The strange honor of seeing my childhood trauma unpacked on stage

Tracey Slaughter watches her story come alive.

Lately I’ve been sitting on the sidelines as a group of actors bring the adaptation of my 2015 novella The Longest Drink in Town to the stage. It has provided a strange space to inhabit – eerie, revelatory, thrilling – and it’s taught me a lot about the emotional mechanics that underpin the creation of character. There’s nothing like having demi-manifestations of your child and teen selves crashing round in a theatrical holding-pen, watching them skip and strip, blub and bruise in three-dimensional colour. They’re not me, of course – they’re twice-removed through the actor’s embodiment, and the spin of fictionalisation – but at rehearsals I’ve been getting all kinds of gooseflesh, reacting to their run-throughs at tear-duct, gut and scalp.

Writing the original story for The Longest Drink in Town involved throwing a fictional group of characters into a situation that had taken place long ago on the roadside of my own childhood: once upon a time I’d been a little passenger pulling up in my mother’s car to be delivered to my father for “visitation”, and my stepmother had met us at the drop-off point instead. My stepmother had once been my mother’s best friend – her kids, once fave playdates, were now my stepbrothers and sisters – and there was her brand new baby in the mix, a half-sibling none of us assorted offspring seemed to know how to feel about, all uncertain where the hell we stood in this blended inside-out mess of household. The baby, especially, was touched paper for my mother: while they were still married my father had made her have her tubes tied, insisting he wanted no more kids; that he went on to sire more while she was sterile was more than my mother could take. To top it all off my mother was skint, her car de ella on the bones of its metal ass (she’d been flogging off personal trinkets for cash, all maintenance from Dad having long dried up), and my stepmother happened to park up in a shiny new van.

The roadside detonation that day was instant, the clash intense – as a child all I could do was freeze in the gravel of that intersection and witness. Two women scrapping it out at the T-bone where a servo met a pub met a fleet of display homes drew quite the crowd of onlookers. But for me, and the crew of siblings and steps watching with me, the “chick fight” was more than just late Friday arvo entertainment. The scene transfixed me, and never left. It was probably inevitable that writing would one day drive me back to it. On the page, that setting and set-up – recast with a fictional gathering of kids and teenagers caught up in the conflict – became the nexus for a storm of childhood reactions to the everyday spectacle of a “broken home”. (“It’s ordinary, your mum and dad splitting: you can’t say you’ve got all this pain just from that, big deal,” comments one of my characters. “You got to do something not ordinary, to match it. ” Perhaps that’s exactly what I did.)

Actors rehearsed for The Longest Drink in Town, based on the novella by Tracey Slaughter (Photo: Supplied)

I gave the characters license to respond to the trauma in whatever way they wanted, to wander from the sight of their mothers’ fight into whatever drama needed to unfold. They took me into stories which touched the dark core of what divorce feels like for the small players who don’t get to choose it. My strongest physical reaction on that day, standing on the brink of my mothers’ scrap, was to hurl my Coke can across the carpark at them, a feeble shriek trimmed with fizzy liquid that halted nothing. (That Coke can, incidentally, went on to sneak its way through a side-door of the text: I’ve only realized that now I get to see a kid’s shoe crush it, resoundingly, each night on stage). My characters, by contrast, shot into actions fueled with every kind of kick and resistance my original shell-shocked little-girl stance had lacked; they were no bystanders stuck on the hard-shoulder of adult drama – they stamped off to wreak it themselves.

And wreak it they did – the brand of mayhem that only fucked-up kids can author. Many of their stories – as they ran amok and wounded in the servo, threw bricks through demo-home windows to break in and play-fuck, lobbed rocks off the overpass – were fragments of mine, told slant, offset, distorted: their narratives carried my pain as well their own. But my characters weren’t just vehicles for catharsis – they had bloodstreams and hair-ties and longings and school-shoes and ugly old dollies and dark secrets and busted hearts. They each felt utterly alive to me in the writing, and I loved them and followed them and mourned for them. Of all my characters they are perhaps the ones most bound into my nerve-ends, the ones who feel most real. To meet them now, walking round a stage at the Meteor in Kirikiriroa, in some ways doesn’t feel so surprising – they always had mass and hurt, heat and agency to me, were mobile, unpredictable and vital.

