After a gap in performing (divorce, cancer, parental decline and death etc), I returned to the stage with Topless, a show describing divorce, cancer, parental decline and death etc. Although I had used my life material in my work before (overtly in Red Heart and in a modified way in other shows), I was randomly given an opportunity to perform for a few nights). I had a performance model in Stand-up Theatre to say what had to be said. Because it did seem to me, to have to be said. Not because it was worthy but because it was the material to hand. Urgently to hand, because it was stuff I had not fully made sense of yet.
Given the absurdities of hospital visits and life in general, friends would often quip: you can make a show about this. And so I, um, did. I would wake in the middle of the night and sit at a stark 90 degrees thinking: this is a really stupid thing to do. But I did it anyway. The show dates were in the diary. I sent the script to my ex-husband to approve, although the jokes were mainly pointed at myself. I asked my then boyfriend, sorry ex-boyfriend: I know you said this, but if I say this it will be funnier is that ok? I worried that a show about breast Cancer (there has been a lot more work ion the subject since, this was 1999) would be glum. I asked a friend, impro veteran Philip Pellew: what's a funny title for a show about breast cancer? Topless her said and Topless it was... though I wasn't, much to the chagrin (or something) of the six lone 20 year-old men who comprised my entire audience one evening in Edinburgh in my lateish Fringe slot...
Back at the start - I had the material but I did not know how to slant the story. 'Don't get it right, get it written.' And all the events tumbled forth and were sifted through to see what was worthy of inclusion.
At a certain point in making a show you start to ask: I need a good finish, how's it going to end? how does it all wrap up? what point am I making here?
I went to archetype - is this the story of Job? - nah not that message. Can Dante's seven layers of Hell be used to spin it off? Nope. Lists (7 sins, levels whatever) are undramatic and it's not about redemption...
I had a running motif about movies - how I feared to become Ann Bancroft in '84 Charing Cross Road', how my 'amour fou' ( the relationship after my marriage) reminded me of 'Betty Blue' ( without the eye episode and the suffocation with pillows), how during Radiotherapy treatment I cast myself as Sigourney Weaver in 'Alien', pitted against the beast of the deadly ray-giving machine.
Then one night I had a dream where I was onstage and didn't know my lines, in fact I didn't really know what play I was in. And the core theme finally hit me - this piece is about identity. I was surprised because I felt I was not a traditional wife and I had my performance identity (mind you, identifying as 'physical theatre performer extraordinaire', or even 'ordinaire' takes a bit of a kicking after a bit of surgery and vitality-sapping nuclear burning). So the ending saw me embracing my inner Ann Bancroft (it worked better in the show than it sounds, I promise, and a kicking playout tune really helped).
I lost my voice - literally - while writing and rehearsing Topless. I was being assisted by a student following the process for her Theatre degree. She would read my lines and I would mime. Intensive practice in playing Stanislavskian actions. I made it through the first show without coughing (the only time I have drunk brandy onstage). And after the run I discovered my singing voice had gained some breadth. Use it or lose it. Speak it or choke it. Say it and get bigger than it.
As I say, I 'had' to make that show. And I had so little to lose. I came into the bar to find people talking to each other, to strangers, about their parents, and illnesses they or friends had suffered. And scary old death of course.
Keep your eye on the entertainment, speak the truth, make sure your jokes are funny and you earn the right to tell your own story. Tell it well. Be strategic - think of your audience. Work on your conventions, polish your performance, manage the different textures, be clear with the story, embody your characters well, keep your eye on structure and pace, find the universal theme, have a good engaging beginning, an intriguing middle and the best end you can muster, and bingo - others can find the universal in your particular.
And of course - you can't do all these things in the previous paragraph from the go-get. Allow yourself to be in the not-knowing, the discomfort. Get ruthless later.
When you make autobiographical theatre, you have to get outside your story to write or devise it. then you have to get back in to play it. Being able to see things from different vantage points has to be a key skill. For life, not just theatre making. Yes I know, possibly an underrated one. Comedy is good for that - things are never the way you think. Comedy, like life, must be full of surprises. Getting outside your story frees you from the fixed vantage point of 'victim of circumstance'. You are Author and Editor (or your director is) and you are also, if not 'Hero' - at least Protagonist. You should also at moments be your future Audience. Assessing your work from their vantage point. Having to write publicity blurb helps a lot with that.
When I look back on two years where, at the time, there was a fair amount of crying and angst - what I see now is the cartoon version of it I portrayed in Topless. Talk about transformation. Talk about re-frame - NLP eat your heart out.
I can definitely vouch for the therapeutic value of autobiographical theatre, but you only get it if you are genuinely willing to examine and to 'go there' but while being rigorous about the theatre-making process.
Topless: stand-up theatre - about 'life and death and love and hate and sex and sticking plaster and breasts.' Played UK, Greece, Australia.
a macabre comic style...her accounts of failed relationships, low self-esteem, and her brush with breast cancer...are both hilarious in their frankness and moving. ..with her consistently high energy and warm, engaging stage presence, Peta Lily captures and maintains the attention of her audience throughout. TOTAL THEATRE
a talented comic, she takes the departure of her husband and the illness and death of her mother and turns them into something which is not just entertaining, but is even funny EDINBURGH EVENING NEWS
a refreshingly comic, intelligent and informative exploration of the turbulent events in one woman's life crisis...consistently funny...Lily recounts her experiences with an incisive and inventive wit...guiding her audience away from unnecessary sentiment but not losing a sense of poignancy THE SCOTSMAN
instead of erotica, Lily gives her audience something far more outrageous and personal...told with consistent humour. Lily has lightness of touch, instinctive wit ...one of those rubber faces...and a silky singing voice. Lily manages...to keep them laughing right up to the end. THE STAGE
Do see her perform her uniformly funny, yet unabashedly realistic play about ageing, breasts, cancer, sex, music, movies, life and death. TOTALLY HK (HONG KONG)