17 April 2024

'Worth the mortification' – an Illawarra performance artist has unlocked her teenage diaries for audiences

| Dione David
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A diary propped open on a stage

Kay Proudlove’s endearing comedy about the agony of growing up, Dear Diary, returns to Wollongong in May as part of a national tour. Photos: Tracey Leigh.

What would it take for you to crack open the vault of teenage angst that was your high school diary, and lay bare your vulnerabilities to live audiences?

Illawarra playwright Kay Proudlove is game.

After winning the hearts of Wollongong audiences with her MERRIGONGX debut in 2022, Kay’s endearing comedy about the agony of growing up, Dear Diary, returns to Wollongong in May as part of a national tour.

Produced with support from Merrigong Theatre Company’s Artist Development Program, with narrative help from dramaturg Phil Spencer (The Smallest Hour), the show takes audiences on a journey into Kay’s teenage diaries through a collection of intimate and vulnerable stories and songs. From first kisses to frayed friendships (and with a healthy dose of Spice Girls), viewers will revisit the sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful teenage years, and delve into the pressures and expectations of growing up.

It seems fearless, but Kay admits it’s not an easy show to put on.

“It doesn’t matter how many times I put on the show, there are parts that make me cringe every time,” she says. “I just try to remember that the message behind the show is worth the mortification on my part.”

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The inspiration for Dear Diary came when Kay stumbled across her teenage journals while moving house. She dipped her toe in the concept at Merringong’s Made From Scratch variety night for performance artists last year, with a song called Book of Guys, based on one particularly personal section of her diaries.

“I’m generally vulnerable when it comes to my songwriting, but this performance had me shaking like a leaf,” she says.

“It was about the guy I had my most intense high school crush on. I did change his name because I was terrified. I think if he ever sees the show, he’ll know it was him, though.

“For Dear Diary, I’ve tried to retain specificity, because that’s what makes it so relatable and funny. It’s funny to remember the things people fixate on when they’re teenagers. We all have those cringy memories of stumbling through as we’re figuring out who we are. The nostalgia of that unites us.”

woman with guitar performing on stage

Illawarra playwright Kay Proudlove performs Dear Diary on stage.

Kay’s high school diaries document the rollercoaster of growing up in the late ’90s to early 2000s. While technology and mediums of expression have changed over time, the issues explored in Dear Diary translate across generations.

In fact, that’s kind of the point – the universality of the human condition.

“There’s a lot of focus on body image and how media affects us and if anything, that issue has intensified with the rise of social media,” Kay says.

“People who are my age come to the show, so do older people, younger people, women, men, non-binary … the really beautiful thing about this work is that it can resonate with anyone. Most people know someone who has struggled with body image, if they themselves haven’t struggled.”

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Other parts of this layered performance have more levity – like Kay’s fan fiction writing.

“It was based around a Lord of the Rings crush, and that’s all I’ll say about that!” she laughs.

“I was so into that world, posting on online forums and so on, and my fan fiction was quite popular. Looking back, it was just terrible writing. But I was clearly very serious at the time. I really thought I was doing something and maybe I was, in that community.

“I make light of it now but it just goes to show that when you’re in it, you just have to go through it and hopefully come out the other end. That’s a time in a person’s life that nobody can navigate for them.

“I think ultimately the show is about looking back on our past selves and that journey of what we wanted to be, the things we hold on to in our lives (both physically and mentally), why we keep these things and when it’s the right time to let them go – if ever.”

Dear Diary will show at Bruce Gordon Theatre at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre from Wednesday 8 to Saturday 11 May.

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