revelatory comedy

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.

haresandhyenasmargotfink
Performing out and proud for “Wear it Purple” event at Hares and Hyenas – Produced by Teddy Darling. Photo by Margot Fink. Image description: Jacci standing on stage, arms raised, mid parody song, dressed in black with pride striped rainbow socks.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

But you’re so…comedy…

Yesterday I did a comedy routine at a fundraiser for a school to get solar panels. I joined my friend and talented muso James Williams on stage to do a song – a rewrite of “Barbie Girl” to parody it to “Plastic World” calling for people to get real about climate change. I’m proud of it, it’s funny and makes a sharp point or two.

It was a wonderful gig. A sensory safe venue, a great crowd and a great bunch of fellow comedians who made me feel safe and comedy for a cause. That is super important to me.

I did a three-minute set about how as an Autistic woman I could relate to climate change scientists, how we are a small percentage of the population and people often don’t listen to us.

I’ve started to do jokes about the “you don’t look autistic” phenomenon as well.

This was probably the first set for a regular audience (my solo show attracts people who_So you were born Autistic, don't let that define you_ _ I was born and you don't want that to define me_ know the topic) where I out my Autism 100% and not subtly.

Throughout being “out” about Autism in the last three years, I’ve had countless “but you’re so <insert autism here>” conversations.

Note…I use Autism with a capital when it’s about pride, as it should be.  When written with a little a or (autism, autistic), it’s about stereotyping.

Which I really don’t mind because we can unpack stereotypes and on stage is a good place for it. But I wanted to address some of the things that come up in these conversations here, in writing, as well.

But you’re such a good speaker. Not all of us are non-verbal and even if we are non-verbal that doesn’t mean we can’t communicate well. I always “talked too much” and was a “chatterbox”. My stim is speaking. Chatter-boxing.

I was a chatterbox and as a kid I waffled on about things and people no one else was interested in and bored them to the point people avoided me.  Really, who wants to hear about the commonalities between Stalin and Hitler for over an hour? For me it was fascinating, but I couldn’t read the social cues that other people were bored.

I’m channelling that stim on stage. That’s why it’s sometimes I’m unpredictable and sometimes my best comedy material comes from off the cuff comments I add in the moment.

As I got older and studied what the world expected of a speaker, I found out my commentary about how I see the world was the funny stuff. Other people put me on stage. I didn’t get up one day and decide to do it, people encouraged me to.

By the way, at least on a comedy stage I know if you like me or if what I am saying is interesting. You’ll laugh. If you don’t laugh or heckle me, do you really think that bothers me? Nope, that’s been my entire life. I’ve been the butt of a lot of jokes, now I’m taking that power back.

But you’re good at improv. Improv is like a mirror for my whole life. I’m constantly anxious what social cues I should be reading and how to interpret them. Improv allows me to play with that in a way that is “outside of the world” and has little consequences.

So, improv makes me feel emboldened to turn my filters off. I’ve had to mask my Autism until very recently. I can flap my arms, exaggerate movements and facial expressions and make observations of the world like I want to.

If you could see what goes on in my head around every social interaction, you’d want to take a nap. It’s fucking exhausting and I’ve also got considerable sensory input going on…

I hear everything, I see every detail, I have been known to self-harm if my skin is in contact with some surfaces. My sense of smell is not too heightened, but people who love perfume make me want to hide in a corner.

But you’re producing so much material/so productive. This one perplexes me, yet again. I’m not sure if this means that I should not be able to do anything because of Autism or in spite of it. It’s neither.

I communicate best in writing and convert it to speech, because it’s my “work around” for my communication struggles. Thus why this blog is scribe and speak, not speak and scribe.

Speaking is a huge challenge and is levered off an awful lot of writing first. I need mental scripts for simple interactions. Complex notions I can speak about, because my brain is constantly trying to make sense of the world and that becomes my stream of consciousness. I’m constantly looking for systems and patterns. So, it’s like information pouring out from my brain into my fingers when I write and some of that ends up in speaking. But it also exhausts me. That’s why I am not very social, that’s why I’d rather go into the wilderness quietly or stay at home alone.

But you’re confident, you don’t seem <insert autism here>. I’m terrified. I’m anxious before I go on stage. I have irritable bowel before. I pace. I rewrite the work three hours before. I only want to be around certain people or none at all. Afterwards I sleep heavily and if I am stupid enough to eat, I develop terrible acid reflux that hurts so much I vomit. I have “work arounds” for this, strategies for dealing with it.

But you’re fine on stage. Again, this is not because of or in spite of being autistic. It just is. But some context.

I’m not looking at you in the crowd. If I do get up close to someone, they think I am looking at them, I’m looking at their chin or glasses frames. I look over the top of the audience’s head. You know…where public speaking classes tell you to look…I do naturally! Plus, I like being on stage…I’m away from the crowd, not in it.

But you’re unpredictable. Okay! Yes. Some think this makes me funny, others think this makes me unprofessional.

I would love to be one of those comedy shows that gets “tightly scripted and performed with precision” reviews. Anxiety takes over with the demand of “polish” and that’s why I write heaps of material.

I always need back up plans because the scripts I plan fall out of my head I can find whatever comes to my mind when presented with 80 people in front of me. My solo show is the only show that looks very similar each time and has option a, option b and option c scripts. Because it’s 55 minutes and around 15 minutes I start to feel comfortable and settle in. I like telling stories or musical parody or improv.

Finally, it’s really challenging for me to do comedy but I love it. I keep going because I love making people laugh and I love raising awareness.

I want Autistic young people to not go through as much as I have and to feel more at home in the world around them. I want them to be themselves and not feel like the neurotypical world is where they feel like they are walking through waist high treacle (which is how I describe it).

Yesterday I was disappointed with my set before the song. But my mind was fixated on getting the song right and the anxiety was full throttle. The song was great.

I’m never going be the stand-up who stays beside the microphone stand with a microphone rested on chin, at 30 degrees to the left of the centre mid line of their lips. I’m never going to have a consistent set.

And I don’t care. I’m just being myself on stage in many ways. I don’t think we need to define comedy like we define theatre. It doesn’t have to be perfectly recited. I’m happy to be clumsy in delivery, goofy, oddball off-the-cuff, off-key. I’m entertaining and I love it (including the challenges) and that’s all that matters.

One day the world will look at an Autistic performer and stop the “but you’re…” and just make it “you’re”.

Come check me out at Melbourne International Comedy Festival –

Mad Pride” (psst, I’m on the Friday night, the 5th April)…