“Why don’t you like me?! Chapter I: My First Period…” Those are the first lines of that awful one-woman show Chandler is unlucky enough to experience in an episode of Friends. The writer-performer walks out on to a bare stage – dressed in black, obviously – and bashes through the fourth wall like an ox, eyeballing her terrified audience with humourless belligerence. It’s such a torturous experience for Chandler, sitting through her autobiographical theatrewank, that he ends up meting it out as punishment to the other Friends by taking them with him and then running away as the lights go down, hissing “Enjoy your slow death!” over his shoulder.
Someone recently asked me, with complete sincerity, if my upcoming one-man show is going to be anything like “Chapter I: My First Period” from Friends. Initially I laughed, remembering the episode. Then I realised it’s only funny if you’re picturing yourself as the poor lovable everyman in the audience, as opposed to the self-righteous woman in black. Who even is she? Most websites list her in the credits as “Bitter Woman on Stage,” as if you needed any further confirmation that she is hardly someone you want to pay money to see. And where does Bitter Woman go once her brave confessional monologue has received its smattering of polite applause from a few obligated friends and family? Back to her flat, probably, to post a series of promotional updates via social media about how well the show went, and how she’s looking forward to doing it next month at this new venue which is in the back of the pub her uncle runs, and how you can buy tickets from her website bitterwomanonstage.blogspot.com and how she’d really love to see you there and how you must tell your friends and PLEASE COME.
I’ve been trying to avoid any potential comparisons between Bitter Woman on Stage and me, despite the fact that I too have written an autobiographical solo show. Such was my concern about it, I had a mental list of “Things to avoid when making my one-man show,” which I took into the first rehearsal. Warnings including (but not limited to) “Don’t sit on a black chair downstage centre,” “Don’t read from your teenage diary,” “Don’t get aggressively naked,” and “Don’t talk directly to the audience.” Alongside that, I had a much shorter, vaguer list of “Things to aim for,” which consisted of only two reminders – “Make it funny” and “Make it true.”
These don’ts were confidently presented to my dramaturg, the person who guided this entire piece into existence – Dickie Beau. He raised his right eyebrow almost imperceptibly. Three painstakingly invasive weeks later, I finally understood exactly why I had such a long and specific “Things to avoid” list, and what that tells you about me as a person. Dickie had known from the outset that the most funny and truthful autobiographical show I could ever hope to create would have to be centred around the exact things I firmly insisted on side-stepping. So there is in fact a very prominent chair (of sorts,) some of my diary did make it in (in an unexpected way,) and you’ll get a certain amount of nudity (not necessarily full-frontal or even literal.) In fact, it’s both thrilling and terrifying to me how naked I’m going to feel doing it.
At this point, let’s give those readers unfamiliar with me a bit of context. If I am “known” at all, it is for a well-liked comedy double act called Frisky & Mannish that I created with my best friend. Now that I’m about to turn thirty, I am able to look in a mirror and be pretty complacent about what I see, which is a fairly recent development. I can also go outside in the sun, to the shops, to restaurants, to meetings, to events, and not wear a scrap of makeup, unless I feel like it. Another recent development. Very recently, I have begun to accept – on an intellectual level at least – that what I think is obvious about my face, and what a passer-by may notice, don’t necessarily correlate, and even if they do, who cares except me? I have had two chemical peels as well, so that probably made a difference, although not half as much as the natural aging process, which has definitely helped me give less of a shit. In conclusion: if I were parodied on Friends, my first lines would be “Do you see my scars?! Chapter I: My First Bout of Acne…”
So that’s that. I’m making a solo show about my face, and the first obstacle to overcome is to make peace with the self-indulgence of that sentence. I can’t keep blocking numerous avenues of perfectly acceptable exploration just because of the spectre of that damn woman in Friends. Also, as you can probably tell from my general authorial tone, I’m so much more comfortable being flippant and sardonic.
That’s the second, more problematic obstacle, this image I’ve carefully designed for myself, which is as ingrained as the less-sibilant voice I adopted after Terry Sayers cornered me outside the P.E. block to point out that my problems would all be solved if I just stopped talking like a girl. It’s a form of self-protection that’s as much a part of my daily performance as any amount of hair-tousling wax and nude concealer. To illustrate this, in preparation for the workshops, I printed out hundreds of emails and texts and read them to Dickie, for insight and inspiration and raw material. Three quarters of the way through, I got to one that I’d really not wanted to include because I found it so ridiculously embarrassing. Trying to be brave, but purple with shame, I ploughed on. Afterwards he said, “You know, I think that’s the first one that sounds real and honest… And just out of interest, are you aware how often you use the words ridiculous and embarrassing?”
