I reflect on what it is about performance that seduces me to the stage, balancing all my vulnerabilities as I display them in solidarity with others. To make words, learning how fleeting language can be, how uniting, how dividing. How words sometimes, are not enough. Regardless of the initial purpose or vision of the piece, to perform a story is to act out its parallels to the human experience, to truly and comprehensively put forth the insights, struggles, and joys related to the aftermath of all human behavior, “we offer our performing body as raw data of a critical cultural story” (Spry, Pelias 77).
In “Performance Theory” my final performance drew from the loss of relational possibilities as a result of a public suicide at an airport. I read a detailed narrative beginning with my arrival to the airport, followed by the relational opportunities and bridges I crossed along the way, and ended with the event itself, a man killing himself. I hoped by involving my audience in embodied and physically affectionate ways, I could help them to tap into what lies amid the spaces between us, and what possibilities for love and belonging fall through the cracks when we are not looking for them. What they heard and smelled as they moved around each other, trying not to make a mess of relationships that have not happened yet, represented to me relational ghosts that can only be realized through the grasp of hands with hands as they moved across the space, blindly. The narrative I read was intentionally just too long. I did this as a way to 1) put the audience in a story about airports, traveling, etc., that often does feel to be too much, 2) show the audience the ways in which uncertainty can linger long after a traumatic event, and 3) illustrate the unpredictable yet imperative essence of public relational connection. I wanted my audience to desire grasping each other’s hands. My performance showed the importance of human connection, and the haunting nature of misconnection.
During this performance I felt an intense fear that my audience just wouldn’t “get it.” Though even now I wonder what “it” was. What I knew was, I had a plan, and if it didn’t go exactly to plan, I failed. At one moment one of the audience members laughed at something unrelated just before what I deemed to be the “most important” part of my performance. I was, and still am in some ways, furious. Prior to preparing for this paper that moment, that person’s uproarious laughter, was the first and last thing I would think of when reflecting back on that performance. I passed the blame for what I deemed to be a failed performance onto an audience member. All this to say, I came into this article with a plan, and this article is not going to plan, and in some ways I am just as furious at myself as I was at that obnoxious audience member, but a bit more willing to accept change.
In preparation for this article I revisited my final performance documents: the position paper, the narrative script, the artist statement, and the final paper as a way to bring myself back to those moments as it has been almost a year.
“It was through the act of embodying my experience of being a witness to suicide that I came to a realization that chronicling the words on paper was not enough, I needed to say it out loud, I needed to walk around with the weight in my bones, and I needed to pass on this traumatic memory to my colleagues. I then worried I may make them uncomfortable, but Taylor would argue it is worth it because “those acts of transfer prove vital to an understanding of cultural agency” and that this process involves “contagion”, what Pelias would argue is ‘empathy,’ or the ‘catching’ of the pain of the other’s past experience, as it relates to them (Taylor 165, 168; Pelias 63).”
Upon reading this excerpt from my term paper I began looking back on my final performance and find the inadequacies first. Not in rationale, or delivery, I believe I produced thought provoking imagery that invoked empathy, comfortable discomfort, and I am confident I did so ethically and with care for the audience and those implicated in my story. I walked out of the performance hall with the satisfaction that what I created did, at least some, good. What I have begun to question about my final performance is its ability to emancipate and who I thought I was setting free (Goltz 38). Boal says performance can be a “weapon of liberation”, and though I agree, I do not believe I made enough of an attempt at getting at what (or who) really mattered in this story (Pelias 23). Pelias believes we know what matters by recognizing what the body feels (14), however, my body felt nothing as I just stood there, reading from a long script I painstakingly wrote and read over and over until it was worked into my skin, (31) and I truly believed at the time that since I felt that burn in my skin every time I read those words aloud having my audience do all the work connecting and relating was fair and appropriate.
The aforementioned passage implies I too moved my body, walking “around with the weight in my bones,” but I didn’t, I just stood there, reading. I thought of myself and my fragile emotions, I considered the comfort of my audience, but now I believe my performance may have brought that man, who chose to kill himself, back to life, without his permission, then killed him again. Making my performance an act of murder. Certainly a far cry from emancipation. I forgot, that there is always a life at stake (Pelias 24).
Moments later, he jumps, involving all those riding the tram at that precise moment (Walker 127), plummeting three stories, his neck and head crushes, and he lands face first on the pavement. He lost control in a highly regulated environment and engaging in a performance that many consider unholy and unacceptable (123).
Pelias calls performance “a grave, a place where one moves from life to death,” and in my final performance every passing word was meant to pull the audience “closer to the messiness of [his] death” (Pelias 143, 101) and encourage listening to the silence, to his absence. Essentially, they strained to hear his ghost, and all relational possibilities that lie in the liminal space he resides. I wanted them to feel the “phantom limb” of the relational lack, and reach for it (Taylor 247). This passage in particular illuminates the morbid focus on death I decided on for this project and not being able to perceive what was to come in my life in the several months to come, I believe I was flippant about it in ways I now regret. I tried to plummet three stories myself in December, head and neck crushed, face first, just like him. However, not for one moment did this performance, and what I should have learned from it, ever cross my mind until rereading and reflecting for this article. I believe now that despite my best efforts, I still have not connected to the other in meaningful ways.
What I love about performance are the questions it beckons us to ask, the ways those questions connect us to others (Pelias 15), how it “welcomes the body into the mind’s dwellings” (11), the ways in which it can embody what has been forcibly disembodied while releasing the voices of those who have been rendered voiceless (Calafell, Macdonald 56), and how it is always happening now, in the moment, live and because of this, can never be duplicated and is always at risk, to fail (170). Like mine did. As performers we should be “finding the bones, locating the heart…a sound, a curve, a saying…until the body knows” (Pelias 166). I do not believe my body ‘knew’ what I thought it did when I performed that man’s final performance, until I attempted to perform my final performance that night at the atrium, with my own witnesses who are now in the same position I was while writing that script. I am ashamed to have not seen the parallels, but Pelias calls for us to yearn for another chance, even if we think we’re done (27). And thankfully, I was given one.
In my experience, while so much learning can happen in one embodied performance, performance as a scholarship, contested with a multiplicity of definitions, is a process, a quest (Pelias 26). A continued quest I can carry, and will, carry with me through my research. It is a process whereby I never stop questioning my motives, whether or not I am sharing too much, too soon, or not enough (26). A quest for the most meaningful of connections, and remember that “others deserve their turn” (73). It is a process I am willing to embrace, one that will aide me in exploring those liminal spaces where relational possibilities die, and instead of letting them fester, let them escape, reconcile, and “kiss in the bewilderment of it all” (25).
Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. Print.
Calafell, Bernadette Marie, and Shane T. Moreman. “Iterative Hesitancies and Latinidad: The Reverberances of Raciality.” The Handbook of Critical Intercultural Communication (2010): 400–416.
Macdonald, Shauna M. “Out of the Pit: The Culture of Memorializing Miner-Martyrs.” Text and Performance Quarterly 30.1 (2010): 38–59. Web.
Pelias, Ronald J. Performance: An Alphabet of Performative Writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2014. Print.
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Duke University Press, 2003. Print.
Turner, Victor W. The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 1986. Print.
Walker, Rebecca A. “Fill/Flash/Memory: A History of Flash Mobs.” Text and Performance Quarterly 33.2 (2013): 115–32. Web.