Week 3: Being and Storytelling

Raph is a breakdancer, Adrienne is a director and vocalist, and Manu is a director and clown. Before the residency week started, the three started discussing an interest in masks via email. From what I gathered, they were curious about masks in both a theatrical and an emotional sense. Which are the masks we wear that allow us to pretend to be something we’re not on stage, and which are the masks we hide behind offstage, in real life? Thematically, the week revolved around the act of unmasking, and I’ll go through the exercises that brought this about.

On the first day of the residency, the group decided to take turns leading each other in exercises. Adrienne would lead a vocal exercise, Manu a clowning one, and Raph a dancing one. Of course, Raph said he couldn’t sing, Adrienne complained that she wasn’t funny, and Manu insisted she was a terrible dancer. In the spirit of overcoming fears, they determined that Raph had to sing, Manu had to breakdance, and Adrienne had to be funny. The focus shifted quickly from the artists leading exercises in the things they are good at to the other artists doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Eager to try breakdancing, Adrienne and Manu tried one of Raph’s dancing exercises. Laying on their backs, knees bent, they were directed to “find the hole,” with no further direction. At first, Raph looked on while Adrienne did somersaults, and Manu comically pantomimed falling through the hole. Raph joined them on the floor and turned gracefully over his shoulders a few times, showing us that you “find the hole” by finding the space between your body and the floor and threading yourself through that space. Though the “point” of the exercise was to introduce us to Raph’s style of dance, the exercise encouraged a sense of playful experimentation along with some laughter and flailing.

after raph singing

Next, Manu introduced an exercise I’ll call “Being in Front of an Audience.” The instructions were short; one by one, each person would get up in front of the rest of us and “be.” This meant no thinking ahead, no joke-telling, no forced movement. The exercise focuses on letting no, not forcing a performance in to being, and just allowing yourself to “be.”

I know this exercise sounds like it should have been really easy for Raph, Manu, and Adrienne, but it wasn’t. In fact, I think it’s a very difficult exercise for most trained performers. Performers spend years learning how to perform in front of and audience. Performers are required to bring about a series of premeditated actions when they get on stage, and spend years learning acting techniques that obfuscate this fact. Traditionally, performers are conditioned to perform on stage, rather than enter a state of “being,” the performance flowing organically from that state.

To get at the heart this concept, and to understand exactly what these performers were asking of each other this week, I want to take a quick detour and talk a little more about what it means to perform. If I go to see my friend, Jill, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. I know that Jill’s actions on stage are not representative or indicative of who Jill is when she’s not on stage. In this example, Jill is performing actions she’s practiced and is repeated. She is “forcing” the performance of Juliet into being. She is not just “being.” This also applies to performers that perform on stage. Take the case of singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. When Joni is performing on stage, who is she? She is not performing a character like our friend Jill was performing Juliet. Yet, I suspect that when Joni is performing on stage, she’s not just Joni Mitchell. She’s Joni Mitchell performing the very practiced, premeditated role of Joni Mitchell. No matter how confessional, convincing, or personal the performance might be, I think Joni Mitchell on stage is not representative of who Joni Mitchell is when she’s not on stage. From this it follows that traditional modes of performance are almost the opposite of “being” as Manu describes it.

So, what fascinates me about Manu’s exercise? It’s a performance that runs contrary to a lot of what we understand to be performance. “Being in front of an audience” is so different from performing, even if it might not look like it. “Being” is not Jill performing the role of Juliet, and it’s not Joni performing Joni. It’s a little more transcendent.

So, back to the room, in which Adrienne, Manu, and Raph are all about to try this exercise. It was Adrienne who said she could feel her heart beating in her ears when she stood in front of us – not on stage, just in the middle of a big room in front of friendly faces. She stood and Manu guided her through the exercise, offering suggestions like “breathe,” and “try adding in a little movement.” Adrienne stood for a good few minutes, punctuated by deep breathing and a few sighs of nervous laughter. And then, out of the silence, something happened. Or maybe it was that something stopped happening. Adrienne was “being.” Manu invited her to follow her impulses, and invited Adrienne to start swearing as a way in to the exercise. Adrienne dropped into a new body. This body was playful, mischievous, and definitely rude. This body had a silly voice, pointy and piercing. This body yelled a terrible and ridiculous word (that Adrienne would never say) over and over again, each time funnier than the last.

