February 29, 2008

Performance and Self

Says Isaac Butler at Parabasis:

If we are performing all the time, because we are always in relationships , whether social, institutional, or both, at the end of the day there is no "true self". There are, I'd argue, "authentic" and "inauthentic" performances, but no real true self. (A clear example I can think of of an inauthentic performance would be being in the closet, or in some way compromising your core beliefs for x reason).

Getting back to acting again, most acting methods center around finding some kind of true self of the character. But if what you've got instead in a series of performances, some authentic, some inauthentic (or in Iago's case, entirely inauthentic at all times-- thanks Patrick!) maybe there are some different possibilities that emerge?

I guess what some of this derives from is that most of our approaches to acting are based in understandings of the self and human identity and psychology that are largely from the 19th century. For many of us, there are plenty of different understandings that have come about since then that are useful, revelatory, appealing etc. For example: and many of the older ideas (particularly those that flow from Freud) are based largely on the "self" as a primary unit instead of on relationships as the primary unit. And it's so ingrained that frequently when looking at character and performance, we look to the self and then the other, instead of the relations and then the individuals etc.

To which I wonder:

The concept of a fixed and immutable Self without relation to anything or anyone else is a particularly Western phenomenon. Clearly, other models exist (in Asia, Africa, and tribal cultures = and Scott is rubbing his palms now). But how would they gauge authentic and inauthentic performance? Authentic or inauthentic to what? If the performance is authentic or inauthentic based on something internal, what is that internal thing if not Self?

Does that make Isaac's idea wrong? I don't think so.

What I'm getting from Isaac's post is not that there is no internal reality. Rather, there isn't a self that can be easily summed up by a single word, a single interaction, a single trait. That internal reality, that Self, can only be glimpsed in bits and pieces, gleaned here and there from what someone says and does. There is a Self behind all that, but it's exact nature remains a mystery. When you think about it, it's rather obvious.

Given this idea, approaching a character as if there is a fixed, immutable Self reveals certain limitations. Most notably, the drive toward consistency can render performances focused and intense, but one-dimensional. I think that's why we love Hamlet. He says and does a lot of things that would indicate an inconsistency in his character, but somehow it rings true? Why is that?

I guess the bigger question is: What other ideas of Self can we use or create that include seeming contradictions?

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