Friday, August 10, 2012

Thoughts on the Ethics of Performativity

There’s a song by Tom Robinson from [mumble mumble] years ago called “You’d Better Decide Which Side You’re On.” The lyrics leading into the title phrase are “if left is right, then right is wrong.” Catchy enough. More importantly, the lyrics point out the dual antonyms for the word “right.” I need hardly say that this blog leans a little left, but I try very hard, no doubt not always successfully, to ensure that it leads away from wrong.

This is not an ethics blog per se. If you’re looking for one of those, you’d be a lot better off checking out Ethics Alarms or Ethics Bob. But I’m always intrigued by issues of fairness, and I’d rather the idiots would agree with the other guy so my side doesn’t look stupid. Moreover, ethical questions within my own field are of course particularly interesting to me.

Here’s a dilemma occasioned by the conference I just attended. Regular Curmiphiles, whether they know me personally or not, will have discerned by now that I teach theatre at a university; some will have ascertained that I have been for well over two decades a member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. The organization just had its annual meeting in Washington, DC. What follows comes from a conversation at that conference with a long-time friend. Since I am relating the gist of a private conversation and since his identity is irrelevant to the issues under consideration, I won’t identify him further.

Here’s the deal. The keynote address at the conference was delivered by Dael Oerlandersmith (right), the Obie-winning and Pulitzer-nominated playwright/actress. She was engaging and entertaining, certainly one of the more interesting keynotes we’ve had, and I’ve seen at least 20 of them. But there was something about her presentation that troubled my friend and something else that bothered me. Both of us acknowledged that the other might well have a point while at the same time professing ourselves undisturbed by what upset the other.

I’m not going to say here (I will at the end) which of us was disturbed for which of the following reasons. Let me just spell out the problems… if, indeed, problems they be.

Ms. Oerlandersmith started her talk in character, playing two of the roles from her show, Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men. This is a solo performance in which a single actor (Oerlandersmith herself, in this case) plays a variety of characters of different ages, races, and genders in a series of monologues. The script is specifically designed to allow performances by actors whose demographic profiles are radically different from her own.

The performance piece in question deals with child sexual abuse—certainly a hot topic today in the light of various scandals involving the Catholic Church, plus, of course, l’affaire Sandusky. The first character Oerlandersmith portrayed was a young man who had been sexually assaulted by his mother; the second character was an uncle describing his own molestation of his young nephew. It’s difficult, even dangerous fare, and Oerlandersmith negotiates (successfully, I think) a treacherous path as both playwright and performer. The writing is taut, realistic, and often funny (yes, funny); Oerlandersmith’s compelling acting relies on an outstanding vocal range, nuanced characterization, and powerful choices in physicality.

Anyway, after these two monologues, Oerlandersmith talked to the audience in her own voice (literally and figuratively), took questions, and in short behaved like virtually every other keynote speaker I’ve ever seen. So what’s the problem?

Charge #1. As an African-American woman who both writes and performs using the monologue as her medium, Oerlandersmith follows in the footsteps of the better-known Anna Deavere Smith, who employed the same techniques—including playing all the roles, regardless of race, gender, and age—to great effect in such works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles. There is one fundamental difference, however: whereas Smith conducts interviews which she then transcribes, Oerlandersmith creates her work on her own. In other words, Smith employs and edits the words of others, and Oerlandersmith writes fictional characters based on reality but without a clear and specific correlative in real life.

Given the audience—one almost certain to know Smith’s work but considerably less likely to know Oerlandersmith’s—this can be problematic. That is, people who think they know the form (as practiced by Smith) are essentially being misled by an implicit claim to authenticity. Oerlandersmith is neither transcribing the actual words of assault victims nor even describing actual people. She creates fictive personae, but her work is structurally suggestive that the characters she presents are in fact real, which makes her work sensationalist.

The defense: Oerlandersmith never says that her characters are biographical, only that they are inspired by real life. Any artist would say the same. That a crowd of theatre educators would expect an artist to subscribe to the stylistic choices of another performer is very strange indeed. It is particularly troubling that the comparisons to Smith can be shorthanded to suggest that all female African-American monologists follow (or ought to follow) the same strategies. There is no assumption that the characters created by a playwright are “real.” In fact, quite the contrary is true: it is a reasonable surmise that we are watching a fiction that reveals the truth, not an attempt to re-create quotidian existence.

Charge #2: There was no introduction to the material itself, and people in the audience had no opportunity to remove themselves from the space before the monologues began. In a group of two or three hundred people, the chances are extremely high that someone in the group has been a sexual abuse victim, and that more than a few are dealing with real-life issues right now, if not in their own lives, then in those of loved ones. I saw two spectators bolt for the door when the content of the monologues became clear: both looked stricken.

A couple of points need to be made. First, there is no legitimate argument about the content of the monologues themselves. The sexual abuse of children is, alas, a very real part of our world, and as such is a perfectly reasonable topic about which to make one’s art. That said, the objection here is not to the portrayals themselves, but to the recklessness with which fresh wounds were opened.

As a sometime teacher of acting and not infrequent director, I use emotional memory and sense memory exercises with some regularity. I learned very early on how dangerous such strategies can be, however, and I am now scrupulous about making sure that any actors engaging in these activities take care of themselves. Yes, tapping into a moment of sadness in the past can help an actor find the appropriate emotions on stage, but doing so with an incident that is too recent or that the actor has not yet worked through can lead only to the inability to control one’s feelings—the worst possible fate for an actor. That is, I’m ready to deal with discussions of cancer and Parkinson’s although those diseases killed my parents, but I’m not quite ready to think about fatal motorcycle accidents of the kind that claimed the life of a 25-year-old former student less than a fortnight ago.

