“It’s nice to be documented,” says Jess Latowicki to the audience, “right?” Over our shoulders, lurking in the shadows, is Tim Cowbury, the other half of Made in China. He’s taking notes: notes on Jess, notes on us. He’s the writer here. Well, sort of, explains Jess. This is his show. Only, at the same time, it’s not.
Who’s in charge of this story?
I’ve always thought of humans as storytellers. As a writer, perhaps that’s no surprise. When Galen Strawson, in a recent article for the ever-brilliant Aeon, quotes Oliver Sacks writing “each of us is a narrative, this narrative is us,” I’m nodding my head. Stories – at least for me – feel like a way of understanding the world, of communicating. Reading Hannah Nicklin on the theory of the “storied self” – the idea that we build and reinforce our sense of identity through stories (the story “I’m a writer” or “I’m a runner”) – I felt a jolt of recognition.
But Strawson questions that truism that we construct ourselves through stories. He argues that it’s “false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing”. Life as experienced from day to day, he reasons, has neither the shape nor order of a narrative. He throws various spanners into the narrative machinery, from the common experience of a fractured or multiplied self (W Somerset Maugham: “I recognise that I am made up of several persons”) to the fragility and fallibility of memories (James Salter:”There is no complete life. There are only fragments”). The more I think about it, the more I find myself conceding that he might have a point.
Perhaps, instead of using stories to organise our internal memories and experiences, we tell the story/ies of our lives for and through other people. Or, without quite knowing it, they tell their own stories through us. It’s one idea among many that Made in China’s new show, Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me, toys with. Jess, on stage in sequinned hot pants, is in one sense being authored by Tim. He’s written the script and he’s manning the lights, controlling how Jess – and, via her, himself – are seen. This is his story.
In reality, of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Made in China are a duo, and while it’s easy to identify Jess as performer and Tim as writer, they are very much co-authors of their work. During the performance, too, questions are constantly being raised over authorship and agency. Jess challenges Tim, twists his words, throws the piece off-balance again and again. There’s an uneasiness around the male gaze – Jess wiggling her hips, under the lights controlled by Tim, watched by him and us – but at the same time a playful subversion of it. It’s never anything so simple as the image of a woman being authored by a man, instead engaging that dynamic in order to upend it.
Then there’s the story itself. In between scripted sparring between the couple – the acknowledgement of their real-life relationship sitting (deliberately) uncomfortably beneath the increasingly personal sniping – Jess narrates over and over the fiction of Tim’s heroic death [insert “Death of the Author” gag here]. It’s a strange sort of wish fulfilment, targeting another of the ways in which we inconsistently self-narrativise at the same time as the culture we live in scripts us. This death – written, remember, by Tim – attests to a cultural (and typically masculine) desire to prove oneself, to be the hero, to die young yet live forever in the memories of others. It’s a story we’ve heard before.
But in Jess’s ironic delivery, it’s drained of all heroism. The restless, independent man going off to find himself, the brave confrontation that ends in tragic self-sacrifice – from Jess’s lips it all sounds pathetic, unoriginal, like the script from some old, half-remembered movie. Which, of course, it is, as is the image following it of the grieving hoards and bereft girlfriend at the funeral. And then, as Jess describes in meticulous, ludicrous detail the outfit she wears to mourn Tim, a new script – a new story – breaks through: that of advertising and vacuous women’s magazines and the empty fetishisation of things. Narratives tell Jess and Tim, rather than the other way round.
“Do you ever get the feeling that someone is putting words in your mouth?” asks Jess, eyeballing a member of the audience. “Say yes,” she quickly instructs them.
That interest in self-narrativising – or unwittingly allowing our lives to be narrated by others – folds into my persistent interest in scripting and authorship, an interest that Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me absolutely shares. As well as being (sort of) scripted by Tim, Jess puts words into the mouths of various audience members, asking them questions and feeding them the answers. We have a role here, but it’s tightly controlled – so long as we choose to play along. The fault lines between the scripted and the unscripted visibly shift.
Similarly to the slippages between text and performance that I’ve been thinking about in Action Hero’s work, in Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me Jess and Tim also play with the slipping and sliding boundaries between themselves as writers, performers and people. How much of this is scripted? How much of this is them, Jess and Tim the real-life couple, and how much of it is “Jess” and “Tim”? Who’s doing the scripting, and who’s being scripted? Who has the power here?
When I spoke to Jess and Tim just before they took Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me to Edinburgh, they joked that they had ended up making the same show as Action Hero. Wrecking Ball (at least from what I’ve seen at work-in-progress stage) has different concerns at its core, but there are some striking similarities. Those similarities also extend to Actress, the latest from Sleepwalk Collective. Three shows made by couples; three shows interested in authorship and performance and the dynamics of the male gaze.
Just as there’s a lot more in those other two pieces, there’s a lot more that Tonight I’m Gonna Be The New Me is also “about” (modern relationships, autobiography, the one-woman show, the representation of romance in pop culture). But there’s something all three shows are doing, in varying ways, that keeps niggling at me. Something about who is controlling the story. Something about all those agency-robbed women written by men. Something about how the cultures and structures we live within insidiously script us, and how we might read those scripts while subverting them.
Because whether or not we understand and organise our own lives through stories, stories are still important; stories are still how we understand the lives of others and how we hope they will understand us in turn. And so asking “who’s in charge of this story?” is never a trivial question.
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge.