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Lost in Spaces: my one-woman memoir show is slowly born / 29 April 2014

Penny Pepper performs at Criptease, Royal Festival Hall March 2014

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I’m in a quiet long room that to my wayward imagination looks like a nuclear bunker. The false ceiling is gone. Red pipes angle mysteriously, and occasionally a low rushing sounds fills the space. Maybe a deep dragon of Stratford rising from his disturbed liar, as tourists and shoppers trample and wheel above.

I’m at Westfields – and the biggest shopping mall in Europe may not seem like a good place to rehearse a show, but thanks to Shape Arts, I am borrowing their back room space to do just that. And this is day one.

My one-woman show, Lost in Spaces, premiers at Soho Theatre in September for a one-off public performance – the springboard to future bookings and small tours, all being well and luck on my side.

That is the future. Right now I am in the windowless room with my director Bethany Pitts. As my show is part theatre, and very much spoken word, we go through the poems. Unpicking them into emotional journeys, honing on words demanding heightened emphasis in my performance.

Using my poetry and some improvised chat, a key element to the piece is the exploration of my journals, which I’ve kept for over thirty years. An obsession that sprang from my love of the diaries kept by writer-feminist Anais Nin, these are detailed monsters, in tiny handwriting and old style typewriter print. A pivotal year is 1985. The pages groan with domestic trivia alongside key events in my personal and public life. The miners strike; Thatcher’s grotesque policies. The day I move to London after an eight year imposed hibernation in a troubled family home. The history of the disability arts movement is there; early meetings at Artsline, the first disability arts festival in London.

Not to mention an over-excited entry on the day I received a personal letter from Morrissey, in reply to mine. He told me: ‘you write beautifully, a gift to cherish’.  The reply changed my life. I kept going.

I’m mentored by writer-poet John O’Donoghue to make my poems the best they can be. John is a perfect mentor, challenging me and yet understanding me. I have homework and deadlines; structure is good for a barmy old BPD-er like me.

While some of my ‘hits’ will feature in the show – such as Ballad of Cripplegate Town – there will be new pieces, such as ‘Hymn to Daddy’. Under John’s guidance I’ve used the Yeats poem ‘Hymn to my Daughter’ as a template but it’s already clear this will take a leap and divide - there maybe two pieces – a light and a dark.

We’ve got to the point of a three act structure as a provisional framework although the five minute ‘breaks’ will be for me, each one filled with music – from my LP Spiral Sky, released in the 1990s. The breaks are crucial – an access issue – as my stamina and heart condition demand I pause, despite the wilfulness of my will and emotion to work at full passion. I’m still keen to hear from other artists about managing this. Also, the dry throat dilemma that comes with nervous excitement of performing – the adrenalin rush necessary to deliver a good performance. How can you avoid or lessen this?!

Tomorrow I rehearse in a different space, finalising the poems to go into act one, temporarily called ‘Childhood’.

I will write about that very soon but meanwhile, please leave comments about your own thoughts around memoir, journal-keeping, the pitfalls and postives of using your own life as a foundation for a creative project.