Ali Wilson is a theatre-maker with a focus on collaborative devised performance. With interest in human experience, Ali presents stories on stage, problems and provocations. So here, she shares how she came to terms with her speech impediment, which inspired her art.
Face to Face with the Frog
So, you’re in a restaurant with some friends. Everyone is having an excellent time. Perhaps it’s a sunny day. Or perhaps it’s snowing. Either way, you’re pleased about it. You are looking forward to a wonderful meal, and you have chosen what you would like to order. Again, to emphasise, everyone is having a really excellent time. A waitress walks over to your table and begins to take everyone’s orders. It is your turn, and she turns to face you. Suddenly something in you changes. There is a shift in the atmosphere. You feel your face becoming redder, and your palms begin to sweat. Your throat tightens, and your mouth feels incredibly dry… but there is no time to sip some water. The waitress is waiting for your order, and your friends are wondering why you’re taking so long.
Haven’t you already decided? One of them asks. The panic heightens. You desperately want to order the chicken caesar salad as you have seen how wonderful it looks when it comes out of the kitchen. All you want in life at this moment is to order that chicken caesar salad and to enjoy every morsel of it… but you can’t. You can’t order it. You can’t make the ‘ch’ sound with your mouth to get the word ‘chicken’ out. There is just no way that you can make that word come out of your speech box. And so, with a heavy heart and a deep sadness, you cough it out, pretend to be changing your mind last minute and go for the pepperoni pizza. The ‘p’ in ‘pepperoni’ is much easier to say. No sweating or throat tightening with that sound. The waitress thanks you and walks to the kitchen.
You take a drink of water and reflect for a second. You did not want the pepperoni pizza. The pepperoni pizza does not want to be eaten by someone who doesn’t want a pepperoni pizza. You know what does want to be eaten? A chicken caesar salad, but you weren’t able to order it. You will have to sit with your friends (who are all having an excellent time), and eat that pepperoni pizza begrudgingly. While also pretending that you do want to eat the pepperoni pizza. Because to explain that you actually wanted the chicken caesar salad would just be a long-winded embarrassment.
No chicken caesar salad today. Thanks to the speech impediment you have been trying to hide since the age of seven, you will now eat a pepperoni pizza, instead of a chicken caesar salad. And there is nothing you can do about it. You are no longer having an excellent time.
Pepperoni pizza looks nice… but I want the Chicken Caesar Salad!
Speech impediments are annoying. They ruin chances of excellent times and wonderful dreams of delicious chicken caesar salads. They make people angry and impatient, get misheard and misunderstood. Also, they get lost in translation and lose their way. I’ve just about had enough of mine. At the age of twenty-one, I feel a bit ridiculous getting upset in the toilets of Pizza Express because I couldn’t order what I want. Or because I can never say my name when I go to the theatre box office to pick up my tickets. Or because I ruin the punchline of a joke when I suddenly freeze and can’t say anything. It all just seems a bit silly. I decided I didn’t want to be silly anymore, so I have chosen to do something about it all.
The thought of it feels a bit contradictory; I have a speech impediment which I despise, so I’m going to make a show about it. Huh? Surely that doesn’t make sense. Why would I spend my last four months of university making a piece of work about something I dislike so much? Why not choose a topic I enjoy talking about… Motown music, for example, or burritos? Why would I want to remind myself of the st-t-t-uttering frog in my throat, when I could be having a much nicer time making a show about the wonders of Stevie Wonder? It feels like I’m setting myself up for four months of being sad about the fact that sometimes I just can’t say what I want to say…
But that’s just it.
As an emerging artist and performance maker, I’ve realised that my most creative ideas come from things that make me feel something, and perhaps that is just the way I work best. In May 2015, I was angry about how someone acted towards me, so I made a show about it. In December 2015, I was upset at the fragility of my Grandad’s health, so I made a show about it.
Many times, I have sat at my desk, stood over the hob or laid on my bed to realise that the work I want to make about why some people call a ham sandwich a ‘cob’ and why some people call it a ‘butty’, probably isn’t going to be as imaginative or exciting as I would like. I don’t really care that much about the topic. It doesn’t make me burst with *some form of emotion*, it doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out, or do a cartwheel in my living room. Yes, I could choose to do my final project at university about how deliciously wonderful burritos with extra guacamole are. Still, the truth is (sorry burritos), the thought of it doesn’t make me explode.
My stammer makes me explode (or perhaps I should say exp-ppp-p-lode), and that’s why I’m diving headfirst into a project that’s difficult to talk about at times (get it?) .
(But please, if you feel REALLY strongly about the ham cob vs ham butty argument; I absolutely implore you to make a show about it! Or write a song or a book or a poem or choreograph a dance or express that feeling in whichever creative outlet you enjoy the most! I’m sure it will be fantastic!)
So, now begins a creative process centred on a topic that I don’t always like talking about. In fact, I’m making a show in which I talk about not being able to speak. Sounds a bit confusing, right? That’s what I need to work out. How can I transform my 14-year old stuttering frog (something most people in the audience won’t have any experience of) into an issue an audience can relate to? My aim by the end of the project (April), I’ll have a 20-minute show that is perhaps funny, intelligently created, and sheds light on a neurological issue that affects people like myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sassy, independent woman who needs no help in speaking her mind. Yet, this stuttering frog gets in the way of that far too often. It’s time I used that frustration positively. Instead, I dishearteningly eat my way through a pepperoni pizza.
As an emerging artist and performance maker, my practice so far has consisted of quirky solo and ensemble devised performances. This included wearing a horse’s bum, chopping up 13 cucumbers on stage, pretending to be my Grandad and scoffing three bananas down my gob as fast as possible. I adore making shows. I love the idea that, with a bit of graft and a creative mind, artists can turn the ordinaries of life into extraordinary performances. Performances that encourage audiences to think, reflect and acknowledge the ever-changing world around them. I go to the theatre and laugh and cry and feel so full of admiration for intelligent and creative ways that performance makers can reflect the every day of the twenty-first century.
I’m a keen bean, an eager beaver and I’m coming round to the idea that that is a positive thing. I ask too many questions, and I bug my tutors for meetings. I nag my housemates far too often for ideas and opinions on my latest ideas. So I will be able to present my stuttering frog as well as those that I admire have shown theirs.
Here’s to making something positive out of those things in life that make you want to explode. I’m not sure what the end product will look like. It might be a flop. It might be great. But, I really hope it won’t be a flop. I do genuinely hope it will be great. And, I hope I won’t stammer throughout the entire thing…
…But perhaps that’s the whole point of it.
Ali has since worked with Facade Theatre, I Don’t Love You Anymore, Tin Can People and has performed stories on stage with Quarantine. Additionally, her work was presented at Royal Exchange’s Co:Lab Festival, Contact, Battersea Arts Centre, Lancaster Arts, Flare Festival and many more. Before these achievements, Ali wrote about her fears around graduation and realising that you’re no longer a student.
Looking for another story related to performance? Serge Kabanda shares his fears over dancing in front of audiences, and a dance troupe helped him overcome it.