Manu was the last to get up and do the exercise. She had led everyone else through it, and now we all had to lead her in her own exercise. At first she stood in front of us and stood still, looking out. She started shaking subtly, tears welling up in her eyes. “This always happens to me,” she said. She took a few deep breaths and, regaining composure, stood in front of us. Watching her “be” was difficult at first. It’s easy to watch a performance, but this was observing humanity. It was active. It was empathetic. It was hard.

The next day Raph, Manu, and Adrienne started talking more explicitly about the masks they wear. Honest conversations, like the very candid one we had about masks, were brainstorming sessions as much as they were therapy. This particular conversation yielded the idea to use a technique, seen in Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s show, Romeo and Juliet, that would help them “be” on stage. Nature Theater’s Romeo and Juliet consists of two actors reciting recordings of people attempting to recount, from memory, the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Underneath the actors’ faux-Elizabethan garb and hokey trans-continental accents, the actors are wearing headphones, listening to recordings of real people and repeating those stories, verbatim, to the audience. Intrigued by the kind of fidelity this technique offered, they began recording stories about the masks they have adopted in their lives.

Raph went first. He recorded a story about prejudice he faced in grade school as a suburban black boy and how that moment transformed the way he sees himself to this day. You can hear the original recording below:

Manu listened to Raph’s recording through headphones and repeated his words in front of Adrienne, Raph, and I. Suddenly, the story Raph had recorded just moments before was Manu’s. The story was no longer about a black boy dealing with racial prejudice; it was about an immigrant girl in a suburban school facing a different racial prejudice. The words, pacing, and pauses were all Raph’s, but the same words in a different mouth told an entirely different, yet equally convincing, story.

Manu described performing as “being overwhelmed” by Raph’s recording. Left with little time for judgment or interpretation, she was left to recite his words without thinking. This state was similar to “being.” Watching her, I felt uncomfortable. Even though I knew it was Raph’s story, the disjunction between Raph’s words and Manu’s extreme honesty on stage was troubling. Imagining I didn’t know Manu, I started asking myself questions – “Why would a white girl be grouped with the bussed in black city kids?” Then, doubling back on myself, “Am I that sure of her racial identification?” and “Why do I assume she’s female?” Raph’s story directly contradicted the assumptions I had made about Manu, and Manu’s honest delivery made me evaluate what felt true in the story against the assumptions I made about Manu based on her physical appearance.

They continued to experiment with different people reading different stories, and came away with two observations about this technique. Firstly, it works best when the person reading the story has never heard it before and cannot predict where it is going. By the time Adrienne recited Raph’s story, we’d heard it a few times. While it remained difficult to stay with the recording, as an audience member I could tell when she was remembering part of the story versus saying it blind. Those moments stood out because the remembering took her out of the moment of “being.” Secondly, they found that things were actually more interesting when the performer and the narrator were noticeably or physically different. For example, a man telling a story written by a woman, or a person with an accent reading a story recorded by someone who has a different accent. While they were initially concerned that these differences might confuse people, they decided that they were also more thought provoking and challenged people’s assumptions and prejudices in a more profound way.

At the end of the week, sitting in a coffee shop, we all got really excited about the ways this storytelling technique might bring people together. We imagined the power of hearing one person’s recording of their side of a fight, and hearing the other person they’re fighting with tell their story. The other person would have to say the other person’s side of the argument and that could be a really powerful experience. Can you imagine your significant other telling you the story of how you first met them? Can you imagine what it would feel like to hear someone decades older tell your story? How about your boss?

If the beginning of the residency was about these artists unmasking each other by the end they’d found a way to unmask their audiences too. While this was a very process-oriented week (compared to Ken and Cindy’s very product-oriented residency), they walked away with a new way to “be” onstage. While this residency week started in a nebulous place, it ended with a tool that help’s people feel empathy. It encourages people to change, or at least reexamine, their beliefs because it forces them to see and hear their exact words in another person’s mouth. They might be surprised to find them equally true, equally relatable, and equally human.

Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.

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