Paper Birds: Ask Me Anything, Vault Festival

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Confessional/autobiographical theatre has quickly become a mainstay of Vault Festival, and oceans of ink has been spilled debating the inherent problems of what is often mental self-evisceration/public group therapy masquerading as entertainment. That’s not to say that confessional theatre isn’t good, or entertaining. This year alone Vault has hosted astounding autobiographical or semi-autobiographical works about HIV (Nathaniel Hall’s ‘First Time’); body policing (The Roaring Girls’ ‘Beach Body Ready’); disability and sex (Amy Bethan Evans’ ‘Tinted’); youth suicide (Teddy Lamb’s ‘Since U Been Gone); gender identity (Since U Been Gone, again, and Dian Cathal’s Trans*Atlantic) and mental illness (too many to name).

What makes Vault so special – so important, so necessary – is the feeling of being in a safe environment and of finding a community of like-minded people, maybe even some form of weird dysfunctional family. But for every artist who finds their mishpoche underneath Waterloo Station, there’s another barely coping with the stress and of putting their life on sale. The communitas of sharing our traumatic experiences can be intoxicating, but how much can we really connect with each other as artists when we’re all painfully aware of who’s selling better or worse that us, who’s getting the best reviews, who’s snagging the prestigious reviewers? The truth is that like most things in life, it’s not that binary. The person rejoicing in their found family is almost certainly also the person struggling with show-induced anxiety. It’s a constant flitter between connection and competition, support and envy, joy and pain. We all struggle, and we’re all looking for help.

Help is what the Paper Birds’ new semi-verbatim show ‘Ask Me Anything’ sets out to do, via the medium of letters from young people. Adopting the mantle of 90s-style teen agony aunts, the people behind Paper Birds asked young people to write to them and ask anything they wanted. It’s a fascinating premise for a play. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of an awful lot left out. The letters are badly underused, creating a platform for the three performers to explore their own childhoods instead. There is no mention of periods or acne or birth control. Nothing about bullying or parents who fight all the time. The odd question about school or the pressure to achieve, and lots of letters about sex, but it’s less of an insight into the concerns of contemporary teenagers than a dose of 90s nostalgia. That’s not to say it’s not a bad show, because there’s evident talent on stage, and it’s often very funny. Rosie Doonan is a gifted musician and singer-songwriter; her beautiful songs about motherhood, and her unwillingness to make public her complaints about the endless unsolicited mum-advice she receives, could easily be a show in itself. Ditto Kylie Perry’s amusing pastiche of a cheesy 90s teen sitcom, whose faux-cheeriness is slowly chipped away to reveal how much we narrativise the casual traumas of adolescence. The slightly weaker plot strand is Georgie Coles reading from her teenage diaries (a cliche so overused in the medium of female confessional theatre I have to admit to a silent internal groan), but this is cleverly subverted by the reveal that some of us had perfectly fine, ‘boring’ upbringings without any major trauma (but it doesn’t mean that everything is perfect). It’s all entertaining enough, but the various strands don’t sit well together, and feel barely connected to the premise. Worse, it feels like a bait and switch on the audience.

One of the main problems I have with confessional theatre as a genre is the sense of homogeneity. The confessional theatre that I’ve seen has been overwhelmingly white, and near-exclusively made by those born in the 80s or 90s. LGBT people are well-represented (yay!); disabled people and people of colour far less so; middle-aged or older people non-existent. The word “relatable” gets thrown around a lot in theatre, but that word can feel pretty exclusionary if you come from a marginalised or atypical background. It’s not that I can’t enjoy watching performers talking about growing up with Friends, Tamagotchis, and Millennium Eve parties, but all that is so remote from my own upbringing I may as well be watching a documentary on Mongolian reindeer herders. Everyone deserves to share their story, but at a time when there are so many debates about access to theatre and questions about who gets to tell their story, who gets to take up space (and practical questions about the very real systemic biases present in programming and funding decisions), it feels a little tone deaf to use letters from a diverse group of young people as a forum to facilitate three privileged white women putting their own upbringings on stage.

The sense is this is due to the artists’ fears of not being able to answer the letters adequately rather than arrogance or a desire for the spotlight, and the production is so obviously well-meaning, so evidently created with buckets of empathy and good intentions, I feel bad about criticising it. But I just can’t walk out of an 80 minute show where black teens, gay teens, trans teens, homeless teens, teens who feel their only option is to try to get pregnant (who really don’t need to be told that having a kid at 17 is basically the same as having a kid at 37 so don’t worry) are asked for their deepest fears and problems as content, then used to make a show that doesn’t represent them.

The discomfort I felt during most of the show was eased a little by the third act, the stunning self-awareness of the ending casting the whole thing retroactively in a new light. But it still feels inadequate. Getting a bunch of your mixed-race or gay friends to record 30-second clips on their phones about how “racism is bad” or “having two mums is normal” feels like the definition of well-meaning tokenism, drawing attention to the wealth of invisible stories and experiences we could be watching instead. A short video clip of a woman talking about losing her son to suicide, for example, is profoundly affecting, but raises more questions than answers. Who is this woman? Who was her son? Is she a friend of the artists? How do they know her? How did they approach her about participating in the show? How on earth does that conversation go? Without this context, there’s a risk that what is unquestionably a beautiful moment (and hopefully an empowering or healing one for the woman) comes across as exploitative. If you want to tell other people’s stories, then tell them, or better yet let them tell their own stories.

Ask Me Anything ran at Vault Festival between 11th-16th February, and is currently on tour.

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