Intersectionality…?

Hi everyone! Long time no see. Sorry for being MIA. I have been a bit busy with finishing the Threepenny Opera tour, which was epic, and diving headlong back into the world of Phd candidate life. The kick off to this was attending a talk given by a queer theorist named Jasbir Puar who is about to publish a book that, according to her website, “takes up questions of disability in the context of theories of bodily assemblages that trouble intersectional identity frames.” …I have to be honest, even after her talk which I found extremely interesting and engaging, I’m still not completely sure I know what that means.

Intersectionality is defined by google as “the study of intersections between different disenfranchised groups or groups of minorities; specifically, the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression or discrimination.” As far as I am aware, it also relates to the interactions of identity within individuals, or communities of people. For example, I am blind. I am a woman. I am 31. I am American. I am a performer. I am a daughter. etc. Each one of these statements denotes an identity that sets up a normative set of expectations that are often based in stereotypes, i.e. stating that I am a woman might lead people to assume I’m a good cook (not true) and that I don’t know anything about football (true). Being American might lead people to assume that I’m loud (true) and fat (not true). Regardless, all of these identities come together to make me, Amelia, the person who is writing this blog right now. Furthermore, these identities are fluid and constantly changing. What it means to be any of these labels at any point will constantly shift depending on (to name a few things) where I am, who I’m interacting with and how I am feeling within myself at any moment. I can also change the wording to denote slightly different normative constructs. For example, instead of saying “blind” I could say “disabled” or “visually impaired”. All three are true, but can mean different things. Instead of saying “American” I could say “foreign” (when I’m in London anyway). Again, both are true, but can mean different things.

In her talk, Puar read sections of one of the chapters in her new book. In this chapter, she discusses the relationship between transgender and crip/disabled identity. This in itself is very interesting, and is one of my favorite things about queer theory taking on disability as a subject of study. The majority of disability studies, when looking at the term in a general sense, seems to focus on physical/visual disability. Of course, Puar was not saying that being transgender is a disability. In fact, she was clear to point out that most who identify as trans fight the impairment model, despite various laws and regulations that try to classify trans in this way (i.e. saying someone has “gender dysphoria” which is classified as a mental illness).

I know very little about trans identities, and am therefore not going to get too into that topic at this point as I will almost definitely stick my foot in my mouth if I do. What I will say though is that Puar discussed more than once the discrimination that both disabled and trans people face, and that people who identify with more than one minority culture (i.e. black trans, or gay, woman, wheelchair user) tend to be victim to more discrimination. They also make up less of the visible, identifiable people within these minorities. And, of course, it’s true. I mean, I know a few people who fit these intersectional minorities, such as a black, blind, gay, drag queen… but he’s just one person. And how visible is he, really? How much more crap does he have to deal with than the white, blind, hetero drag queens? (I know one of those too) And where is the representation of all of these queer/crip/race/gender identities in performance and the media? 

I ask this question not as a criticism necessarily, but as a genuine, worried question. It almost definitely speaks to a bigger problem. For example, in my MA, there were 30 of us, most of whom were white, and identified as non-disabled and heterosexual. Each and every one of those people were lovely, talented and had worked their asses off to be in that degree, and to do all of the successful things they have done since. I have since then had many discussions with people who work in theatrical institutions and universities, directors, casting directors and other actors about why there is almost no representation of disability in drama schools, on tv and in movies and on stage. Again, I can’t speak for other minority cultures, but I know that the general stance from the disabled contingent is that chances are not given to disabled people. The doors are not open (or maybe they are, but the building isn’t accessible), which makes it very difficult to get inside. Is that even more so the case with people who are, say muslim and disabled? Queer and disabled? And if so, why? If intersectionality is really about embracing all identities, particularly the ones that sit outside of normative social constructs, how the hell does that get started, really? Why is it taking so long? 

 

What does it mean to be crip?

This past Monday, I went into school and gave a presentation on my research as it stands thus far. I am currently in the midst of doing a lot of practical stuff, and have yet to collect any definitive data (what ever that means!), so this consisted of me giving a fairly informal chat about what I am up to and what I hope to accomplish. As I’ve said here previously, I stated that my argument is that acting process is made for able-bodied and therefore sighted actors, and that when someone like myself comes into that structure, we “trouble” and “crip” it. I then said I am looking for the trouble, and the crippy moments in order to open up new discussions on some of the processes of acting. I then mentioned my work on ThreePenny Opera, and how exciting it is, as well as some workshops I have done around various naturalistic acting techniques. After I finished my somewhat rambly chat, one of my fellow Phd candidates asked me a simple question. He said, “what makes your research crip?” That is a very good question… and the main answer at the moment is… I don’t quite know!

