Turning trauma into theater

For Carrie Fisher, it was a temporary escape from the persona of Princess Leia. For Anna Deavere Smith, it was a prism through which the Los Angeles riots of 1992 could unfold. For Patrick Burns, it was a way to turn his harrowing time in foster care into a compelling narrative.

These three actors, and many others, have turned their own traumas and those shared by everyone into one-person shows on Broadway and at festivals around the world.

Beginning May 23, Tristan Sturrock will tell his own story at the Spoleto Festival USA.

“It made sense to tell an autobiographical story by myself,” said Sturrock, whose play, “Mayday Mayday,” focuses on overcoming tragedy after he suffered a fall that broke his neck.

“There was no one else who could tell this particular story but me, and playing onstage was the only way I knew how to tell it. If I had been a novelist, maybe I would have written a book.”

Celebrities such as Fisher (“Wishful Drinking”) and John Leguizamo (“Sexaholix”) have brought their personal tales. These usually autobiographical works intend to make the audience think about their own lives in the context of what the actor has experienced.

For Patrick Burns, a Los Angeles-based actor, developing his show “From Foster Care to Fabulous,” which he has performed around the country, was about shedding light on what he feels is a neglected part of the United States: foster care. Like many actors, Burns, 26, had a knack for storytelling and a past that he felt was interesting enough to share.

“Theater is all about telling stories, whether we’re telling our own stories or we’re telling other people’s,” Burns said. “People like to hear stories, and they like to understand people. They like to get to know people. They like to learn about people because that’s how we learn about ourselves.”

Other theater artists take a documentary-style approach, interviewing people and using that material verbatim as a stage text. Among those artists are Smith (“Twilight: Los Angeles”) and Marc Wolf (“Another American: Asking and Telling”).

Neither Burns nor Sturrock has a call to action in their show or a mission to change anyone’s lives. What they do have is a simple task: to entertain and educate. If it leads to change, well, that’s just a bonus.

“What I live in is the ‘What can we do to change it?’ which is a daunting spot,” Burns said about his show. “And I’m not sure that I’d get very far thinking about that, but I’m not a politician. I’m an artist, so I just do what I can with my art.”

Josh Austin is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.