What are the stories we should tell on our stage- Jo Clifford
21st July. My Gospel According To Jesus Queen of Heaven is being performed at a Festival in Garanhuns, in north Brazil. The theme of…
The stories we should tell on our stages are the ones that we tell ourselves not to write.
Why do we stop ourselves from writing certain things? I found out why, when I tried to write directly about my own experience of going totally deaf over 20 years, and becoming a cochlear implanted cyborg. I was stopping myself writing my own truth, even as I sat there typing! I worried that people would think my story was uncool – too medical. I had life changing surgery – huh, big deal.
As I wrote my one person show, Augmented, I replayed things that people had said to me after I was switched on, (“No one writes about cochlear implants after six months. Look at Malala Yousafzai, she never talks about her cochlear implant, she campaigns for women’s rights and she won a Nobel prize!”).
Not only did I imagine a lot of people rolling their eyes about me telling an implant story, I also worried about writing it badly so that it played as inspiration porn.
I worried so much about how the story would land, that I was blocking myself from telling my own truth. I was effectively telling myself not to write the show. I felt ashamed. I was internalising my own oppression. I was worse than one of the dreaded industry gate keepers. I was miles from any gates, just typing, hunting for inoffensive vocabulary to convey my experience.
I felt angry with my future, imaginary audience, because I had to explain everything from scratch to them, because most of them would be non cyborgs, hearing and deaf, and they would need educating. They were ruining my script. I did not want to write a deaf awareness lecture, or apologise for feeling happy, I wanted to write into the joy and complexity of becoming a cyborg.
I did some writing exercises with Sarah Dickenson and I followed a live streamed, Bruntwood Prize workshop by Chris Thorpe. This helped me to stop worrying and really start writing. It helped me find the key moments with which to tell my story on stage.
My new plan is to catch myself, whenever I think I should not write a certain story, a thought, an idea, a phrase, a word, and then commission a new play out of myself. These risk taking stories are exactly the sort of stories I need to tell.
It took me ages to find the voice for Augmented, even though it was about me. Even though I was the one performing it as well.
At first I told myself there was no way I could use the private vocabulary that I used to describe my experience. After switch on my stream of consciousness seemed to be full of thoughtcrimes. This meant that in early drafts, I was editing out my own voice. Then I realised I had to write my thoughtcrimes, they were a gift. My ambivalence and shame about my new identity and language was part of the story.
At the scratch performances at Ovalhouse, deaf people and deaf cyborgs claimed my story as their own. For the first time, a deaf person, from a deafened family, was writing this experience, from a very intimate, emotional perspective, and not from a medical perspective. The response was a surprise, despite having spent so long agonising over it.
Another question that haunted me when I was writing the piece, was “Aren’t you worried your life won’t change?” The changes in my life were huge to me but I feared they would look like nothing hearing and deaf non-cyborgs. I was embarrassed that the major moments of liberation or oppression for me, appeared so trifling. Writing deep into these small moments really worked. They were not small. They were moving and powerful.
One moment in the play, I found by accident, when I decided to tell what I thought was a throwaway anecdote about my pre-implant, deaf access, at a cabaret. I told a true story to introduce a fiction reading. When I saw the looks on people’s faces, I could see that I was making light of something that had a lot more power than that. It took me a few months to decide to put it in my script.
I also avoided including one moment from real life, an image, a very brief conversation that replayed repeatedly in my mind for six years. Eventually I wrote it, and that gave me the voice for my show. That was my way in. That was my conflicted, deaf cyborg character. I had told myself not to write this moment for years, despite replaying it to myself on repeat. I loved it because it reminded me of a moment in World on a Wire by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I had rejected my office chair moment because I feared it would make my show look ‘too medical’. The office chair is a major part of the whole show now.
The most honest and successful part of Augmented contains no writing, just dancing. I decided to tell part of the story with no sound (apart from me grunting with exertion) and no words. There were some emotions that were so hard to write, I decided to dance them. It is also the most cyborg part of the show.
There are some stories that feel to us to be so outside the dominant culture’s experience, or so painful and complex, we can barely write them. But we can find our own way to tell them on the stage, and people will very feel glad they came out.
Sophie Woolley is a writer and performer. Augmented is supported in its development by Unlimited with funding from Arts Council England. Developed with support using public funding by Arts Council England.