On stage

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
    As you like it, Act 2 Scene 7

When I was in high school I was a theatre geek, part of the small group of kids who were regularly involved in our school’s annual productions (a musical in the autumn, a drama in the spring.) By the time I arrived, there were footsteps to follow: my two older brothers had established themselves as players, the younger of them with particular success in landing lead roles.

My own comfort zone, however, turned out to be even less visible than supporting cast: I worked among the backstage crew – building sets, acquiring props, assisting with lighting and stage management, soothing and encouraging performers as they nervously fidgeted behind the curtain, awaiting their cues. I remember the Drama Director reassuring me of the importance of my work, and the value of the unseen contribution. Without me and the others keeping things running backstage, there would be no show, and no spotlight for the performers to bask in.

This came to mind recently when I was digging through a stash of my old papers, and came across a reference that she had written for me:

[Cricket] has been one of our most diligently hard-working students. She has been a crew chief, student producer and ‘general factotum.’ Whenever we need someone who is reliable and can work on her own, we turn to [her.] Her sense of initiative and willingness to accept responsibility is outstanding!

Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, written in 1959, posits that we interact with one another as performers, conducting ourselves and regulating our behaviour according to the impact we have on the people around us.  In this model, we all act out a personal drama, and those with whom we interact are both our fellow cast members as well as our audience.

For those of us who linger behind the curtains in our sensibilities, the idea of life as a nonstop performance is alarming, or at least somewhat disturbing in its implications. I for one feel at a distinct disadvantage. Susan Cain, in her recent book Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, examines the plight of the introvert trying to navigate a ‘culture of personality’:

Should we become so proficient at self-presentation that we can dissemble without anyone suspecting? Must we learn to stage-manage our voices, gestures and body language until we can tell – sell – any story we want? These seem venal aspirations…
(Cain, p.33)

But dig a little deeper into what Goffman is exploring, and there is much to consider:

Interaction (that is, face-to-face interaction) may be roughly defined as the reciprocal influence of individuals upon one another’s actions when in one another’s immediate physical presence…. A ‘performance’ may be defined as all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants. ( p.26)

He goes on to suggest that “the object of a performer is to sustain a particular definition of the situation, this representing, as it were, his claim as to what reality is.” (p.90)

In his chapter on ‘Regions and Region Behaviour’, Goffman examines the concepts of stage space and backstage space. A region, he says, is “any place that is bounded to some degree by barriers of perception.” (p.109) Frontstage space is where the primary activity of situation-formation takes place, but backstage space is just as important in the mutual creation of shared reality. Backstage is where alternative situation content is held out of view, and “where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course.” (p114).

The book also includes chapters on ‘Communication out of Character’ and ‘The Art of Impression Management.’  Altogether, the model establishes two realms of reality: the staged, performed, mutually artificial interaction between participants, and the alternative, extraneous reality which lies backstage and in true character. It fits neatly with the Platonic concept of duality from which Western culture has grown. This assigns us a dimension of free will, in which our discrete, ‘real’ selves choose behaviours that either contribute to or diminish ‘reality.’

One of the most interesting contributors to the Dark Mountain Project’s first Uncivilisation festival  – held in May 2010 – was Alex Fradera. He co-presented a mainstage segment on the art of improvisation, and later held a smaller workshop on the use of masks. Improvisation, he suggested, operated via observation, receptivity and openness to the flow of invention. It demanded full attention and provided much greater narrative flexibility than traditional scripted performance.

The workshop on masks then delved into what happens when we adorn ourselves with the means to separate ourselves from our usual identity. In Impro, Keith Johnstone defines a Mask as “a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing a spirit to take possession of it…. In its original culture nothing had more power than a Mask.” (p.148)  He  goes on to observe that in our current culture, “We distrust sponteneity, and try to replace it by reason…. The Mask begins as a sacred object, and then becomes secular and is used in festivals and in the theatre… The Mask dies when it is entirely subjected to the will of the performer.” (p.149)

Obviously neither of Alex’s sessions in their brevity could begin to explore all the possibilities created by these ideas, but they were an excellent introduction to a compelling truth. In our reality-describing lived performances, there are no scripts other than those we carry inside us as we traverse the boards of “This wide and universal theatre”.

