X-ID Rep @ New Museum

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Over the next few months, the New Museum is undertaking an ambitious performance experiment: X-ID, a pop-up repertory company, will bring together a diverse group of theater artists to examine the occurrence of intercultural cross-play on American stages. X-ID marks the final phase of the New Museum’s 2015 R&D Season, PERSONA. Through experimentation across disciplines and in conversation with the public, R&D: PERSONA is investigating the sticky matter of subjectivity, and “the roles that the media, celebrity culture, politics, theater, and art play across the spectrum of subjecthood from “self” to “character.”

In X-ID, four playwrights, four directors, and eight performers – all representing intersecting categories of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and ability – assembled to examine the mechanisms of staging intercultural cross-identifications and to consider the conditions and contexts from which certain identity constructs emerge and persist. Furthering R&D’s commitment to experimentation, to testing “the limits of ideas,” and to re-examining the Museum’s role in knowledge and cultural production, X-ID will offer up a series of open auditions, research-based lab rehearsals, seminars, public discussions, and performance presentations of the group’s findings at the end of the three-month process.

As an interdisciplinary artist, performer, and culture producer whose work often wrestles with questions of personhood, process, and place, I will be covering three phases of the project – the audition, the research-based rehearsal process, and public presentations – over a series of articles. To begin, I participated in the audition process myself.

Open Auditions

On September 20th, during a daylong public event and additional evening session, the team saw at least 70 prospective performers, all asked to prepare an audition monologue (from an existing play or other source) in which the character’s cultural identity did not match their own. Auditioners could also reinterpret a monologue from one cultural identity into another. Performers were asked to consider a series of questions about cross-play in preparation: Do you recognize instances of cross-play in your past or upcoming work? How was it employed and to what end? Have you seen an instance of intercultural cross-play in the theater that didn’t work, in your opinion, and why? What further questions around intercultural cross-play and cross-identifications would you like to take on through this research-based, experimental process?

While the term “intercultural cross-play” is not regular parlance in theater circles, the recent upset over the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Player’s proposed production of The Mikado highlights the need for a deeper investigation into its occurrences, as well as the larger questions it provokes around power, privilege, agency, and responsibility. Historically, cross-play may share a distant kinship with the gender switching practices of Shakespeare’s comedies, traditions of drag or burlesque performance, or more recently, cosplay, a popular form of costume play that emerged out of sci-fi and animé. For X-ID, the term seems to refer to the act of crossing, switching, or intersecting various identity categories in performance, particularly through the lens of play, which opens up possibilities for movement, flexibility, freedom, or improvisation, and also subversion or instability. 

Upon considering what material to perform, it became immediately clear that this was not the average NYC audition experience, and X-ID is not a conventional theatrical undertaking. Not only did I have to take on the personal and empathic work of the actor, but the audition preparation also demanded a particular kind of critical rigor and a deep consideration of my own positions of privilege and agency in portraying someone else’s. As such, X-ID’s prompt also invited a series of ethical questions, provoking a consideration not just of who to portray but why, how, and by what means.

To situate myself: I am a white, American, cisgender, femme-ish presenting queer woman of relative class privilege. I am also a clown. My performance background draws considerably from traditions of clown, bouffon, commedia, games – highly physical practices that draw on each performer’s sense of pleasure and point of view to illuminate, play with, subvert, and satirize social norms and conditioning, as well as questions of power and status on stage. From this purview, I wanted to work with a text and a character that would be devilishly fun for me to play and to play with, and whose social-cultural identities were of a real or perceived higher status than my own. In bouffon, legendary French performer and pedagogue Philippe Gaulier calls this process, “finding one’s bastard.”

I considered recent speeches by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Sarah Palin. These obvious targets offered lots of room for satire and grotesque buffoonery, but in our current political climate, I loathed the thought of giving their ideas more airtime. I stumbled upon a little gem of the internet, a self-made iPhone video shot by Justin Bieber and recently released on YouTube. In the video, Bieber apologizes to his public for his notorious behavior over the past two years (Selena Gomez, a blatant disregard for law and order during a recent deposition testimony, hookers in Rio, just to name a few). Bieber’s usual mix of hyper-masculinity, urban posturing, and boyish sensitivity are on display, and yet, the video is also disarming, even moving. Read through the lens of race and gender privilege, gender norms, and performativity, Beiber’s confessional is chock full of material that would make gender and performance theorist Judith Butler proud. Bieber admits: “I was pretending to be someone that I am not. I say pretending because sometimes we pretend to be something that we are not as a cover-up for how we are feeling inside. And there were a whole lot of feelings going on in there.” Bieber concludes: “I want to be known as someone who is tender, soft, gentle, kind, and loving. Even if people call me a softy, that’s how my mother raised me.”

