There’s a risk that this transcript will make theatre-maker/writer/Fun Palace instigator/community-galvaniser Stella Duffy look like a terribly self-obsessed person, because I ask her “how are you?” and she talks almost continuously for the next 20 minutes. But that’s a really poor reflection of our conversation, which started at least 20 minutes before this transcript begins (and included the stuff about critic-critical that I included in the last critical writer post), and finished a good 30 minutes after it ends. When I had the idea to put together this little series talking to people making work looking at their own death, she was the first person who came to mind, not least because at Devoted and Disgruntled this year she opened up a conversation space to talk about death, it being the subject she wants her work to focus on for the next while.
Stella lives in startling proximity to death, a proximity she represents by holding up her left hand flat and pressing its thumb to her cheek. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, and although she has made another recovery, she knows that its return is always possible. She lives fast in the knowledge that death moves faster.
Two chronological things to note: about a fortnight before we met, Stella published a post on her blog in which she talks candidly about the impact of the second cancer on her mental health, and the work she has been doing to support herself. The following week she went to Lancaster at the invitation of the Hear Me Roar festival of feminist performance and discussion, and performed A Conversation About Death (working title), as part of a triple bill. In her programme note, she explained: “This is not a show. It has not been rehearsed, it’s not a rehearsal either, and it’s not a scratch. It’s the possibility of something that might become a show. Or not.” And a family thing: Shelley in the text is Shelley Silas, Stella’s wife.
M: So: how are you?
S: Well, I’m doing an eight-week mindfulness course – from a book, only because I saw some people saying it was good – and it’s being really useful. I’m on Wednesday having the eighth of my eight allowable sessions with the psycho-oncologist from St Thomas’ hospital, which is slightly breaking my heart, because it’s been so valuable and I’m a little bit in love with the therapist because he’s gorgeous and brilliant. I was a little bit in love with him five minutes from walking in the door, which meant that it happened fast, I didn’t have any resistance, just: fine, let’s dive in to this. So that’s a bit sad. But I think I’m good, I think being really public, writing that blog, which has had so many people read it, so many people comment on it, so many people keep sharing it, felt incredible coming-out-ish, to talk about my own mental health in public when I’ve talked about my physical health and I’ve been very open about the struggles with Fun Palaces, but to talk about mental health – it wasn’t that I was resisting doing it, it just wasn’t the right time, and then, one day later would have been too late.
March 2nd is my birthday, I’d had to leave at 6am to go to Liverpool to give a speech about Fun Palaces to the Museum Association; then I met Ronnie Hughes who works with the Assemble people who won the Turner prize for that fantastic community housing thing in Granby – he’s 10 years older than me and has worked in communities all his life, all of the stuff we’re saying in Fun Palaces, he’s always been doing, and the arts have never been interested – and his partner had breast cancer only a few years ago, so we talked about life and death and the work of one’s life; then I came home, at 7.30pm, completely fucking shattered, and we had champagne and pizza for my birthday tea. The next day I woke up and thought: I cannot not write this any longer. So I wrote that piece and put it out, really not knowing anything about putting it out. And the reaction has been nothing but gorgeously positive, grateful, and really interested – not in me, but in it. Every one wants to talk about death.
In Lancaster, I had to spend all day stopping my head writing a show: not writing a show, not rehearsing a show, not preparing a show. I stood up, took my boots and socks off, that felt right, and I said: I need to know if you know what you’re coming to, because you might want to leave, and that would be fine. This is about death, and it’s not anecdotes, it’s not the funny thing that happened at your mum’s funeral, but I am interested in what you think and know, and I want to tell you what I am beginning to think; I don’t know what I’m going to say, and I’m really honest about that. Then I did this thing where I kept trying to see if I could be genuinely in the moment, which had me stopping myself halfway through something and saying no, my head has gone somewhere else. It was amazing: the most honest thing I’ve ever done on stage. I wasn’t improvising either, because I wasn’t trying to tell stories. Three people left, which was weird, because I’d said they could and then they did. I said to the audience, I feel weird about that, and a woman in the front row said: but we’re here. And I said: isn’t that interesting, three people went and I’m thinking about them, not about the rest of you, and how that always happens – one bad review, eight good ones. It’s always that, and that balance is so wrong, and so disrespectful to those who are there.
