Thank you to audience member, Douglas Anderson, for today’s blog post title and subject. In his comment to my Holiday Hiatus post, Doug shared a mind-opening insight, apropos of my discussion of the solo performance Kafka and Son, pointing out that Kafka’s protagonists are “both profoundly alone and painfully connected to a hostile society.” Doug then wondered whether an exploration of the the border between self and other is an inherent feature of the solo performance form.
Why didn’t I think of that self/other border 30 or so posts ago! Here I thought I had probably said everything I needed to say about solo performances, but I was wrong! I love that!
Because what better way to think of the solo performance than as a negotiation among characters that are sometimes alone and sometimes connected, painfully or otherwise, to society.
When I think about it, I see that the self/other dialectic is everywhere in the solo performance form. You can see it too. Just imagine yourself sitting in a small theater space with about 50 other audience members. Before you is a bare stage. Then the lights go down and when they come back up, you see the lone figure of the performer about to speak the words or make the movement that will invite you into their world. Right before that moment, however, each of us, audience member and performer, are both “profoundly alone and…connected.”
I know, I know. I left out the adverb “painfully” in the last sentence which is a key omission, I will grant you.
But wait there’s more to say about that negotiation between profound aloneness and connection. Because, yes indeed, sometimes that connection is painful. Ever since the early 20th century and probably even before that, solo performers who transform themselves into multiple identities (sometimes referred to as the monopolylogue) right before our eyes explore that painful connection. From Ruth Draper filling a performance with vastly different women, including society mavens, German governesses and midwestern wives in the early part of the 20th century to Eric Bogosian’s wide range of angry white men in the 1980’s to Anna Deavere Smith’s more recent vast panoply of real people yearning to speak out about a given subject whether the L.A. riots or the failure of healthcare today, solo performers have always made manifest the border between self and other. How? Simply by walking out onto the stage as themselves and then, often with nothing more than a gesture or a change in vocal inflection, by becoming somebody else or 2, 3, and 4 somebody elses.
Of course you are right to interrupt me here and point out that all actors in all kinds of plays transform themselves into others all the time. So what is different or special about what the solo performer does? She or he does it right before our eyes making us SEE that identity is most certainly not fixed and is most assuredly fluid. Even better, the performer makes us believe that the markers of identity that their bodies present to us, whether having to do with race or gender or ethnicity or ability or whatever, are not what they are.
Let me explain.
I am thinking of Lily Tomlin becoming the homeless woman Trudy before veering off into the character of the angry adolescent Agnes Angst in her magisterial monopolylogue The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. And I am thinking of Danny Hoch becoming the completely believable Nuyorican woman, Blanca before segueing to a sidewalk t-shirt vendor pointing out the racism and classism inherent in his being arrested while any number of little girls running lemonade stands are not. And I am thinking of Sarah Jones becoming the hip hop performer Rashid before channeling the identity of Jewish octogenarian Lorraine. And I am thinking of Dan Hoyle becoming the various “real Americans” he meets while traveling across the country.
In a world in which we are becoming dangerously closed off from one another (border walls, deportations, non-integrated refugee camps, hidden populations housed in various jails or institutions), I think it is more important than ever to tear down those identity walls that convince us we have no place in the worlds of others OR vice versa. And it is theater that has the real power to tear down such walls which is why throughout the ages society has been known to deem theater as a threat. In Shakespeare’s day, for example, (yup, I can’t resist a Shakespeare allusion whenever possible) society’s authorities posed all kinds of strictures trying to control where theater could be performed, who could perform it, and what texts could be performed. But the one thing that made authorities really nervous was that actors crossed identity borders indiscriminately. There is a substantial anti-theatrical literature speaking out against players pretending to be kings when they were not or pretending to be women which happened a lot since only men were actors in Shakespeare’s day.
But to return to the present day, and because I am thinking particularly of the phrase “profoundly alone and painfully connected,” I want to discuss Joe Assadourian’s 2014 solo performance, Bullpen. Assadourian created this show after spending 12 years in prison and during the course of the show he becomes 18 very different characters, all of whom he spent time with while doing time. But before he becomes those other characters, he starts as himself coming to terms with the fact that he is in a holding cell filled with lots of other men. It is clear he feels lost, unable to understand where he is or anything that anybody says to him even though, as they assure him, they are indeed speaking English. He is alone despite being surrounded by men observing or surveilling or ignoring him. And because his is the only body on stage, we see that he is indeed profoundly alone. But, then over the course of the next 70 minutes, Assadourian becomes the other inmates as well as the occasional guard, reporter and judge. Assadourian is himself and he is African American and Jamaican and Dominican and Middle Eastern and we are convinced that all of them are present together in one tiny holding cell or arraignment room. So we also see that, like it or not,these men are connected and that they are connected to us.
My beloved nephews happened to be in town when Bullpen was being performed so, of course, I made the executive decision that they needed to see it. It is now three years later and since I am with them while writing this blog post, I asked them what, if anything, they remember most about the performance. All three mentioned the same two memories: that it was about being in jail and that they were impressed by the way Assadourian was able to switch seamlessly from character to character. The eldest nephew added that he was most impressed by the way in which Assadourian was able to switch between the 18 characters and still keep them consistently themselves throughout the performance. This is an important point because Assadourian’s powers of mimicry are considerable, and in multiple interviews he offers that he has had this talent for as long as he can remember. But, as my nephew recognized, Assadourian’s performance involves much more than mimicry because the men that he creates feel real to the audience as they speak of their hopes and fears, reminding us of the humanity that connects us on both sides of the bars. We may want to tell ourselves that we have nothing in common with those on the other side of the bars just as Assadourian did when he first arrived, but, if we are lucky, like him, we will learn that we are wrong.
It is the solo performer crossing back and forth between self and other right before our eyes, I now realize, that is one of the elements that most draws me to the form. I love that we experience that identity does not have to be fixed. I love that we are reminded that our connection to society is sometimes, and perhaps even often, painful, and we shouldn’t try to ignore that.
And, yes, now that I think about it, it is purposeful that I chose to send out this particular blog post on Christmas Day. Because many of us, even if we don’t celebrate or believe in Christmas, will be thinking of that other story of someone who was both profoundly alone and painfully connected to humanity.