Sunday, October 24, 2010

Acting and Creating Identity Symposium

Friday October 22. The day was spent hosting and partipating in a one-day symposium springboarding off Tilly Wedekind's life into issues of how we micro-manage and create our own identities. Participants came from across disciplines, campuses and countries. From 10am in the morning till 10pm at night, discussions of who we are and why we are abounded. We also addressed issues of practice as research.

Session 1: Creating and Acting the Wedekind Identity was chaired by Simon Williams, Chair of Theatre and Dance at UC Santa Barbara. Himself a Wedekind scholar, he was eager - as indeed was I - that he should be part of the event. The colorful and eternally insightful Gail Finney (Professor of German and Comparative Literature) gave the first presentation on Wedekind and Lulu: A Cultural Context: here she put the specifics of Frank and his writings in the much broader context of sexual politics in the Western world at the turn of the 19th-20th century. The second presentation was from my German collaborator, Margret Greiner, who had flown with her husband (Professor Bernhard Greiner) all the way from Munich. Her evocative, passionate and intellectually witty contribution - Frank and Tilly: 'Marriage is the most relentless of human addictions' - provoked questions of whether Tilly was a victim or a colluder in her own situation: nothing is black-and-white in gritty drama. As the third contributor, I addressed Tilly No-Body as a piece of practice-as-research, and how I had striven to turn archives, biography, letters, plays and original interpretation of events into theatre, song and present-tense experience of the researched material.

Session 2: Creating Identity: Performative contributions from writers exploring Practice-as-Research brought together three professional writers - playwright Lucy Gough, poet Andy Jones and novelist Lucy Corin. All three are also academics, Andy J and Lucy C here at UC Davis, and Lucy G at the University of Aberstywth in Wales, UK. Lucy G led us intimately and honestly into the processes she adopts as a writer incarnating numerous personalities through her one imagination. She described how she 'walks' her way into characters, revealing that writing is far from a sedentary, head-locked activity, and she compared her experiences of writing for theatre and radio with writing for day-time TV soap (which she did on a weekly basis of 10 years). Andy Jones blended poems from Browning and Eliot with his own original poetry, illustrating how personalities are incarnated and dialogues created through condensed imagery and language: indeed, both of his own performed poems took a dialogue form between two characters in a very intriguing manner. Lucy Corin demonstrated through her readings of her own prose work the way in which she changes narrative voice - from first person to third person - while always playing with her own 'presence' as the writer in a narrative. Listening to Lucy reading her various characters, I was struck by her changing rhythms and the naturally shifting placement in her voice: having described herself as 'not a performer', her performative self was embedded and intuitive, and so I would have to disagree with her own description!

Session 3: Shaping Identity: A discussion panel was chaired by choreographer and Chair of UCD Theatre and Dance department, David Grenke, whose own choreographic work resonates with autobiography and expression of identity. The discussion opened with a virtual presentation by Bernadette Daly Swanson of the Shields Library, who is an infectious energy when it comes to propounding Second Life, the online virtual world where people re-structure and recreate their identities through avatars. This was fascinating. Bernadette was sadly not well enough to appear in the flesh, but her virtual appearance was extremely appropriate. Her introduction to Second Life - and the disparity between people's avatars and their actual faces, contrasted with the appropriateness of their avatars to their own voices - was extremely fascinating. It of course raised issues with Dave and his fellow panel member, actor Miles Anderson, of the role of the body in expressing and performing identity. Both Dave and Miles had incarnated Hitler at various times in their professional careers, and they had both encountered issues of their own shifting personalities when finding themselves afraid that they might empathise with some of Hitler's rationale. Miles also discussed performing Peter Pan at the age of 30-something, and finding his own inner child activated by the role while also being intrigued at Peter Pan's dark side. I was particularly struck by his connection to Pan's statement that death would be 'an awfully big adventure'. Fourth panel member, David Orzechowizc - a PhD student in Sociology - gave some fascinating insights into how actors in theme parks micro-manage their emotions and identities, not only in response to the 'feel good' factor of daily life in a theme park, but also in terms of gender portrayal and a sense of liberation behind the larger-than-life characters incarnated there. One of the recurring themes with Tilly No-Body is the paradoxical way in which we often reveal more of ourselves when we adopt masks and characters, or hide behind veils (and Tilly loves veils).

Session 4: Acting and Performing Identity: Examples of Practice-as-Research brought together four very inspiring PhD students from across the campus. Daniel Grace (English) raised issues of what it signifies to call yourself 'a writer' and how he feels in the process of writing. Dylan Bolles (Performance Studies) and his talented wife combined music and story-telling to open up issues of moving from Korea to the USA. Claire Maria Chambers (Performance Studies) looked at the performance of religion on the streets of San Francisco during Ash Wednesday and the crossing of lines between performance and reality. And Nita Little (Performance Studies) - an immensely gifted choreographer who specialises in improvised dance - demonstrated her use of actual body and virtual body (using quite a different definition from Bernadette in Second Life). She also described the dancer's desire to keep moving forward, as - in the moments of stillness - the present-tense can be too potent for the dancer. This raised some very interesting questions for me in terms of the actor's desire to be 'in the moment', and what stage fright might mean to a dancer.

The symposium culminated in a performance of Tilly No-Body and a post-show reception, which brought together the contributors and the sponsors of the event (Carolyn de la Pena and Jennifer Langdon from the Davis Humanities Institute; Laura Grindstaff from the Consortium for Women and Research; as well as representatives from the Departments of German, English and Theatre and Dance). The whole day was very filling and fulfilling, and I felt that seeds had been planted for further interdisciplinary discussions and collaborations. This for me is the true harmony of practice and research, of performance and pedagogy.

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