It was an impulsive decision; to ask a group of mostly novice writers and performers to stand in front of the rest of us, the workshop group, and simply “Be present” in front of us for a few moments, then walk off (I’d designated a space as a “stage” and said we were an audience). It followed an exercise where I’d got everyone to walk about the airy conference room in the National Glass Centre (which had a stunning view of the Wear outside) and name things they could see as they walked around, so as to anchor themselves in the room. As soon as I asked it, I got nervous. It’s quite an exposing exercise, I didn’t want to put people off. Also, it can sound daft and off-putting; just “Be present” in front of an audience, surely I already am here?
It’s possible I was reacting to one of the workshop participants, an actor and director, who asked in the break if I was going to make suggestions to people about how they could perform better. He pointed out a few things some of them could have done better when we read through poems we’d just written. Project more or look less nervous, stop rocking on their feet. I thought I obviously hadn’t made it explicit enough in the workshop that my way of working was going to very much to get people to build up confidence and skill by doing. By being in what I’d call a “Safe space”. By gradually taking on feedback from me and fellow participants when they performed and, in future, to take on more feedback. It was a workshop billed as a “Toolkit” for people wanting to get others to write and perform rather than an “Improve your skills” session. It reminded me that being really present on stage was something I used to encourage a lot when I ran workshops specifically for comedians or poets. Unlike actors, they’re not in role, they’re being themselves. Audiences respond to authenticity. Real fear is better than fake confidence. (I don’t think I’ve ever said that in a workshop but, at some level, I believe it).
The first couple of people came up. A bit nervous. Shifting from foot to foot. I suggest they name things they could see in the audience to help them really, really look at us rather than just pretend. I was talking about the looking, but really I was hoping the process where the performer is really there and the audience knows it, kicks in. I asked the other participants to say what they could see about the performer- were they really with us? There was talk about externals- they look nervous, they’re nodding. I still wasn’t being very explicit about this being something that would be felt inside the performer and the audience. Then Angela got up. She’d spoken earlier about being very nervous about public speaking, though wanting to do it as part of her community work. She came and stood in front of us. Standing small and quiet, looking around at us. “I can see you’re nervous too” she said with surprise, as she looked at us. “But you’re smiling, or nodding. Willing me on”. She kept looking at us. “I feel calm. I didn’t expect to feel calm, but this feels alright. I feel like I could do this”. I felt a welling up of emotion in my chest. Thought of what I’d read in stand up comedy researcher Tim Miles paper about the contact between comedian and audience, the quote he’d used from anti-psychiatrist R.D Laing; “I experience you experiencing”.
That’s what was happening to Angela. Instead of being confronted by a faceless, hostile, judging audience, she saw us looking back at her, a bit afraid of being looked at, a bit anxious to have the right expression, as she was. We didn’t engulf her, or overwhelm her- she was able to look at us, as we looked at her. In the space between us, was the third space I think Buber, the existential philosopher talks about. A space where communication can happen- not just bodily, not just vocal, but both. Intersubjective. Had she stayed there longer our breathing might have come into sync. If she was doing stand up comedy she might have pulled us closer, pushed us away, tested our laughing responses, provoked applause. As it was, afterwards she said she felt like she’d had a breakthrough. She’d been on a journey, she said, of finding her voice for a while. Said she’d been brought up in a working class home by her Gran. Creativity wasn’t for the likes of her. She’d had to be very small- she mimed her body held in, her head down- but now she was learning to speak.
This was a visceral reminder to me of why I’d first loved running workshops in solo performance. I’d not long before found my own route to a voice in that third space between performer and audience, and passionately wanted to help facilitate that for other people. One of the people in the first workshop I ran now has a really successful career as a stand up comedian (Sarah Millican) and in the narrative I sometimes tell about that, it was through the democratic form of stand up comedy that a working class woman from the North East was able to make a creative living. Starting off in a workshop funded by Gateshead Library. But actually, for a long time for me, the significant thing about that workshop and Sarah’s process to becoming a performer, was that she found a place to find her voice at a time when her identity had been fractured. She was going through a divorce, felt rejected and unsure, but an audience accepted her, as she spoke to them with truth and real vulnerability (and some killer one liners even then: “At least if he’d died I’d have got my mortgage paid” she said in a quiet voice, then more forcefully “And I could have danced on his fucking grave”) and they both experienced each other as experiencing. Some of what they experienced was the fear of speaking in front of other people. I remember her pale, still face, the way she stood close in to the mike, didn’t move across the stage. Now when she performs her face is animated, she takes the mike out of the stand, walks about with the bodily confidence of all the best comedians- but still creates a sense of intimate conversation, just having a chat to the audience.
Bourdieu is really important as a theorist in my research because he draws together the subjective and objective- the ways that social structures operate in us bodily and come to seem natural. I’ve also been reading about Norbert Elias today- his use of the word “habitus” to describe this bodily embedding of social power relations predates Bourdieu’s. He wrote about how society is becoming more “civilised” and that middle class mores were reinforced by the many etiquette and rule books of the nineteenth century. Before that, Royal courts had rigid rules about how to be civilised and keep your unruly bodily urges at bay, but they needed spreading more widely as states grew- and they needed implanting in citizens so that they’d regulate their own behaviour. He emphasises how this is relational and processual- struggles for power mean that dominant groups may take on some of the “Habitus” of dominated groups, as well as vice versa- hence what Wouters has called the “Informalisation” of social rules now.
I think of Angela and a habitus she explicitly linked to being working class- one in which she was expected to be small, not to imagine too much or speak out in public- seemed to change right in front of us. How Sarah’s comedy, which is sometimes about sex and farts and eating too much, appeals across all sections of society but is sometimes derided by reviewers as “Too” focused on the body. How the space between one speaker and an audience can become somewhere to challenge ingrained habits we didn’t know we had. How it might be an opportunity for somebody to tell us to “Stand straighter, act confident, speak up” in a way that suggests an appropriate and improving self or to “Be present” in a way that probably suggests an essential and authentic self. How it might call up those internalised, self-regulating voices saying “Don’t draw attention to your self, don’t blow your own trumpet, don’t make a fool of yourself” and reinforce the dominance of others. But how, despite all these, something visceral happens when a self meets the social- and the social meets the self. The actor man had pointed out to another participant that she looked very nervous and winced as she got up out of her chair to walk on the stage. I said that for me, it didn’t matter. She had a sort of quiet, self-contained presence. I talked about the difference between acting a role and being a version of yourself in comedy or poetry: “I like fractured performances” I said, which I’d never said in those words before. I think I meant that I like it when you can see the effort needed to maintain a performance, but, unlike in a social situation where someone might try to “Save face”, the performer is unafraid (or unashamed?) to let us see the slippage and wants to communicate with us anyway. With the fractured, performing, in-between selves we are.