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Details Can Change - But The Story Doesn't

05 Oct 2022
Whangārei Fringe performer Stephen Bain takes poetic license with his advice to his 22-year-old self.

You were a couple of summers shy of adolescence when they announced a project to bury a time capsule under the bell tower in Masterton’s Queen Elizabeth Park.

People could purchase a container to be buried under several tons of concrete, then dug up and returned to their owners in the year 2000.

You couldn’t imagine how anyone would remember to dig it up in 25 years’ time, let alone what life that far into the future could be like. You thought of the year 2000 as a magic place beyond humans, but then when that soggy day finally arrived - aeroplanes didn’t fall out of the sky, computers didn’t melt down into a pool of future-slime and the new millennium lost some of its supernatural promise.

The time capsule delivered up an audio recording of your dead grandmother and a piece of paper with your name on it with leading questions like, “What I best like to do on the weekend is…” Your answers were generic and the attempted humour seemed more like British television than any of your own insights.

You put the piece of paper in a drawer somewhere and forgot about it.

When you were in your 50s, your father called to say happy birthday. He read from his diary in 1966, the day you were born.

Your mother had labour contractions all night, but by morning it still hadn’t escalated, so your father went off to play football, though he failed mention if his team won that day. By the time he got home the contractions were more frequent, so the whole family got into the car, dropped your mother at the hospital, then carried on to your grandparent’s house.

Your father was exactly half your current age at the time and husbands weren’t allowed into birthing suites back then. Your mother’s memory is fading now so her recall is brief.

“It was easier than the other times,” she says, then quietly withdraws. Your father carries on reading from his diary, describing the varied reactions of your siblings to the new baby when they visit the next day.

Stephen’s parents with their first grandchild. Photo: Supplied.

Your father has been reading to your mother from his diary at the breakfast table for the past few years now, triggering memories of the everyday stuff, the holidays, the moments of sudden change and the slow realisations that took weeks or months.

You wonder if your mother’s memories have been replaced through this process of reiteration, transplanting the pain of labour with the open green football field.

You wonder how your sense of time would be different if you’d been a parent yourself. Your friends often recalled their own lives through a flower bed of accomplishments and milestones in their children’s lives: the first time they rode a bike, the year they went to high school camp and broke their leg. It’s as if someone had gone through their lives with a highlighter pen and underlined all the best bits.

You think of your own life in a more messed-up way, the chronology all out of whack. Sometimes you come across an old script or photographs of a production you put on, you read a bit that triggers a memory: stepping onto a stage full of light, listening to the sounds of your own voice from the inside of a giant aquarium. You think of the theatre as a ‘no-place’, an empty space where imaginative worlds take hold. Black curtains and blank walls confirm the nowhere-ness.

You think of your former self as a continuation of the future, reversed through the unwinding of clocks. Bundles of old notebooks and printed photographs become disordered each time you shift house. Digital files locked up on hard drives and copied multiple times are no better; there is no original, just a scattering of traces that wait to be reopened and ignited into new memories.

You think about Billy Pilgrim, the central character in Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, who becomes “unstuck in time”. His horrific experiences as a WWII prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied Forces’ carpet-bombing of the city are retold by Billy Pilgrim as he slips uncontrollably between the past, present and future. Times of war (then and now) do this to people’s minds, it messes up the narrative. So it goes.

Drawing by Kurt Vonnegut from Slaughterhouse Five.

To tell a story from beginning to end­ – the story of your life or the story of how everything came to be – is to fix on one order of things.

The details can change but the story doesn’t.

But before the story is told, it’s still just a bunch of chemical files in your brain, waiting for synapses to sort them into new sequences. Some of those sequences are well-worn paths, while others are more treacherous – full of half-truths and fiction – waiting to be dug up like a time capsule to see what can be deciphered.

You find yourself in the future. The no-place of theatre has been reversed, the audience look past the walls to the city streets and make up stories of their own.

The theatre is a Drifting Room, revealing the city as a no-place and the theatre as a hollow box. You walk with the audience, wandering through copies of copies of copies in un-named folders waiting to be turned into new stories.

The past, the present, and the future are clusters waiting to be held up to the light, re-read just after breakfast like a diary written in your father’s handwriting.

Note to my 22-year-old self: the future may have already passed, the present is yet to be. The theatre is watching you.

We are remaking the past with each new step.


The Drifting Room – author front right. Photo: Supplied.


The Drifting Room – the world’s smallest theatre for an audience of 8 people and one narrator is roaming Whangārei as part of the Whangārei Fringe Festival, Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 October.