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…
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”.