I just finished listening to This American Life’s most recent podcast: What Doesn’t Kill You. First off, This American Life is an incredible program so listen, if you don’t already. I’ll put the link below. But I’ve been thinking about how to write about performance in this blog. I am a performer, I write for performers, I write stories for performers to perform and that isn’t the same as writing a novel or poem or short story. The words I write are intended to be heard so how those words are spoken is as important as the words themselves. “Performance state,” is something theatre makers talk about a lot. Mostly in rehearsals. Mostly in rehearsals for less traditional plays. At the moment. Anyway. I think of 'performance state' as the way an actor reveals herself on stage; the way she conveys the story, the character, the perspective by unmasking different parts of herself; the tone of her performance.
The theme of ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is death and people dealing with death and people evading death and how they live afterwards. And the first story is about comedian Tig Notaro who is incredibly funny and dry and when I heard her tell another story in a stand-up, This American Life, context before she had this relaxed wink and was in total control of the story she was telling, masterfully waiting for the crest of the laughter to land her next joke. It was as though she was conducting the audience and I found myself laughing out loud in the car. But in this episode they play a stand-up performance in which Tig talks about having cancer. In fact, she found out she had cancer two days before the gig and forced herself to do the gig because she is a performer, she is a comedian and therefore needed to do the gig. And in this routine (really you should listen to it before you read the rest of this)
So she talks about having cancer, about finding out she has cancer, about her mum dying two months earlier. It’s incredibly confessional but more than that, she’s working the story out while she tells it. The story she’s telling hasn’t yet been crafted the way we craft stories we tell over and over again and so she’s figuring it out and making jokes as she does and responding to the audience who is in some sort of shock. Her 'performance state', is not relaxed, at ease, in control of every moment, but rather vibrating with discovery and unknowing. Listening to the recording I feel like I’m in the room listening to Tig come to terms with her own mortality, with her imminent death, even, because she is dying and I prefer to think of cancer as something that can be cured after a long ‘battle’ but I know it isn’t always cured and Tig has maybe four months – she says that off the top – so when she jokes that she should tell the bee joke and lighten things up someone in the audience yells, ‘No!’ One person yells no and I’m with that ‘no’ person. I want her to keep going, to go deeper, to dig around even more in her fear and pain and shock. I don’t know Tig, this is the second time I’ve heard her do stand-up and I don’t have an intimate connection to her; my experience listening to this story is not like hearing a family member reveal a terminal cancer but still I want her to go on, I want her to wrestle her thoughts and feelings into words because she’s human. And I’m human. And I, like everyone else, struggle with my own mortality. And hearing someone else piece her story together in front of a crowd of people brings me face to face with my own humanity.
All performance should bring us closer to ourselves. Performers should provoke us to envision ourselves in place of that performer whether the story is true, as in Tig’s case, or imagined like in most plays. The imaginative space between performer and audience should be so alive the audience is compelled to interject: ‘No! Don’t shy away from it ... don’t change the subject ... keep going ... we’re with you and we need you to keep piecing it together.’
Imagine if all performance was like that.