LAI YAN WONG reviews Sticky Door at VAULT Festival.

Katie Arnstein’s heartfelt account of her personal life in her autobiographical solo show Sticky Door leaves her audience both laughing and crying; a conflict that mimics the fluctuating emotions of self-discovery. Arnstein employs lighthearted, comedic joy as a paradoxical form of revolt against the stigma for women surrounding sexual assault and mental illness.

‘This story is about the best decision I’ve ever made,’ she says, right after the introduction. The story is full of choices and dilemmas. As she struggles through London as an actress, she finds herself constantly needing sex to come to terms with her breakup the year before. In the year 2014, she adventurously seeks out new partners every month, referring to each one by the month in which they met. She later experiences sexual assault, which leaves her traumatised. Diagnosed with anxiety and depression, Arnstein realises her ongoing illness is caused by an assault  on a train when she was just sixteen. Optimism at the beginning is reflected at the end, when she uses the ‘Sticky Door’ as a metaphor for a woman’s many sticky obstacles in life, how they can write their own stories and reclaim the power taken away from them. She speaks for the feminist movement as a whole when she exclaims, ‘we’re coming in!’, a collective ‘we’ rising to un-jam every woman’s ‘sticky door’.

Arnstein starts the show with the use of placards as a voiceless introduction to the life which can be told but not controlled. She often sings her feelings, accompanied by the tunes of her ukulele and her dynamic facial expressions. Disguising her story as a lighthearted one, she uses music to convey her emotions and feelings of trauma. Contrasting a joyful tone with such haunting feelings emphasises the expectations a woman has to impress, please and obey. Her message becomes forceful as she tears up while singing and comments on sexism in everyday life: the sexist etymology of the word ‘hysteria‘ which is used to describe her condition, and a casting director telling her to undress for an audition to get the role. The overarching moral of the show falls within the shadow of much larger structural prejudice, and Arnstein skilfully conveys her message through political jokes and satire to revolt against norms imposed on women living under patriarchy.

The connections drawn between sexual abuse and depression address one of the key causes of the illness in women. After Arnstein’s breakup, she attempts to find her identity through male partners and becomes depressed after she believes the assault to have been her fault. The show comments on the emptiness and sense of loss of many women surviving in a male-dominated world. Indeed casual sex fails to fulfil her goal of being free and unrestrained, and instead further controls her. The optimistic ending gives hope; when she decides to ‘build [her] own room’, the door frame behind her glows. She imagines the stories through the lens of an ideal ‘her’, where she is able to act however she wants and would have fought back. Eventually, she actualises her ideals, further suggesting the power of self-realisation and persistence, as well as resistance.

The visual aesthetics of the set, i.e. the costume and props, are simple yet necessary to convey a stripped-down autobiographical narrative. A lounge chair, coffee table, and a lamp create a sense of domesticity on stage. Coming from her personal life, a living room set up allows for a personal sentiment from the performer to the audience sat around the stage. The engagement and eye contact from Arnstein to her audience evoke a sense of empathy, with many (myself included) tearing up during the performance. Arnstein’s candid approach to tone, pace and voice further make believable her accounts as an autobiographical performer. Sticky Door, the final part of the trilogy It’s a Girl!, engages and empowers the audience in enjoyable ways on wider feminist issues.

‘Sticky Door’ ran from the 11th of February to the 16th of February at VAULT Festival,  more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Lidia Crisafulli.