Earlier this year, I did a terrifying thing. I performed on stage.
Well, it was sort of a performance. It was really me, reading aloud a story I had written – about myself. Or about a version of me, anyway. It seems that a decade of making up pretend stories for a living has turned me into an inveterate liar. Or maybe that’s just my excuse for not actually being able to write about myself with any degree of honesty. But then again – there was enough truth in what I wrote for me not to feel comfortable inviting anyone I knew to come and watch it. Or to promote it on this blog. Or via Facebook or Twitter. So you can come to where I’m from, so long as you don’t actually know me. Those who do might spot the lies – or even worse, spot the truth.
The commission that turned me into such a gibbering wreck was new writing company Paines Plough’s ongoing project Come To Where I'm From. For two years now, they have been commissioning 15 minute speeches from playwrights across the UK, about the town in which they were brought up. The twist is that the playwrights then have to perform those speeches themselves. In that town. In front of an actual live audience. Without involuntarily urinating.
I realise I’m making a ridiculous fuss. I realised that at the time. But for some reason I really am quite irrationally terrified of performing on stage. It’s odd, because I teach all the time, and standing in front of a class and speaking for three hours at a stretch is no problem. You could even call it a form of performance. But then, that’s about the specific task of analysing a text, or illustrating the three-act structure, or how to conduct a research interview. It’s safe.
Writing about myself does not feel safe.
I’m originally from Brighton (well, Hove, actually), so I performed my piece in Brighton’s Pavilion Theatre. I was royally put in my place (in a friendly way) by one of my fellow Brighton-based writers, Sue Maclaine, who regularly performs her own work. She told me that in her latest show she is fully naked on stage for the entire 90 minutes. It’s set in a life drawing class (which incidentally is a brilliant idea for a show). So by comparison I really had nothing to complain about. So why the terror?
The last time I remember feeling like that was on the press night of my first professional production, Protection at Soho Theatre in 2003. It wasn’t just because it was press night of my first ever show and all the papers were in – though that is bad enough. But to make matters worse, one of the actors failed to turn up to a second dress rehearsal that had been called for that same afternoon. His phone was switched off, and no-one knew where he was. Neither his agent nor our Company Manager to could get hold of him. We waited and waited. And waited some more. And then had to come up with a contingency plan.
The director said to me: if he doesn’t turn up, you’re going to have to read in. I protested, but it was a choice between me or the assistant director, who was a lovely chap, but I’d heard him read other parts in during rehearsals, and an actor he was not.
Nor was I, but I was roughly the same age as the character, and obviously knew the play and the part inside out, and most of the lines. You’ll be great, said the director. What about the critics, I asked. They’ll understand, she said. In fact they’ll love you for doing it. They’ll be generous. Ok, I said, clenching every muscle in my body to stop my innermost being weeping out in a sloppy exodus of utter despair... I’ll do it.
I spent a terrifying afternoon rehearsing the lines alongside real, proper actors and trying to memorise all the blocking. I’d already been drinking by then, which actually helped. The entire company rallied round me to gee me up about it all. I psyched myself up. Told myself that this would be one new writing world premiere the critics would never forget. Maybe I’d even be quite good? Maybe it could be the start of a whole new branch of my career? I had always wanted to act as a kid, after all, it’s what got me into theatre in the first place. I was the star of the Heathcote Young Players from 1987-1993. I could do this. I COULD DO IT!!!
Then the actor turned up on the half. He’d forgotten about the late second dress and had taken the day off. But he was back now. (He never said sorry.)
I returned to the bar, destroyed, and proceeded to get even more destroyed, and can’t remember anything else about the rest of the evening.
All this was on my mind, pacing around backstage at the Pavilion Theatre. Except I knew that, this time, there would be no actor to come and rescue me. I was on my own.
But why the terror about having to do myself what I ask actors to do all the time?
I think it’s partly about control. As a playwright, I am so used to having total control in my head, over what is said and done on stage, that suddenly being in the moment itself, rather than an imagined version of the ideal, polished version of that moment, was somehow all too real. Actors being in that moment is fine, they’re trained to hold it in the palm of their hands, milk it, and make it work for them. I never feel in control of the moment; it’s in control of me. Sometimes, during particularly intense periods of writing, with no real-world interaction of any kind, even a basic chat with a real live human, buying some milk down the shop say, or with my other half when she gets in from work, can seem a little bit intense and weird. (Sometimes I even imagine the words that are being said appearing on a page in front of me, with character names for the people who are speaking, and stage directions for what they’re doing. But I’m not in control of any of it.)
That probably sounds weird. But I spend so much time crafting the perfect conversation, the perfect set of actions and counter-actions, rhythmically spaced and shot through with carefully-placed meaning, nuance and subtext – that the bulldozer of real life seems unforgiving. No revisions. No second chances. Whatever next comes out of my mouth I am utterly committed to. I can’t re-write it. And it might be bullshit because I haven’t really thought it through. And then people will think I am weird. Maybe I am weird. But did I become weird through writing plays for a living, or did I end up writing plays because I am weird? Why can’t I trust myself to hold a coherent real-life conversation, in real time, you know, like the rest of the world does all day long, every fucking day of the week?
