How to perform your own work: A chat with Nicole Henriksen

Ever wondered what goes into a one-person theatre show? Or how to get the guts to perform your work? Read Editor Jennifer Richards’ Q&A with Nicole Henriksen to find out…

Writers performing their own work is a type of theatre I’ve always been scared of entering. As a playwright, I love hiding behind my laptop, having someone else express my thoughts on stage.

But Nicole Henriksen is bringing her theatre debut, Makin’ It Rain, to London. It’s everything I’m scared off: a one-person show where she performs her own work, and it’s also autobiographical about her time as a stripper.

Wanting to find out more about how writers perform their own work, I caught up with Nicole ahead of her debut for a chat.

Q&A with Nicole Henriksen

JR: How did you make the transition from doing stand-up comedy in 2011 to performing theatre shows now? And what encouraged you to make this change?

NH: In a lot of ways, I was never a comedian. I made comedy shows, and occasionally I performed “straight” stand-up comedy, but I was a performer.

I made comedy shows that were subversive, alternative, and bold. They centred on characters, multimedia, and shameless whimsy. They weren’t the work of a comedian, they were a performer exploring their voice.

And once I’d explored that voice by writing five comedy shows over as many years, it had run its course. The world of comedians is so boring and sad in many ways, and I’d grown tired of so many comedians always trying to get a joke into every moment.

Of course though, I’d made some fierce and fast friends, and found my voice and my purpose, as a performer and person, but I was tired and frankly uninspired by how little expression is possible in comedy.

If a comedy show has a serious moment, people question if it’s comedy, or what purpose that serious moment served. But a theatre show can be funny, serious, sexy, absurd, poignant, and so much more without it’s genre or purpose being questioned.

I enjoy the freedom of theatre. And the community that goes with it, pretentious though it can be, isn’t often as single-minded as the comedy community can be.

JR: With performing your own work, do you write a script that you strictly follow, or do you just have a general structure to the piece you follow more freely?

NH: This is definitely where the comedy background comes in.

I was one of those comedy performers who was a performer first, and a writer second. This meant the performance was my focus, not on crafting the “best” jokes.

I wrote my jokes as dot points, and allowed room for improvised asides and moments, to give each performance the feeling that it is a performance. It’s live, and anything can happen – I can handle anything, that’s what the hours put into performing are for.

When I was exploring theatre, it seemed to make sense to keep the same approach. With Makin’ It Rain (my theatre debut), it seemed obvious to take the same approach. I think some people would find that too stressful to mention, but for me, the performance is everything, not the words.

Makin’ It Rain Promotion Shot

I also know how to express myself and speak in a manner that’s both articulate enough to be taken seriously, yet clear and non-pretentious enough to be understood by as many people as possible.

So, the shows are mapped out, and the beats clear, but the wording may shift ever so slightly from night to night, or if an audience is more of a comedy crowd, the comedic moments might have extra beats, for example. And if they’re a quieter crowd, then those quiet, softer moments, are amplified, and I often feel able to give these moments extra beats, and allow them to hang in the air for a moment longer.

JR: A lot of writers draw from personal experience, and your work in Makin’ It Rain  is autobiographical. But I know I could never perform something I’d written that forced me to be vulnerable on stage; what is it that allows you to be able to perform such personal, autobiographical work?

This is something I discuss in my new theatre show, A Robot In Human Skin, which explores my anxiety. I felt for most of my life I was performing, that’s why I wanted to be on stage so much growing up, and still now.

I wanted people to see how much effort I was putting into just being a person, I wanted them to praise me for all this silent performing I was doing on a daily basis. And that’s exhausting, pretending every second of every day, never truly switching off.

So standing on stage naked talking about the time my mother said I should keep weight off after falling very ill as a teen, doesn’t seem as daunting as exposing to people, who’ve known me for some time, that I was often pretending when I was in their company.

I’ve also seen how much it affects people to see someone speaking a truth on stage, especially when it’s a truth that also discusses a somewhat hidden industry, such as that of sex work. Yet it also explores relatable moments, such as falling back in love with an ex, because they’re the only one you can open up to.

So, the reactions are my motivation, and the feeling I feel of finally seen is part of it too. I personally wouldn’t be a performer if I wasn’t searching for something on the stage.

Makin’ It Rain Promotional Shot
JR: For writers who are more nervous about performing their own work, what would be your best advice?

My best advice only comes from my life experience, and everyone’s is different. But I’d say, imagine yourself seeing the show you’re making. Imagine yourself three years ago, or seven years ago, even four months ago. Imagine that person coming to the show, seeing someone else expressing something they feel, but aren’t brave enough to express just yet.

Now imagine the impact of seeing your show, imagine how much it could stick with the younger you, how much you wish you’d seen your own show when you were going through that hard time, or finding yourself. You’ve got to do it for all the versions of yourself that need to see it.

I’m always striving to be the person I needed to inspire me and give me strength when I was growing up. And I’m still growing up.

JR: From some fantastic one-person shows I’ve seen, I’ve found that pieces where the writer is the sole performer are often more honest and liberating in a way. What would you say is the best thing about performing your own work?

I haven’t really performed other’s work, outside of in high school, and a short stint in a comedy musical. So I don’t have much to compare it to.

But there’s a moment, that can happen at a storytelling night, during a full length show, or when discussing a topic with friends, that’s incomparable to anything else. It’s a moment of feeling connection with the audience and my work. It’s the “you can hear a pin drop” moment, it’s goosebumps, and it’s a powerful intensity.

Knowing that I’m present in that moment, speaking words that are my own, is something I can’t equate to any other response.

For me, it is better than getting a big laugh in a comedy show, it’s better than selling out a performance, it’s what brings me back to live performance and makes me wonder if I could ever perform as well in another medium.

I’m forever chasing that, and I’d say it’s the best thing about performing my own work.

Makin’ It Rain is  on at Kings Head Theatre until October 7, and you can get tickets here. Nicole has given LPB readers 50% off with the code: cheeky.


Promotional shots are provided courtesy of Nicole Henriksen.

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