never said motel


- Words Marieke Hardy

Without meaning to completely bum you all out, I’m going to start this piece with the following icy slap of informatio­n: you’re going to die. And all your friends will die, and your family, and your dogs (this particular one REALLY isn’t fair, and to be honest, I haven’t completely reconciled it, because dogs are perfect), and your ex-lovers, all of them, even the ones you never got over. It’s such a brutal and painful thing to consider. I know, I know. But even still,

I try to remind myself of it constantly, because it’s important. It makes me reflect on the things I’ve never said, the ones that long ago got stuck in my throat because they were too hard or too painful or raw or embarrassi­ng to air. It makes me strive to reach out to those I’ve hurt or lost. To say thank you, and sorry, and goodbye, and I love you. To know that, should my time among the living end this very afternoon (and I hope it doesn’t; I still haven’t read all of Jim Dodge’s back catalogue), I’ll have left behind some closed doors for those who once played a significan­t role in my story. Sometimes we don’t get the chance to speak our truth. People melt away from our lives and we’re left carrying utterances on our lips like powdered sugar. Sometimes it’s not safe to go back, and wiser to hold our unsaid words close to our sore hearts to heal alone. Sometimes the boundaries are harsh and unmoving and those we’ve hurt no longer want to make space to hear what we have to tell them. We need to respect their wishes, too.

In her art piece, Never Said Motel, Melbourne writer and performer Tamzen Hayes interrogat­es the concept of Words Unspoken. It’s raw and vulnerable, a heady combinatio­n of performanc­e, nostalgia, letting go and healing. Taking place in the confines of a motel room, Never Said Motel asks audience volunteers to play the role of real-life figures in Tamzen’s intimate world, helping her tease out conversati­ons that have, until this point, only happened in her mind. Tamzen’s motivation for creating the show is borne less of a fear of mortality and more of her propensity for over-thinking – she admits she walks away from most conversati­ons in her life hashing over the numerous things she “should have said” in the moment. “It loops around in my brain so much that sometimes, if they’re a friend, I have to text them afterwards to explain myself,” she says. “Otherwise I can’t sleep! I just toss and turn and have imaginary conversati­ons.” There’s a lot to love about this project, but let’s start with the space: a motel. (In the past, Tamzen – with the assistance of producer Annie Bourke – has performed the work in a black box as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival and, in a moment of creative symmetry, as part of regional art project OK Motels.) Never Said Motel takes place in just one room. The aesthetic is incredibly specific, leaning into those cheesy, vintage, pastel-saturated boxes where over decades, weary travellers (or naughty philandere­rs) have passed out, argued, wept, jerked off, broken up and fallen for the age-old trick of sampling the pillow mint, only to discover it’s a compliment­ary bar of soap. Tamzen has a romantic connection to old motels, finding particular inspiratio­n in a road trip across America in an RV. “We stopped at quite a few roadside motels and I fell in love not only with the aesthetic, but the way these somewhat unassuming buildings hold on to so many stories,” she says.

It’s true that motel rooms can act as some strange bubble of disconnect­ion from the tedious minutiae of our lives – in that generic, sealed-off box we can trick ourselves into thinking the rules no longer apply. We eat toast out of a paper bag, drink from miniature bottles and experiment with opening every hand lotion and conditione­r, mixing them together in the bath to create a tower of aromatic bubbles. Motel rooms can occupy the same blurry moral landscape as airports: timeless, lawless, free of responsibi­lity and of natural light (those blackout curtains can confuse the shit out of a particular­ly jetlagged traveller). Star-crossed lovers often meet in motels due to the ‘neutral’ territory, while lonely corporates strive to connect in a strange city. It’s a mélange of fluidity and feelings.

Tamzen agrees. “There’s something about the transitory nature of a motel room that really resonated with the idea of people coming and going through your life,” she says. “In the show, I – the central character – stay in one place while different people enter the space, enter my life, and change me in some way when they leave again. Motels only get a glimpse into people’s lives, and usually a part that’s in flux – they’re travelling, between homes, meeting in secret.”

Tamzen’s background as a maker is varied. She’s done everything from theatre to TV commercial­s, even enjoying a stint as a PA on Channel 9’s Lego Masters. “I’ve always had a secret desire to do stand-up comedy, but just standing on stage with a microphone seems too exposing and a bit naked,” she says. “So I guess this is my hybrid performanc­e.” Never Said Motel isn’t the first time she’s put herself on the line for her art practice, but it’s definitely her most vulnerable work – not least due to the dangers of manifestin­g ghosts.

“Once I started writing Never Said Motel, I had a joke that it was messing with the universe because I kept having encounters with the people I was writing about, even if I hadn’t seen them in years,” she says. “One moved back from overseas, I bumped into another in the street, and another just started contacting me out of the blue. All these people who were basically out of my life just kept reappearin­g.” It’s also a risk, of course, to use audience volunteers in a live art performanc­e – especially when requesting they help you with emotional bruises of your own. But it works – Tamzen’s openness about her past has inspired others to share their own unspoken words. Some of her favourite contributi­ons include:

“Wash your towels.”

“I was too afraid to leave.”

“I’m a person, not a plaything.”

“I wish I was as beautiful as your ex.”

“I’m sorry.”

Although the audience members are just standing in for a ‘real person’ in Tamzen’s past, she says each performanc­e is a release. “Letting these words out into the world can take the burden of holding on to them away.”

Tamzen is grateful for the opportunit­y to look back at past emotional entangleme­nts and reflect on her own place within them (“I keep journals and have done for the past 15 years, so I actually got to go through them all and see how I was feeling at the time of some of the stories in the show,” she says), and has aspiration­s for future iterations of Never Said Motel that include anonymous stories from audience members. She hopes those who experience the show will connect with the universal themes of regret, heartbreak and hope, and feel some catharsis from the voice she gives to their own unspoken truths.

Given my cheery (look, I find it cheery) fascinatio­n with death, I like to think I’m pretty clear on my ‘Never Said’ front. When a big and beautiful ex-love died not long ago (he and I had said everything we needed to by that point: I’m sorry and I forgive you and I love you; we were lucky) I took some time to consider any other people I needed to say something to, and wrote two once-dear humans in my life letters. I didn’t expect replies; I just wanted to give oxygen to some final soft, loving openness before closing the door for good. There’s comfort in knowing it’s a completed circle.

When I ask Tamzen if there are still things she wishes she’d said, she’s quick to say yes, but acknowledg­es that performing Never Said Motel over and over is ultimately a healing experience. “The more I say some of these words, the more my feelings shift. Some lines have morphed from sadness to confusion or anger, and I’ve realised I’m finally grieving, going through the stages. Finally letting go.”

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