Features Published 30 March 2016

FIRST festival: The truth and artistry of solo performances

Ben Monks and Will Young, Creative Producers at the Tristan Bates Theatre, explore the role and importance of truth in one-person shows ahead of their annual FIRST Festival of Solo Performances.
Ben Monks
Rebecca Crookshank performs Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

Rebecca Crookshank performs Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

A few years ago we were working on a solo show with a very personal, semi-autobiographical story created by a playwright with a fantastic actor. It was very well received, and after every show people wanted to talk to the actor about his life as told in the play – and were often left disappointed that it wasn’t ‘his’ story, as though they’d been sold a lie. On one occasion a very famous comedian ended up writing about the show after seeing it, complaining that they felt let down.

Over the past few months we’ve been putting the programme together for FIRST – the festival of solo performances at the Tristan Bates Theatre – with this experience in our minds. Programming the Festival exposes us to extraordinary feats of bravery, linguistic skill, physical invention and experimentation across every genre imaginable. It struck us how many of the shows we were considering were based on true – often personal – stories (or so we thought). So where does the responsibility lie? Are the audiences who felt let down by the show above justified in feeling that truth had been misrepresented; or can playing loose with the truth be justified if it results in a better piece of theatre? Is it more ‘honest’ to heighten or adapt a story in ways that make audiences engage in a deeper way, than to tell the complete truth and accept it might never quite feel the same as the lived reality?

Once again, this year’s FIRST programme sees a catalogue of ‘real’ stories on show. There’s Rebecca Crookshank’s award-winning WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT, detailing her experience of sexual harassment in the RAF; while Libby Liburd’s MUVVAHOOD presents verbatim experiences from herself and other single mothers. Several shows occupy ‘semi-autobiographical’ territory: Rosie Wilby’s account of relationship breakdown in THE CONSCIOUS UNCOUPLING; Manjeet Mann’s family story FLYING SOLO; and J Fergus Evans’ exploration of a family song passed down the generations in ROVE. Two shows tell other people’s stories: the Drama Desk nominee GEORGE M. COHAN TONIGHT, about the Broadway song-and-dance legend; and Sahar Beg’s ECHOES WITHIN WALLS, based on the story of a bride held captive by her husband. All compelling not just for their own artistic qualities, but for the ‘truths’ behind them.

So how much should we value truth from a biographical solo performance, and do we place too much importance in it? According to Crookshank and Liburd, truth is at the heart of their shows. Liburd explained: ’The very foundations of my piece, MUVVAHOOD, are real life experiences. I conducted hours of interviews with single mothers living in London to obtain real, authentic perspectives… I’m a single mother myself – my son is 15 now – and I’ve included my own experiences within the piece, along with verbatim accounts from other mothers. It’s been vital for me that I’m truthful to this narrative; I’ve felt a huge responsibility to tell these stories, and my own, truthfully and authentically.’

Crookshank takes that further, running a real-life off-stage campaign alongside her show (including a Channel 4 interview viewed 4.5million times at the last count) to encourage other real-life victims of bullying and sexual harassment to speak out. Her own story is particularly shocking: ‘In 1997 I joined the Royal Air Force. Four years into my service, I was posted to the Falkland Islands on a remote radar site called ‘Mount Alice’… As I landed in the helicopter soldiers were lined up on the helipad ‘mooning’ me in. I was asked to join them in the porta cabin bar, sit on a stool while the men danced around and manhandled me wearing nothing but rubber gloves on their genitals. This was all part of my ‘initiation ceremony’. I asked a superior if I could leave the mountain. I was told that life beyond the mountain would be made very difficult for me if I didn’t ‘stick it out’.’

For both artists, telling these stories is an act of bravery and vulnerability. Liburd continues: ‘A solo show of this kind is something like standing on a stage and taking your skin off. It’s allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be really seen… I’m standing up there, saying yes, I am a single mum, this is my story, and these are the stories of others. I think if the piece wasn’t truthful, or wasn’t authentic, audiences would see that a mile off, as there’s nowhere to hide. Audiences aren’t stupid.’

For other performers, the caveat ‘semi’ before ‘autobiographical’ is an important qualifier. Rosie Wilby’s THE CONSCIOUS UNCOUPLING documents a major relationship break-down and she calls it her ‘most vulnerable, authentic and honest show’ yet. But with a background in stand-up comedy she’s as conscious of wanting to entertain as inform, and goes from reading out real extracts of break-up emails to surrealism and comedy. Similarly, Mann says of FLYING SOLO that ‘my life isn’t a script, and having that distance it enables me to play around with the structure and gives me artistic license to work on the narrative – up the ante in some parts, take it down in others; and some bits are just plain made up.’

All very well if you’re playing about with the facts of your own life, but what about presenting biography of someone else? For some performers, artistic license – deviation from the ‘fact’ in ‘true’ stories – can be about making the work more entertaining, more accessible, more seductive, or more authentic; or even an unavoidable product of the uncertainty of ‘truth’ itself. For us as programmers – and the public as audiences – there may be different responses to all of those possibilities, depending on how much we value the perception that we’re being given a ‘true’ story. Is it better or worse to take artistic license when telling your own story or somebody else’s, which might confer a greater sense of responsibility?

Jon Peterson explains that in GEORGE M COHAN TONIGHT, the solo show form ‘enables us to get that close to a character, to feel like we are living his life alongside him, rather in a more cinematic way than a full-blown play with a big cast… The character of Cohan really does seduce you.’ The guile of a great solo performer can sometimes take you much closer to a true story than a more spectacular event. Likewise Sahar Beg’s ECHOES WITHIN WALLS is based on the true story of a bride held captive by her husband. But performer Ulrika Krishnamurti explains: ‘Our goal is to tell her story with honesty and integrity. To do this, that is to convey someone’s true and difficult story honestly to an audience, requires something way beyond the literal. And this ‘language’ is what we have been looking for as we develop the piece. This is theatre, not a documentary; you could say that in serving this story, we are looking above all for honesty rather than accuracy.’

Poet and performer J Fergus Evans goes further by taking the notion of an autobiographical ‘truth’ and immediately problematizing it. He explains: ‘ROVE starts with a song my mother said she sang to me when I was little, and that she’d learned from her father, a song which potentially links me to two people and two generations of my family who’ve since passed away. But I don’t remember her ever singing me the song, and a bit of research into the song’s history casts a lot of doubts as to whether my mother even learned the song from her father. So, like many family anecdotes, the story that started ROVE begins to unravel as soon as you look at it too closely… While ROVE is unquestionably based on my own life and biographical details about people in my family, it’s also a meditation on how impossible it is to present the ‘true’ version of any story’

Ultimately audiences will decide for themselves the extent to which they’re willing to buy into the ‘truth’ of these stories – and perhaps if there’s enough call for it we’ll ask performers to start supplying ‘honesty disclaimers’ in the foyer. But if there’s one thing that all this demonstrates, it’s that the relationships we can make as audiences watching a solo performances are certainly real. When a simple show by single performer on a tiny stage with minimal set can take us so deeply into their story that the truth of it matters to us, there’s an achievement in itself. When we leave a show desperate to know the reality of the lives behind it, we must care enough about them to confess that, one way or another, we have been seduced.

FIRST 2016: A Festival of Solo Performances is at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 31 March – 16 April. For more information, visit the theatre’s website here

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Ben Monks is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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