During 1996 and 1997, friends kept saying 'you should make a show out of this'.
In 1999, I made that show. I asked a friend 'what's a funny title for a show about breast cancer?' and, experienced improviser as he is, he immediately said: Topless.
1996/7 were the years when I racked up 5 of the things often listed as 'the most stressful life events'. (I am ashamed to note, that, compared to the fates of so many in the world right now it was a bunch of nothing, but tell that to the subjective nervous system).
Topless is not only about breast cancer it was also about divorce, upheaval, heartbreak and getting things off one's (my) chest, but ultimately (I only discovered through the process of writing it), it was about facing changes and the attendant necessity to renegotiate a sense of identity. The show made its debut at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre (and subsequently toured to Greece, Hong Kong and Australia).
On opening night I had no expectations as to its appeal. I had made the show as funny as I could (with a couple of moments where pathos was allowed to rub through). I thought women might appreciate the show but was surprised in the bar afterwards to hear men engaging with it - one of them put it like this: 'everyone has had to deal with illness and death, or fears having to deal with it.'
Soon people began to ask, 'what's next?'. I joked: 'It's going to be a trilogy'.
It then took until 2011 for enough life to have been lived (including a 6 year period when I didn't perform at all) and enough thoughts to have been gathered for a third 'chapter': a show called Chastity Belt.
This January I sat at my dining / work table with producer Sharon Burrell and did a read through of the shows asking ourselves how to approach a possible durational event where the pieces would be performed one after the other. 20 years of a life (with two intervals).
We noticed, as I read, some of the sharp differences between the larger world then and now. At the personal level, I found myself facing the vivid doubt whether this proposed project was, in any conceivable way, wise.
It was strange and little alarming to feel the rhythms and attack of Topless in my mouth. Certain passages shocked me; 'Wow, so I actually said that?' Someone once described Topless as 'raw and emotional' - I failed to see it at the time. Then there were details - details of my own lived life 'important' enough to have made it into a show text - which had evaporated completely from my memory, but were here, still, suspended in the strange aspic of a theatre script.
Midriff wrestled with choices and quibbled with chance and paid homage to few losses: a mother, a brother and a person who (I realised, in retrospect) provided the concrete start point for my theatre making career. But during the read-through, I saw how Midriff pulled together diverse threads of my life at that point. Threads which got slowly stretched and then fairly desperately unravelled in the six years that followed (see Invocation - a show which is chronologically but not anatomically implicated). It was after Midriff, in 2002, that I turned my back on self-indulgent foolishness in pursuit of future financial security (hold, hold your gales of laughter). By 2008, I had reached a flavourless and dusty place I affectionately call 'creative death'. I was working in a field where people are exhorted to 'find their passion' to take them to the next level. I began to feel uncomfortable but brushed the feeling off - after all, the recipie to success and fulfilment is 'getting outside of the comfort zone', isn't it?!
Then one day I looked down and noticed I was shuffling (dynamically shuffling, mind you) along with my tattered passion around my ankles.
I was compelled to make Topless, despite my terror of how it would be received or what it would reveal about me. Theatre making is a compulsion (or so I believe). Autobiographical work will always have to justify itself against self-indulgence and rightfully so. But having visited a place where no compulsion was pushing at my back, I cannot help but champion the practice of honouring creative nudges and risking to express and examine and explore and tell stories and re-weave persistent themes.
In 2011, Chastity Belt began as another joke - making light of my current personal situation. Ridiculously, and unexpectedly, it became a joyful and exuberant embracing of my single, celibate status - think Artemis, think autonomy! In the third anatomical chapter, I found a new place to stand. And I like to think I brought a little extra business to organic lemon growers.
Midriff leaflet (above)
Photo: Graham Fudger. Design: Jamie Zubairi (note clever repurposing of the flowers from the Topless shoot)