On vulnerability, sharing and the healing power of storytelling – Performing ‘Only Us’ at Bristol Old Vic

About ‘Only Us’

Not everyone is an only child, but everyone has felt lonely…’

‘Only Us’ was performed in June at Bristol Old Vic, and was a series of autobiographical stories about growing up, living in Bristol, and feeling like you’re part of something bigger.

Writer and performer Adam Peck first took his one-man show, Only, to a variety of far flung corners of Bristol, from schools to pubs to community spaces and ‘Only Us’ combined Adam’s own life story with the stories of the people he met on his travels; a melting pot of Bristolians, but people all united by the same issues – friendship, family and the search for fulfilment.’

I was one of those Bristolians, and here is a story about my experience of storytelling.

Standing up and sharing your story – from audience to stage

When I first told people about the prospect of participating in ‘Only Us’ I had to get used to receiving a mixed reaction. Some people thought it was a great idea, some were horrified at the prospect of standing up as ‘myself’ whereas others simply couldn’t see where the ‘story’ or the ‘drama’ of the performance could possibly be. I think people were perhaps a little frightened of coming to watch something that felt like it could be unpredictable, or different, or too close to real life but I guess as we said in the show, the people that came were the right people, and whatever happened was the only thing that could have. . and this was ok. As the process got underway I soon began to realise ‘the show’ aspect of the experience was potentially the least important (for me anyhow).

My motivations for participating were threefold – I’d dreamt of being a performer since I was small, but gave up on it as life unfolded, and the opportunity to work with a professional writing and directing team and be on stage at the world renowned Bristol Old Vic was just too good to miss. More than that, it was like some kind of little miracle, it was in short more than I could ever have dreamed was possible.  Secondly, I wanted to share my story. I guess at the time I didn’t know why, but when I first saw Adam’s show ‘Only’ during 2011 I came away thinking that it was beautiful, celebratory and ‘yeah, I want to do that’ but also ‘yeah, maybe I could do that’.  As I stated in my previous  Blogpost  I saw the work as a piece that celebrated the intimacy of everyday life, it was poignant, meaningful and often funny ‘warts and all’ storytelling. I didn’t really have any expectations as to how things would unfold over the short time we had to put things together, but after some deliberation, once I had committed to the process I felt like I was up for any challenge.

Writing, reviewing and re-writing the past – the healing powers of storytelling

The most frequent question I’ve been asked since taking part in the show have usually centred on the writing process. As an audience member it’s natural to question in this kind of performance what was real and what was fictional. The story I told was my story and the writing experience felt for me 100% collaborative, and the weird things is I found the process itself quite restorative. It’s an interesting feeling to hand your life story over to someone you don’t really know to read and discuss. I think for me a great deal of learning (about myself) came through these early rehearsals. Initially I really struggled with getting started on writing the story which is unusual for me, it took me three attempts before I finally had something which was my story, not the story of someone else or a list of contextual factors but things which were about me. My contribution was then crafted by Adam to meet the other requirements of the show, however at no point did I feel anything was compromised or missed, that my wishes were always respected and anything that was cut was done so because in hindsight I could see I was hanging onto certain events which were not important or relevant to my story or anyone else’s. In fact, this act of cutting or taking away the text that wasn’t necessary, was for me, quite powerful, as was seeing my story from someone’s else’s perspective.

My story, our stories, your story – performing ‘Only Us’

Another key aspect of this performance was meeting the other storytellers. Having worked on our own stories we were then brought together to rehearse as a family and it was a fantastic experience to meet and learn about the other performers. All of our stories were different and in some ways they seemed quite unusual but we soon came to realise via our rehearsal process and from feedback via audience members that actually there were a great deal of similarities across our range of life experiences. I think this was a key thing about the show that appealed to people. It’s easy in our individualised society to believe that the things that affect us, or worry us or when we experience certain events, we do so in isolation. In fact it seemed that once people began to engage in discussion around the topics that the show brought up most people could relate to something about the stories.

