Authenticity and Spirit of the Torch

 In Deep Dive, Interactive Performance, philosophy, psychology, shows, story, technique

The walk to fearless is a walk towards greater authenticity. How do I stand in front of the crowd, or even one person, and be me? Imperfect, but authentic: letting it all in, letting it all out. Just be yourself… right?

It’s a misconception that people who feel anxiety while performing aren’t meant to be performers. That kind of thinking is easy and lazy. Many years ago I told a veteran actor and dear friend that I was getting distracted onstage; my fear, my existential crisis at the time, and my thoughts were rattling around my brain like a rogue maraca. His response was that I probably shouldn’t be an actor.

I never forgot that. Although it was a huge, confusing blow, it didn’t feel like a “hard truth.” It felt like there was a much longer answer — a difficult path that needed to be walked, and this person didn’t know how to light the way. After the encounter, I promised myself that I wouldn’t give up acting unless I fixed the root of the problem first. There was something inside me that knew the problem was not acting, it was bigger than that. My performance problem was a life problem.

When I was 11 years old, an inner knowing struck me. It was simple, as many things are when you are young: I was going to be a professional actor. Not out of vanity or the need for validation (although that was surely in the mix), but because it was the only thing I loved above all else. This is the only thing I’d be willing to devote my life to, I thought. And to me devotion was all that was required to pursue a career.

The truth is that those of us with performance anxiety are incredibly sensitive and full of passion. The world impacts us deeply, to the core, and we are consequently capable of having a big impact on the world. Lifeforce is raging through us, and the problem is many of us don’t have to tools to harness it properly, and it throttles us.

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. — The Gospel According to Thomas

I know that the journey to fearlessness demands the bravery to feel fully and to walk in the direction of the danger sign, but there is more. The second half of the journey involves tools, practice, and some things I’m not even aware of yet.

The weekend before last our company did our interactive show: Spirit of the Torch. For an evening I had a big sister and a night of camaraderie, fun, demon possession, fake blood that smelled like peanut butter, grief, and catharsis. Luckily we had a film crew to document it. Videos to come!

In interactive work, you get the chance to live a different life, to become connected to a stranger emotionally, mentally, and physically. It demands a high level of authenticity, too. You are working with real people, not other actors, so the performance mask some theatre actors wear won’t cut it. If you spend your night being distantly performative, you’re going to have a hard time connecting deeply with the participants. Anything less than 100% commitment turns the experience into a weird spectator sport. We want the audience members to be engaged, to react, to take action, to feel, to create, and to live the experience.

The night began with a text from me to my participant. Her character’s name was Priscilla, mine was Willow:

I sat restlessly in my car at the Wheatsville located halfway between our participant and the start location for our slasher-themed show. I was her ride, so our first scene was actually going to be me picking her up.

Little did Priscilla know, she was the character around which our night was crafted. When creating an interactive piece with 7 different storylines, you have to build the overarching story around one protagonist. After that, it’s easier to create other satellite stories that dovetail into the overall plot.

Priscilla was running an hour late, and we spent an hour rapid firing text messages back and forth in character. All that she knew before the show was that her name was Priscilla Bishop, she was my older sister, we were going to a camp reunion for people who won a spirit award, and that our parents died at the camp in its final year of operation before closing.

She was quick to step into the role of older sister. I mentioned something about our imaginary cousin “Esther:”

Once we got in the car we continued to chat and fill out our character’s worlds. It was strange how effortlessly it all fell into place. Audience members are almost always far more willing to play than performers — they are so un-jaded, so eager. They also have the upper hand, of course, because they aren’t responsible for communicating important details and making the plot move forward.

We made it to the location an hour late, which felt fitting. We were the outsiders of the camp reunion anyway. On the property were a cabin, a barn, sundry sheds and shanties, a studio, an outdoor grilling area, and a campfire surrounded by woods. It was perfect, beyond perfect, and it belonged to one of our participants, Alan. He graciously allowed 15 strangers with fake names to run around his property and conjure evil spirits — a fairly laid back guy.

The show was in full swing and all the participants were already comfortable in their new personas. We all introduced ourselves, interacted, and reminisced about our time at camp.

For the inter-actors the night was broken up into a series of scenes that flowed into each other. There were a few things that had to happen, and other things that could go either way based on how the participants wanted to play. There were many things planned so that if the participants didn’t do it of their own accord, another inter-actor would do it to push the story forward.

For example, there was a scene where I ran into the barn after a terrifying tarot reading and climbed up to the loft, my safe place. We assumed, correctly, that the participant would come after me into the barn; after all, who abandons their upset little sister? Behind a chair in the barn was a photo of me, my father, and my mother with a knife stuck through it. The goal was to get Priscilla to see the picture by sitting strategically in the barn so that when I moved the chair, she would see it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do this because I sat in the wrong place initially, and she sat on the floor instead of in the chair across from me. Because I was unable to get her to see it, I just looked around, turned, and found it myself. The goal is to always get the participants to find things/do things themselves, but if it doesn’t happen, we are the backup.

After finding the picture, Priscilla could determine what to do next. The plan was for her to take the photo to the cops, but it wasn’t essential to the plot. What actually happened was a participant in a scene that was taking place downstairs heard me getting upset. He ran up the ladder to see what had happened. We all climbed down the ladder where we found the policemen and the film crew. I stormed off to give Priscilla the opportunity to share the situation in whatever way she saw fit. She turned on the film crew and let them have it, thinking they may have had something to do with it. After that, she talked with the policemen about who could have perpetrated such a malicious prank.

This isn’t the way it was scripted, but luckily, the goal of interactive is not for things to go according to plan. It was a happy accident that everyone was in the barn when the picture was found, and it tied all the stories together in a way we didn’t anticipate. The goal of interactive is to activate audience members into doing as much as possible. If there is a tarot reading to be given, we want the participant to do it. If two characters are married, we want the participant to tell the story of how they met.

At the end of the story, it becomes clear that one of the Bishop sisters must sacrifice herself to free the land from a vicious curse. A willing sacrifice. Our participant playing Priscilla was given the option of sacrificing herself or letting Willow be sacrificed. What would her choice be?

It is a beautiful, delicate thing to be crouched in the woods, crying with your sister about your dead parents. To see the wind blow over a campfire during the critical moment of a scary story, told by a psychic. To feel the shock, fear, and terrified concern of your new friends while a demon rages through your body. And to see my big sister decide to make the ultimate sacrifice, was the most moving moment of all.

Priscilla on my left with the glasses

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