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Performance Is The Thing
Dzifa Benson is compelled to consider the nature of performance.
“All the world’s a stage
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts”
From As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s melancholic hero Jacques is a libertine-turned-philosopher. He has turned to philosophy in his quest for a new identity, and as a philosopher he questions much of what he sees around him, causing him to offer the soliloquy from which the above excerpt is taken.
I have to say I am with Jacques on this one, at least as far as those four lines are concerned. The world of the stage, of roles and masks, parts and personas to play, has been one of the most enduring and insightful ways of speaking about life and the world that we live in. But the incandescent philosophical question to me is this: if performance is a metaphor for life, then what is the nature of performance? How does Shakespeare’s use of a theatrical metaphor to represent the grand design of life interface with what I do as a performer, in an artificially controlled setting, with an audience primed and receptive to what I want to portray?
The definition of philosophy is pretty much set – love of wisdom, the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics, the application of reason towards a more enlightened way of life. How can we understand performance in equally clear terms? Also, what are the responsibilities of the performer? I am a performer in the given definition of the word, in that I write and perform poetry in theatres, art galleries, libraries, pubs, parties, friends’ gardens. I have performed in conventional and devised theatre (this places less emphasis on text, using images, symbols, improvisation and movement to create drama). My alter ego, Sister Siren, is about to front a band, the Merchants of Chaos, who are a loose collective of musicians, vocalists and sound artists. How can my performances enrich my life and the lives of my audiences? What is my own personal philosophy of performance?
Performance can fundamentally be said to be a transformation of ideas and dreams and all those other little understood human impulses into outward action. In this very basic sense performance happens with every word and gesture. It also presupposes a process of evaluation by a spectator.
Further, it is critical to distinguish between performing as an adult and performing as a child. Young children perform all the time, without a stage or knowledge of what it represents, without fear of ridicule or of making a mistake. They fly a plane, throw a party for their dolls, make you play one game with them over and over again. This is unconscious performance.
I first performed my own words as a fully fledged adult in Newcastle three years ago. My debut performance was part of Tell Tales, a national tour of 10 minute short stories set to music. I had travelled up by train from London in company of five other more experienced writers. I was acutely aware that they all had better performance chops and skills than me. I had never felt so nervous before and have never felt so nervous since. In the evening as performance time closed in, I had to keep dampening down the rising tide of nausea in my belly. Some breathing exercises helped but nothing was going to slow my pounding heart. I know from feedback that when I finally got on stage my face looked calm and my voice was rock steady, although I read too fast. And my hands! They would not stop shaking. All the nervous energy I had managed to remove from the rest of my body had reached the end of the line in my hands, and having nowhere else to go animated them like hyperactive jumping jacks. There’s one very basic thing I learnt that day: never take your writing on stage on a flimsy bit of paper. Always use something hardbacked. Even if your hands start shaking, it won’t be so noticeable.
I asked myself, why was I so nervous? What did I think that my audience supposed about me and my work? And how, in turn, did that inform my performance, then and subsequently? How could I develop a thick skin? How could I wear the association of my work with my ego a bit more loosely? How could I liberate myself from the notion that I could please all of the people all of the time and make peace with the fact that I can’t fool all the people all the time – least of all myself? I determined that I was going to break through whatever it was that made me so anxious to stand up in front of a room full of people, and simply be. But I also learnt some other more complex philosophical lessons too, which became clearer over time. In fact, whatever philosophy I have developed about performance has stemmed from that moment.
Performance And Being
Romantic aestheticians would have it that art, and by extension, performance, is a heightening of the common human activity of expressing emotions to the point where they are experienced and rendered lucid to the performer and audience in a way that is rarely seen in everyday life. Performance in its ideal expression can even give you creative license to transform what you think is possible. Here I am brought to mind of Martin Luther King. Anybody can have a radical message, but how did King disseminate his message of non-violence and racial equality in such a way that his achievements represent a powerful paradigm shift in the way any self-respecting society views itself? King was a pastor, an orator, an eloquent public speaker. In essence he was a performer; but as a performer he was a visionary who became the living embodiment of his dream. This is what makes him a great performer. A great performer such as King opens the windows of human desire and ultimately shapes attitudes and insights that change cultures.
If I could attain even a smidgen of Martin Luther King’s power to move people through words and gestures, I think I’d be doing alright. When I am performing, there’s a desire I can taste to bridge the gap in understanding between me and my audience. I want to find new ways, new language, verbal and non-verbal to express universal truths. I want to push the challenge of understanding deeper, for me and my audience. To put it more dramatically, I want to punch through the chest of the obvious to get to the blood-soaked, beating heart of things: to hold the core of truth up still pumping with life for all of my audience to see. The question is, how I can transcend my self to reach the sublime?
Can a single performance even be a microcosm of life? Well yes, if I gather as many of my faculties (sensitivity, observation, knowledge, experience, memory, imagination etc) together and bring them to bear on my performance so that the truth and my essential nature shine forth, as happened with Martin Luther King. I believe performance represents an effort to translate ideas into actions, beliefs into habits, philosophy into life. But how to do this? Initially, I might turn to Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist as a guide. Seneca’s brand of Stoic philosophy emphasized practical steps by which one might confront life’s problems. The Stoics performed a daily search for freedom from dependence on anything external to the self. From what I can tell, Seneca endorsed the practice of philosophy as a daily disciplined performance for the attentive gaze of an audience from which one never escapes: one’s self.
