2.2 Personal narrative in dramaturgy as political statement: influences to the form.

After covering some prominent debates in the theoretical areas that influenced my play and this thesis, I would like to focus on one of the most important intersections for me – personal as political, or autobiographical as political. In one of her essays, Indian-British immigrant playwright Sudha Bhuchar notes: “Who I am is the reason that I write. My work always comes from the personal: the political context emerges invisibly in the making of it” (Bhuchar 2018, 211). Bhuchar speaks of challenges she has to face as an artist of color, one of them being a challenge of representation, where regardless of her artistic intentions, her work is always seen through the lens of who she is and where she comes from.


How much I can relate to that is beyond words. In this thesis, I have discussed my struggles with representation and calling myself political, especially in relation to my own nationality. I fully understand that whatever I write or produce is usually being perceived through the lens of me being Russian, and the more political agenda of my home country worsens, the more this approach strengthens. Oftentimes, when I was booked for performing in different festivals, I would get the place solely because I covered several categories: queer, feminist, Russian dissident. I used to joke with fellow artists, quite cruelly perhaps, that I would have liked to have a disability since I cannot change my race – that way I would tick even more boxes. So, when I started writing this play, I knew that I did not have to try hard to make it sound political – as long as I truthfully describe what had happened to me, the message will be read as overtly political anyway – just by virtue of who I am in real life.


That is why when I was looking for dramaturgical inspirations (especially in terms of form), I was focusing on plays that in my opinion were the most effective in carrying across their message no matter if they are overtly political or not. Schlossman argues that art is always political due to being tied to social context (even an explicit desire to be apolitical is read as political choice), and I really want to agree with that, but then I think of a play that was one of my main inspirations: Sparks by Jessica Butcher, written in 2018 and premiering the same year at Edinburg Fringe festival where I first saw it. This play impacted me tremendously, and the more I think about it, the more it strangely hurts me to say that is was in any way political. Sparks is essentially an autobiographical monologue of a young woman who struggles to deal with grief after the death of her mother. She tries to somehow fill the void inside of her by initiating meaningless and often harmful relationships with men. She goes through a suicide attempt during the climax of the play, and that makes her feel reborn and ready for healing. What is political about that story? There is a woman, she suffers loss, she struggles with relationships, she attempts suicide, she starts healing. With all of that being said, the tone of the play is very joyful and full of optimism and humor (one of the sub-genres of the play is ‘comedy’). In Edinburgh, it was performed by the author herself, and she was an embodiment of sunshine, which made the story even more heartbreaking. But still, what is political about that? She is white, she is cis, she is straight, she is body-able. What is she representing apart from being a person with an emotional and sincere story that could have happened to any of us? She does not have any feminist agenda just because she is a woman – the situation can be applied to a man with very similar results. I can, of course, argue that it is precisely her choice to focus on universally understood emotional experience that makes it political, and that there is perhaps even some sort of deep hidden message on how we all ‘bleed the same’ regardless of race and gender. But even writing this makes me wince because yes, it is universal and uniting, but at the same time it is uniquely hers, and looking for political statements makes me feel like I somehow rob the author of her agency.


I just described the inner argument I keep having with myself while writing pretty much anything, but especially Neptune, since it is first of all deeply personal. I wanted to research this topic because the question does not leave me – what makes my personal narrative political? Should it be political? Is every narrative political then? Do I want it to be? I keep raising those questions here, and I do not think that even with all the theoretical or practical research I did for this project, I will find an answer - I might just get more questions. However, for the sake of exploration, I will continue with my influences in terms of form and style.


Sparks was a massive influence because never before had I seen such raw vulnerability and such simple language it was expressed with. The simplicity and honesty of it was what I wanted to take with me. Another thing that I appreciated, was the lightheartedness and humor because I always believed that there was nothing less effective than being sad while talking of sad things – there must be joy, and fun, and contrast, otherwise viewers might not understand what you truly lose in your worst moments. 


Another important inspiration was a play that I coincidently saw during the same Fringe festival in 2018 – What Girls Are Made Of by Cora Bissett. It was an autobiographical monologue as well. A letter from a mother to her future daughter (that she is pregnant with at the moment of narration) of her failed career as a musician, fall out of fame, struggles with personal life, loss of family, and pretty much despair. All good things. However, this play and the performance overall was, perhaps, even more joyful than Sparks, leaving the audience with such fierce and intense hope for the future that I could not help but stay after the performance and watch people leave the auditorium just to see a sea of sparkling eyes. In regards to this play, the form was what attracted me the most: it was made and presented as a rock concert since the author was indeed a promising musician in her youth. The narrative was quite linear but I appreciated the episodic structure of it – as if each story was a tale around a song (like in a music video). Due to my ADHD, I have always preferred stories that consisted of episodes – that makes it easier for me to follow and stay focused. So, when I started Neptune, I knew that it would be somehow split into episodes with individual stories or at least themes in each. Another aspect that drew me to What Girls Are Made Of was that spark of joy again, the positive energy, the message of hope at the end of it all. Similar to Sparks, I understood that it was what made it truly special.


