Will the Real Actor Please Stand Up?

On Thursday and Friday, David Levine invited Melloners to locate the vanishing actor. Subverting realist method acting technique and reproducing the uncanny effect of body-snatcher films, David’s performance art challenges us to figure out who is acting and who is real. After asking what it means to “act natural,” David moved into a discussion of the ways in which anonymity acts as a multiplier. He tracked the political implications of body swapping against the backdrop of 1950s communism, 1960s drug culture, and the 1970s’ conservative capture of liberal ideals. Today, as state and corporate surveillance escalate, movements like Normcore operate on the premise that being special now opposes being free. By dressing and acting as “normal” as possible, the movement enacts a strategy different to the paradoxically anonymizing theatrical disguises that Sarah Bay-Cheng shared earlier in the week, which look special in the real world but keep us out of digital archives. By performing normality in the real world (and in online social networks, with ironic selfies?), Normcore activates a protective camouflage.

Normality: then and now (left image by Caspar David Friedrich, right image courtesy of K-HOLE)
Normality: then and now (top image by Caspar David Friedrich, bottom image courtesy of K-HOLE)
Normality: then and now (left image by Caspar David Friedrich, right image courtesy of K-HOLE)
Normality: then and now (top image by Caspar David Friedrich, bottom image courtesy of K-HOLE)




In some ways, performance has always enabled protective camouflage. One thinks of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, where Jack and Algernon use the alter ego Ernest to avoid social obligations. Wilde’s point, however, is that the actor lacks self-knowledge, and is not always aware of the truth of the mask he wears. In the dramatic irony of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’ lack of self-knowledge is set against the against the audience’s awareness of his true identity. The Western theatrical tradition puts the audience in a position of knowledge relative to the character onstage. In our discussion, we asked whether the audience ever need know if a performance is happening all around them. Or, in another version of the question, can actors can take the place of spectators? What makes a theatrical event? After all, we’re still getting a lot out of David’s work, even if we didn’t see it or know it was happening around us. As David observed, as soon one makes art into a theatrical event, one brackets it relative to the rest of the world, and it becomes a utopian space. Because it can only be accessed under certain conditions, how does it connect to the real world? How does the political artist enact insurgency without being too heavy-handed and without spectacularizing textual difficulties (ie. the sea-storm opening of The Tempest)? Through camouflage, and infiltration—through subtle realism set in opposition to exuberant theatricality.

Of course, for every straight white man who feels all too visible, there are a variety of social and political identities who desire to be seen. Though the theater may not be as visible as it thinks it is, it credits collaboration more than other visual and verbal arts (as David acknowledged, in his work the vanishing actor makes for an ever-present director/performing artist). If David’s work is a theatrical event, what would future reenactments or re-performances look like? Does his retooling of method acting come out of nostalgia for the era of Stanislavsky and Freud, which has new historical imperative in light of the artificial intelligence properties of our era? In other ways, David’s work registers a new moment for theatrical realism as a mode of infiltration. One thinks of other forms of artistic camouflage, from trompe l’oeil painting, to the “true histories” offered in the first person or epistolary novel, to the inadvertently upsetting War of the Worlds radio broadcast. We began the week observing the history of the theater emancipating itself from the ground on which it takes place; we end with all the world a stage, wondering if there’s any way to emancipate ourselves from it.


See also: Matthew Franks