Issues both deeply personal and socially significant were laid bare Saturday with Jen Tuder’s performance of “Suicide Punchline.”
The piece was the featured performance of this year’s Patti Pace Performance Festival at the Kleinau Theatre.
Tuder, an SIUC alumna who now teaches at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, performed the monologue, which deals with her father’s suicide and the struggles of being a survivor, to a full theatre of festival participants and others.
The emotionally intense performance, while deeply personal, was meant to reach a wide audience to address the sensitive issue of suicide, Tuder said.
“We’re very silent as a culture about suicide,” she said.
The solo piece begins with Tuder furiously scrubbing the stage, symbolically cleaning after her father’s self-inflicted gunshot. She then launches into a litany of questions to her dead father, circling the question of why he killed himself.
The performance then takes a sudden turn as Tuder takes up a martini and engages in a slightly tipsy cocktail party conversation, complete with uneasy, suicide-based humor and various facts and statistics about suicide.
The pendulum then swings back the other way as Tuder puts on a white mask and enters a “diorama” sequence. Tuder recites a grave monologue, influenced by mythology and classical literature, then performs a ritualistic dance to a distorted voiceover.
The performance continues to alternate between the serious moments of intense searching, the harrowing diorama sequences and the cocktail party conversations.
Tuder said the lines between the different sections intentionally break down as the performance goes on and reaches its conclusion, with Tuder addressing an empty seat in the audience reserved for her father’s ghost and sitting down silently to invite him in.
Tuder said she started writing what would become the performance soon after her father’s suicide while she was still in college and began putting the final piece together in 2009.
She said she’s performed it about a dozen times now, and no two times are exactly the same.
The humorous cocktail party sequences come from her father’s own sense of gallows humor, and the diorama sequences stem from her youthful obsession with mythology and are the most subconsciously driven parts of the performance, she said.
Tuder said the final sequence, and her recounting of a story about she and her father bonding during a performance in a local theater, serves to emotionally stitch her back together after the rest of the performance. However, she said each performance still leaves her exhausted.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m done. I’m not going to Tres (Hombres) tonight,” she said after the performance.
Elyse Pineau, organizer of the Patti Pace Festival and associate professor of speech communication, said the piece represents a major development in Tuder’s work since she was a student at SIUC, and is much more serious and autobiographical.
She said Tuder was already scheduled to come to SIUC to perform when they decided to center the Patti Pace Festival around her performance.
The festival brought students from about 12 schools nationwide to Carbondale to workshop their performances and discuss the craft, Pineau said.
AnaLisa Campos, a student of California State University, Northridge, said she came to the festival with her classmates to perform their piece. She said “Suicide Punchline” was a draining, heartfelt experience.
Laura Borger, a graduate student in English from Carbondale, said despite the fact she’s known Tuder for about 10 years and may be biased, she thinks the performance has a universal appeal and would suck in anyone.
On the other hand, her friendship with Tuder made it especially affecting.
“It’s particularly poignant because I know her and love her,” she said.
Tuder said she’s performed the piece for community theater groups as outreach on the issue of suicide and has also spoken with doctors about her critiques of traditional mourning narratives and ways of dealing with loss and the ways she’s found more helpful.
She said the performance is meant to reach out to the audience to speak to possible suicide survivors, either of their own attempts or the deaths of loved ones, who are going through the same things she has.
“I hope it helps people feel they’re not crazy,” she said.