The Indulgent Self- challenges within autobiographical work

Session at Devoted and Disgruntled

A Live Art Development agency DIY workshop given by Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari in 2012 ‘ aimed to investigate when the use of self as one’s material becomes indulgent, therapy inflicted on the public, or simply uninteresting to anyone else except the artist themselves.’

Live art and theatre appear to dance rather closely together when performers use their own life as the material for their work. It therefore follows that the above debate within Live Art is also relevant to theatre makers working with autobiography. We noted that increasingly artists, Bryony Kimmings being only one example, are programmed within both Live Art and theatre festivals and that this blurring, although exciting, brings its own set of problems.

Isn’t it theatre’s place to demand something different to Live Art? Doesn’t a theatre audience have expectations of narrative, be they unconventional or not? The emphasis that arose was not only a concern for one’s audience but also a concern for a wider social and cultural perspective. We heard personal gripes about ‘confessional’ work that didn’t take into consideration the subject matter’s place within wider frameworks. Art’s role was not simply to ‘splurge’ our experiences at an audience but rather to take ‘the personal’ and sculpt it into something more… well, artful.

Without getting into a discussion of what art and therefore theatre is we are able to take these concerns and see how artists have successfully used them and even incorporated them into their work. We discussed shows where the concept of subjectivity and truth were dissected and used to inform the drama. We heard of one show that was billed as a ‘fictional autobiographical tale’ and we discussed Caroline Horton’s ‘Mess’ where the trap of a ‘neat ending’ was highlighted and obliterated, forcing the audience to witness the disconnect between theatrical presentation and autobiographical realism.

What was exciting about this session was that we sat as a group of theatre makers and appeared to have all engaged and challenged these concerns within our practise. The nature of autobiographical work forces us to analyse our objectives. It is stories from our own life that we’ve chosen to tell and therefore there is no one else to blame if the work doesn’t resonate. As such it is an opportunity for us, as artists, to come up against ourselves and make demands. Those demands should be the same as the demands we expect from any work we respect. It is these demands that will shape what we make – they are the very centre of our artistic practise.

Actors and performers are increasingly taking ownership of their autonomy outside of traditional theatres and making solo and/or autobiographical work. The marriage of Live Art and theatre is a symptom of this. As such, theatre in the UK is currently rich in its diversity, an ecosystem with longevity and an increasingly audible scuttle of tenacity.