The Performance of Self on The Stage & Social Media
“I am not the “I” in my poems. “I” is the net I try to pull myself in with.”
– Toi Derricotte
Soon, it shall be August, and the capital will once again play host to the nation’s performers, plying their exuberant trades. After eighteen months of uncertainty and unemployment for the majority of musicians, comedians, actors, poets and dancers, this is a welcome, if tentative, return to live performance. It will necessarily be a different kind of Fringe this year – which might not be such a bad thing, Edinburgh in August was beginning to have the feel of an astroturfed, white picket fencing gin convention – but if there is one thing that all performers have been forced to do during the pandemic, it is to adapt. Audiences have, I am sure, greatly missed the glamour, suspense, intrigue, event, excitement and entertainment that only live music or theatre can afford, but what has it been like to be a performer without an audience or stage?
My last live, in-person gig was in early March of 2020. An almost unthinkable concept now: a packed out pub, full of people breathing all over one another with gay abandon, there to drink pints and watch poetry. Afterward, my merry band of enchanted revellers journeyed to the Jazz Bar, an Edinburgh institution, and danced, boob to back, to their house band of jobbing musicians. If we had known then that that would be the last Big Night, the last night that would even be possible for so long, surely we would never have come home…
But, of course, that is not really the ‘last time’ that I performed. Like so many, I have spent more time staring at myself through a camera lens in the last year than the government has. I have trained myself down to a zoom-shaped rectangle and become used to emoting to the green light on my laptop, like I’m bloody Jay Gatsby. Yes, almost all of my work has taken place on the information superhighway, that liminal land that we inhabit, the closest thing that we have had to a packed out public space for some time. And those of us who are willing (or who are unwilling but feel that they have no other option) to maintain some kind of online presence are performing all the time: performing an authenticity, performing a public persona of ‘ourselves’.
Self-performance is not a completely new concept to me, in fact, spoken word poetry kind of relies upon it. I spoke to Dr Katie Ailes about her research into the performance and perception of authenticity in spoken word poetry: “As I was getting really involved in the spoken word scene,” she says, “one thing that kept happening was that people would come up to me after the show and say ‘thank you for your honesty’, and it got me thinking: to what extent are audiences assuming authenticity, and to what extent are those assumptions correct?”
Of course, how one defines authenticity in artistic work is philosophically tricky territory, which begets questions surrounding autobiographical truth versus emotional truth, and this is particularly the case when it comes to any so-called ‘confessional’ work. One does not assume that an actor portraying King Lear is reiterating a ‘true’ story, per say, but one could agree that there is a truth to the themes and emotions of the play. However, in spoken word poetry, where the performer is often – at least allegedly – honestly sharing personal experiences in pretty emotionally charged environments, the boundaries between emotional and literal truth become more blurred. As Katie Ailes says, “authenticity functions as an aesthetic and moral quality within the genre.”
And this aesthetic of authenticity can relate to more than just the poetry’s content: “I ended up coming up with ten different strains of authenticity that I perceived. One of the big ones was what I called ‘authenticity of motivation’, the assumption that poets are performing for pure, true reasons – because they care.” Other strains defined by Dr Katie Ailes include authenticity of autobiographical self, temporal state and voice. (Perhaps the biggest untruth that I portray when I am performing my work is one of performative spontaneity: using timing, my voice and body language to insinuate that lines of poetry are just occurring to me organically, in the moment; like I am a character soliloquising, and not a mildly tipsy twenty-something reading a piece written years before and performed hundreds of times).
Katie adds, “I also looked at identity, cultural assumptions behind race and gender, ability and class, and how those are often inherently associated with authenticity.” And this is, I think, a really important point. In an art form that, due to the prevalence of slams, is often relatively competitive, and that values perceived authenticity so highly, a presumed hierarchy of subject matter can emerge. When we deem certain lived experiences to be, in some way, more “real”, that can put a pressure on especially new and younger performers to provide something confessional in order to be deemed authentic, and therefore, good. The exploration of trauma through art is, of course, a very human and beautiful compulsion. But as performers, we are aware of the protective boundary of the fourth wall – the facade. What happens when that boundary becomes less opaque?
