By Marisa Garreffa
Many years ago, a friend sat me down. “Marisa, if you woke up tomorrow and couldn’t make theatre anymore, do you realise that people would still love you?”
No. I did not know that, or believe it.
How could I? Theatre was the only thing I loved about myself. Every other part I struggled with – the junkie, the trash-bag, the depressive, the girl who was “one of the boys” and always just a little “too much” of something. Too complicated. Too sad. Too talkative. Too loud. Too much. Too lost.
Theatre was my roadmap for life, giving me one clear direction to cut through the chaos. A place I could communicate the things I couldn’t bear to say or feel. A golden thread connecting me to a world where I was capable of being something that was good. Theatre was my healthy connection to other people, that wasn’t about drugs or booze or madness, but about shared creativity and humanity. Theatre was my great love and, through this work, I found people who loved me in return.
But it wasn’t always that way. Before there was theatre, there was something else.
I used to be a dancer. That was my identity, the doing of my being that tied me to the world. My best friends came from dance class, and together we belonged. I won my first of many trophies singing and tap dancing to “Tea for Two” – wailing every line with the over-enthused “E” sound that only children can muster. While dancing I felt free, joyful, and alive. It felt like my calling, and this sense of connection was written all over my raptured face. My movements were not technically perfect, but they transmitted a joy and connection with life’s heartbeat that could not be articulated any other way. It was my first great love.
In high school it changed. Bored during class one day, I asked to go to the bathroom and then snuck to my locker to read a book I was hooked on. On my way down the stairs of the building, I spotted a year 12 boy I had a mega crush on. Long hair, blue eyes, and a permanently stoned slouch that I translated as the epitome of cool. Busy staring, I misstepped and tumbled, ass over tit down the stairs. He passed by, not pausing to help. My ankle ballooned to twice its size and turned a fairly awful colour.
A few days later, determined to complete a ballet exam. I strapped up the twisted ankle and took some pain killers to soldier on. While in full split along the barre, my damaged foot gave way and slammed into the wall. I fractured a small bone in my big toe, and had to replace dancing with physiotherapy. I remember sitting on the ground with an elastic band around my ankle, instructed to twist my foot back and forth until someone told me to stop. I wept onto the scratchy carpet, frustrated to be alone and broken, rather than strong and dancing for joy.
I went back to dancing afterward but a piece of my love was lost, a long crack running ominously through the foundations. A fear had been born – that everything could be taken away at any moment. One of many depressions began. Life with its complexity dug more holes into my innocence and I piled addictions on top, burying one problem with another. My body had become my enemy, and I took less and less pleasure from inhabiting it. I no longer felt connected with the world. I no longer belonged.
My great love had fallen.
I had to find another way to speak.
I sidestepped into theatre, and was surprised to find success there. Perhaps dance was supposed to lead me here all along, still toward the stage but in a different way. I performed musical theatre at first, but my fears raged and I soon retreated to the safer roles of directing and writing, where I could express everything that lay, unwitnessed, inside of me without having to inhabit my body fully. I discovered playwriting – creating shows together with other theatre creatives who felt like family. I belonged and had a place in the world again. Here, I could pour out the twisted emotions that had found a home in me, morphing them into images and words, and my understanding of movement found a new expression in other people’s bodies. After the close of every single show, I would crash to a rock bottom and only emerge for another project.
My theatre productions swung from funny and beautiful to bleak and dark. The work and the expression was healing. Eventually, I tapped deep into my courage and returned to the stage, this time as an actor, performing my own text in a solo show for the first time. It was around this time that my friend tried to convince me that I was loveable – with or without my work. I did not believe her. Without my new-found great love, I was sure that I was nothing.
Theatre led me to Europe, where I dreamed of changing my life. I wanted to leave addictions behind and replace them with new experiences. Six months into my adventure, I was drugged and raped while looking for an apartment to rent. During the court proceedings, the rapist’s lawyer put an image from my solo performance on the judge’s table. I was naked in that show, hung on a long rail with pig carcasses, a comment on women’s bodies and death. The photo was wielded as evidence of my promiscuity. The judge didn’t buy it, but my safe space, the protective womb that was theatre for me, had been invaded.
Again, I didn’t want to be in my body.
Again, a great love had fallen.
Again, I had to find another way to speak.
Theatre could not contain the story I needed to tell anymore. Without consciously deciding to, I began to write a book. The words poured out of me, and the feeling of being “called” returned. Perhaps this was where theatre was supposed to lead me all along, to the page. As of today I have written two books already, to my own surprise.
I have no set idea for the next book, nor any sense of what I will do next. Now I move fluidly between writing, theatre, and new inspirations. I’m even known to dance a little at parties or in the kitchen – but none of these are my home. Something is shifting, liberating me from an old fear. My source of great love is in the process of relocating itself.
I couldn’t see it before, but my creative expressions were always merely roads. When one is closed to me, there will always be another that reveals itself in time. They are there to guide me and, in the end, they’re all leading to the same place.
They lead straight back to me, deep into the self that I was so sure I hated.
I am the source of the great love that I thought came from outside.
I am the source of my best self that people came to love.
I am the source of the love in my life.
And as long as I speak my truth, whether it’s through dance, theatre, books, a great conversation, or even just a hand placed over someone else’s – my love will always reach other people and be reflected back at me, connecting me with the world. This is my belonging. Not what I do, but how and that I do it.
I wonder what may fall next, and the road that loss will lead me to…
Short Bio: Marisa is a professional writer who works in Australia and internationally. With her theatre company, Mondo di Corpo, she has written and performed for presentation in Australia, China, and Europe. In Italy, Marisa has revised The Medici Dynasty theatre production for presentation to English speaking audiences, now in its second year with over 200 performances and 8000 audience members. She is a writer for Openhouse Magazine, and has just completed “The Flesh in My Life”, a memoir with recipes that captures the early life of her father Vince Garreffa, a well-known Calabrese butcher and personality in Perth. It will be released in Perth during December of 2016, and in Italy during May of 2017. Her own memoir is in development, and will be published in late 2017.