‘Frequently Terrifying!’: On Writing Yourself into Your Performance Work

In the lead-up to his upcoming season of Transgender Seeking… at this year’s Midsumma Festival, Writers Victoria asked queer and trans writer, performer and educator Sunny Drake for his tips on how to write yourself into your performance.

Writers Victoria: What was the inspiration behind the play?

Sunny Drake: Well, I wrote the first short version of the play seven years ago when I was a little heartbroken at being in love with my best friend (again!). The content proved relevant to lots of people, so I decided to grow it into a full-length play in 2013.

It’s still got threads inspired by my own story in there, but has moved more heavily into fiction. I think relationships form the basis of pretty much every aspect of our lives, yet we often see them as personal or somehow not a political issue.

I wanted to craft a piece that touches people on a deeply personal level, yet challenges us all to consider how we can love each other better.

WV: You’ve said that much of your performance work is inspired by your own life. How does it feel to expose your feelings and experiences in such a public way?

SD: Frequently terrifying! Usually though, it’s only terrifying for the first few performances and then it actually helps me to move through whatever I was so terrified about.

A very magical thing happens when I put myself out there – people meet me with the same sense of vulnerability and openness. I get literally hundreds of emails and Facebook messages, and have very intimate conversations with people after my shows.

I’ve exposed personal things through my work and so complete ‘strangers’ trust me with their own very personal stories. In this way, I feel like I’m holding my community at the same time as they are holding me. I’m very clear in my creative process that while I need to do a lot of personal work to get to a point of putting my own stories out there, what actually ends up on the page or the stage is not my therapy process. I make decisions based on what I want to say politically as well as crafting beautiful, compelling theatre.

WV: What are your tips for protecting yourself when writing autobiographically?

SD: Firstly, consider the balance between pushing yourself to be part of creating the world you want to see and keeping yourself safe. This involves considering all angles of what the personal impacts of sharing your story may be and weighing them against the impact you can have with your audience. When I first started writing a play based on my drinking problem, I was going to pretend it was entirely fictional because I felt so ashamed. I eventually realised that the work would have much more impact if I wrote myself directly into the play, since a lot of other people felt such deep shame too. It was precisely this willingness to own the story that made the work powerful for many.

Other times, I have decided to fictionalise more heavily to protect my own (and other people’s) privacy. Although if you’re going to write and perform the work yourself, many will assume that the fictional threads are about you, even when they aren’t, so at the end of the day you have to be happy to live with what you put out into the world.

Another thing to consider is how autobiographical work will impact others in our lives. Rarely are we just writing about ourselves: our experiences often involve family, friends, partners, lovers, workmates etc. Early on in my performance career, I made the mistake of writing about some experiences with family without having a discussion with them first. It’s not that I would necessarily have changed what I was writing, but not having the courage to tell them did break some trust. If we want to have ongoing relationships with people we are writing about, then how we do and don’t involve them is definitely a factor to consider.

WV: You have toured the world with your show, which takes an exposing, funny and tender look at queer and trans relationships. Do you think audiences are finally starting to see their own experiences on our stages and screens, or do we still have a long way to go?

SD: It’s great that we’re starting to see more LGBTIQ stories on stage! What I’m finding though is that there’s a very narrow range of stories on stage. The majority of LGBTIQ stories are about coming out and trans stories are mostly about surgery and physical changes. While these are really important topics, focusing solely on these prevents us from exploring the fullness of who we are.

WV: So, I’ve written my story. How do I take it to the next step?

SD: Put it in front of an audience! If it’s a book or short story, have people read it. If it’s a performance, do a work-in-progress showing. There’s only so far I can get on my own without trying out the work in front of an audience.

Create an audience that’s appropriate for the stage of work. For example, don’t invite the director of an international theatre festival if the play is in its first draft. It could even mean inviting your friends over to your living room, cooking them a nice meal, then trying your work out with them.

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