Last Saturday, I ran a workshop at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for a group called Script Yorkshire, on ‘using autobiographical material in creating drama’ which was nice because I’ve been doing quite a lot of that over the last couple of years.
It’s the basis of my solo show, Sticking, which has been a while in the making, and for much of the process of making that show, I’ve struggled with practical and moral issues around using autobiographical material. Do I have the right to tell stories which other people are in? How do I tell those stories in a way which is fair? How do I decide what’s interesting? How do I dare assume that things that happened to me are interesting?
So it was a nice moment in Saturday’s workshop when people were asking some of these questions and I found myself able to answer, and in a way which seemed to be genuinely helpful.
The morning of the workshop consisted of fairly short writing and sharing exercises geared towards building a base of material from mostly autobiographical start points. The afternoon was then centred around ideas of structure and storytelling – how to fit this material together in ways that worked mechanically in terms of a story telling machine.
The afternoon soon developed into a group wide discussion on structure (in which some interesting points were raised, not least the suggestion that structures as they’re often described or taught tend to be masculine in focus – the quest, the enemy to battle and win against – and that less aggressive models of conflict might be available, which is something I’d not thought about), but also about where autobiographical material fits into that:
The question that was asked of me a couple of times was whether I start with an idea of structure, to which my answer is almost definitely no. Especially with autobiographical work, one crucial thing I’ve learned from working with my director, Peader Kirk, is not to discount anything initially – not to start thinking too early about what fits where, but rather to gather as much information, as many stories, as possible, regardless of their apparent initial relevance. Apply a structure before there’s a surplus of material to fill it and it becomes strangling. Instead, gather material openly, and then apply a story structure to find what needs to fit.
Fact and truth, at this point, do not have to be the same thing, and rarely are. Chronological accuracy becomes secondary, if not irrelevant; what is relevant is the sequence of events which serve a narrative which comes together to reveal the truth that cements the individual stories; in a sense, lying slightly in order to tell the truth, which is the point at which personal narrative begins to resemble art.
This is all pretty new to me generally. Until quite recently, I had very little knowledge of theoretical story structures. I think I spent quite a lot of time avoiding them for fear that it would make things less organic.
So it was initially stressful to be doing a full day workshop with a view towards structure (I spent the Friday morning before the workshop paralysed with fear, while my boyfriend gently pointed out that I perhaps need to find a more healthy working method). But inevitably, it was interesting and useful to be able to share ideas which are relatively new to me with some people who knew more and some who knew less about what I was talking about.
I got a lot from it and other people seemed to as well. As stressful as running workshops can be, sharing ideas and developing activities for other people definitely cements practice in making work for myself too.
A few of us went to the pub afterwards too, and I got nicely twoddled on only a few pints before getting the train back to Newcastle . . .