Updated: Aug 19, 2022
An email thread started with "Authenticity is a MYTH?"
The idea was only lightly mentioned in a lecture in 2019 but I could not let it go.
I thought about it in the shower.
I thought about it on walks.
I thought about it during lock downs, a lot.
So I started emailing the origin of my flying thoughts, Joseph Mercier, who continues to cause more existential thought crisis to his students. It started with random thoughts on authenticity, and later grew into unnecessarily long essays, mostly ranting really, but all of which were so graciously welcomed by Joseph. (Thank you! if you are reading this)
I have arrived at a stop on the idea. I think. For now.
So I want to share where my thoughts have landed, for now.
The following text traces my thoughts with the works Quartiers Libres choreographed by Nadia Beugre, performed as part of Transform 2022) and the story of Anna Delvey, the fake German Heiress. Written one late night, in one sitting, in March 2022.
I walked among the audience, in and around the performance space, carrying my bulky backpack. For a while we walked around the space, surveying the stage with a single cafeteria chair, the breath-taking wall of plastic bottles trailing down from the ceiling like an avalanche, and the orb of plastic bottles recognised in the poster, resting at the end of a runway stage. Before I knew it, the audience quietened down, the performance started with a voice singing acapella in French. I search for the voice amongst the crowd and see Beugre walking from one audience member to another, pointing the mic towards them to indicate them to join in. I imagine this would be very different if it were a French-speaking audience, but of course being in the city of Leeds, all but one responded with wide eyes open and a polite smile. The mic was attached to a long black wire winded around her neck, unplugged. As she circles the space, a different song comes on from the speakers. As the music gradually grew louder, Beugre struggled to sing her own song, shouting desperately to find her own voice until the loud music drowned her voice completely. Hopeless and exhausted, she sat on the chair and softly sang out the last line of the countering song, giving in to the song overpowering her as it comes to an end. Suddenly she snapped out of that emotional moment and broke into a laugh, not hysterically but one that reminds us that this is all but a performance. Beugre’s performance weaved in and out of our traditional sense of performativity, breaking in and out of the sense that performer is a subject, someone, something, a body to be spectated upon. Her humanistic responses of letting out a big sigh, catching her breath, asking for water, reminds us that she is not merely a subject to be spectated upon, but a fellow human pouring her heart out, putting herself on the spot to sing, to rage, to ask for help. The long black wires wrapped around her in her black sequence dress, Beugre swung and threw herself around the elevated stage giving a discharging performance that echoed the intensity of the music. It transported me to her personal, emotional space, perhaps there was no escape when we were up close seeing the sweat on her skin and hearing the sound of her panting. The wire became more and more tangled up as she flung herself around. Her long locks of hair weave in and between the tangled up wire. Beugre struggled to take her dress off in the tangled mess that she was caught in. When she finally did, her dark skin glistened under her sweat, like a fish in a net, humming a tune with its last breath. After a while we realised that she was trying to get down the stairs but couldn’t because of the wires around her. A few audience members huddled over and helped her down. Untangled her.
Unwrapping. Separating her beautiful long locks from the mic wires. Unravelling. Taking time. Patience. And giving her the utmost attention of care. At one point of the performance, after she drank and thanked the people who gave her water, she pulled out a black bin bag and started to play with it as we giggled with her. The atmosphere intensifies though when she started staring into an audience member’s eyes intensely, whilst slowly stuffing the bin bag in her mouth. I was standing behind that audience who was being stared at, and I could feel her blazing gaze. Not so much a stare of hate, but one with vulnerability hidden behind this mask of wrath. Beugre’s continuous stuffing became a slow torture, triggering the frozen response in me where I felt her gagging, suffering but determined will to contain the oversized plastic. An audience stood in her way unexpectedly, looked at her with pleading eyes “stop”. “Please stop that”, they begged. I, amongst the audience, felt their helplessness. The lump in my throat thickens. They held her for a moment “ Please, please stop, please”, and she returned the embrace. Onward she went, still stumbling whilst stuffing until the whole bag was in her mouth. Beugre’s suffering was no longer bitter or angry, but perhaps like Sisyphus’s boulder. Though I was immersed in the horror and beauty of Beugre’s performance, it also raises the questions: Is it okay to take initiative to give people in need help even if they haven’t asked for it? What if they are not or cannot communicate their need for help? Is seeing Beugre struggling for a while an indication that she wanted help
? Is the performer acting helpless to manipulate the audience into helping her? When or should we ever, question whether or not someone needs help? Performing helplessness as a way to ask for help. Perhaps like a homeless person on the street asking for change. We as a society somehow deem some to be more authentic than others, like we have an unspoken criteria to determine whether or not they are really homeless. What really determines their authenticity? A sleeping bag? Level of hygiene? A dog? Drunkenness? If a person really is homeless, does that mean they have to lean into the narrative of sleeping rough, wearing ragged clothing or going to soup kitchens? In order to get help, does that mean they have to reject a level of living standard, perhaps their dignity to be clean, to spend money on food? In the case of fake homeless beggars, are they receiving help because they performed this idea of homelessness so well? Is that the case of theatre? Of Beugre’s performance?
Anna Delvey, an act and persona that Anna Sorokin made up, had been a hot topic ever since tricking some New York elites for huge sums of money and went on trial for fraud, and now even has podcasts and a Netflix show about her. A legendary contemporary con-artist. In the case of Sorokin, reality was her stage. There is no sign of remorse towards her victims, or in other words, those who believed in her narrative. Some say that she is delusional and sociopathic, calling her a wannabe socialite. There are also some that praises her, painting her as this feminist, “girl boss” character for going for what she wants. My take is that she is both and neither. From what I know about Sorokin, which is not a lot, she is not this girl boss con-artist and neither are her victims idiots for falling for her lies. Sorokin believed her own invented narrative so much that she fully performed the role of a German heiress until reality caught up with her. And now she is, truly, receiving sums of money for her story, a queer way to “make it” in this capitalistic society. Sorokin lent into this performative role of Delvey enough that somehow fell into fame, whether it is or not how she pictured it. Despite the problematic nature of her act, she did imagine and create a reality that is believable enough that maybe for a while it is real, a true imagined hyper performative role. Both highly believable, although in different contexts, are Beugre and Sorokin so different? Is the only difference being the willingness of the audience to be lied to? Whether or not they signed up for the imagined reality/lie? My question is, why are theatre audiences so concerned with authenticity when they have signed up to, willingly, to an intentionally performative space? Is it because they feel like victims of a lie of sorts? After all, we like to be in on the lie, not as victims of them, to be excluded from the truth, the in-joke. Does it have to be real to be authentic? Can fake be real and authentic? With Beugre, we dipped in and out of intensity and lightness, until the line between spectated performance and seeing her as a human performing is blurred. We no longer view Beugre as a performative subject/body, and do not hesitate to offer help when she struggles and ask for help. Her performance became our reality, even just for an hour, it was real. We willingly believed that her stumbling is real, her anger is real, her thirst is real. Or maybe they are. Here we no longer distinguish, or care to distinguish what is real and what is not. The moment we start to judge, we become the victim of it. Willingly ignorant is key to fully experiencing a reality, especially one that is imagined.
"Being present is being totally honest about what we are experiencing, including bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings etc. Maybe rather than trying to be authentic (which remains a mystical concept), try to be honest." -Meg Stuart