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The Only Way Out is Through: A Waffle Chat on Performing the Self

By Lindsey Greer Sikes

I rush to make my way to the day’s waffle chat after saying goodbye to my Mother who has driven down from Dallas to spend the weekend with my brother and me while I am in town.  Because, yes, everything does need to happen at once.

Photo Credt: Giulio Sciorio

Whenever I’m Fuseboxing or festivaling or generally meandering through life, I often feel like there is something I am always missing.  That fear, the dreaded “FOMO”, or fear of missing out, is an anxiety that reminds me how hard it is to be—and stay—connected with myself for any one extended point in time.  I am constantly seeking truth outside of myself, with no foundation for the belief that any of the answers I’m seeking are actually outside myself. What am I missing, now I wonder, at every moment I choose not to go within, and instead try to find the answers without?  What would we all be missing if we chose to disconnect from ourselves in order to be connected to others at all times; seeking our place in the world before we found a home within ourselves?

As I awkwardly settle into my seat at the back of the Waffle Chat with my cup of hot coffee on this eighty five degree day, I see before me three creators whose work starts with the self.  These performers use investigation and excavation of the personal to embody experiences of performative catharsis and the reimagining of our identities, as well as our ability to express them.

Seated, from left to right, are Jaamil Olawale Kosoko (Séancers), Jack Ferver (Mon, Ma, Mes) and Michael J. Love (Gon’ Head and Put Your Records On!).  Though I’ve missed the brief introductions, I begin listening at the moment the moderator starts to ask the creators how their personal history is embedded in their work:

“[In] personal seance I found myself ritualizing,” says Jamie Olawale Kosoko, ”and I thought it might make sense to share that process in community, because I’m not alone in thinking these things or living in this reality. “ Kosoko continues to speak about how performance work is used to “engage a public community of catharsis.”

Kosoko is using the personal experience to transcend the boundary of social acceptability within the public space; furthermore, he is asking what makes a space a ‘healing space’ for a person or a community.  Based upon his reflections on his own process, I feel Kosoko is providing some sort of a formula that rings true of an old saying we are all familiar with: “those who can’t do, teach”. But here, Kosoko speaks of his work as “performing healing”.  And unlike algebra, healing the self is not something that can be taught or done for any one particular person—there is no finite mathematical law for “healing”. Healing is an individualized journey and thus, for Kosoko, the process of making his work actually starts with the process of healing the self: himself.  Only after going through it, can the performer then become the teacher, for without the honesty of the personal experience informing the content of the work, these performers would be nothing more than an overdressed and underpaid lecturer.

Honesty, it seems, is a big theme on the topic of performing the self at this day’s Waffle Chat.  Jack Ferver, situated in the middle of this trio, spoke in depth about how his own identity as a gay man, and hiding that identity in public for much of his life, informs his own practice. He used comedy as a defense mechanism, playing the “cliché of the gay clown”, to survive for most of his earlier life. Ferver spoke of how the “confusion about the hiding and overacting became something [he] wanted to look at under the lens of performativity.”  While Kosoko’s practice leans more towards ritualized work as a starting point, Ferver states that he actually uses psychoanalysis as a main entry point. This makes sense, to me, of course: throughout our whole lives we’ve been told if we understand how our brains worked we would understand ourselves.  Part of me wonders if that’s only true because of the placebo effect (because we’ve been telling ourselves we don’t know ourselves without science and medicine for so long). I wonder what would happen if we just started to believe that our knowledge lives in our bodies, not our heads.

I digress…and now back to Jack.  Jack Ferver is an incredibly enigmatic persona whose speech is like a high speed train cutting through a bustling city.  It’s clear that his studies and research into performance have laid an extremely sturdy foundation for his own work and musings.  He continues to speak about how, as an artist, there is no complete separation from work and life. Life happens, and it informs the work, or the work suffers because it ignores what life is happening.  Ferver states that moment where work and life merge as the moment “the scrim comes off”.

That scrim, to me, feels like the boundary between the self and the mask, between the real and the façade.  In my own work researching performance of the self and identity, I’ve come to some of my own conclusions about identity.  I still debate whether or not we live in a world in which we we can ever truly know ourselves. I believe we have three identities: our public, our private, and our private in public.  The public is who we are; but, really, it’s who we WANT to be. It’s how we want to be seen by others when we know we are visible. It’s the reason we dress a certain way or eat our food a certain way or do anything we do in public a certain way—we are always performing.

The private is, of course, who we are when we are alone.  One might argue this is our most true self, but I would argue that in a world where it is almost impossible to disconnect from stigma or technology the private self is always under some subconscious scrutiny, and therefore perhaps does not exist at all.

And finally, the private in public, which I think is actually our truest self: it’s who we actually are, and want to be, when we don’t have anyone around to perform for.  It’s our ability to sit at a coffee shop and read and not adjust our clothing or our hair or our posture when a certain person comes by. It’s the ability to pick your nose in a room full of strangers.  It’s the ability to simply be without worrying how you are being perceived.

But who am I when I’m not worried about what I do or what others think of me?  How do we discover that true self? How do we shut down our brains and all the data that has been telling us to think our way into knowing ourselves, and start to feel our way into it?  Because, that, to me, was the discovery I was looking for my whole life! Only recently have I realized that we do not know ourselves in the mind: all knowledge of who we are and what we need, comes directly from the body.  It all begins, and ends, with the body.  (You know the saying, dust to dust.)

Serendipitously, the Waffle Chat moderator now says, “I want to talk more about the body.”

