Autobiographicality and Inalienability

Because I primarily work on classical plays instead of new ones, but most of what I see are new plays, I sometimes think when watching them about the possibility for subsequent productions.  I get the impression (but I’m happy to be diabused of this notion) that because of a focus on always producing New Canadian Plays, that few Canadian plays – even very good, very deserving ones – get to have much of a life after their first production.  I don’t worry too much about this when I’m watching a new work in general, but sometimes I wonder how much autobiographical plays lose when performed by another actor.

The play I saw that started this thought process percolating for me was The Aleph at Soulpepper (luckily for all of you, this production is being remounted this year, so you can see it.  It’s really fantastic).  The play is an adaptation of a Borges short story of the same name by founding company member Diego Matamoros and Daniel Brooks. The Aleph is a story about a woman who Borges loved who died, and blends autobiographical elements of his life with the story of the aleph, a point from which all other points are visible. In adapting it for the stage Matamoros (and Brooks) took not just the content, but the autobiographical context. Matamoros spent time as a young man visiting his father, a diplomat, in South America. He in fact started the show out by passing around his first headshot – from the time in question, when he was just barely out of University – and talking a bit about his family and his life then. The fictional elements of the story merge seamlessly with his own biography in a way not unlike the way they do in the original story. Apparently Borges was once asked in an interview if he had actually seen the aleph – an impossibility, but it was made believable by the amount of verifiably true information surrounding it. The experience of watching Matamoros tell his story was similarly baffling – had I not known it was adapted from the Borges story, I would have believed it was all true.

Matamoros addressed much of this at the talkback after the show. One thing he talked about was the difference between developing a character that is completely foreign to yourself (though obviously drawing on your own thoughts, memories, experiences and relationships), and playing yourself by developing your own story. It strikes me that the latter is closer to just being a good liar, but upon reflection, what it really means is that nobody else can really play the part, at least not in the same way. The whole thing is tied up so much in his Diego-Matamoros-ness, his personal history and the complicated way he lived in an international community even at a young age, that it would be an entirely different (and much less rich) performance if given by anyone else.

That started me thinking about autobiographical plays in general, and whether this is always the case.  Are there times that the body of the actor is so bound up in a role that no other actor could take the role on?  Or is there just space for a different kind of performance?

With other autobiographical shows I saw last year, I had different reactions.  In My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, I think much of the charm was a result of knowing that the show grew out of David Hein’s actual experience (and it was touching to see photos from the titular wedding) but it didn’t seem to preclude productions that didn’t involve Hein.  Some of the songs seemed more personal than others (for example, “A Brief History of Gay Marriage in Canada” seemed particularly performer-friendly) but none of them would have felt inappropriate sung by another actor.

The show I saw that is the most concerned with the body of the creator is The Silicone Diaries.  In many ways, it plays like a lecture by Nina Arsenault about the various surgeries and modifications she’s made to her body . . . with constant reference to the results, on display on stage (she also makes use of video she’s taken of the procedures, and pictures of her when she was younger).  As a piece of documentary theatre, it could never be adequately performed without reference to Arsenault’s body.  But if one assumes (as I would) merit in The Silicone Diaries as a cultural artefact, it might be even more interesting to see it performed by, for example, a cisgendered woman, either with or without a history of surgery.

In a way this brings me back to The Aleph. The play was an adaptation of an autobiographical story – further from the truth, but still (or rather, more so) embodied in a single person.  Is this hybridization the next stage for any autobiographical work?

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