On the 18th July 2018 I drove into Melbourne from Alice Springs to do a season of Melbourne Fringe (via Sydney Fringe) and to settle here after an assault in my day job left me depressed and unhappy. This decision came after being in remote or overseas locations since 2005. That’s not unusual for my profession. I am an anthropologist by day. In my 40’s I pursued what I had been afraid to all my life – being a comedian/writer/performer at every opportunity I can find.
I’m a variety type of human. Some would say that’s because I am Autistic. I think that’s accurate, I need novel ideas (and also more structure to pursue them than other humans, which a common contradiction in the Autistic experience). But also, I am just easily bored. But living back in Melbourne (last time I was four years old) has been more than transformative – opening up opportunities to be fully authentic on stage that is allowing me to be the same in life.
Art just doesn’t imitate life, it is life. It makes you feel and do and change. I am one of those people who still thinks comedy can be an artform. I do skits, character and musical comedy with storytelling/narrative observation comedy woven in amongst it all.
I don’t perform as often as I would like. I have some big sensory and social challenges to work around to get on stage, but once up there I love it. Venue and performance accessibility is and always will be an issue for me, but I have carving my way regardless.
The last 12 months have been personally transformative, or rather, revelatory. I hold comedy 80% responsible for that.
I knew I would have to deal with culture shock. The shock of coming from the remote Northern Territory to a city was one aspect. But I had lived in a large Chinese city too, so that wasn’t the most of it.
What I found was that I wasn’t prepared for the changes it would prompt in me – that would allow me to be me. You may recall a post where I had been diagnosed with depression just before I arrived in Melbourne.
I am happy to say I was not depressed, I was oppressing my true self. That caused sporadic depression as not being authentic invariably does. That’s not actually any rocket science really – but something so many people struggle with.
A kind of period of chaotic and complicated personal change took place in the last 12 months. This wasn’t a learning curve. This was a learning mountain epic filmography, complete with crevices and dodgy theme music.
I knew I had to leave an mask behind when I came here, that Melbourne would have a much more accepting culture. I had already started to drop the mask when I started doing comedy in 2016. I fully accepted that the diagnosis of autism I had been grappling with (first mentioned to me in 2006, partial diagnosis for years until recently) and started to get my head around the fact it made me who I am – it didn’t make me less.
In my first ever comedy writing workshop, before my very first performance in Darwin I had a lightbulb moment. I was confronted with an exercise often done in comedy classes. Two truths and a lie. I did it well, but mainly because all of my stories about my life are weird.
My answers were:
- I nearly married a Tunisian olive farmer during the second wave of the Arab spring revolution in 2011
- I have just come back from living and working in China
- I’ve been married three times
No one picked that I have only been married once. The other two are true. My life and it’s funny stories made other people laugh and I love making people laugh.
I refuse to lie on stage. I choose to embellish stories to get bigger laughs, but not lie. In the process of finding material it has all come from my experience and research and knowledge combined. Experiences such as being a late diagnosed autistic person, a late coming out queer (I actually outed myself on Channel 31 BentTV) as an ENBY-femme and gray asexual (I can hear some of you opening a Google tab…).
It’s not catharsis either, as some cynics have said to me. It’s about me OWNING who I am and poking fun at world that dictates to us who we should be. Plus I think the performance world is changing. We are challenging non-disabled actors playing disabled parts. We want real. That’s a good thing, not something to be cynically given a clinical label to.
There is part education though. A fellow comedian once said “your comedy is like a TED talk, only funnier”. I will take that. That’s fine with me.
But putting my foot on stage for the first time prompted a wave of personal change for the better, but often through tumultuous times, like I never expected.
The mask has broken. I am me on stage and increasingly more so than ever – off stage.
The comedy journey has been harsh and hilarious and helpful. Sorry about the alliterations, it’s one of my autie quirks.
I refuse to do the low hanging fruit of comedy. I aim to “punch up not punch down”, critiquing systems and the language of bigotry and prejudice. If some think attacking bigotry and prejudice is punching down – then Google “false equivalence”.
So through four years or so of dabbling in comedy and several large-ish productions that I have written, produced and performed in (including the recent Melbourne Fringe opening night variety showcase “Tickets on Myself“).
A couple of thoughts why performance has set me free:
- Somewhat paradoxically, the opportunity to lie on stage (which I chose not to take) freed me of expectations to be other than myself. Yep, you read that right. Whilst I have never been described as fake, suddenly I was presented with something that I realised I had been doing all my life – and no longer wanted to do. To stop lying to myself about who I was (we call this masking as a survival technique for Autistic people, but it’s nearly always harmful to us) and be myself.
- The influence of some amazing performers I have met along with way who are completely comfortable with who they are. Some of these people are big names, some are not. But none of them subscribe to “fake it until you make it”. They ascribe to developing confidence, self-belief and bravery, which is something quite different, in my humble opinion.
Up until six months ago I was scared. Recently I have found that holding the stage made me brave. So I went all out and revealed my true self. And it feels fucking marvellous.
I need to give the incredible Nelly Thomas a huge shout out. You may remember my post about her new book about neurodiversity, Some Brains. I was very privileged to have her as my Melbourne Fringe Navigate Program mentor.
The weekend before Tickets on Myself, she reminded and encouraged that me I only had one job – to bring joy.
And I did. I hope I made you proud Nelly. Thank you – you believing in me still makes me tear up (in a good way).
Finally, I remember being in this massive t-shirt market in Guiyang in China in 2014. There was a wall covered in hundreds of the one t-shirt slogan, “Be Yourself”. I remember it made me laugh heartily out loud.
The irony was here were mass produced t-shirt proclamations were telling us something the world least expects of us.
Because if the world did give us permission to fully be ourselves, the t-shirt industry would go broke.
After the world stripped me of the safety to be me, the comedy stage gave me myself back. There is no going back now and that’s a beautiful thing.
I hope everyone puts down the t-shirt slogan and finds their own personal comedy stage, figuratively and literally, to be who they are, not what the world expects them to be.