Sunday, November 14, 2010

Essential building blocks

Finally! I feel like I had a breakthrough this evening. My semester-long delving into this question of "authenticity" in performance should ideally be relatable to the same question of authenticity in composition. "Ideally" has become a bit more practical tonight.

Last week for class, I read Jacqueline Jones Royster's article "When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own." Tonight, I went back to this article for a closer look, and I'm so glad I did. Although Royster is more concerned with voice than authenticity, the two seem to go hand in hand and she defends her range of voices as being all authentic.  She does not clearly define what she means by "authentic," however. (I will come back to this by and by.) Royster takes issue with the current approaches to voice, which see it as strictly "a spoken or written phenomenon" (30).  So far, so good -- this can apply to performance as well. It comes from an author's written word (or voice) and is then spoken by the actors.  I agree with Royster that there is more to it than just that written and spoken word.  The "more" is that slippery, seemingly indefinable thing called "authenticity."

Royster goes on to argue that we should see "voicing as a phenomenon that is constructed and expressed visually and orally, and as a phenomenon that has import also in being a thing heard, perceived, and constructed" (30). Ding! ding! ding! ding! ding!  Voice is not just visual (written) and oral (spoken).  It needs to be "heard, perceived, and constructed," which means someone else must be there to hear, perceive, and construct.  Every voice requires an audience.  By extension, every performance requires an audience.  Without an audience to receive the performance, to hear it, to perceive, and to construct it, it will fall apart.  It will not be authentic!  I emphasized "construct" because, to me, it seems like the most important building block, the cherry on top, if you will.

Every performance has a voice.  Perhaps it comes from a written text.  Perhaps it is improvised.  Perhaps it is even silent (dance?  Lavinia in Titus Andronicus?).  Even in these cases, I would argue voice still comes through whether it be in music, or perhaps the voice of another character.  But it originates somewhere -- written -- and comes out of an actor or performer or musician -- oral.  Check.

Enter the audience.  The audience (whether a piece of writing or a piece of dramatic art) hears.  They hear the lines, or the music, or the sounds.  Check.  They comprehend them, they "perceive" them, and they process them.  Check.

But if the audience does not consent to construct, to build this world with you (whether a writer or an actor or a dancer, etc.), then I would argue there is no authentic performance.  It is the last and ever so crucial step.  Construction.  If we do not consent to work and build together, we'll have an empty shell.  Royster places a good deal of responsibility on us, not only as speakers but as listeners.  I think she is absolutely right.  She says, "voicing at its best is not just well-spoken but also well-heard" (40).  No pressure, folks.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. "When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own." College Composition and Communication 47. 1 (1996): 29-40. Jstor. 14 Nov. 2010. Web.


  1. (This comment is posted in two parts...because apparently I had a lot to say...)

    You make a very interesting statement in this discussion of authenticity in performance, and I appreciate very much the emphasis placed on the importance of the audience. When you say that, "Without an audience to receive the performance, to hear it, to perceive, and to construct it, it will fall apart," I almost wonder if you couldn't take it a step further by saying that without an audience, the performance *would not exist*--at least not under the designation of that title ("Performance"). I can recite a monologue in my room alone or to another actor--it's not a performance. There must be that “other party,” sitting outside of but engaged in the work, specifically in a point of reception, and therefore part of the construct of the theatrical event as a whole. Without that element, the work would not persist: if there was not someone to perceive it, what would be the point? Then it's just open air and empty promises.

    There is a parallel between this statement about performance and the work of the actor. We often comment on actors who are "only performing for themselves" with great disdain. These people, living not in the present moment but only in the rooms they learned their lines in and the days they made decisions about the intoning variables for them, ignore that “other party” element (the audience, their scene partner) without which the reason for their very being on stage would not exist. In this, the actor is not assisting the construction of the theatrical event, but rather making their own, self-contained performance. This performance, being consciously separated from the live event of the play, can never be authentic, because it is placed apart from all influences that would generate an authentic response in the moment. Something that is not susceptible to stimuli cannot be fully realized in performance--it will be rehearsed and memorized, but it will not be alive. It will not be authentic.

