Autobiographical Performance and the Traumatised Body

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Disability Arts Online invited Viv Gordon to write a series of 3 articles unpacking some of the complex questions that arise when you are the canvas for your own work. In the first piece she reflects on her own practice and in future posts she will talk with other artists who are also using performance to tell their own stories.

a woman cleans her teeth

Viv Gordon from the show ORAL

If you are an artist who makes autobiographical live performance – and if your autobiography includes trauma – then you will know something about the complex questions that arise when you make theatre. There is a particular set of challenges when your body is the site of both trauma and survival and then becomes the site of performance. I don’t particularly have any answers but am seeking to shed light on the hidden barriers and general head wangle that is autobiographical work.

I’m interested in what makes a really banging autobiographical show? Is being brave or provocative enough? How do we balance the need for ownership with realistic conversations about quality? And questions like – what is the difference between autobiography and auto-ethnography? Are we just telling our own story or are we representing experiences or communities? Is autobiographical performance by definition activist?

But today I am going to take a more personal, close up view by offering a blow by blow snapshot of an all too familiar moment in my creative process. A painful, recurring moment that I am slowly learning to navigate.

I am in a rehearsal room with a group of brilliant collaborators – my producer, director, some amazing dancers, a composer. We are making my new show ORAL but this could be anywhere, anytime, any show – this isn’t a one off – this is my journey to making work.

Right now we are trying to create new material, draw out an idea or respond to some writing I have brought. Before we do anything I make sure everyone knows it might be crap. I seem to need to preempt all explorations with the proviso that my idea is probably stupid. I do this with such regularity that it has become a bit of a joke. I know – we all know – that any work might be crap. That’s the devising process. You play, try, experiment and 95% of it IS crap but you’re looking for the 5% that has legs.

My actual legs have started to feel fizzy. The work we are making is about my lived experience of childhood sexual abuse and subsequent Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Nothing we will do is graphic. There is an absolute understanding in the room that I have no interest at all in enacting abuse on stage. That will never happen. We know a little about how to approach this subject matter, to let it be devastating and enraging but also to find politics, lightness, humour, triumph….

I know I don’t have to do devising, I don’t have to do anything. We’ve created a working environment where there is permission to stop, drink tea, go for a walk, cry, talk, rest….. but these stories are burning in me to be told, I am ready to tell them, incredibly the world is tentatively ready to hear them (not something I thought I would ever see). We have funding, partnership support, a rehearsal room, tour dates, an emerging audience – so now all we have to do is get on with it.

Fizzy legs are a warning. I am starting to dissociate, despite months of planning, supervision and readying myself, despite years and years of therapy I am terrified and engulfed in toxic shame. All the anger and hatred that it was not possible to express at the time of the abuse has turned inwards. In this moment, nothing matters except the certain belief that I am not good enough, I am defective, ridiculous, disgusting…. This is not cognitive, it is not something I think, it is not something I can rationalise or talk myself out of, it does not respond to reassurance. It is like a switch that once triggered instantly blows the circuit between my brain and my body. I have gone.

So – despite the fact that I have taught dance to thousands of people over more than 2 decades – now there is a lump in my throat, anxiety is coursing through me, my body feels stiff, I cannot coordinate my limbs, nothing is really doing what I expect it to do, I feel disembodied, ungrounded, disjointed, I am not really sure where the boundaries of my body even are and movement seems impossible. To top it all, I am horrible to myself, harsh and unforgiving.

If I was with my therapist by now I would be in a foetal position on the floor sobbing. But here, while this is happening, I can appear relatively normal to those around me, I might be chatting, laughing, joking, answering budget questions and all sorts. Other harder, or more honest times I have ran from the room, hidden behind curtains for quite long periods, snapped at dear supportive friends….

I’m sharing this because maybe it helps. Maybe it helps me to name it all, to spot it quicker, to try and be nicer to myself. Maybe it helps others to know that this is the nature of my disability, which is hidden, which I’m ridiculously good at hiding. I am not special or unique – there are literally millions of us walking around with these stories. Making performance work about trauma runs on vulnerability and is only possible/safe for me because of the attention to detail we have invested in access.

I guess I just want to remind us all that this kind of work is inherently risky. The potential for re-traumatisation is huge, primarily for the artist but also potentially for collaborators and audiences. While any such process will be challenging and emotional, ultimately, the journey should be empowering and affirming. If it doesn’t feel like that, if you are feeling very low, can’t stop crying or are reaching for unhealthy coping mechanisms – my unsolicited advice is to STOP and get support, find out about how other people manage these processes or get in touch if you like… Sometimes we all need reminding that our wellbeing is at least as important as art.


Visit Viv Gordon’s website for details of the dates for the touring production of ORAL to London, Gloucester, Taunton, Corsham and Salisbury through Spring 2019.