November was a busy month. Lots of shows on. Lots to direct. Lots to see. And amongst that was Novemberism -a brand new festival for playwrights that seemed to pop out of nowhere, containing a collection of collectives, writing opportunities and conversations. On one of the many Saturdays of Novemberism, I struggled in the swelter of a slow-to-start summer to The Old 505 Theatre. I went in search of a panel discussion on Auto/biography in theatre, hosted by John McCallum and with contributions from Kate Mulvany (The Seed), Rebecca Clarke (Unspoken), Noelle Janaczewska (Good with Maps) and Phil Spencer (Bluey).

The discussion was about autobiography and “the playwright made public.” Explicitly public. Of course plays contain perspectives and beliefs of playwrights – many often write “what they know.” One can not help but for the choice of topic, perspective or question to mean something to the artist – why else bother expending time, effort, money on the work?

But autobiography and biography are slightly more overt in their drawing from the life of the writer, than the usual subtle disguise “fiction” offers. Many of the writers on the panel spoke of responsibility and authenticity. Of a desire to tell a real story. Of a desire to heal or even to challenge oneself. It is at it’s core, a mode of expression which is direct, untainted, unmasked.

Biography and autobiography are attractive to audiences – it is as though there is a secret revelation offered – an inside look into a secret, personal, private realm. For some audiences, there may be a bit of schadenfreude involved. A curiosity, at least, in the lives and trials of others.

As a generation, we are in a strange era of story telling practice, primarily because we are in an age of the reality TV celebrity. We are finding that the ordinary are exaultant. That there are many willing to share their story (for a price) and publicity and self-promotion is everywhere.

In an age of social media – where Facebook and Twitter offers constant mini-monologuing – it is not surprising that the idea of talking about oneself is openly acceptable. Don’t get me wrong, I am a user of the social media, I am not above, nor am I exempt from its addictive qualities. But it is a commonplace occurance that people share their opinions and ideas and day-to-day chores online. We are being subjected to autobiography ALOT. I love autobiography – I love biographies – I use them as a source of inspiration or reassurance. I seek out the stories of others to enrich my life and world view, so I may too reflect on my life. I prefer auto/biography to straight “fiction.”

So I have been thinking about it. ALOT.

Recently in a curated “festival” by TRS Associate Director, Phil Spencer, autobiography was on show. A selection of artists were invited by Spencer to share a story about themselves or someone else. It contained works by and Phil Spencer.

I saw a small portion of the festival, and as such will not review the season. But instead feel it useful to express what I saw.

Some of the works were presented in the context of a tender new work/development showing- which I found a little confusing as I was certain that I had seen this piece by Nick Coyle in August at Cut & Paste at the Bondi Pavillion, and was certain that Betty Grumble (a burlesque persona who has no holds barred – menstrual blood, bacardi breezers, nudity – the whole bit) had repeated this performance, and that Alex Vaughan had previously shown these photos at exhibitions (namely the Head On portraiture prize) throughout the year.

Another night was a triptych of works (which did not have the development disclaimer up front) were pieces by Spencer, Spencer and Coombs-Marr.

This was a really difficult theatrical experience for me. Really difficult. The difficulty was multiplicitous and I have been slowly processing it since.

I have only walked out of maybe a handful of shows in my life. And both these suites I left before they were finished.

The problems I had was largely curatorial and largely with my expectation of what auto/biographical work is.

I had been excited to experience this work so that I might be informed or confided in something I didn’t know about the artists. I was hoping to gain an insight into who they are, where they are from, what questions they have about the world, and their place in it. What they struggle with, who they are when they are struggling. I was hoping to find an insight, a profound moment of personal public revelation – perhaps I would be presented with something funny yet fragile, something which risked something of their personality or burgeoning profile. Perhaps my assumptions about them would be challenged and I would be shown the person, not just the posture. I would find the ugly, the difficult – and in doing so be blown away by profound bravery.


What I saw was not that. There was a few moments in what I saw which sparked my interest – in which I felt closer to the maker/writer/performer – but largely it was very superficial performance. I saw re-presented acts, imported from other contexts, I saw acts of fiction and fancy. I saw a very simplistic view of self – that of entertainer – one to be laughed at and coyly identified as cute. Nothing personal was risked. Nothing that made me appreciate them more as people or artists with aspirations bigger than themselves or what I already know and admire.

Nothing was revealed that inspired or reassured me. This was for me a selection of work which was fairly white, middle-class, educated and focused on telling the story of those under 35 (even Great Apeth which included a grandmother figure was focused on the young).

Audience around me howled with laughter. One person stood up in the audience and started clapping and howling with laughter when one performer was dancing to Jewel with an alien puppet. I felt alone. I felt cheated. I felt old. I felt outside the cool gang on stage who were performing a version of themselves that I found to be cheap and glib. I felt like I was taking up the seat of someone who would have enjoyed this work. I felt like a fool. I quietly walked out of the theatre. I got in my old, ancient, ancient car. I cried. Drove myself home.

I am too intense sometimes. Sometimes I take things pretty seriously, perhaps too seriously. I was looking for a profound moment of connection or engagement. I was even looking for fact, or truth -in an entertaining and delightful form, yes – I wanted to hear the moment of transformation – or the moment of revelation. I wanted to learn something about these people that I couldn’t learn on facebook.

Why was I so disappointed? Perhaps I expect too much?

Can autobiographical performance ever be truly honest? Are there somethings that shouldn’t be confessed or spoken or performed? Where does the form of autobiography and the form of theatrical storytelling (embellishment and irony) overlap? What is the point of autobiography.

And i continue to roll these questions around in my mind. I’m yet to answer them.

I think I would have stayed IF the festival was perhaps more diverse – and sought voices and performers from all corners of Australia and the world. I think I would have also felt more comfortable if it wasn’t billed as autobiography but a scratch night or another Cut&Paste evening. Or if it was a “Best of my Friends” billing – fair enough. There were a few moments I held on to as real authentic revelation – but on the whole, I don’t think this was really my thing (with the exception of the offering from Lucinda Gleeson about her teenagehood in Canberra). Other audience members loved it – and that is awesome. I’m honestly, glad. And slightly jealous that they had such a good time – where as I left dispondent and disappointed and still believing that artists of my generation can be braver, bolder and more interesting, more honest, more authentic than this. I’m sure the journeys of these artists, the lives of these artists are bigger and braver than this. And I don’t just think that it’s the youthfulness that presented a safe and homogenous suite of works – for there are stories of divine inspiration and braverly from people not so long in the tooth. I’m sure of it.

There are quotes from Henry Rollins that have helped define the perameters of my thinking about this:

“As long as I tell the truth I feel that nobody can touch me.”

“I’ve always seen it as the role of an artist to drag his inside out, give the audience all you’ve got. Writers, actors, singers, all good artists do the same. It isn’t supposed to be easy. ”

“Being an artist is dragging your innermost feelings out, giving a piece of yourself, no matter in which art form, in which medium.”

But it’s very tough to watch a show when you know for a fact the person sitting next to you has revealed some pretty intense and inspiring and life-changing things to you, that make everything you see before you, seem like a glib self-marketing strategy.