I have mentioned two of the more obscure inspirational examples that I doubt many people have heard of. However, I had more famous influences as well: Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Cabaret – not the original play I Am a Camera, but the Bob Fosse’s musical (script by Jay Presson Allen). Fleabag is another autobiographically-stylized (this time not truly) monologue about a life of a flawed and tragic woman. And, again, it had two particular features I was set on – episodic structure and a lot of humor (for such a dramatic story). As for Cabaret, it affected the production itself with its aesthetics and visual choices more than the writing process. However, the idea of MC (narrator of the story that I have in Neptune and the role I assigned to myself) who ties together different plotlines and characters, was, of course, taken from Cabaret. As well as – again – episodic structure (typical for any musical, really) and humor in retelling dramatic and traumatic stories.


Speaking of political aspect of plays that I have mentioned, Cabaret would surely be the easiest example. It definitely has the most overtly political narrative of anything previously discussed with its backdrop of pre-World War II Germany and the rise of nationalism. However, it is not so explicitly personal, even if we take into account that the figure of Cliff, the central character, was a stand-in for the original author Christopher Isherwood. I am not sure that there is a specific personal message that can be extracted from this play and read as political. There is somehow more focus on Sally Bowles’ story, and even her life is just one of those that were destroyed by the coming war. So, overall, I do not think I can say that there is a specific personal lens here that can be read as political outside of overall story.


Fleabag and What Girls Are Made Of, as far as I know, both have been read by various critics through a feminist lens (the title of the second one even sounds quite feministic already). Both plays contain personal narratives of strong complex women who become the driving force in their own stories. As far as my opinion goes, I believe it is a pretty straightforward political statement and I enjoy it as such.


There is one more play I need to mention here, since it has been the strongest influence on Neptune in terms of its form and content. If I think of the most efficient ‘personal as political’ material I have ever read, this play always comes to mind first. I know it is a strong statement, but so is this play. The play is called Darkroom by tester98 (the real name of the author unknown), it was written in 2020, and first presented at Lubimovka festival of best new dramaturgy in Moscow in 2021. I am trying to avoid too emotional terms, but this play was a revelation. I was lucky enough to be in the same festival with my debut play Today My Cat Died, and that is how I managed to see its first live reading.


I will try to describe its plot and the specifics that influenced my Neptune so much, however, it will be difficult since the play itself is a collage, consisting of recordings, videos, links to Google maps, pieces of dialogue, and so on. It feels like the spirit of DADA reborn in the age of Youtube. The main story (autobiographical) follows an orphan boy who was adopted by a British family from a rural orphanage in Belarus. He was then abandoned by his adoptive family, and as a teenager moved to Berlin, where he became a gay webcam model. The twist at the end of a play is that all the money he was earning by the ways of webcam and prostitution he was sending to Belarus – to organizations that tried to free the country from oppression of the president Lukashenko and the ruling party. It does not look like such a revelation when I compress the whole play in three sentences. However, in reality, the ending hits a viewer, especially familiar with Belarus protest movement, quite hard. The way in which this effect is achieved is by constantly distracting the audience: for over an hour, the audience follows a precarious and quite decadent life of a queer webcam model in Berlin through watching raunchy videos (which are included in the text of the play itself), or by trying to follow his daily routine by looking up his commute on Google Maps, or by indulging in copious imaginary monologues the author has with his favourite Disney cartoon characters, from Mickey Mouse to Little Mermaid, or by singing childhood songs karaoke-style. The experience feels a bit like a drug trip (and of course there is a lot about drugs in the play as well) with sudden flashes of brutal honesty and clarity where the author inserts audio recordings where he talks about childhood abuse, rape, and life at the orphanage interview-style. Everything makes a viewer feel dizzy, and confused, and maybe even excited by those fast changes of mediums and focuses. And then, suddenly, the end – this statement of loneliness, of belonging to a country that let you down - from a boy who does not know belonging or family bonds at all due to his upbringing. The only love that he has ever felt in his life was the love for his miserable country, he was taught to feel that love, and that love never left him. The end of the play is a song (again, inserted in the text – it is all very much digital) – a childhood song that kids in primary schools and kindergartens are usually forced to sing – of the beauty of Belarus.


As far as personal narratives as political statements go, this one felt perfect to me. It did not need to be spelled out. The juxtaposition of narrator’s journey and the message he was trying to convey felt tied together in so many ways. Even now when writing about it, I am very aware that I am not doing it justice because this play is one of those things that can only be experienced as it was intended. This play made me think of how effective a statement can truly be just by telling your life story: the efficiency I see is mainly in its form, in its mad collage of current digital reality that we are all surrounded by and all the ways we can find to escape what truly matters.


Watching the reading of this play solidified an idea in my head regarding the form I wanted for Neptune. As episodic structure and elements of fun became so important to me, I started thinking what I should fill these episodes with. In my view, the idea of imaginary characters, childhood heroes, pop-culture references, is a very effective way to both highlight the seriousness of reality and gravity of certain situations (same way it was done with juxtaposition of Mickey Mouse dialogues and rape-y clients of the main character in Darkroom), and at the same time to offer an escape route, some sort of relief and support system based on comfort and recognition associated mainly with childhood. So, that is how I got determined to split my play into twelve months of 2022 and to have three layers for each episode (each month) – MC, telling my actual story; M and V – the story (the memory) of my queer love; and fictional characters – reflecting on whatever the theme of the month was.


In the next parts of this chapter, I will focus specifically on the choice of fictional characters for each episode of the play and its significance for Neptune’s overall message; and on ‘the memory’ layer which depicted the story of my relationship with M and some ethical, structural, and artistic struggles retelling such a story brings.


2.3 Pop-culture references: choices and significance.