

What performing autobiographical work has done is allow me to explore and process experiences of heartbreak and sexual assault in what was, for me, a rewarding, healthy and protected way. We all have the right to create art and navigate trauma however we want – I’m not criticising anyone who makes art differently. However, I’ve recently been asked for advice from some people about how to go about making shows about their own triggering experiences, and I wanted to share my thoughts and advice in case it’s useful for others with similar stories to tell.

1) Surround yourself with a core team that you trust.

It’s important that you feel comfortable in the rehearsal space and outside of it at all times. Choose to work with people that know and understand you well. I knew my producer, directors and dramaturges long before we started working on the show. Because I trusted them as both friends and professionals I always would trust their directorial and dramaturgical opinions – I knew they had my best interests at heart. They never tried to get me to tell a story I didn’t want to tell; only helped me to tell my own story to the best of my ability.

2) Remember your duty of care.

You have a responsibility both to protect the audience and yourself when performing work that deals with any kind of triggering material. With Love Songs, I strongly felt that performing triggering parts of the show with too much physicality and emotion would be damaging me to go through – and consequently for the audience to watch. There are many shows that deal with triggering content well and many shows that don’t. If the audience are taking the time to watch a difficult show about you and your experiences you owe it to them to stick around for a chat afterwards, and to point them in the direction of any organisations or helplines that can offer further support.

Be very clear about the purpose that the potentially triggering material is serving in your show. Be aware of the effect it is having on your audience – is exposing them to your tension, anger or pain ultimately more about finding personal closure than it is about them? This brings me onto my next point.

3) Be prepared to let go.

There’s a difference between being proud of your work and being over-protective. It can be hard to separate the personal from the professional but a change of mindset or reminding yourself to keep a professional mindset can open a lot of creative doors; whilst reliving you from anxiety and stresses that ultimately won’t serve you.

When you’re precious about your work, you might be holding your show back from the potential to be the best it could. The difference between writing a diary and writing a show is that you are no longer writing something just for yourself. You are making a show to educate and entertain an audience. You are creating an experience for them. You are also making a piece of work that will be criticised and reviewed by others. People are going to have opinions which you might not like, and they are fully entitled to them (well, unless they’re a misogynist).

Over the past year I’ve made a lot of different versions of Love Songs. Versions where I used hola-hooping because I couldn’t express my experience in words, versions where the detail and language was a lot more angry. Each time I performed a new version I moved further away from having a show that existed for reasons of personal catharsis to a place where I was thinking more about the audience instead of myself. I would definitely say that the show I performed at the Soho Theatre this December was the best version of the show for that very reason, and it took a long time to get there.

4) Give yourself a break from the page.

Giving yourself distance is always important, allowing you to come back to writing with fresh eyes. I re-drafted my script about forty times and each time it meant revisiting places where I was mentally and emotionally vulnerable.

I needed those months off between rewrites not only to creatively refresh but, more importantly, so that I could differentiate between the person whose unprocessed trauma I was writing about and the person I am now.

Constantly check in with yourself and where your emotions are at when you’re making the show. Know your limits and don’t overstep them. I discovered I had reached my limits when no matter how hard I tried to write a particular paragraph, it felt like pushing against a brick wall. For a whole week I’d sit down every evening and spend two hours feeling like I couldn’t breathe whilst trying to write the sentences. Eventually I just gave up. I realised it wasn’t going to happen – and I shouldn’t try to make it happen either. Sometimes it isn’t worth it.

5) Give yourself distance on the stage.

I personally find it helpful to try and distinguish between the you (as a real person with real experiences) and the you (in the script and the rehearsal space). During Love Songs development, I would always refer to myself as a character in the third person, and soon began to do this for other people who featured in the piece too – giving them abstract names such as ‘first love’ and ‘clit-muncher’ (yes, you heard correctly).

Not only did maintaining this distance protect my mental and emotional wellbeing, but it allowed us to laugh, critique and explore story and characters in a way that I would have been too stubborn to initially, giving me the freedom to elaborate upon my truth. As well as giving me some separation from my trauma when performing the show, this approach made for an overall more interesting and entertaining story.

6) Plan ahead and do your pre-performance admin.

Before you even make the damn show there might be certain friends you need to talk to in order to feel the freedom write it. There also might be friends who you need to pre-warn about the content, before they hear it from the show or anywhere else. And then there might be people who are definitely not friends, but they also definitely exist.

Out of these people, think carefully about who you are happy with seeing you perform the show, and know who absolutely cannot. Have a contingency plan in place so that if someone unexpected and unwanted turns up to a show you know how to continue in order to protect both them and yourself.

7) What about closure?

Perhaps this is more a note, in hindsight, to myself. It’s not for me to say whether you should look for closure or not by doing a show – but be prepared to accept you might not find it. Before you start the journey be honest with yourself as to why you need to do it. Very often closure is a part of it, so know what finding closure will look like for you. And then know what not finding closure through the show will look like, and know what not finding it will do to you.

I feel exceptionally lucky that making this show has given me so much more than I expected or was looking for. I have made new friends, reconnected with old ones, realised I am capable of making small changes towards a better world and discovered that writing and performing is what I want to do with my life.

But although Love Songs has helped me move on, performing it will never be able to fully offer closure. I know now that that will only happen when I actually stop performing it – something I am both happy and sad in equal measure to do. I’m so excited to perform it at Camden People’s Theatre this January for those reasons, and I hope it’ll be a very special five final nights.

I’ve started writing a health and wellness blog for performers and will be sharing similar content if readers enjoy the above.

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