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Every emergent story needs a witness

Opening night of nerdfucker in Brighton Fringe, four people in the audience. (For people who aren’t familiar with fringe theatre, don’t worry. I’m fine. Small audiences can be par for the course for a “niche show” at the beginning of a run when you haven’t paid a publicist.)

Fortunately I know ­none of these people. This is a really good thing, like, when there are people in your audience who aren’t friends or family, just randos somehow finding their way to your show. Last night’s randos: a woman in her mid-30s, an older man, and way at the back, two women who looked like a mother-daughter team, the daughter looking in her late teens. Huh. Not folks who I would consider being drawn to something called nerdfucker, especially not the mother-daughter duo. The young woman was slim and trendily dressed; the mother well coiffed.

Why were they here, and what would they make of nerdfucker (in which my character is getting ready to have a game of chess played on her naked body, after hours at a geek convention)? How would they respond to my fat body, partly revealed on stage? What do they know of cons or geek culture or human furniture fetishes? How are they going to find the plot in the middle of all that?

I don’t consciously build the bridge, that’s for sure. The few times when I’ve sat down with a narrative in mind, or a full-blown character, the resultant text has come out like crap. I have to be patient, start small, maybe one little anecdote to start with, and that is the beginning of a squirmy little psychological puzzle.

Sometimes I have to be really patient: nerdfucker took six discrete rounds of revision to get to where it is, each time demanding some serious sit-down-and-focus energy, ironically enough, to follow the skittering thoughts of my panicking protagonist. These disparate anecdotes and rants and asides belonged together in her brain, I knew it, and I had to find a way to bring them to life so that the audience could see the developing connectivity.

Emergent story has become one of my favorite things, both in my written shows and in Smut Slams as well. “Emergent story” is a process and a result, the fumbling for meaning that we all do in the moment, or in the moment after the moment, when something has just happened, but we weren’t able to slot it into our universe right away, so it just hangs there, an obviously significant thing waiting for its signifier. Wait, what just happened? What did that mean? Does it mean anything? Maybe we won’t even get answers right away. Or ever. Maybe other people see what’s happening, and we will never see it.

Emergent story is not a solo act, that’s for sure. As in the dreams that have to be spoken out loud to a drowsy partner next to you in bed, the act of speaking one’s own jumbled story to a roomful of witnesses brings more meaning to the story, because audiences bring their own understandings. They may not always be able to articulate this, but when they are open to my character sharing her stories, even things that are way beyond their depth, they will affect the show. There is a place to put the story.

This is why I like to keep the fourth wall down. I want to see the audience; I’m watching them, looking for reactions so I know who best to direct my ramped-up conversation to. I can see their faces and responses, their nods and their laughs and sighs. That young woman last night with her wide sympathetic eyes, her mother smiling sadly. They got it.

As my audiences hold that space, they walk with me through that tangled undergrowth of story-within-the-back-story. They help me shape meaning. Without them and their witnessing energy, I have to carry the meaning by myself. I can when I have to—because not all audiences are like last nights—but I’d rather not.

*****

When you become a patron of mine over on Patreon, you become a witness and early reader. You get to help shape the story of this work that I do. Join me there.

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