But there is something about truth and lies, and the ‘truthy’ lies I write, and the border between them all, that I find endlessly fascinating. That is, when it’s not doing my head in like a bad trip. (Be patient if you ever meet me.)
Obviously, I wrote myself some words for the Paines Plough speech. And I was allowed to have them on a piece of paper in front of me. Which helped. But then there’s the question of physical control. Would the paper shake and give away my nerves? And whilst I didn’t expect to actually wet myself, there is always a remote possibility. Somewhat less remote though, was the possibility of an uncontrollably twitching leg, or wobbly voice, or coughing or sneezing or burping or getting that breaky-voice thing that teenage boys sometimes do.
So I had a pint, and a fag, which helped with some of that.
But then there’s emotional self-control – and that’s a real unknown. The piece I had written was inspired by a little object that has been in the family ever since I was born. In fact it is linked to my birth. I was actually born under a different name: Patrick Sawdy. I have two tiny NHS wristbands to prove it, one saying ‘Sawdy, Boy’ the other ‘Kennedy, Boy’ (pictured, above). I’ve never given them much thought, but for some reason they popped into my head while thinking about my childhood in Hove.
My most popular play, How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, is about identity change, and this theme has surfaced in other forms too, like my 2008 radio play Caesar Price Our Lord. I’ve also got a forthcoming play I’ve been developing this summer with a company in the US, Broken Stones, which looks at the control over his own identity which a real-life subject gives up when he engages with a ghost writer to help tell his story. So I’m aware it’s something of a recurring theme. But I had never before really traced it back to a couple of faded NHS wrist bands from 1976.
See, I’m doing it again. I’m don’t actually think I have a split personality, nor that the NHS wrist tags have anything remotely spooky about them. I’m taking a tiny detail from reality and spinning it out, to make it a better tale... You’ll have to forgive me, it’s what I do. But sometimes, even I’m not sure where the line lies.
As part of my research for Broken Stones (which I’ll blog properly about some other time) I’ve been doing some fascinating reading about how and why it is, as a species, that we tell stories. What evolutionary function does it play? Why do we expend so much time and energy – completely unnecessarily in evolutionary terms – on telling and listening to what we know to be patent untruths? Why do the same archetypal stories evolve independently in countries and cultures entirely unconnected to one another? The human mind seems hard-wired to send and receive stories, but why?
In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall pulls together recent advances in neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology, to speculate that stories are a powerful way to pass on morality, wisdom and to bind communities together along common values.
In On The Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd argues that in arranging the apparent chaos of reality into patterns, stories helped us survive, by providing a ‘dry run’ for our species to understand scenarios and forces we haven’t yet encountered, so that when we find ourselves facing these challenges in life, for real, forewarned is forearmed.
In the closing pages of The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker gets a bit spiritual, and observes that most stories involve the main character reaching the lowest point possible, which represents a necessary cleansing, a descent to the Underworld which they must go through before they can ‘rise again’ and become their higher, better selves.
But this urge within us has a dark side too. It makes us uniquely vulnerable to manipulated narratives. At the more innocuous end of the spectrum this could be simply advertising, but it soon becomes more dangerous, taking in conspiracy theories, and more sinister political narratives. As Gottschall points out, Hitler’s Third Reich was based on a story. Booker blames the restless, enquiring nature of the human mind for the invention of the atomic bomb, branding the entire twentieth century ‘The Age of Loki’ – after the mischief-making god of Norse mythology, who made trouble just because he could, forever in thrall to his own power and where it might lead him.
For my own part, I used story in my Paines Plough piece as a defensive mechanism, to protect myself in an arena where I felt uniquely vulnerable, though with enough truths woven in for those who know me to recognise. Perhaps the lies were the cotton wool around these jagged little pills, giving me enough padding to slip them in unnoticed.
Or perhaps it was like the single blank bullet in the firing squad’s rifles. If anything I said really did shock anyone, there was the ever-present get-out clause that maybe that one might have been one of the lies...
Or maybe giving myself permission to lie, to elaborate and embellish the randomness of life into a pattern with meaning, eventually arrived at some sort of truth in a more meaningful and satisfying way – like taking the scenic route on a road trip.
But whatever it was, I’m pretty sure it made for a better night out than just telling the truth, verbatim. My life hasn’t been that eventful, after all.
I haven’t reached the end of my thinking about why we tell stories, or why a million little lies somehow add up to a truth. But it continues to fascinate me, and I’m sure we’ll revisit it, both here and on stage.
So a big Thank You to Paines Plough for the opportunity to explore a piece of that jigsaw in such a visceral way.
My performance, along with those of the other three writers taking part that night, has been recorded – you can listen to them online here.
To my great surprise, I actually ended up quite enjoying it. I even reckon I could do it again now, without that embarrassing puddle on the floor.