Shifting from Neutral: An Affectful Manifesto

Photo by Josh Smith

Photo by Josh Smith

Neutral means without affect or action. It also has come to mean non-acting. I think it means normative.

Authentic means true, and without filter. It has come to mean felt. I think it means normative.

Real means not artificial. It has come to mean believable. I think it means nothing.

Downtown Blindspot

There is a strange blind spot among contemporary avant-garde or “downtown” New York theatre artists and audiences: While the boundaries of writing, design and even duration and audience interaction are being pushed, or at least have a good deal of space to move around in, acting has been stalled in neutral for as long as I’ve been going to live theatre in New York City — since 2001 — and from what I gather, for a lot longer than that. I am writing this essay based on my experiences and discontents as a devoted audience member, performer and director in the downtown scene.

The central fallacy that I want to examine here is this:

  • That the way to get closest to something resonant is to strip away affect.
  • And following that, that it is possible to experience the ‘real’ performer.
  • Furthermore, that it is only possible to digest modes of non-realist acting if we the audience get a peek at the ‘real’ performer.

The neutral acting trend began as an exciting rebellion from the mainstream. It concerns me that it is still celebrated this way. Given that that movement began at least 20 years ago (and arguably 50 years ago, depending on which artists you name as the pioneers), I think it’s long overdue for an interrogation as the new establishment.

Neutral is Normative

“Neutral” acting is supposed to give the audience a sense that they are watching something so stripped down and simple that it must hold truth. We could also substitute “neutral” with “normative,” since an audience’s perception that something is neutral requires that they have accepted a normative set of behavior and incorporated it into their understanding of what neutral is.

Let’s make up a case-study: Performer N is normative: his voice is deep, he is a stable he, he doesn’t fidget, he looks at us directly, but with a friendliness, maybe a knowingness, we perceive him as open, grounded. Performer W is weird: her gender is probably queer or at least overly-feminine, maybe she moves too quickly, maybe she smiles too broadly or seems to gesture too deliberately. We perceive her as artificial, untrustworthy, definitely not neutral. There may be no internal difference between what these two performers are doing. Or there may be a world of difference. Un-intuitively, what’s inside is not relevant in this case. What matters is how comfortable we are watching them; how their behavior resonates with what we accept as truthful. What’s ‘accepted’ is that it is ever-changing and expansive. Neutral acting is super-inclusive, so that non-normative bodies can be incorporated into it rather quickly, so long as they are subscribing to the idea of neutrality as an obtainable state. It’s not fascistic, it’s capitalist — you can buy into it, you can be a part of it, so long as you don’t undermine it.

Post-Modern Realism and the Neutral Par

Much of what I’ve articulated so far is recognized as a problem by a sub-community of the downtown theatre; many people are weary and wary of non-acting, or skeptical of the misogyny implicit in the ‘neutral.’ (I use the word “misogyny” in this essay because it is the dominant patriarchal culture that still leads our unconscious behavioral norms… whether we like it or not. Sorry.)

What I believe to be a deeper problem is that even those artists seeking to play with non-neutral acting still rely on the neutral as a touchstone or par. It is hard not to do this, because when acting is deliberately not neutral, it is still watched by a downtown audience in reference to a neutral par. This is, perhaps, an extension of the Brechtian theory that the audience should be able to see the means of production: a performer should show they are performing, and the way to do this is to show the ‘real’ person without their mask on. But, since performers are not like set pieces, you cannot simply pull back the curtains and turn the house lights on to show what they’re really made of.

When we experience something that we would call ‘neutral,’ the performer is acting neutral, which is entirely different from being neutral. This sense of neutrality provides a sense of authenticity, which is comforting, easy to identify with, and ultimately a reassertion of normal behavior. This has led to an obsession with a neutral par, and has produced what I’d prefer to categorize as post-modern-realist acting as opposed to neutral acting.

The Authenticity Fetish

Rooted in a counter-culture trend towards theatre as ceremony, and the problematic (racist) anthropological obsessions with non-western performance in the 1960’s and 70’s, there exists a fetish for the ‘authentic’ that possesses downtown audiences and makers alike today.

This authenticity fetish has manifested in the questionable use of non-actors in performance for the purposes of giving the audiences an ‘authentic’ experience of ‘humanity.’ Knowing professionals try to master this too, through a dissociated affectlessness akin to the affect of an animal in a zoo: tame, somewhat distant, and used to being looked at. Those who can just ‘be’ are celebrated for their authenticity.

There are artists downtown who don’t buy into the authenticity fetish, who play with affect and action in exciting ways, often without calling it that. I see this once in awhile, and notice how confusing and exciting it can be for audiences and artists alike. I don’t think I’m alone in my questions and interests, but I do think that this line of discourse is not being taken seriously yet. It needs to come into focus.

Artful Acting

When I present my own work, I notice that many downtown audience members search for whatever they can perceive as neutral on stage, and then attempt to read the rest of the performance as performed in reference to the glimpse of a “real” person they feel they’d caught. (An unfortunate manifestation of the neutral par I described above.) This obsession re-frames my work in ways I never intended, placing importance on a binary of ‘real’ versus ‘artificial’ that I have no interest in. And so I have made a diligent effort in recent work to never show neutral anymore. This explicit absence of the neutral par is very disturbing / alienating to those who rely on it. And so it creates a new, more interesting challenge: How can performances resonate when they are explicitly unrealistic, in all the ways we might mean that word?

The most troubling (or interesting) thing to watch is a performer who is subtlety not behaving as they ought to. How they “ought to” behave is defined by the breadth of our own cultural experience, and by the particularly narrow expectations of an audience viewing an actor on stage. Undermining this behavior through crafted, artful acting, out of synch with normative behavior can be powerful and disturbing. Undermining the neutral can make performances ride a line between unwatchable and transcendent. This is what I want to make, and this is what I want to watch.

I am not seeking a more truthful truth, or a more inclusive neutral.

I am not interested in authenticity; I am interested in artifice.

I am not interested in art mirroring life, I am interested in art that skews perception, and moves light years into the future and the past.


Editor’s Note:  Katherine Brook’s exploration may be best contextualized by experiencing her work – ‘The Power of Emotion talk-opera’, Katherine Brook’s collaboration with Shonni Enelow and Taylor Brook will be performed on Saturday, May 16, at the Firehouse Space by TAK ensemble and Tele-Violet.


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