This piece has been a long time coming. It is part of my journey as a creative and as someone desiring to engage with aspects of life that can both hinder and release creativity and work out how to relate to them both. And though I’m not sure I have clarity on the matter or a promise of a solution or way forward, let’s get it out there on the page. Out of our heads.
Oh good grief.
I nearly 100% of the time refuse to perform at family occasions (if you exclude the classic “Partridge Family” style family-band that were sometimes booked for gigs).
The many family services (weddings, baptisms, memorials) I have declined are numerous. And although I’m often sad to have let a loved one down, and feel a bit guilty about doing so, I pass on the request for good reason. The results would be catastrophic, you see. You wouldn’t get the beautiful and heart-felt tune you had desired, but a musical genre all of its own. A genre often defined by blubbering and stuttering, accented by moments of self-directed anger. This is a quality I know, and fervently avoid, about myself. It’s much safer for me to tell someone else’s story. Any connection to my own life story and those who play their parts proves to be far too close for comfort. Happy or sad, I struggle to contain my emotions and fear the consequences, not to mention the curse of the “ugly crying face”.
Not long ago I went back on my usual rules and agreed to sing for a family member’s memorial service. I wanted to and I felt it was important for me and for my family. I was repeating to myself, mantra style: ‘this is my job. I’m an actor. I do this everyday. I can do this. I do this in front of thousands of people.’ This should be easy.
So as the liturgy had reached my item (all too quickly I might add), I stood up in front of the congregation and sang the first line of the song. And that is where it ended. One line. I got out one line and then it was all over. I believe the congregation took over for me and I just stood there trying to catch up with myself.
I hope, sincerely, that I am not the only one living in this paradox.
Let’s think quickly over the concept of stories. Our lives are composed of stories. We create them, we live in them, we share them and we dream them. Stories are what the human race is built on, how ancient generations taught future generations, how we build belief systems, how we encourage, challenge, learn from mistakes, brainstorm new approaches and most importantly how we build empathy. They allow us to find kindred spirits and understand differences. Sharing stories is essential to relationship and growth as a human race, and goodness knows how often we forget we don’t live in our own little bubbles. We effect and affect, constantly. So the stories we tell matter. We have the opportunity and responsibility to create open dialogue with our stories. We have the chance to discover and to present many perspectives.
Stories cross the barriers of time and place, real and imagined. Stories provide a safe place within our minds to experience or re-experience moments in our lives. They help us to adjust, learn and accept emotions we have not allowed ourselves to feel, or are yet to understand.
So what about telling our own stories? We know we can tell someone else’s story, that’s our job, but what happens when our job gets taken out of context, out of the safety of the theatre, or perhaps not from a script at all but from our own life story?
We walk away after telling someone else’s story, undoubtably exhausted and hopefully satisfied but ultimately unscathed, but when it comes to telling our own life story, it can be a battle to pull through to the “bows”. It is of course obvious that the personal nature of our own life story will always be more difficult, more painful, more complex to express than a script or character given to us, as vehicles, but doesn’t that make sharing our own life stories even more important? We, as performers, already believe in the changing power of story telling, so why do we shy away from letting our own stories have their own impact? And I don’t necessarily mean turning every event into a monologue or song (though that’s good too!) but I mean engaging with that event in a way that sparks a change for you. Not shutting it out, but also not letting it roll around and around in our minds. Processing our stories of grief. Some are braver or more well-equipped than I and already do so through their art practices, but some are still stuck, fearful of letting go of that story and what consequences may occur.
[pull_left]When telling someone else’s story there naturally exists a certain distance between us and the tale, providing some control on behalf of the story teller[/pull_left]
Telling other’s stories can both provide release from the power of our own life story, or an escape from owning some of those stories. My personal experience is certainly the latter and so often I wish it were the former!
Before I go further, I understand that what I am about to say isn’t necessarily a universal rule, but is my personal experience as an actor and perhaps is also for others out there. It has both been a blessing to me in my work, and a challenge for me in life.
