Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Actualism, or Why I Use Food in my Act

@Isabelle Adam
In my act, I use quite a lot of food: for example, fennel, grapes, and Rice Krispies. This is not a particularly original idea. Many alternative comics use food in their acts. All three of the performers nominated for this year's increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality use food in their acts, as do many of the shows of The Weirdos collective. Is food funny?

I have long believed that there is a list of things that can happen on stage that are more "actual"* than others. These are things that transcend the fakery and pretence that are inherent to scripted performance, striking the audience as happening inescabably in the actual present. The list is long and quite varied, but here are some examples. When a gun appears on stage, the audience seldom believe that it is an actual gun, though they will be braced for a bang. Stage knives are usually fake, but a knife quickly becomes actual when it is hurled at another performer strapped to a rotating wheel. A baby on stage is not a baby actor; it is a baby. A baby's reactions to everything that happens to them on stage are absolutely genuine; the words "believable" and "convincing" do not even apply to a baby's performance. Dogs and other animals can be trained to fake their way on stage. Bees, however, cannot. I want to see more shows that use bees.  

When two actors kiss, the act transcends any pretence. It doesn't matter if the actors are bad, or if we don't believe the emotions supposedly conveyed by the kiss: the kiss actually happens. In a rare example of theatrical synchronicity, the actors kiss at exactly the same moment that the characters do, and we witness this act live. Stage nudity is the same. When a character gets naked, the actor does too, and we see that they do. Any action that breaks the surface of the performer's skin will appear more actual to the audience, propelling them into the now. When an actor sweats, spits, pisses, shits or shoots ping pong balls out of their vagina, they are using their body in a vivid and immediate way that demands attention. 

When liquids spill and splash in a scene, they do so on the actual stage, too. The same when smoke billows from the wings. They may be special effects, but they are not artificial. It has been said that when André Antoine first staged his naturalistic productions at the Theatre Libre in Paris in the late 1880s, audiences were shocked to see actors drinking real water actually poured out of ordinary jugs. Prior to fourth-wall innovations such as Antoine's, the convention had been for props to be clearly fake, and the use of them was always mimed. 

There are many other examples of "actualism" on stage. I invite you to find more. Actualism is why I use food, eating and drinking in my act, and I suspect that is why other comics do too. Using food alerts the audience to the actual that is happening in front of them. It helps to make the performance live.

I do often feel, however, that these techniques constitute only short-cuts to creating an "actual" live performance. Smoke, water, food, kissing, nudity and bees are all gimmicks. That's not to dismiss them; for example, I intend exploring gimmicks such as smells and reflected light in future performances. But they are in themselves no substitute for the emotional connection that audiences crave. There can be no trickery involved in this, as audiences demand the authentic, the actual. After all, even the act of crying, of forcing water out of your face, can be faked.

To invite an audience to experience your authentic feelings as vividly as they can see you are actually covering your arms with jam: that, for me, is a creative goal worth pursuing. 

* I am being careful here to use neither the words "real" and "realism" (which carry the absurd implication of "truth") nor the words "natural" and "naturalism" (which relate only to one particular style of representation). 

No comments:

Post a Comment