The point here is that under normal circumstances, theatre audiences are self-selecting. The “let’s go see what’s playing” mentality of some movie-goers doesn’t really apply as much to theatre. Yes, I go to everything—some 30 productions a year—my department presents. Sometimes I don’t know exactly what a play is about (that’s going to be less true from now on, but it’s not relevant to this discussion), but the publicity is always clear about making sure that what happened last week in Washington, DC doesn’t happen on our campus. In other words, if I were grieving for a child killed in an accident, I’d likely have skipped last fall’s production of Rabbit Hole and my colleagues and students would have understood.

The defense. Art gets its power from its ability to touch us. I used to have a t-shirt that read “Art can’t hurt you.” I know what it intended to say, but I finally threw the shirt away, because the best art can hurt you. It makes you feel: feel joy, feel sadness, feel pain. It is no linguistic fluke that, etymologically, “aesthetic” and “anesthetic” are antonyms.

Moreover, surprise is very much a part of the effectiveness of any artwork, especially those—like plays, poems, and musical compositions—which play out over time. An artist can’t control what part of a sculpture catches a spectator’s eye first, but the second five minutes of a monologue always follows the first five. It does indeed heighten the experience of watching those monologues from Black n Blue Boys / Broken Men to be led skillfully into a position of developing a fondness, for example, for the pederastic uncle before we realize that he is, indeed, a pederastic uncle.

A warning takes that away. I know the part of promoting a production I hate most is writing a “content advisory.” I doubt that this will astound you, Gentle Reader, but Curmie is not easily shocked. He’s witnessed real violence as well as the staged kind, heard all manner of verbs of Anglo-Saxon origin, and seen the complete array of body parts of both sexes. But, for better or worse, we issue a warning (or perhaps an enticement?), explaining to prospective audiences not merely that they might be offended or disturbed, but why.

Some of these rationales make sense. For example, whereas some plays absolutely require cigarette smoking, telling the audience that there will be smoking on stage is unlikely to give away a crucial plot device: it’s simply a kindness to tell prospective patrons with a severe aversion or allergy to smoke that this might be a good show to miss. The same goes for warnings about the use of a strobe light, which can trigger epileptic seizures among those susceptible.

But think of, say, “Master Harold”… and the boys, the brilliant three-hander by Athol Fugard which I was fortunate enough to get to direct a few years ago. There is a moment in which the sole white character, a teenaged boy, literally spits in the face of the man who had essentially raised him. The black man responds in an angry outburst that includes dropping his pants to show his “nigger’s arse.” Disturbing? It had damned well better be. It grieved me to write up an “advisory” about the ending of this play. I did it, but I wouldn’t have done so if I were in charge of my own company (at least until the angry letters started pouring in and the subscription base dried up). Rather, I’d have issued a general statement to be included in all our publicity:
We don’t do shock for its own sake, but that’s sometimes the result. We’re not going to tell you what happens in these plays except in the cases of smoking, extremely loud noises, and strobe lights. Some plays will have nudity. Some will have realistic-looking violence. Some will use language you might consider “obscene” or “profane.” Some will have drinking, or sexual situations, or homosexual characters, or any of a hundred other things that are part of life but might discomfit someone in the audience. Some of our plays will have several of these things; some won’t have any. If you ask specific questions about content, we’ll try to answer them as honestly as possible, but we’re not volunteering any information. If you choose not to attend because of this policy, we respect your choice, but we humbly suggest that you’re short-changing yourself.
It is impossible to predict with much accuracy what might offend or disturb an individual audience member, and in this sense, at least, that’s what we’re talking about: a collection of individuals. Issuing a content warning to protect the sensibilities of the few at the expense of the aesthetic experience of the many is not a trade-off worth making.

The verdict. So, which part bothered Curmie and which his friend? Curmie levels Charge #2. That theatre audiences would need to be told that characters are fictive strikes me as silly. (Indeed, I hear the voice of a former mentor insisting that all characters are fictive, even in cases when an actor is literally “playing himself.”) But whereas there is a slight cost to warning an audience about what they’re about to see, I’d suggest the circumstances dictated that a quick acknowledgment of the subject matter would be appropriate. Whereas in Oerlandersmith’s regular experience, audiences would come to see a specific show, presumably having at least a general idea of what they were about to experience, ATHE members came to hear a keynote, not expecting a performance at all. True, few spectators were disturbed, but it strikes me that this is more a qualitative than a quantitative problem: it will be a long time before I forget the face of one woman as she headed hastily for the exit.

I hasten to add that I accuse neither Ms. Oerlandersmith nor her introducer of any ill will. It’s quite clear from her subsequent remarks that the former is one of the “good guys”; I’ve known the latter for a decade or more, and I have the highest regard for him. Perhaps there was a breakdown in communication. Perhaps neither of them anticipated a situation which under normal circumstances (a performance advertised as a performance) wouldn’t have posed a problem at all. Perhaps they underestimated the power of the medium: talking about molestation is different from hearing the words of (even fictive) abusers and victims enacted.

I freely grant, of course, that in the grand scheme of things this is pretty unimportant stuff. The people who were taken aback will, I am quite confident, be fine. But even seemingly minor events give us an opportunity to wrestle with larger concepts. And that’s a good thing.

I am, by the way, particularly interested in readers’ commentary on this one—either here on the blog or on the link from the Facebook page.

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