Ment-Well #7: Autobiography & the Wounded Healer
Author: Caroline Wilkes
Henri Nouwen: ‘Wounded Healers’
Wabi-sabi: ‘seeing beauty in the flawed or imperfect’
Why do we, as theatre makers, choose to create work that is autobiographical? Why do we make that decision to take complex and often untold stories and shape them into new work? Why do we ‘put the inside out there’? We take fragments and huge chunks of our human experiences, rigorously and transparently exploring them in and out of the rehearsal room. We translate real experiences into art, making art from our wounds. Why on earth do we put ourselves through this?!
Making art from broken pieces (wounds) resonates deeply with the centuries-old Japanese art of Kintsugi or Kintsukuroi : poetically translated as ‘golden joinery’. Rather than rejoin ceramic pieces with a camouflaged adhesive, the Kintsugi technique employs a special tree sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Once completed, beautiful seams of gold glint in the conspicuous cracks of ceramic wares, giving a one-of-a-kind appearance to each “repaired” piece. The broken pieces, with this most careful and intricate of processes, become something utterly unique.
When we create theatre based on our own stories, do we hold all the broken pieces up and weave something together with gold that holds the complex stories up to the audience and lets them see it in a new light? Is art the gold that brings all the broken pieces together and creates something of profound beauty and worth? Kintsugi draws attention to the fractures and breaks instead of hiding them. It is connected to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which asks us to see beauty in the flawed or imperfect.
We fundamentally believe that the stories we hold, in all their fractured pieces, deserve to be unearthed, told, dignified, shared, looked at in a new light, demystified and, ultimately celebrated. We all share a core belief in the exceptional power of human resilience and that in telling our stories, we enable others to tell their stories too.
What do we need a rehearsal process to ‘feel like’ in order to tell these stories? So many things (!!!!) and that may change throughout the process. The room needs to be authentic where everyone feels safe to share openly. It is a terrifying experience to make oneself vulnerable and we continually learn how to decipher critique: it is not critique of one’s experience but of one’s artistic choices. We have to balance our instincts alongside what aesthetic choices others in the room might make. We can be too close to the material (‘in order to be able to keep it, I have to be prepared to give it up’) and will need others’ objective voices. We may need to sleep on decisions where our instinct is to keep something precious that others may want to edit out. We don’t want to be indulgent and a question we need to consistently ask ourselves is: why am I telling this story to others and what do I think it can offer an audience? I love what Briony Kimmings said about this: ‘People don’t come to see you on stage, they come to see themselves.’
The metaphor of the broken pottery being carefully and meticulously repaired with gold is a thought provoking image of what happens in our own lives. We can use metaphor in our theatre making to create a bridge for the audience into difficult concepts in our work. Like our life being held together with duct tape. Or a production not being able to end to explore the painful ongoing nature of recovery. Or happy family cards to explore abuse. And a million more metaphors. The metaphor is a vehicle to carry complex material and make it more accessible.
Well, one of the (many) brilliant things we did, was to go ‘metaphor hunting’.... We briefly shared ideas on our own evolving theatre productions and welcomed others to fire in ideas that sprung to mind. Speed dating for theatre makers. Without the pressure of ‘having to come up with ideas’ we all suggested images, songs, words and music - metaphors that the themes provoked in us. Playful, freeing and brilliantly productive.
We acknowledge that the process of making autobiographical work can be extremely vulnerable and we need appropriate support around us to make work that makes a difference. But we do want and need to make this work. These stories deserve to be told and we want to make art that takes all those broken fragments and creates something of immense worth. We are, perhaps, wounded healers.
What are 'Ment-Well' articles?
Between July and October 2020, eight early-career theatre makers will come together to explore different aspects of their making process. They will be guided by writer, theatre maker and performer Caroline Horton who will facilitate five Mentoring sessions. In between the mentoring sessions, Artist Wellbeing Practitioner Lou Platt will facilitate Wellbeing sessions. In a hope to share discoveries and learnings with the wider community, each participant will create a 'Ment-Well' article that will capture something of one of the nine sessions. These articles are for collective self-reflection and a transfer of knowledge. They are to be approached by the author and audience with a sense of lightness, spontaneity and curiosity, and may be a seed or starting point for further thought and exploration - nothing more, nothing less.