The idea to make this show occurred a little over a year ago when I received a text that ended with two massively impactful words. At first, those two words were the piece’s working title, and its primary focus was going to be on what they said. Then, the focus expanded to take in the person who said it to me, and why he did so. During the creative process, it gradually shifted away from him on to me, which seemed less ethically dubious, although it must be said that he still features significantly in the show, as he has in my life.
And now here I am, on the eve of its premiere, with a one-act performance that’s only superficially about the thing I thought it was going to be about. No one could be more astonished by all the deeper issues uncovered than me. That’s what’s been extraordinary about this project – I don’t actually know myself. It turns out I’m an addict, a co-dependent, a narcissist, a manipulator. Luckily, I found a counsellor-figure in Dickie to expertly draw out subconscious strands that could have been conveniently ignored until my dying day, thanks to my incredible powers of self-deception. The show’s new title refers to this painful process, Psychodermabrasion. (Yes, the allegory’s a bit pretentious. That’s another thing I now know I am. But a more urgent reason for choosing it was because I was warned against using the working title from that initial text. Quite a few people said they were unsure about the advisability of calling a show “Scarfaced Cunt.”)
Strangely, I’ve felt the need to continually question the purpose and benefit of doing a one-man autobiographical show, and with much more scrutiny than I ever have when working on a comedy show of pop song parodies, or another revival of Twelfth Night. I find myself having to clarify exactly why it exists, defending it from accusations of masturbation. This is all in my own head, by the way. Why? Why can’t it simply be an intensely personal expression of me? I believe it’s to do with where you sit on the spectrum of projecting yourself into the world. At one end, you get the declaratives. These people are denizens of the emotionally-demonstrative status updates concerning a particularly proud achievement, a human rights issue, or even just a long-overdue coffee with an old friend. Everything’s amazing or humbling or inspiring, or disgusting, unjust, harrowing.
At the other end, the diminutives. Those who can hardly bring themselves to write one simple sentence without a customary layer of sarcasm or ironic detachment. Anything they have done or made has to be deprecatingly described as “idiotic,” “stupid” or my old friend, “ridiculous.” Otherwise it’s hyperbolically inflated for comic effect – a graduation picture with the caption “I am the future of academia in this country. That is all.” They find exclamation marks intensely troubling and use them sparingly. Statements rarely if ever come unfiltered from the heart. For better or worse, this is where I reside. So the prospect of removing my cloak of archness and exposing myself to embarrassment still gives me night terrors. And I’m yet to find a way of describing my show that doesn’t involve me mocking it.
That stops here. Psychodermabrasion is a monumental labour of love for me. It’s a one-man show about skin, sex and the Problem of Direct Address. It’s a true story inspired by, and drawing extensively on, the breakdown of a significant long-term romantic relationship that was emotionally and sexually problematic, as well as my teenage experience of severe acne and resulting psychodermatological issues. There’s a third important element, but I don’t want to ruin the reveal, so if you want to know, PLEASE COME.
It deals with bleak, heavy material, but it’s actually a piece of musical theatre, with an overture, a few big splashy numbers, a couple of dance breaks, and everything else glorious from that unparalleled genre. It sounds like I’m being self-consciously flippant again, but no, my appreciation of musicals is arguably the most real thing about me. Seriously, now I’m entering my fourth decade, I would happily walk up to Terry Sayers and blurt out, “You know what, I genuinely love Oklahoma! so much, it was my favourite thing in the world and it got me through the day… and I used to have a subscription to a weekly astrology magazine, and I was a competitive juvenile Latin American dancer for about fourteen years, and my bedroom was full of wind chimes, and I would play make-believe games with my younger brothers in which they were G.I.s or ninjas and I was the female singer at the Roxy Nightclub whom they fought over…” and all those other things that I buried deep within me, the way most non-normative children learn to do when they encounter contempt. That’s what all this psychodermabrasion has done for me. I highly recommend it.
At this point, I can’t be too worried about the purpose of my show anymore. It’s been a life-changing experience for me making it, and that’s as much as I can ask of anything. Moreover, its value to others is not something I can be so bold as to estimate; it’s up to a critic or a producer or, most importantly, an audience member to establish whether it has any at all, and if so, of what type and magnitude. What I’m hoping, though, is that in forcing myself to be creatively honest for the first time in my life, it might have more in it than I could ever imagine.
Lights up. A chair downstage centre. A man walks on, naked, and looks directly at the audience. “Why don’t I like me?! Chapter I: Scarfaced Cunt…” Chandler scurries out, snickering. Other people stay.
Psychodermabrasion is at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, London, 10th-14th February 2015.