When telling someone else’s story there naturally exists a certain distance between us and the tale, providing some control on behalf of the story teller. This is a gift for a performer, I think, as it allows us to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable in performance without the danger of revealing our own life story (to ourselves as well as others!). We take on the responsibility to become or represent the character and tell that story. Whatever our approach to acting may be probably doesn’t really matter, in the end we give a lot of ourselves to the story but don’t necessarily give ourselves “away”. The mask of the character, or our connected persona, though providing access for the audience to the characters story, also provides certain detachment from our personal life stories.
So it’s time for me to go back to the beginning of this essay. Grief.
Grief is something we will all experience, or have already experienced, at some point in our lives and it can feel like the enormity of it is beyond digestion. Telling stories of grief and loss is a job that has more impact and benefit to those who hear and share in the story than we often give credit.
I know we loathe the thought of being perceived as being self-indulgent in our art practices. Or using art and creativity as personal catharsis is seen as selfish. But I think it is the absolute opposite. If it is genuine art making in the search for resilience or forgiveness or wisdom or love then I believe it to be a true selfless gift. To show vulnerability is to show courage and to be encouraging.
So often grief overwhelms us and we do all we can to just push it away, unfortunately just making the weight of it heavier and harder to carry. Telling someone else’s story can be a bit like walking alongside the waves at the beach but not quite diving in for fear of being dumped and losing our bikini top. And we need that distance and protection to some extent. But here’s the rub. It is essential our loss become real and all enveloping in order to write it into our life story. This way we can work towards finding meaning and making sense of the loss. Just as we learn and accept how a character moves and exists in their world, sharing our own stories of grief (even if just in our private journal, to a friend, in front of a crowd, or on a website like some mad woman I’ve heard of) helps us understand and accept our new role in a world that has forever changed.
“To weep is to make less the depth of grief” Henry VI Pt III. William Shakespeare.
It’s so important to tell other people’s stories. To hear other’s stories. It is essential to also share our own. The grief may not necessarily leave us but will gradually become an integrated chapter in our life story, a new line on our face (God forbid!) that doesn’t weigh us down any longer but shapes us and our work in a deeper, more whole-hearted way. And very often we will find our own life story is also someone else’s story. And I think that was the case that day when I only sung one line of that song, it allowed everyone else to sing. To grieve.
So I have talked a great deal in these essays about engaging with our creativity, being brave in our creative process both in order to garner mastery but also to simply express ourselves, process our life stories and offer encouragement to others through our varied art practices. I wanted to do this myself. Out in the open ether. So I recently engaged in an experiment where I challenged myself to write one creative piece per day, ten times over, then share the result. These are raw, first drafts and often written on the train or while watching ABC kids with my daughter. So they are muddled, messy and lack technique, but that’s ok.
However I have written one in particular I’d like to share with you in relation to the above essay. It is a fictionalised version of one of my true stories. I’ll be honest and say it took all of me to not edit and edit until this story became a safe one. It is not safe, it strips me open and lays my heart bare.
It is my grief, a part of my life story out there on the page. It is the hardest dialogue I may ever present. Releasing it to you, or the thought of eventually releasing it to you feels like I’m peeling back layers of clothing to reveal the extra couple of holiday kilos I’ve hidden until I’ve worked it off with some secret cardio. But why make it worse sweating through the layers when you can just admit you had a bit too much cake and work it off with the support of some workout buddies? Geez. So much analogy. Now I want cake.
Here is the link if you would like to continue reading:
Naomi is an actor, musician, composer and first time mother. She is a WAAPA graduate but only after a detour via an arts degree where she majored in Theoretical Performance Study and Psychology. Her work includes The Libertine (Sport for Jove), John and Jen (Sydney Fringe), Wicked (GFO, Asia Tour), the release of the album “So Long Lives This” (Drew and Na Livingston) and currently performing in the Australian Tour of Les Miserables.