Emotional Preparation in Performance Art

This is the part of the research I am doing on the use of Meisner Technique in performance art and I want to here look at a performance experiment I recently did in the Art Now Live Tour, Tianjin, China.

I was invited to participate in the Art Now Live Tour, a Chinese performance art festival that took place in Tianjin and Cangzhou. A feature of Chinese performance art festivals is that they often encourage the artists to create impromptu performances in non-art spaces.

I wanted to try using what Meisner describes as an emotional preparation to see how it might work in practice and what effect, if any, it would have upon my performance. To go about this I first spent a good while in the space sensing how it influenced my mood. I found that it induced claustrophobia and disquiet, it insinuated me into a world I wanted out of and offered no alternatives. I then came up with the basic line of a performance which was to follow a movement from incarceration and accusation to escape.  

Meisner describes emotional preparation as, “daydreaming which causes a transformation in your inner life, so that you are not what you actually were five minutes ago because your fantasy is working you.” (1987: 81)

I had heard from a friend of mine living in China, that he had been followed and threatened by a gang of four thugs hired by his estranged wife. I tried to imagine what sort of circumstances could lead to me into a similar situation. It required some creativity but, standing alone in the performance space, I came up with a plausible scenario that tapped into quite genuine fears and desires of mine. I went through the scenario in detail to the extent that I started to feel it was not merely an exercise but was something I should be seriously concerned about. 

The festival officially opened and, after the first show, I was next. I had around ten minutes to prepare and went directly to my performance space, which was unoccupied. Standing still and surveying the gloomy surroundings, I went through my story. I imagined receiving a phone call in the room itself. I could hear the threatening tone of vulgar, rapid-fire Chinese that I could barely understand. Now and then, I’d close my eyes to better picture the faces of the people involved. I pictured them surrounding me at night in a place near to where I live. One of the gang had a knife and I imagined myself stammering a reply in response to their threats. I went over this scenario slowly, dwelling on some moments in order to fully picture them and take them in. I prepared in this way for about five minutes then stepped outside. 

Waiting a minute or two for the audience to gather I continued in this train of thought until they started making their way over to me. I did not speak to them but simply beckoned the audience into the performance space then bolted the door shut behind us. The rusty bolt made a painful grating noise, it couldn’t have been used in years. 

I slowly made my way through the space looking at each and every audience member in the eye. I projected onto them the role of the imaginary thugs confronting me so that my stare back at them contained an unstable mix of fear and defiance. This gaze of mine was somewhat responsive to the reactions I received from each person so that if, for example, I received a cold stare I might meet it with greater bluster while a blank stare might elicit a more contemptuous response. I did not predetermine how I would respond, I simply let the emotional preparation and task of looking at each member of the audience carry me. I restricted my reactions to how I stared back and did not allow myself to let my responses become so free that I could start speaking or waving my fists, for example. In this way there was no anonymous audience space, they were all an integral part of this uncomfortable spectacle. I later heard that some of the audience were frightened of me, though later still, I also heard some saw dry humor in the work too. 

After I had made my way around the space and looked at everyone in the eye, I returned to the person who I thought had the most sympathetic response. This was a Singaporean woman who returned my nervously aggressive stare with a steady and compassionate gaze. I stopped in front of her and offered her one key after another from my pocket. This continued for a while, the gesture becoming more pathetic as the keys scattered into a small pile on the floor in front of her. I finally fell to my knees.

Crawling to the far end of the room I then took the ladder, which was far too tall to stand upright, and maneuvered it around the space. I rested it in a diagonal position and started to climb. All of a sudden, one of the wooden steps gave way and I fell a short distance to the floor. Trying again, I finally managed to stand upright with my head touching the ceiling. I was not consciously thinking about the emotional preparation anymore, it had played its part and set me off. I now had an objective and that was to rise above and away from this scene. 

Placing the ladder through the narrow window I squeezed my way out with great effort, swung the ladder out and climbed up it onto the roof. The roof turned out to be very fragile and I had to very carefully make my way across it, walking above the audience and dragging the ladder with me. Inside there was confusion and some panic: the audience wanted to escape too as it was unbearably hot and there was some danger of me crashing down upon them. The performance ended with me climbing down the ladder on the far side of the space and the audience managing to break out and meet me. 

Complete Performance Video (20 minutes)

This was quite definitely an intense and focussed performance in which the actions were invested with strong emotions yet remained focussed around physical tasks. The same actions, performed in a matter of fact way, would have been understood quite differently because it was clear that there was something at stake here. This made the performance much more liable to be seen and felt to be a metaphor and it coloured some actions, such as staring aggressively at the audience, with specific resonances. I did not attempt to narrow down the meaning of this metaphor in the sense of “I am doing this in order to mean that,” it remained somewhat open to interpretation. My sense then is that the use of Meisner technique, and also some corporeal mime, in which I am formally trained, did not only make the performance more present or alive, it colored the actions with meaning.

The use of Meisner technique in this context was not so typical as I did not conceive of my role as a character separate from myself. I was present as myself, performing actions that I had myself chosen and the disciplinary frame for this was performance art. The scenario I used for the emotional preparation was one that was drawn from my life and its purpose was to put me in an appropriate mood for this performance. It is the case that, just because you make and perform a piece yourself, it does not necessarily follow that however you feel when you start the performance is equally fitting. The self is broad and one’s emotions are constantly changing. For the performance, I wanted to return to the feeling I had when I conceived the piece and so made this experiment with emotional preparation to do so. While this would probably not be appropriate to every sort of piece, some works depend upon a more flat delivery, it was entirely fitting here.

I am very encouraged to see that emotional preparation, a side of Meisner technique which I thought might be a more problematic one to integrate with performance art, can also be useful, at least in this particular instance. One of the potential pitfalls of using it, as far as I see it, is for the performer to appear to be in a separate here and now to that of the audience. This is often very necessary in theatre in order to bring a fictive setting to life but performance art, which typically stresses a shared here and now, has little room for this. I was able to deal with this tension by situating much of the initial action upon my interaction with the audience and using this emotional preparation in my efforts to connect with them. This brought us into a shared sense of here and now that was arrived at mutually through a reciprocal gaze. 

I will next turn my attention in a more systematic way to dealing with objects and making a direct to camera performance video. I am interested in the intimacy that the camera can provide and in making a document of this research with considerably better lighting than that of the dingy room in an abandoned Tianjin steelwork. 

Meisner, S. (1987). On Acting. New York: Vintage Books. 

Video: Jin Gang

Photos: Yi Ti