Or consider an approach akin to existentialism. I say ‘I am a writer, poet, performer,’ but this self-definition is in itself a kind of performance. Essentially, we lay on some kind of performance every day in our interactions with others. We utilise different facets of our personality, different personas, when we talk to our boss, lover, hairdresser, children. You do not use the same voice that you would use with your wife to interact with your doctor. But the person we perform to most is perhaps our own self. We are always watching and evaluating ourselves. When we do this we are asking ‘what is the purpose of my life?’ or perhaps ‘what is my relationship to existence?’ – although we may not articulate this to ourselves so profoundly when we are making those little daily adjustments to the way we perceive ourselves vis à vis the way others perceive us. But in a sense we are always on stage, performing for ourselves and for others, so we’d better learn and practice the best possible way to perform. A certain kind of performance-to-oneself can tip over into self-delusion, for example. In that we emphasise action, freedom, and decision as fundamental to our existence, we are performing a Nietzchean or existentialist kind of philosophy. Just as on the stage of life, performers on the theatrical stage are evaluated for the life, integrity, interest and accuracy of their interpretations.
For me performing on stage is like looking through a magnifying glass to reveal what is hidden to the naked eye. In a way, what I am trying to do on stage is what Stanislavski meant about the difference between seeming and being. I am attempting to (re)produce myself and the events that I belong to in the offstage world by virtue of craft and sensitivity. One philosophical problem is that performance on the stage of life doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end in the way it does in the theatre. So after a stage performance, when we discard the magnifying glass for the clutter of the quotidian, it’s all too easy to forget to zero in – to forget that we are still and are always performing, and that life is constantly a performance: that we are, in fact, only performing from moment to moment. Perhaps then I should live my life in the immediacy of the shimmering bubble of intellect and emotion that I experience on stage. But in life as it is on the stage, the action which perfectly manifests ‘that which is’ remains elusive.
Each and every performance I give leads me closer to the notion that substance must always triumph over style. Although style is of course an important way to analyse performance and is often employed to illuminate the substance, ultimately I want the substance, the essential meaning of the piece, to not only inform the style but to be the wellspring of that style. Thus I feel I must strip my performance of all extraneous artifice so that I can get at the truth within myself. Only if I can begin to tap that truth can I hope to open up corresponding truths in my audiences. But to get nearer that truth I must become more attuned to the very process of creativity which brings out this truth, and as I do I become more actively creative. In life and on stage therefore, performance has to be about tuning into the process.
In the Western tradition we are so accustomed to placing more value in the end result of a process – the product – that we often disregard how the product came into being in the first place. But understanding process can add to our understanding of how we can live our lives for the better and, dare I say, the greater good. When we are blind to process, we miss seeing, experiencing and recognising ourselves as the active creators of the products of our lives – ideas, emotions, thoughts, conversations, relationships, careers, lifestyles. But I want to see the fractals, not just the facets of things. Moreover, learning how to see how things came to be gives me an understanding of how my work came to be, because sometimes I don’t know how a line I have written in a poem wriggles into life. Sometimes it is just a miraculous mystery how a poem breathes itself into life.
I have found that when I am able to see and experience process, new possibilities emerge. Things are no longer what they appear to be at any given moment: they are also what they were and what they can become. Think of actors in a play enjoying a long run in London’s West End. They have to reproduce the play to fresh audiences night after night. They themselves are hardly fresh to the play, saying the same words night after night after night ad nauseam. How do they keep it alive for themselves, getting the audience so wired into what they are creating that you could hear a programme drop? By recognising that the play’s not the thing, but the playing out of the play is the thing. It is at this point that you may find an actor taking a risk, ad-libbing or improvising. He is involved in process, not product.
Can I be so bold as to state that Socrates/Plato missed a trick in The Republic by espousing the idea that poetry (and by extension, performance) had dire consequences for the proper governance of an ideal state and should therefore be banished from any decent society? Poetry, currently the dominant medium of my own performances, was revered in ancient Greece as the authoritative expression of sacred myth, tradition and wisdom. Even though poetry today is a relatively marginal topic for philosophy, it was crucial for philosophy’s own initial self-definition. Poetry came from and appealed to the emotional aspects of human nature, but with Plato, philosophy distinguished itself from poetry as a new, superior knowledge which could provide better guidance for life, and even superior pleasure. This is where I part ways with him. He believed that “ideals [Forms] belong in a world that only the wise man can understand” – making the philosopher the only type of person fit to govern others. Poetry, art, performance did not conform to the ideal of a perfect republic led by philosophers. To my mind this is placing undue emphasis on the rational (intellectual) over the irrational (emotional). It also supposes the end product, the thing – an ideal, non-democratic state – to be of superior value to the process. Process awareness would encourage a state that is in perpetual evolution; a living breathing state that therefore cannot ever reach an unchanging ideal.
Performance itself is an activity of transformation and discovery in a continuous creative process. It has allowed me to embrace unexpected risks, break out of well-rehearsed patterns, enhanced my ability to communicate and collaborate, and develop my capacity to listen. It has taught me to be more attentive to the ‘how’ and not just the ‘what’ of my life and work. Gil Scott Heron sang “the revolution will not be televised; the revolution will be live.” These words accompany me on my journey to my self. I may not get to where I want to go, but I’m having a damn fine adventure exploring the terrain!
© Dzifa Benson 2006
Dzifa Benson is a writer, performance poet and actress living in London.