Written and performed by David Sheppeard

Any man can be a father, but
it takes a special person to be a dad.

My favorite show in this year’s Brighton Fringe was David Sheppeard’s Hard Graft. The production was supported by The Arts Council and commissioned by Oval House and is a multi media work of art. “I am making a show about my dad, but I don’t want him to see it,” says Sheppeard and then with videos, commentary and stories, he does what every child tries to do. He examines what his father was and how that made him what he has become. “Why did you have me?” he asks his dad and his dad says, ”I loved your mother and she wanted children.”

But is that reason enough? Is that all a father is to his son? Is he only the sperm provider to make the woman he loves happy? What does a father need to give to his child to be more than just the vehicle that created a life? What does a son have the right to expect from the man who made him? These are the issues explored in this beautiful and thoughtful piece.

As I became absorbed in the scenes before me on stage, I kept asking myself what have we done to our children? Have we intimidated them? Have we made them ashamed to be what they are? Do we as parents have the right to judge the adult that was once our child? “I don’t go to visit my parents as often as I should,” says Sheppeard. “As I walk in the door, I regress to the age of about 14.   …My dad is 72. He is a very old dad.”

And as he describes his father, he tries not just to understand him, but to make valid excuses for the distance between the two of them. “Retiring is a difficult time for a man” he says and indeed it is. It deprives men of their sense of purpose, their feeling of why they are put here on earth. “My dad is really good at telling you what is wrong with the world,” he says and the real meaning of that sentence is that his dad is really good at telling David Sheppeard what is wrong with him. How universal is this feeling that our parents’ criticisms are gospel…how hurtful and how lasting? Would that every parent remembered how strong the impact of his words can be on his child and weighed his words before he spoke.

“I had this idea that when you had to work hard, it made you authentic.” But what if you do not work very hard? What if you are self-obsessed, fixated on your sexuality and homeless? Are you less of a person? More important, are you a disappointment to your parents who did work hard and seem very authentic. If you are that disappointment, does it really matter in the bigger picture of your life?  “The difference between my dad and me is that I care what people think and he doesn’t,” but what Sheppeard is really saying is that his dad acts like he doesn’t care so well that he has fooled his own son, a son who is introspective and feels he has no real roots. “ I don’t really understand how it feels to belong somewhere.”

“I asked him why did you want to be a father and he said it was the natural thing to do. It wasn’t the answer I wanted.” Of course it was not the response Sheppeard sought because he asked the wrong question. The real query was “Why did you want to be MY father?”

We all know we should love and respect our parents. We all believe that deep down we do love them and they love us, but sometimes…all too often in fact…it is very hard to buy those maxims. They don’t seem to reflect the turbulence, the anxiety and the heartbreak that scar every child/parent connection. “You can’t live life backwards. Can I maybe get to loving him instead of just saying the words?”

This is a heartbreaking, sensitive monologue that goes through every child’s mind when he realizes he is not the person his parents expected him to be. The trick is to learn to respect and accept the person you really are. Sadly, it often takes a lifetime to figure that one out.

David Sheppeard ‘s performance is exquisite and he says aloud what is in every person’s mind as they are torn between the drive to rip up the apron strings that bind them to the people who brought them into the world and the guilt we all feel for breaking away and becoming an individual instead of a reflection of our parents’ hopes and dreams. Hard Graft is all about growing pains, the ones we all have right before we bloom.