Getting audience feedback was for me just one of the best things about doing the show – people tended to respond to things differently – it was really interesting for me to get an idea of what audience members enjoyed or felt like they related to – it was often different to what I would have expected. The experience of being involved in the production was great learning for me as an artist – I learnt lots about the writing process, and appreciated the need to look after myself as a performer both physically and emotionally, particularly when dealing with content that was quite emotionally charged night after night (I want to say the importance of ‘keeping good psychic hygiene’ but realise that’s a term I’ve probably just invented).  The show was, in parts emotional, and whilst the aftermath and closure that the experience brought me was significant, overall I have to say that it was empowering to be able to stand on stage and deliver my story and reveal that emotion to an audience. As a person that has had to consistently battle to suppress her heightened sensitivities and emotions all her life, (to an extent where they have proved disruptive to my everyday existence) the relief of putting them on to the stage was nothing short of immense. Then to have people come and thank me at the end for sharing things they felt they could never possibly share was just brilliant. At last! Somewhere where emotion and expression was a positive thing! Huzahh!!

The aftermath of show week was quite significant and for me was probably the hardest part of the experience. Working autobiographically and with experiences and memories from the past is an extremely delicate process and I myself underestimated the impact this would have on me. I re-engaged with old feelings about past events across my life course (both positive and negative) and perhaps more significantly had the opportunity through performance to engage with both my parents at the same time. This was something that had not occurred for many years and is something that I would not get the opportunity to ever do in real life. It’s fair to say I was in a very strange place for at least a week afterwards. The most difficult thing was the lack of people who knew about the experience or had shared in it. I found it hard to go into work like nothing had changed, because I felt like I’d been on this huge journey and something very significant had. This being said I have benefitted from psychotherapy for a number of years now, I was in touch with my own therapist about the process and she came to watch it herself and thought it was fantastic. Although she did question what sort of support was provided alongside the development of the show, we both were of the opinion that it was something that I could manage effectively – and we were both right.   It’s fair to say if I was given the opportunity again I would jump at it straight away.

‘Only Us’ – So what? On sharing, vulnerability and the importance of participatory theatre

So looking back at the experience now the question I find myself asking is – So what? What difference has the experience made? Was it important and what (if anything) did it change?

On a personal level the process and performance gave me a lot of emotional closure around significant past events, enabled me to ‘let go’ of things I had been holding on to, as well as proving to some extent my ability as a performer (which I had doubted). Given my age, background and lack of experience it’s unlikely that I would have ever had the opportunity to learn these skills or take part in this kind of performance otherwise let alone perform at Bristol Old Vic, which for me was a huge huge privilege. More importantly whilst many people recoil in horror at the thought of sharing our ‘real’ selves (including the darker moments of both our personalities and our experiences) I’ve actually found it hugely empowering on a wider level. By standing up and sharing our stories, our authentic selves, our struggles, our triumphs and our insecurities we empower others to do the same. By coming to terms with our own speckled truth, we then in turn find it easier to show compassion to others. Despite our differences, and regardless in the vast ways we attempt to satisfy them, our needs are often really all quite fundamental – love, family, connection.

So for me this process was important, for me this process  changed things for the better, I can’t measure mental health improvements or growth in my own emotional intelligence, awareness, level of consciousness or overall sense of wellbeing, and I can’t say exactly how these improvements were made. I can’t say exactly why it happened, and I can’t really prove this difference to you.

So I guess for now you will just have to take my word for it.

I made some great friends in the other performers involved in this production and I’ve tried to understand if things were different for them afterwards too. Some of them have reported positive differences, a sense of lightness, a growth in confidence, a sense of letting go. Others had made some life changing decisions. Changed jobs or are preparing to move away. Some have simply just been on better terms with themselves or their families, or vowed to act or think differently about things in the future.

I don’t have formulae for how to repeat such an experiment, and I would hesitate to even think you could repeat this again with exactly the same results. My burgeoning interest around this topic has led me to believe that often for theatre makers this kind of performance is viewed as box ticking exercise or more hassle than its worth. From my observations I’d argue that yes – its risky, its delicate, its potentially more time consuming and its potentially plagued with difficulties.

But it works.

For the people around me who couldn’t  really understand the journey that was ‘Only Us’ as far as they know – well it was just some play I was in…     and perhaps for some theatre makers well, participatory theatre – maybe it is just seen as a box ticking exercise…

But for those that were involved in ‘Only Us’?

It was so much more than that.

(I would like to sincerly thank  everyone involved in making this production and giving me this oportunity and also thank everyone who came to watch it)

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As an aside…. I’ve posted this before but I feel it adds a bit of weight to my storytelling argument, and given by someone whose story is perhaps in some ways similar  to my own… Enjoy..

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