In my interpretation, I played within the tensions between Bieber’s hyper-masculine posturing and puppy dog sensitivity, but, admittedly, I also connected to Bieber’s inner conflict. As a femme-ish presenting queer woman, I struggle with how to authentically present my gender and sexual identity to the world in a way that reflects the fluidity and complexity with which I experience it on the inside. Even upon entering the audition room for X-ID, unless I outed myself as queer, I knew I would probably be “read” as a straight female and my portrayal of Bieber would be interpreted through that lens. I aimed to bring specificity to the physical and vocal characterization and empathy to Bieber’s circumstances, but I also wanted to use the performance style to comment on the ways in which Bieber’s various positions of agency and privilege not only circumscribe his internal struggle, but also enabled his bad behavior to persist without consequence. I was not going to let him off the hook.

During the audition day, which was videotaped and archived by the museum, each actor approached the audition prompt from their particular vantage points, both visible and invisible: a butch woman played Joan of Arc as a Southern pageant queen, a disabled actor who professed an attraction to playing “others and outsiders” performed a piece from Titus Andronicus, a white woman performed a monologue from an August Wilson play and led the panel in a Negro spiritual. Even here, my rather crude shorthand to describe the performers and their pieces underscores a potent tension at the heart of X-ID’s work over the next few months: the need to crystallize identity, thereby locating both the performer and the character within a particular set of social/cultural categories as a means of contextualizing and framing the performance we are witnessing, while at the same time, potentially undermining the rich subjectivity of both performer and character.

Admittedly, I wondered if my choice to perform Bieber was risky or in fact, the easier, safer option. I shared with the panel that I had also considered what it would mean for me to play a character from perceived and/or real positions of lower status than myself. What might be the personal, artistic, or even political motivations behind that choice? And, what means, ways, and performance strategies would I need to employ? Calling my bluff, director Niegel Smith piped up and asked me to improvise a character with an Indian accent. I stumbled awkwardly, comically through the exploit. We talked about geographical and cultural specificity, about stereotype, but also about the vulnerability and fear of “doing it wrong.” X-ID’s project points towards the transformative promise that I believe theater holds, but oftentimes does not fulfill. Here, performance serves as an essential and critical tool in taking on the complexities of subjectivity and representation, as well as the ethics, practices, and strategies that come along with this kind of investigation.

X-ID has now assembled a company of actors meant to reflect a diversity of representation and skill and the richness of personhood. These eight actors will be out in front, putting their bodies on the line for this experiment – many of them bodies of color, trans bodies, queer bodies, female bodies, disabled bodies. Inevitably, a performance project investigating questions of intercultural cross-play will also test and cross some lines. Are there limits to the kind of representations that can be depicted on stage? If cross-play can borrow from traditions of drag, bouffon, satire, or cosplay, it also runs the risk of crossing into stereotype, minstrelsy, or appropriation. Does anything go on stage as long as critical attention is paid to the contexts, ethics, and the means and ways that a performance is brought to life for an audience? What are the parameters as they relate to text, character, performance, style, and the kind of relationship one builds with an audience?

While the actors were thoroughly vetted through a public process, how will the playwrights and directors interpret their roles inside this experimental process as it moves forward, as well as their responsibilities? What skills might they be called upon to bring to the process, not only in how they approach questions of power and privilege on stage, but also in the rehearsal room? How will the museum, R&D, X-ID, and the artists work to create spaces that invite risk and experimentation and also address the need for safety?

At the end of her time, fellow auditioner and current X-ID Rep member Saori Tsukada was asked if she had any remaining questions for the panel about the project. She inquired, “How do I perform someone from another race or culture other than my own without hurting or offending someone?” The assembled team nodded silently in humble acknowledgement of her question. The team continued to see actors throughout the day, experimenting with different performance tactics, posing both personal and provocative questions to the performers and to one another, aiming to bring their skills and subjectivities as storytellers to a deep and rigorous investigation of this slippery terrain.

The first stages of open rehearsals for X-ID Rep are now underway. Full schedule of rehearsals and public presentations here.


The full company of X-ID REP is as follows:

DIRECTORS:

Lileana Blain-Cruz
, Kareem Fahmy, JJ Lind, Niegel Smith

PLAYWRIGHTS:

Jackie Sibblies Drury, Kirk Bromley
, MJ Kaufman
, Aya Ogawa

ACTORS:

Becca Blackwell
, Drae Campbell
, Youree Choi
, Gregg Mozgala, Mikeah Jennings, Alexandra Tatarsky, Saori Tsukada, Amelia Workman

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