The reason I’m telling you all this is that this thing happened in it. I don’t cry in public very often, big sobbing crying. One time when we were doing Lifegame [the improvised show created by Improbable in which a person is interviewed on stage and scenes from their life re-performed around them], very early on, in San Diego, we were about to do the show and I couldn’t stop sobbing. That kind of sobbing where your eyes close up. It was the first time I had cancer, I was still having chemo. I felt like all my masks, all my tools, all my tricks – not just bad tricks, good tricks, useful things – were gone, because I was no longer the same Stella. And how on earth was I going to get on stage and improvise a show that required me to be honest and open and ready to play? And then Lee Simpson and Niall Ashdown came into the dressing room, to say they’d just heard that the woman we were about to interview had had cancer recently and sells hats for people with chemo to keep their heads warm at night, and she was going to be talking about that, and was I OK and did I want to go? And then I burst out laughing, and then it was fine. Because it was just hilarious that I should be so scared, and it should be going: “Hi! Here I am! Right here!”
So there’s a feeling of there being an abyss to jump into. In one of the seven sessions I’ve had so far with the psycho-oncologist – he specialises in cancer therapy, and they work with people who are dying all the time – he asked: what are you afraid of? And I told him that, at the same time as I had cancer two years ago, Shelley’s father was dying of a primary that we didn’t know where it was coming from, in screaming pain. Screaming pain. And this young man – he’s about 30 years old – said: yeah, but, we know you now, so you’d be with our team, we’d have the drugs sorted, so you wouldn’t need to worry about that. Which was just fantastic: a practical thing. Shelley’s father wasn’t in a system: I’m in a system, therefore it’s fine.
But I then had this crying in the abyss moment, with him, on the floor in the office. There’s a thing for me about being on the floor, I think it’s to do with being Catholic, and Buddhist, quite often Buddhists chant kneeling, and Catholicism has a lot about the value of surrender: the reason Mary is such an elevated saint isn’t because she gave in, it’s because she gave up, gave herself. Surrender is hugely valuable: yes it’s been used horribly, but in the Marian tradition it’s also been used brilliantly. And surrender is hard, particularly for a feminist of my generation: how could we ever surrender? We have to be strong all of the fucking time. And at the end of that session, this young man, the psycho-oncologist, said: I think there is something I could do now to help, but you need to tell me what that is. And I said: can you hold my hand? And he held my hand. And it was huge. Because I don’t even know if you’re allowed to ask a therapist to touch you – that’s why he couldn’t offer it either. Later I told him that when I asked him to hold my hand, I didn’t want that: I wanted him to hug me. And that wasn’t quite the truth: I wanted to be held. But I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that to him.
All of which I shared with my audience in Lancaster – on my knees in front of them. I was on the floor and we put our hands out to each other, and there was a guy in the front row who clearly wanted to get up, and he didn’t know what to do; a young man, again, and I do think that, unfortunately, some of the very sensible barriers we put up make that scary. I wanted to say yes, you are allowed to come, but I didn’t want to pre-empt anything, I wanted to leave it to his agency, and then from two rows back, a young woman ran up and held me. And he did. And about five people – they were holding each other holding me. It was extraordinary, because it came entirely from them.
So how I am is, my extremely fearful choice to be brave and honest – brave as in for me to admit my vulnerability – my choice to do that a) gives back manifold, b) teaches me and c) holds me more. So I’m great! I honestly think I’m at the beginning of a new phase or stage, I’m very interested in this work, this existential psychology work, I want to train, I want to bring it to our work. And I’m a bit in love with death. Death is my romance at the moment. I find it so interesting. I haven’t read a novel for about six months, I don’t want to go and see plays: I want to talk about real. And made-up doesn’t feel real to me at the moment. Rehearsed doesn’t feel real. And yet I have a novel coming out in November.
