Whatever it is, it won’t be boring…
By Kimberly Dark
I’m supposed to be rehearsing.
Instead, I’m curled up in the hammock for a little 4 p.m. snooze with the script perched on my hip as though the words will seep in through my skin and infuse my very being with the show.
Whatever. I tell myself it doesn’t really matter because, as my agent told me, performance is dead now. No one’s booking performance anymore. Besides, it’s a book, not a play. Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old, which was just published in September 2019 by AK Press, is a whole paper-based experience that can be enjoyed by audiences in the privacy of their own homes. I needn’t have further involvement.
But I am involved. In addition to the book, I’ve now written a performance script based on the book. It’s what I do. And probably by next year, I’ll be teaching workshops on sub-dermal rehearsal methodologies, so this little nap is preparation for that. This is how the conversations in my head go…
There’s actually something deeper I’d like to explore here regarding performance, performativity and message. (I’m not just complaining about memorization in the time of menopause.) Yes. My new book is an essay collection about appearance privilege – what it means to look a certain way – or ways – in my culture. And let’s not forget, mine is the main culture spraying its appearance standards all over the world like DDT. I’ve been writing – and performing about – appearance and identity for the past twenty-five years. Ten solo plays, to be exact, and three educational performance scripts. In the last two years, I’ve also had three books published: one poetry book, one novel and now, this collection of essays. Really though, both the essays and the novel are memoir-ish. This is what I do on stage and in print. I write about myself in order to understand the culture. My life is the tool with which I experiment on social expectations.
It’s been a good life. And now, with three books out, my friend the-fancy-writer tells me that I’m actually employable at a university. That’s what they all want now, apparently: poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. It’s the trifecta of employability for writers. I’m not looking for a job though. But since focusing so much on books for the past few years, I am now wondering, what is my job? Am I still a performer?
I was always a writer first, but look. The body is the significant artifact. For me, that’s meant that physically, I have to do what the script asks of me on stage. I may write the words first, but the body follows through. For the most part, the edict has been to just show up and become grandly, yet intimately, emotionally available. Okay, there’s been a little dancing, a giant paper mache uterus tied like a ball and chain to my ankle in one show, some stripper shoes and a script that asked me to stick my hand down my pants and feel around for a while during the story. But mostly, on stage, I talk.
The talking-as-me has prompted some theatre people to pronounce I’m not really a theatre artist. The literature folks see that pants-groping and tell me I’m definitely a theatre person and hey, did I mention that I’m a sociologist by training? Message-driven is my middle name. I’m 52 years old. I am all that I am. And I’m not about to give up any of these shenanigans for the sake of genre-conformity.
Oh yeah, and performance is dead. My agent does campus bookings almost exclusively. She’ll handle contracts for anyone who wants my time, but her work is campus bookings. I’ve been with that agency since 2005 and have been doing performances at colleges and universities, theatres, festivals and conferences since the late 1990s. I do some teaching residencies and workshops to round it all out.
This is not the path to fame and critical acclaim, but it is the way to engage audiences that may never have been in a theatre and may never have considered art as important in their lives. At theatres, conferences and festivals in particular, the audience often didn’t buy a ticket. Some of them really don’t want to be there. And yes, that has shaped me as an artist. In good ways I think. Fame was only ever going to be useful to me in order to get more people consider the content. I didn’t set out to be a performer. It happened because I want people to understand complex things about themselves and culture. I want to communicate clearly about things that touch us deeply, sometimes hurt. Art – specifically performance – is still the best way I know to do that. I got on stage all those years ago and started putting time into the writing because I care about leaving my culture a little better than I found it.
That’s also why I now need to be publishing books that reach broader audiences.
But back to performance for a sec. Campuses aren’t booking as much of it. The “TED Talk” is the new gold standard. Everything’s supposed to look like that. In fact, that’s the booking video everyone seems to want. “Lemme see your TED talk.” “Send us your TED talks!” That’s what campus activities folks say nowadays. My agent still likes performance, but that’s not what folks want. In fact, the majority of her campus bookings these days are stand-up comedy. Then novelties (yes, like undergrads are ten year-olds at a birthday party: magicians, hypnotists, and stuffed bears). And then for message-driven events: TED-ish talks are it.
Let me reiterate that I’m no theatre purist. Obviously. Neither do I want to leap on the TED bandwagon or learn to do magic tricks. I tell stories (in a body). I use humor to help people discuss things they’d rather not think about. I also know the power of radical presence on stage and that there’s more to being a good performer than character acting. When I teach theatre classes for Cal State Summer Arts, I’ve often found the theatre students to be the most constrained in their thinking about performance. They’ve learned that getting the method right means being a good performer. And there I come, trying to convince them that taking responsibility for their bodies and voices and minds is important. Every breath, every utterance, every movement and interaction and intention are, potentially, a performance.
Even a book. That’s a performance too.
My body is still the significant artifact.
So yeah, I wrote a script for the book – a performance version of the book. And some of those essays also began as performance scripts. (Yes, it’s a post-structuralist rabbit hole. Which could extend to an economic analysis! I promise not to mention Deleuze. Damnit!)
I mean, why not have a performance version of a book? Most author readings are not as engaging as they could be. I also need to make a living and no one pays for author-events. I’m unwilling to cede territory which previously required me to be paid, simply because there’s a book involved! I also re-wrote the description of the book and performance for my agent’s website. It’s a message-driven lecture that uses storytelling to engage the audience. Whatever it is, you can book a 60-75 minutes of it, without an intermission, and the people assembled will have a great time. They’ll learn something, hopefully even feel something and be a little confounded about how they live their lives. They’ll remember the sublime ride and tremendous gift of the impassioned human voice. And by god, I hope they’ll remember that their voices and interactions are creating culture too.
Performance is still my job.
Now the audience can also take the book home as a souvenir to share with their friends when it’s over.
Read more at kimberlydark.com. And don’t wait for the show! Buy Kimberly’s books at AKPress.com, your local bookstore, or on Amazon, if you must.