2 thoughts on “On stage

  1. This is fertile ground!

    I’d like to add some things that have suggested themselves to me. It appears that there is another half to what Shakespeare was saying. We tend to think that he is only talking about the way our roles interact “upon the stage” of the world. But there is another side. Actors are aware that they are not their roles. They have, or lack, an identity independent of their role. They also move between roles as called for by the “script.”

    We are so often caught in a trap where we see no distance between our roles and our selves. There is an uncomfortable dissonance with the whole idea. We either adapt roles in which we strive after an authenticity, a sincerity that insists that there can be no space between role and identity…. A form of “method” acting I suppose. Others chose, or appear to have chosen from the outside, to follow a path of insincerity and act out a rejection of authenticity. These appear to dissemble and scheme their way through life. Of course, what we think we are doing in adopting either of these strategies may be easily misunderstood. Acting “badly” we may confuse our audience and the other players.

    We get very little help sorting any of this out. We are expected to have our “shit-together!” We need to be professional or in some way or other we are coerced into a narrow view of role versus identity.

    There is another way to look at this situation. It may be, I feel it is, more authentic and sincere to make room between roles and identity. To be skeptical of the “Stage notes” that ask us to conform to some diagnosis or expectation so we an more easily be subsumed into someone else’s production. To accept that our identity is at least in part a mystery and will always be so. And that our perception of our roles – and how we are playing them – is equally limited and partial.

    I’m glad you bring up Alex Fradera! The 15 seconds that passed for me beneath one of his masks before he asked me to remove it on that gray afternoon in Llangollen has made a deep impression on me as well! What struck me was the respect he showed for the power of the mask and even his fear of how easily it could be misused by an untried Ego if it wore the mask for too long without having gained respect for it. There was also the play between his various roles and his own identity which has remained as much hidden as revealed b his actions.

    That instant has reverberated with me as well. It has fed me well for these intervening years!

    • Thanks for your thoughts Tony. I agree with you, that we so often operate without recognising the space between our roles and ourselves. Our roles are how we survive this experience of being a mammal among other mammals in these arrangements we call – among other things – family, community, society…. And our identity is, as you say, a mystery. We do well to love and trust and honour it.

      Today is the one-year anniversary of my admission to the acute ward of a mental hospital, in an episode of madness. It’s not an experience I am in any way wishing to repeat, but I do cherish what I learned and tasted from it. Our minds are powerful (and yes, I choose that word deliberately) tools for assembling what we accept by default as reality. What happened for me was that my mind stopped assembling things in its usual way. Perceptions and impressions and beliefs swam around together in a fluid stream, while my meaning-making mind snatched at them randomly and put them together higgledy piggledy, trying desperately to spin a narrative rope for me to grab onto.

      I know very, very little about shamanism or the rituals around masks. But from what little I have read and heard about it, I would tentatively describe it as venturing into this fluid state in a protected way (rather than landing into it alone, as I did.) As a friend of mine observed, in another time or place, within a different context, my experience might have been considered spiritual or holy, rather than an episode of illness requiring medication. But hey ho – we get what we’re given, and we do with it what we can.

      I like the distinction you make between what we perceive as genuine or authentic roles versus dissembling or scheming. There is much going on there, in terms of evolution and survival – that is, how we interpret another’s actions, and how we survive ourselves. And no doubt much to explore in the realms of psychology, neurology and anthropology. I’m thinking just now of Dorothy Rowe’s recent book, Why We Lie – or this passage in Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works:

      Primates are sneaky baldfaced liars. They hide from rivals’ eyes to flirt, cry wolf to attract or divert attention, even manipulate their lips into a poker face. Chimpanzees monitor one another’s goals, at least crudely, and sometimes appear to use them in pedagogy and deception. (p 193)

      In a later chapter, he writes about the myriad signals our bodies give out, which our fellow creatures observe and judge us by. He goes on to reflect:

      Trivers, pursuing his theory of the emotions to its logical conclusion, notes that in a world of walking lie detectors the best strategy is to believe your own lies. You can’t leak your hidden intentions if you don’t think that they are your intentions. According to his theory of self-deception, the conscious mind sometimes hides the truth from itself the better to hide it from others. (p421)

      So – our propensity for acting with one another, whether conscious or unconscious, is embedded in our social situation whereby we encounter one another in this weird place called life. Our interactions and tinkering with the scripts or frameworks are what we call politics, whether this is on an individual level or a wider group/society level.

      Anyway, enough for now. Time to face the day. 🙂

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