    That being said, I do not think a performance need be authentic to exist. And this I feel is based upon the varied and subjective nature of the idea of what is authentic.
    Many people would think watching someone really cry onstage is authentic, even if that means the actor muddies the words they’re meant to be speaking while the tears and snot are running. Others would say the sacrifice of the dialogue makes the performance inauthentic, because the actor is applying an element to the performance that is stifling the voice of the author/character, and therefore cannot portray or rather communicate completely what is going on in that moment, as prescribed by the text. Still others would disagree with the character being sad at all and therefore call the whole moment in its entirety, right down to the source (the text) inauthentic. But I’ll stave off running away too far with that one for right now.

    I saw a play recently and HATED one of the lead performers. I would call his work inauthentic—unaffected by the text he was speaking, unaffected by the play as a whole, and usually unaffected by the other performers. However, I would still call what he was doing a performance. It was just a terrible one. He was communicating the ideas of the playwright, though not well or fully. But here the text made up for where the actor failed. I don’t know if that’s what kept him in that place of “performance” in my mind—I guess I will have to reconsider how I define performance itself.


  2. I feel like the authenticity you are looking to define or discover, and that Royster hints at in her article, is the living or live element of a text or performance. It's the underbelly of the thing, existing within the artist at point of production (when I say production, I mean the moment the performer speaks/acts, not a “theatrical production”). To some degree authenticity may incorporate the visceral. Consider the physiological effect performance/words/sounds/movement can have on a viewer who is not doing them with their body themselves. There are those moments when an actor can feel something in their bones, as it were. If the audience can too see the actor feeling it in his/her bones, and maybe even feel it in their own bones, that is visceral and to my mind authentic**, because it puts something totally across. When something is honest, it’s authentic. And while I feel performance need not be authentic to *be* a performance, I do believe that an authentic performance would actively engage an audience more fully. Perhaps the authentic is truly reached when an audience is engaged in a play beyond an intellectual level.

    Of course the most obvious way of doing that is assisting them to become more self-aware and therefore more active in their roles as fellow collaborators, fellow constructors. Then the question becomes, “How do you do this well?” Because there are a lot of ways of doing this poorly. Part of this must come from a preparation to play, especially as much of the theatre-going public have become strictly passive in this act beyond opening their wallets and sitting with their legs crammed behind upholstered seats half a foot in front of them. So they must be re-oriented as participants in the event of the evening, and also have their pallet cleansed of the day they have just lived and the plays they have been to before. They, like the actors, must gain a state of presence before they can encounter or create the authentic (and maybe all you can really do is encounter it). Can you do that as they arrive at the scene of the performance (both literally and figuratively), and how can you do this theatrically? You must engage them in a liminal plane at different points throughout the play, but still be true to a text that may not always do this overtly.

    Anyway, these are my musings. I really want to read that Royce article!

    (**There is of course a variable here of the audience member who shows up to the play LOOKING to feel a certain way. In that sense, the audience member is writing their own experience over whatever is actually happening. That experience, I would argue, would not be strictly authentic—though to the audience member, it may be perceived as such.)


  3. I love your reaction to and discussion of voice being needed to be heard, not just stated. Two important sides of the coin. And I completely agree that voice can even be dance or music. Also even a piece of artwork. Don't tell me there isn't a voice in paintings and sculpture. And yes if the audience doesn't mull it over and chew it up a bit, the performance is just time-wasted fluff.

  4. "Every performance has a voice." That's quite profound. It also sounds like there is no essential authentic voice, no perfect performance that should be reproduced over and over once discovered. It sounds like authentic means something very different in the context of performance.

    And I guess I'm still wondering... who is judging authenticity and what is it based on? Is it being authentic to the character? Authentic to the style of the actor? Authentic to the director's vision? Performance is so collaboration and so ever-changing, I'm wondering from whose perspective "authentic" should be defined.

    You might want to check out Walker Gibson's article (I forget what it's called right now, but it's on our Wiki). It short, but it addresses multiple voices/authenticity/style. IDK that it will help, but it might be worth a try.


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