Actors rehearsed for The Longest Drink in Town, based on the novella by Tracey Slaughter (Photo: Supplied)

Unsurprisingly too, watching on at rehearsals, I’ve often found myself with sooka bubba eyes for my fictional children, all over again – and also probably, if I’m honest, for the kid I once was, whose overwhelm somehow found its altered reflection in all of them. Night after night, looking on as the play takes form, I’ve been audience to strange moving parts of myself, characters who dug their way up to the page from all sorts of dark corners of my unconscious, now incarnate and vocal in actors’ flesh, costumed with fresh rage and scars. But they’re not just suffering – they’re leaping with wildness and wriggling with mischief and rocking with anger and flirting with lust – they’re playing up and acting out, amidst the adult chaos they’re pitched into, with all the energy and fire they can use to fight. They swing the spectrum of underage behaviors from sweetness to delinquency, singsong to smashed teeth, self-harm to first-love, doing their best to make sense of their upended lives with the juvenile tools they’ve got.

There’s a point in the play where a little girl overturns a toybox, and all the plastic tack of munted doll and animal and vehicle parts comes spilling on stage. Throughout the play – in the inspired co-direction of One Question Theatre’s Liam Hinton and Mayhem’s Dave Taylor, who also adapted the story to create the dramatic script – toys become a key motif of how the characters cope, as they’re forced to re -joint their broken world. They try to comprehend the wreck of their home life with their limited childhood imagery – with baby-games and insects in Tip Top containers, with kinky dares and dirty dolls, and raspberries on car windows – playing their way to some kind of understanding of their trauma. I ca n’t help thinking that the fiction writer’s not so different, tipping up her toybox of words from her.

Actors rehearsed for The Longest Drink in Town, based on the novella by Tracey Slaughter (Photo: Supplied)

On the day, the standoff ended with both my stepmother and my mother revving their engines and screaming at me to get in their vehicle. The split down the middle of me in that carpark, as they each accelerated and shrieked, felt like it was vertebral. There was no way to choose a side. I went with my mother, halved, carsick, terrified she would crash at each turn. (In the aftermath, my father poured his fury at me down the phone line: that feels like it snuck on stage too, in the shape of two string-tied tin-cans, torn at the root). The feeling of being cut down the center went on to slice through the core of each child in the book. It would be too simple to label the writing and staging of The Longest Drink in Town as acts of healing – in fact, just this week in rehearsal I realized, with dissociative chill during a hospital scene, that halfway through penning this particular piece I collapsed and ended up on a ward, finishing the second half only after a long stay in pain had rewired my embodiment for good. I’d never joined those dots before – I listened to the monologue delivered alone on stage by a damaged little girl and knowledge fused in me with a shiver.

But I’m not a little girl now. And sitting on the edge of that black box, watching my characters dance and roar around it, it’s hard not to feel some release from the days when all that energy was caught inside my childhood chest. Yes, it’s a sad story but sooka bubba eyes are more than matched by cheeky rhymes and belly laughs, as the actors fidget, trip, tease, slap, scamper, prank, impersonate, dive and coquette into childhood skin bodies, wearing their characters’ with all the unquenchable energy they possess. They sculpt the past with their laughter, knock it open with their footsteps, blast it full of new light, kick out its glass doors. They mic it up and mock it, they tear it off the walls, they dump it off a bridge, they chuck its sticks and stones. It’s replayed in radical ways I could never have foreseen, shot full of their voices and vibrancy: blocked on the stage in dazzling new bodily radii, it is no longer the blockage that it was – and I’ll always be intensely grateful to the actors and directors who threw themselves into this journey, to bring my characters to life with their sweat, heart, drive, skill, vision and blood.

Watching my story’s new cast take this work to places that keep startling and haunting me, I am truly struck by the strange set of stitches that splice life to art in ways that hold us together where divides once ran deepest. They grab the black box and tip it up: new shapes of experience pour out of its chambers.

Tracey Slaughter’s The Longest Drink in Town is on at the Meteor Theater in Kirikiriroa Hamilton, April 27-30th. You can book tickets here.

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