29 August 2007

Playing Yourself

The Royal Geographical Society, London, circa 1930

David Hare has been in my study again. Not so much as a writer, but as a performer—or more accurately a writer moonlighting as a performer. In 1998 he became an actor—something he hadn’t attempted since he was a teenager. But performing his monologue Via Dolorosa proved a lot more difficult than he’d anticipated, and as a way of coping with the unfamiliar role, Hare kept a diary of the process: Acting Up. It’s an interesting read, not for the famous names he drops, but for the in depth way it explores the tension between the words you write on the page, and the words you speak in performance. What is the difference between acting and performance? And how do you play yourself?

I was re-reading Acting Up as part of preparation for F.R.G.S. A 10-minute Performance Essay for the PowerPoint Age, and my contribution to 7-ON’s The Seven Needs. A piece I wrote for myself to perform; a piece in which I play myself. F.R.G.S. is my second Performance Essay, but the first to be learnt by heart rather than read. For me, this act of memory was the source of greatest anxiety: Yeah, I might be word perfect in my living room and in rehearsal, but what if out there in front of an audience …

Forever ago in London I played the clarinet and saxophone in bands, cabaret groups and fringe theatre companies, but it was obvious to me—and it certainly was to anyone who heard me—that I was never going to be the next Lester Young. So I started writing to escape my limitations as a performer. Now on stage again (fortunately this time minus musical instrument), the experience proved terrifying and empowering in just about equal measure. My sympathy for actors has increased tenfold!

I hit on the idea of these Performance Essays for a couple of reasons. One: I’d always been interested in the traditions of the illustrated lecture and ‘slide night’, and having written some pieces for ABC Radio Eye which mashed documentary, the personal essay and performance, I was interested in adapting that genre for live theatre, and two: I was looking for a solo performance form that would work for me as a writer, i.e. it had to be cheap, portable, and involve absolutely no funding applications whatsoever.

More on this later. In the meantime, back to David Hare and the art of public speaking.

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