To Take My Body Back: Preforming Personhood and/in Theatre
“The study of trauma, I suggest, provides support for a view of the self as fundamentally relational—vulnerable enough to be undone by violence and yet resilient enough to be reconstructed with the help of others.”
Susan J. Brison, “Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self,” 40
“[W]hile a performer may act as if his response in a situation were immediate, unthinking, and spontaneous, and while he himself may think this to be the case, still it will always be possible for situations to arise in which he will convey to one or two persons present the understanding that the show he is maintaining is only and merely a show.”
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 169
I really hate acting. This was a repeated theme of my participation in class. This was, of course, an increasingly uncomfortable truth to sit with while participating in a class just under half of which was made up of professionally-trained actors. When I learned I had to take on a role in our production of the Chester Antichrist—even though I had been assigned a role with maybe five or six lines, tops—I steeled myself for the inevitable truth: it was going to go badly. Part of this conviction was based on the knowledge that we were embracing a style of acting that would demand improvisation and emphasize our physicality through the types of humor and play that were common in the Middle Ages. I generally dread doing anything too physical: I get tearfully self-conscious in yoga classes, which I venture on a once-a-year basis; I spend days getting stressed about retreats or workshops because I will be asked to participate in some game that requires us to run and catch each other, or huddle in close, or somehow put our bodies into performance.
When I say “into performance,” I mean it in loose reference to Judith Butler’s notion of performativity, which describes how we make up our reality “through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign” (270). The discipline of performance studies tends to focus on language and nonfictional forms of performance as a modes of social construction. As W.B. Worthen notes, performance studies frequently ignores drama on the presumption that dramatic performance depends on a rigid text. In class, I was forced to confront both how we perform aspects of our own identity and quite literally how we are asked to perform, either at the behest of others or according to the demands of performing a play.
This semester, I had the added challenge of experiencing full-blown panic attacks whenever we would practice our lines or participate in silly acting warm-ups in class. It was embarrassing. I constantly worried about coming to class, despite loving the community my class had built. I knew that for many of the students in the class, I appeared to be expressing disgust and distaste for what they wanted to spend their lives doing. Acting was how they expected to change the world, to create radical effects, something I myself spend much time contemplating.
“I tried hard to make it happen: I asked my classmates how I could do it, I thought long and hard, I prepared myself to do what I was asked to do. And when I opened my mouth to do it, I started crying.”
As a survivor of sexual violence, I don’t like feeling present in my body. At the beginning of a particularly difficult day of exercises, Prof. Albin commented to me that “humans aren’t just brains in vats,” that we need to move around every once in a while. I couldn’t stop turning that over: I spent so much time placing academic, intellectual walls around myself to stave off the feeling of my trauma that when I was asked to do something out of the ordinary with my body, I completely shut down. One exercise required us to mimic the movements of our partner without giving away who was initiating the movements. I became so terrified at the idea of everyone watching me flounder to exist in my body I couldn’t think of what to do. During a table read, I was asked to change how I said something. I tried hard to make it happen: I asked my classmates how I could do it, I thought long and hard, I prepared myself to do what I was asked to do. And when I opened my mouth to do it, I started crying.
* * *
Performance is a common way for survivors to cope with trauma. I have supported this kind of coping method for the past three years through my work on Fordham’s banned production of the Vagina Monologues. Nearly every monologue mentions sexual trauma in some form. Many of the women and gender-nonconforming folx I know who’ve participated in the Vagina Monologues are also survivors of sexual violence, who’ve used their performance as a way to process the trauma they’ve lived through. This is just one example of a common form of trauma therapy through art. Survivors use their art to process their experiences all the time. There’s even an entire project dedicated to art as a form of self-empowerment.
I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t address my own experiences through this form of healing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of performativity in the theatre versus performativity in one’s own life. What happens when you ask someone who needs to perform as a form of self-protection to perform differently? Does that request trivialize marginalized folx who constantly perform in order to stay alive? I knew this couldn’t be right: performing and theatre as resistant art offer a powerful form not just of activism but of empowerment. I sought to perform safety in my body by concealing my trauma and constant fear, but I also spent most of our classes hunched into myself, picking at my nails and messing with my hair, avoiding eye contact. Maybe what this class was asking me to do was to take my body back.
“Maybe what this class was asking me to do was to take my body back.”
One of the monologues in the Vagina Monologues has a running joke in which the character refers to their vagina as a piece of furniture, like a red leather couch, so they aren’t forced to confront that it is, indeed, attached to them. Professor Albin’s joke about brains in vats rang in my ears. This really was my body: my classmates definitely thought it belonged to me, and they were asking me to do things with it. My dissociation was affecting my ability to perform, and therefore affecting our play. It had to be resolved.
* * *
I was queasily anxious during our rehearsal the afternoon of the performance. I botched my lines, and I felt the weight of the entire production weighing on me. I hadn’t even begun to process what it would feel like to be watched by a crowd of strangers, considering how dreadful it had been to have a group of friends watch me mess up. So, made a decision: I got drunk, a genius idea.
It helped in ways I hadn’t expected, in ways that in retrospect shouldn’t be surprising. By helping me lose the impulse to rigidly control my body, I was able to focus on the experience of performing the play. More importantly, my understanding of performance grew closer to the kind of game playing we had practiced in class. It was silly and pressure-free, simply a way of working through the material. I realized later on that what I thought had been me jokingly flubbing my way through the play to keep up with the plot actually had a name: improv! I was actually doing the acting thing, instead of obsessing over whether I was correctly doing the “Lexi” thing.
Once the play began, I was not aware of the boundary between myself and the audience. Upon entering the performance space, I had noticed a few of my friends present, and I helped myself to their snacks rather than freaking out over whether they’d criticize my acting. Aware now that the audience was able to interact with me and therefore participate in the play, I spent most of the performance chattering away either with my classmates in the play or with the audience. I had found space instead of constriction inside the text, which enabled me to talk to the audience easily. I was neither acting as myself, the petrified brain in the vat, or as our text’s flat version of a “king.” Afterwards, people seemed to think I’d done a good job. That was a pretty radical concept, considering it hadn’t really felt like trying. Countless hours of anxiety and panic had gone into the preparation for this role, which in the end just felt like child’s play.
“I had found space instead of constriction inside the text… I was neither acting as myself, the petrified brain in the vat, or as our text’s flat version of a ‘king’… in the end [it] just felt like child’s play.”
I wish I could wrap up this meditation by saying that in performing the Chester Antichrist, I learned that acting is a way for survivors of trauma to reclaim their bodies and their right to exist in them. I wish I could say that we will bring about the revolution through the theatre. And maybe we will. I do think that the theatre is an effective way to disrupt one’s internal wiring on how to exist in a body and encounter the idea that, just maybe, we won’t crumble if we accept the lack of control we have over our body. We spend so much time in our current political climate discussing the psychological and political and material worth of certain bodies in our culture: bodies that are read as female, bodies of color, bodies that cannot fit in a gender binary, bodies as spaces to be conquered. The idea that, even momentarily, we might reject the bodily frameworks we are asked to squeeze ourselves into and see what happens is worthy of revolt.
Judith Butler. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Johns Hopkins University, 1990. 270-282.