M: Does the novel feel like an era before?
S: What’s really weird is that I was copy-editing it three weeks ago, and it’s all about death. I mean, really. People are going to hate it, they hate it when you write sad books. Fiction and drama want redemption: it’s what we want.
M: How much is that desire for redemption, if we’re now living in a largely atheistic culture –
S: Where else do we get it from? Totally. And we want the escapism: even if we have to go through some pain, we want some hope. Joseph Campbell writes: the hero goes into the abyss to bring back the treasure and share it with his community. The abyss, though: I looked up the etymology of it, abyss in Greek doesn’t mean big canyon that you come out the other side, it’s a bottomless pool. There is no other side. So actually, beneath the abyss is more abyss, and knowing that, and knowing that I’m in it, and that I can choose to be fully in it, which I find heartbreaking and immensely truthful and painful, is great.
M: Are you calling the abyss life with recurrent cancer, or life itself?
S: Life itself. Life itself is the abyss. It’s classic: we’re born astride a grave, we all fucking know that. But I think there are times in our lives, all lives, where it comes incredibly close. Lots of women have written about it being in childbirth: the closeness of that and the huge, because it’s a physical experience as well as an emotional as well as a spiritual, whether or not one is atheist, it’s all joined up. And my versions of that have been disease and surgeries and pain. So I think – I think that I think, because so much of it is what’s a thought/what’s a feeling, what’s truth/what’s not – the abyss is a place to be in.
One of the first things the psycho-oncologist said, which was very funny, I was explaining what I do and how busy I was, and I said: there isn’t time to look at this, but now I have to look at this, because I’m not OK. And he said: well, because you’re never going to know yourself if you keep running away. And of course I feel like I know myself! I’m a woman of 52 with two cancers: how dare you! But each knowing is a new knowing. And each time we revisit it, it’s a new knowing. So that was very funny. But the other thing he said was: you might need to learn to be swimming in it. It’s all around, like when you’re in water.
I’m sure it will pass, because it does, or it changes. I remember when my mum died – and it wasn’t even that traumatic, it was just sudden and unexpected – I couldn’t watch ER, because it made me feel sick. The cutting up of bodies felt too real. That’s passed. So I’m sure this will pass.
M: The fascination with death?
S: The sense of it being so close, in my minute-to-minute, not just in my day-to-day. But on the other hand, when it does pass, I think that I will be different, because we change all the time, and I will be richer for it, and the next time it slaps me down, because it will, it’s not that I’ll be more prepared or more capable to deal with it, because I don’t want to be more capable to deal with it, I might be more capable of being incapable, and that would be good. I’m quite interested in the place where I’m knowing, not just rationalising but knowing emotionally that the being in it is of huge value, and I don’t need always to be able to articulate it.
Stella isn’t someone I get to see very often and – possibly unbeknownst to her – she’s someone I’ve adopted as a mentor or spirit guide: someone a little bit older and an awful lot wiser from whom I take courage and inspiration. Her vigour and enthusiasm and commitment are sometimes bloody intimidating – would that I could work as much, achieve as much, as she does – but she’s never competitive with it, or critical. When I first contacted her, asking if we might meet up, it wasn’t to talk about death at all, but about living: I wanted advice, a way of managing, and felt she might be the best person to give it or at least point me in a direction towards finding it. But if I’ve learned anything through working alongside Every One, it’s this:
M: The thing I’ve been interested in through all the thinking I’ve been doing about the play is how the more one thinks about death, the more capable one is of thinking about living.
S: Totally. Irvin Yalom, who wrote Staring at the Sun, he’s an existential psychologist in his 70s, and he’s writing about his own approaching death and working with a lot with people who are dying, says two things that I really like. One is, I think it’s from Epicurus: we don’t worry about the nothing before we were born, why are we worried about the nothing after we die? I think that’s fantastic, incredibly useful. The other is: if we really pay attention to our death, if we truly think we might die today, how valuable is this minute?