1 PM Tuesday 5 September 2017 Nunhead Heights
‘Unopened Letters From My Mother’, my 2017 Edinburgh Festival show, touched nerves.
I hadn’t realised how many people had broken off contact with their blood relatives. I would like to believe the show made people move closer to their families or accept what they were doing.
The show was one of the hardest things I have ever done – and harder for an audience to experience. My reading a different unopened letter from my dead mother was called ‘extra level mining of personal grief’ by one review site.
I hadn’t anticipated that I’d need to make the show funny. Yeah, I know it was listed in the ‘Comedy’ section of the Fringe programme. I thought it would just be funny. Actually, I hadn’t thought much about it. If I had thought about it I probably wouldn’t have done it. 21 shows, all different. All painful. All with some moments of understanding and joy. Bloody hard work, as the English say. A crying old man isn’t easy to watch.
The letters reminded me of what my mother was going through and what, perhaps, I put her through. And to read them on-stage only added to the guilt and pain. My mother would have loved that her voice was being heard. In one of the letters she wrote that she wanted the letters she had written to her Rabbi made into a book! Her letters were part of her self-expression.
The shows left me feeling empty, exposed as a bad son. But I also learned how my mother expected me to save her from her self-made dreadful life yet she hadn’t given me the tools to save her. I’ve spent a lifetime thinking I was either her salvation or the cause of her distress. That wasn’t fair of her.
‘Unopened Letters’ – The Tour
I am digitising the letters and will be putting them up on my website. I will be making a show out of the experience of reading the letters and about how people grow distant. I am going to take it on tour so that others can gain some insight into their own situations and I can make some money out of the effort I have already put in. That is something my mother would have approved.
The reviews for Edinburgh are interesting in themselves and must have been tough for the reviewers to write, as the show was unusual. I hadn’t thought it was a comedy but that is what my comedy is, making laughter out of dis-ease and discomfort. The only difference is that it was an attempt at instant comedy from immediate pain, as Steve Bennett of Chortle pointed out.
The show was awarded the Fringe Experience Award by The Wee Review Awards – given ‘to the show that provides the most memorable and extraordinary experience at the Fringe, be it good, bad or plain strange’. ‘Exposing and uncomfortable hour of Schaffer reading aloud letters from his dead mother for the first time.’ [Matthew Keeley]
Robert Peacock, The Wee Review [Not starred]:
‘This is extra level mining of personal grief; it throws shade on your “Dead Dad” comics. Here we have the raw material, entirely unadorned or sculpted for effect. It’s the only Fringe show that might have been worth seeing every night of its run, and one of the very few offering real jeopardy. It may yet yield something unbearably painful. Joyous? Unlikely.’ http://theweereview.com/review/lewis-schaffer-unopened-letters-mother/
Kate Copstick, The Scotsman ★★★★:
‘But it is hard for me not to let my rising rage at him as a person get in the way of a fair review. The show is extraordinary. It picks its audience up and carries them into a vortex of awfully funny and plain awful.’ http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/edinburgh-festivals/comedy-review-lewis-schaffer-unopened-letters-from-my-mother-1-4533548
Steve Bennett, Chortle ★★★:
For some, the fact that this is quite unlike anything else in the programme will be enough to make it a must-see. Unopened Letters From My Mother isn’t so much comedy as an affecting performance art experience, in which comic Lewis Schaffer prods away at the scab over a deep emotional wound, just to see what might happen.’ http://www.chortle.co.uk/review/2017/08/11/37437/lewis_schaffer%3A_unopened_letters_from_my_mother
Brian Donaldson, The List ★★★:
‘The point of all this remains rather unclear, but you have to admire the gall of the man. Unopened Letters From My Mother could be brave, brilliant or baffling. Chances are it’s all three.’ https://edinburghfestival.list.co.uk/article/94552-lewis-schaffer-unopened-letters-from-my-mother/
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