During the pandemic, almost all art – and especially performance-based art – has had to move online. With little to no public, in-person artistic events such as exhibitions, festivals, gigs or theatre taking place, artists and performers have had to turn to social media in order to share and promote their work. This move has proved both useful, and, at times, incredibly depressing, with many complicated factors affecting the practice, livelihoods and mental health of independent artists. For example, the biases of algorithms, the pressure to give artistic work away for free, the blurring of life and work, the public and the private, and the commodification of the self.
Social media is all about engagement, and favours the users that post regularly. Therefore, maintaining an active social media presence has become yet another laborious part of the job of being a self-employed artist in the present day. We have essentially all become our own PR agents – as well as being our own secretaries and managers. There was a time when it was enough to simply be good at writing songs, or painting landscapes, but it is becoming increasingly the case that in order to succeed as an artist one must also have a great marketing mind, and be willing to perform, or market oneself, through social media. To blur the borders between the private and the public. Art and artifice, social media and the business of self-performance is a very timely topic indeed, recently explored to great effect by comedian and youtube star Bo Burnham in his latest special ‘Inside’. But one needn’t even be famous for these themes to ring, literally and emotionally, true. We may not have had access to stages, or audiences over the last eighteen months, not in ‘real life’, anyway. But what is social media if not a platform – a stage – from which to perform oneself, and one’s life?
Performance poets adopt the aesthetic of honesty and openness, but, in truth, they are editors, with control over how much of themselves they share, which details they wish to divulge and which details they wish to keep secret, how certain truths are told and from what perspective: how their lives are framed. Similarly with, say, an image shared on social media, one can choose what is in the frame, and at what angle the image is taken. The implication with both is that the audience is being offered a little window into another’s life, but these glimpses are heavily curated. I don’t need to tell you how damaging the perceived authenticity of everyone else’s successful, glamorous and definitely-much-happier-than-yours lives can be.
I did something incredibly scientific, in the name of research, and conducted a twitter poll – asking artists and performers whether they would have social media at all if it weren’t for the pressure to self-promote, and a resounding 85% said that no, they would not. I have a lot of sympathy. There is something incredibly unsatisfying, and even inhuman, about the hard work that one has put into a piece of art being rewarded with a handful of likes, and quickly snowed under on the infinite scroll by the millions of other pieces of so-called ‘content’ being shared at any given moment on this dizzyingly vast cyberspace-cum-shared consciousness that we inhabit. Of course, there is the option to not engage, but for those of us, artist or not, who have wanted to continue to find some way of connecting during the pandemic, this has really been the only option.
“I feel burn out from putting myself out there, sometimes, and like I need some time to recharge and just live privately,” said comedian Amelia Bayler (who, as it so happens, was on the lineup alongside me at The Last Gig), when I asked her about these pressures to perform. I was keen to talk to a stand-up, it being another medium that typically involves performative authenticity, and, indeed, a medium that relies so heavily on audience reaction. Amelia has found the streaming platform Twitch useful in achieving some sense of interaction, and has been performing on it regularly during the pandemic. “Online I often wear a lot of wigs and costumes, which can be a nice divide between online and offline. I’ve learnt that as a performer, it can be a protection thing, to create a persona. I used to over-share all the time, but now I feel the need to protect myself more. I definitely feel tempted to be more vulnerable during a live ‘IRL’ performance, as that is something in the moment, where I can see everyone in the room and really feel the subtleties in the energy. Online it feels like I’m being vulnerable without knowing the boundaries or feeling the energy from other people, so afterwards I feel really anxious.”
Book designer at Stewed Rhubarb press, James T Harding, wrote a tweet recently that posed the question: who do people imagine that they are addressing when they write a tweet? In this case, I suppose it was me, for that rather profound philosophical question stuck with me. Who are we doing all of this for? Who do I even imagine I am addressing when I write or perform poems? It is not as simple as ‘the void’, there is an audience. But I suppose that in the case of social media, it is a little more akin to performing on a stage where the stage lights are so bright that you can’t see the reactions of the potentially hundreds of other consciousnesses perceiving you. They become kind of void-shaped.
A self is something so much more vast than an instagram story, or even a poem, can encapsulate. A life is something to be experienced, not performed or curated… But when your life is your work, and your work takes up the majority of your life, these boundaries between what is online and what is offline, what is private and what is public, what is emotionally true and what is emotionally false, what is performance and what is candid, what is art and what is artifice, can become incredibly ill-defined.