Thanks so much for your thoughtful August 2nd comment on my “This I Believe Post.” I think you’ve described exactly what I mean by a “utopian performative”–those moments of being moved and lifted outside of ourselves into a sense of communal belonging and hopefulness.
I agree that these moments often happen when we least expect them. I, too, have found them in amateur productions as often as professional ones, and in fact find that the price of the ticket or the training level of the cast doesn’t necessarily predict when these moments will occur. That’s partly why I try to go to all different kinds of performances, bringing with me the hope that those moments of transport will happen.
I felt a moment similar to the one you experienced at the amateur production of West Side Story last weekend here in Austin when I saw Grrl Action, a performance of solo work by local girls, ages 13-16, produced by the Rude Mechanicals Theatre Company at the Off Center. The summer community-based theatre project now has an established, several year history; in fact, a few of the girls performing this year had been with the project since they were 13, and were now “graduating.” In the audience were a group of girls who had participated in earlier incarnations of Grrl Action. I was moved by their presence, and moved by the graduating girls’ testimony to how the performance project had affected their lives.
The group this year was perhaps the most diverse, in terms of race, sexuality, and, most salient, class. The juxtaposition of their stories highlighted how different girls’ experiences play out in a social world with enormous class disparities.
One Mexican-Amiercan girl performed a piece about immigration, decrying the Bush administration for limiting opportunities for people looking to improve their fates, not to terrorize the United States, as he claims. A white lesbian girl performed a piece about crawling back from an abusive childhood and numerous suicide attempts, propelling herself into a future in which she intends to go to college and make more of herself than her younger years predicted. A middle-class white girl performed her own personal “history of dance,” flying about the stage gyrating and grinding to various dance styles and reminding us of their heyday. Another performed a silent dialogue with two chairs, pushing them toward and away from each other across the stage in a crystal clear illustration of ambivalence for an unseen partner.
The group moments were equally affecting, because they made palpable the girls’ respect for one another across their differences as well as their commonalities; their commitment to telling their stories; and their sense of freedom at their ability to speak into a public forum some of their most important feelings and ideas. The audience was moved to respond to the girls’ call several times through the performance, offering support, love, the power of their answering presence to move the stories forward and honor their meanings.
These girls are trained to write and to perform in a short three-week intensive workshop environment. They craft personal narratives, and they learn to embody their stories and their ensemble moments with movement exercises and Boal-based techniques. A director (this year the very talented Madge Darlington) joins them near the end of the workshop to help them stage the performance. The performance, presented twice over one weekend, is free.
As a spectator, I had little investment in the performance (except that I’m on the advisory board of the Rude Mechs Company). I hadn’t paid for my ticket. I was giving up 90 minutes of my time. And yet my experience was filled with moments of hope, moved as I was by the work these girls’ had done, and touched as I was by our presence listening to them. I believe that their experience withGrrl Action changed their lives. I know that seeing them perform changed mine.
A few days before, I’d spent more than $30 and 90 minutes to see a production of the play American Fiesta, produced by the Austin Theatre Alliance at UT’s McCullough Theatre. Written by Steven Tomlinson, a local favorite on the solo performance scene, the play has been lauded as the Osborn Winner for the “Best New Play By An Emerging Playwright” by the American Theatre Critics Association; selected as “The Best Play of 2005” by the local newspaper, the Austin-American Statesman; and was the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award Finalist. Tomlinson, who also teaches in the business school at UT, is an accomplished writer and performer, with a commanding presence, a smooth, personable delivery, and a coherent, pleasant story-telling style.
American Fiesta uses Tomlinson’s new penchant for collecting Fiestaware as a trope for coming to terms with his conservative parents, who refuse to honor his intent to marry his Latino male partner in Toronto. Across this narrative frame, Tomlinson weaves wry observations about Americana, democracy, domesticity, and politics, searching out the contradictions of queer experience in a moment when gay people are vilified by the US religious right and conservative center while we’re being granted the right to marry in numerous countries across Western Europe and Canada. Collecting the Depression-era dishware becomes Tomlinson’s way to displace his emotions and to order a life that isn’t always in his control.
The production is beautifully staged by Christina Moore, using two butcher block tables and chairs in front of a geometrically compelling arrangement of shelves, onto which Tomlinson loads his new purchases. By the piece’s end, the colorful assortment of plates and cups, pitchers and bowls glow under pinpoint spots, shining with love, history, and the fingerprints of relationships sustained and nourished.
But unlike my experience at Grrl Action, while I appreciated Tomlinson’s story, I didn’t find myself moved by the 90 minutes I spent with him. Even though American Fiesta‘s content is right, as they say, up my alley, I felt strangely distanced from the performance. The story sounded didactic to me. As Tomlinson related the events of his disagreement with his parents and his descent into the obsessions of collecting dishware, it seemed he was telling us how to think and feel, instead of leading us there through metaphor or style, and really hammered
home the obvious “message.” And even though his parents basically reject his queerness and his partner in the most cruel ways, Tomlinson’s emotions remain one-dimensional. He doesn’t seem to suffer at all, never blows his cool, and never seems hurt by their oblivious homophobic rantings. As a result, the stakes seem rather low.
Tomlinson impersonates the other characters, from his dithering mother and pompous father, to his warm but cautious partner, to the mythical man in an antique store outside his parents’ town in Oklahoma who sells him his first piece of Fiestaware. Because he distinguishes each character with only one or two gestures and a distinct vocal pattern, his performance of their idiosyncrasies gets a bit repetitious as the evening progresses.
It’s always nice to see a warm, pleasantly told story about a gay man and his partner and family, especially one with a poltiical analysis that draws a relation between the microcosm and the macrocosm of US domestic policy and its blindness. But unlike my experience at Grrl Action, I felt “addressed” instead of moved. I couldn’t sense the audience surrounding me drawn closer together; we remained surprisingly solitary in our respect for Tomlinson’s work. We seemed to receive the piece in a syncopated timescape, rather than in the lovely unison with which the Off Center audience heard Grrl Action.
I’m glad I saw American Fiesta, and I’m glad that Tomlinson’s work is receiving accolades. But I’ll remember my afternoon at Grrl Action for much longer, and carry it with me when I think about my own nieces and how they might grow up to share their stories.
The Feminist Spectator