Michael J. Love is all over this question.  There is a joy that emanates from his presence in a way that is undeniably contagious.  You can feel that he is a being of pleasure, so it’s not surprising to hear him say that one of the first things he asks himself when he gets into a rehearsal room is: “What feels good?”  Love asks his body where it wants to go and challenges himself on how it can get there. Love is not doing this for anyone but himself—he has nurtured a beautiful relationship between himself and his body, and just like any great Hollywood love story, he wants you to witness it.  In witnessing, we become inspired. In witnessing, we see both the performer and the teacher simultaneously.

Love is teaching us that he is the owner and controller of the expression of himself, through his body.  He talks about making his work as, “creating space for [him] to be comfortable”, which as an African American man in America, and especially in southern America, has not been the natural state for his body for most of his life.  While publicly Love may never feel able to be completely connected to his body—his identity—there is no denying that in the private space of a rehearsal room he is able to be as free as he can be: to be fully embodied.

And we, witnesses, learn from this performance of the self.  We reflect on our our yearnings and desires to express ourselves more, to not be held back by fear and anxiety.  We grow resentful of the people and institutions and cultural conditioning that has told us we have to be a certain way or deny things that feel true for us just because someone else said it wasn’t true for them.  Or that it made them afraid. Because isn’t that what we are actually dealing with here? Isn’t that what the performance of the self is all about? Declaring war with the forces of the world that tell you to be small, to be silent, and to be ashamed!  Performance of the self is an act of anarchy, it is a “call to arms,” says Kosoko. He continues on in the conversation and tells us that he “finds performance work a responsibility” and that his responsibility within is “to be the vessel [he’s] meant to be in this world, to create the space or experiences we need.”

But the responsibility of confronting our demons in order to excavate the celebration of existence does not fall completely on the shoulders of the performer.  When the moderator asks how important the audience is, Kosoko responds, “We are all here together in this communion.”  The audience are performers as well, and Ferver further suggests that the audience is actually the “final collaborator” of the show itself.  “We make the work for the people who need it,” Ferver says.

It’s like when you have a really nasty booger that just won’t budge, but you’re sitting in a room full of people and don’t want to be that person who just picked their nose.  If you were sitting in a room with Jack Ferver, he might just walk up to you and say, “Pick it! Pick it now!”

Of course everyone’s problems aren’t booger sized.  Dealing with trauma as both performer and witness is a very terse terrain to tread.  Baring yourself to friends or strangers when your soul is red-meat raw can be very detrimental to healing ourselves.  So, when they open up the floor to questions I raise my hand and ask the performers:

“What is your process of working with and through trauma?  When you get into a room and something comes up for you, how do you deal with it?  How do you make work out of it?”

Each of the artists has their own answers.  Ferver speaks a lot about using his formal dance training to create a set of tasks for himself, to potentially work through an emotion with these formalized movements.  He also speaks about using Authentic Movement as a part of his practice, which thrills this writer! Authentic Movement (in very basic terms) is a practice of closing one’s eyes and allowing the body to be moved in whatever way it wants to be moved.  During the practice it is common, at first, to feel an impulse and then to feel yourself stopping yourself from engaging with that impulse. You judge the impulse, you ask yourself if it’s appropriate, you ask yourself why you’re doing it, you tell yourself it’s stupid to throw your arm in the air for no reason other than because you felt like it, and then you think yourself out of your body.  You’re in your head. But the point of Authentic Movement is to stay in the body—to let the body do the guiding, and to try to detach as much from the mind as possible. Intentionally, your eyes should remain closed so that you have no idea how ridiculous you look, but you are usually being witnessed. And that witness (the audience) being there, seeing you act like a completely natural fool, rolling about like the animal you are on the floor or doing leaps across the studio like the unicorn ballerina you see yourself as each morning in the mirror—that witnessing makes it real.  Authentic Movement is the embodiment of the performance of the private identity in public. It’s the starry helix of who we truly want to be, dancing in a fog of all the world’s misty fears.

So, when it comes to our pain—our own healing process—where do we start?

“The only way out is through,” Kosoko states.

But what if what I do is stupid and lame and no one cares about it?

“It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to happen,” Love says.

But what if I just don’t know what the hell I’m actually doing and everything feels wrong?!

“I’m trying to be the seam,” Ferver would cleverly retort.

That seam that Ferver describes is the tension between what we are supposed to express and what we are supposed to suppress.   But these artists are working to slowly tease the seam: to allow the truth of their existence, of their identities, to seep creepily through that seam into our reality.

These artists are giving us a gift.  By doing the work of healing themselves and then bringing the result of that healing work to us to witness, we begin to summon the courage to connect to our true selves.  Ferver, Kosoko, Love and all autoethnographic artists who bear their souls are teaching us to listen to and to nurture the answers that come from our own bodies. They have discovered that the way to connect to one another and the world around us, is actually to first connect with ourselves.  Like Kosoko said, “the only way out is through.”

So perhaps Michael J. Love had the right question to begin that journey into the discovery of the self all along.  Next time you have the chance to chill with yourself, here’s a conversation starter:

“Hey body.”

“Sup homie!!—what’s the haps?  What ya need? I’m kinda tired and anxious right now but sounds like you’ve got a request on the brain so I’ll get my ass in gear and—“

“Hey body.  Chill, my friend.  All I wanted to ask you was: What feels good?”

“…what do you mean?  Like, what would feel good on my aching back or what would take the edge off my anxiety or like…?”

“I mean, to you, in life, in general…what feels good?”

“…Seriously?  Damn, no one’s asked me that in a long time…”

“Then it sounds like we’ve got some catching up to do.”

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