Notes Towards a Femontology, from a Woman with a Penis.

Notes on Pure Performance

If you are looking for a how-to guide for acting, what follows may not meet your needs. In fact, I suspect that what I describe can never actually be accomplished by an actor. It is therefore less of an instruction manual and more of a dissection. What do I mean by “pure performance?”

The concept of “authenticity” jumps immediately, unavoidably to mind. Conventional wisdom proposes that the greatest performers somehow transcend the inherent artifice of acting itself, and cross the barrier into real life. That is, they move beyond facade and reach authenticity.

But this is a problematic definition, for it presupposes a concrete distinction between the stage and the world of the audience. It constructs a binary to conceal a relationship that is, in fact, dialectical. It is only through performance that the authenticity of life reveals itself. The un-reality of the performance is the only reality we can ever strive towards.

Consider two possible approaches to acting, and how they both fail at manifesting authenticity. In the first method, acting is a process of addition. Acting is the accumulation of gestures and looks. The great actor is able to construct the performance in just the right way, to find the perfect combination of gestures and looks that will equal authenticity. 

Acting as addition presupposes the performer as tabula rasa, a blank canvas on which the performance is painted. But the thrust towards authenticity through these means falls short because the performer is not a blank slate. The canvas is already stained before the brush is even dipped. The “real” self is always hopelessly caught up in the “performed” self. In this sense, the performer is not starting from 0 but from a negative position; therefore acting as addition is impossible. You can add up gestures and looks all you want, but you will never reach authenticity.

If acting as addition fails, then perhaps that is because it is too physiological at the expense of the psychological. Perhaps acting must instead be an internal, mental process — even a struggle. Instead of adding up gestures to reach the character as something external, the performer whittles down their own psyche until they are nothing but the character. This can be called “acting as subtraction” for the sake of symmetry, but it is more useful to think of it as acting as a process of refining. The great actor is able to discard their self entirely and “become” the character through a process of internal struggle.

But this attempt fails also, because the performer is limited as to how much they can give away. The quest to abandon the self and become “lost” in a role is a fruitless one. The more one seeks to move away from the “real” self in the performance, the closer one gets to it, until one’s performance is little more than mimicry. Authenticity cannot be reached this way either.

Pure performance is neither something external to be striven towards, nor something internal to be rooted out. It consists simply in the realization that the actor is a member of the audience.

By this, I do not mean that the pure performance consists in “breaking the fourth wall,” a wink to the audience that says “Don’t you see? I am an actor in a play, and you are in the audience, and we are aware of it!” This presumes too much, and takes too much for granted. 

No, the pure performance is not a wink. It is a gaze, shared between the audience and the performer, which gaze betrays the way the two are hopelessly entangled. Whereas the audience may think they are escaping real life to view something beyond it through the actions of the performer, the exact opposite is true. The more the performer strives to turn his performance into something real, the more apparent it becomes that all that is real is already performance.

But I do not want to simply reverse the relationship between the stage and the real world, and say that some kind of transcendent truth can be found in the former. Instead, I insist that both performance and real life (i.e. being) strive towards and fall short of authenticity. In the performance, and the way that it always fails to reach its goal qua authenticity, being sees its own internal struggle made manifest. 

This is why we attend the theater in the first place: not to escape reality, nor to encounter some real more real than reality, but rather to encounter the very foundations of being itself qua performance. That is not to say performance gives us access to some real substance, but rather, again, that the un-reality of the performance is the only possible manifestation of any reality at all.

In the pure performance, the actor does not abandon artifice, but rather surrenders to it. The actor of the pure performance becomes the bearer of a great secret, one that they struggle to express, but that always lies beyond their power to name. Through the failure of the accumulation of gestures, and the impossibility of transcending the self, the actor themself becomes the secret. To the audience  their gaze says only this: “It is you who are being watched, it is you who are performing.” In a state of pure performance, the performer can hang up their costume and kick back their feet, for they have, at long last, ceased to perform.

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