To put this in context, there is a difference between crip and disabled in the same way that there is a difference between queer and gay. It’s the difference between asking for equality and inclusion into normative structures that are pre-made for the heterosexual, able-bodied masses, and questioning the foundational validity of structures as they are used in society. For example, the “gay” argument might say that everyone should have the right to get married regardless of sexual preference. Equal rights for gay marriage! Etc. Being “queer” might ask what the purpose of marriage is to begin with, especially if people do not have religious backgrounds. It might claim that marriage is a societal institution that is expected to be fulfilled and that the very structure of it is based in heterosexuality, regardless of who is doing it. (i.e. aww that gay couple is getting married! I wonder which one of those guys is the woman.) So in short, one wants a place at the table; the other wants to analyze the table and potentially make it into something else, or throw it away all together. 

Being crip denotes a bit of radicalism, so by asking me what in my research is crip, he was asking what in my research is radical? Where is the subversion? What separates this from straight up disability studies? Things I do know is that I am not focusing on equality and inclusion, not because I don’t think they are important, but because I know that they are being covered by a lot of other people. I also know that one of my questions is around the rules in acting. What are they? What happens if you bend or break them? As interesting and important as that is… I am not sure (yet) if that is radical “enough”. Is it valid research? Hell yes. Is it crip? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s probably too soon to tell. 

I am also realizing that as an actor, you only have so much power. This is as it should be. The directors are the ones who hold the entire puzzle that is the piece being created. It is the actor’s job to create one piece of that puzzle. Because of this, actors need guidance from the director. (Right? Feel free to disagree with me on that, but tell me why if you do!) They can’t see the whole piece (blind or otherwise) while it’s being created, and potentially not even when it’s finished. So if a director is working from a fairly standard understanding of acting, how can the individual actor crip that process without undermining the piece? 

I am finding this within ThreePenny at the moment. The directors are lovely, supportive and open minded people. They are both very happy for us actors to come in with our own processes, and for us to make suggestions on how to interpret scenes and character choices. That being said, there are some patterns emerging. For example, repetition seems to be a bit part of the acting calls, which I love. It’s useful for various reasons: you get to embed lines and blocking into your memory more quickly, and you get to try different ways of approaching a scene, a character or even one line. Also, much of the processes around character development have been fairly naturalistic, which for those of you who know Brecht is interesting. Questions like “what happened just before this scene” or “why is she doing this, what does she want? How does she feel about such and such?” keep coming up. These questions are asked in order to create the impression of a fully rounded human being that will be put on stage. As an actor, this is a fairly comfortable place for me as this is how I have been trained. As a researcher, it presents a potential problem. These naturalistic processes are what I am questioning in my research, but because I am in the midst of this rehearsal process with directors who have specific ways of working, I am finding it impossible to both trust and work with my directors and find potential “crip” moments. And obviously, because I care about the show and the people working on it, and because I am thoroughly enjoying the rehearsals, I am immersing myself in the direction I am being given. This makes me worry that I am slightly loosing touch with the purpose of my research, or maybe not identifying important factors that could be useful later on in my Phd/academic life.  

I know that most of the discovery for this will have to be in hind sight because I am in the middle of creating a show, but in the mean time, it presents some interesting questions: What makes something crip? How do you crip a process when you are, and maybe have to be, completely immersed in it? How can you identify and “trouble” a structure when you do not yet fully know what that structure is (and when you may indeed never find out)?

Have I lost you completely? I hope not. If you have any ideas, let me know. At this point, I can use all the help I can get!

 

Getting into trouble: Jenny Diver and Brecht

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Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Myself as Jenny Diver, in a skimpy black dress, legging and black heels. Standing in a sexy pose with a snarky smile on my face. I have my cane across the back of my shoulders almost like a weapon.

“Art is not a mirror in which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Last week marked the start of my rehearsals for the ThreePenny Opera which is being put on by Graeae Theatre, the New Wolsey, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I get the exciting challenge of playing Jenny Diver, Mack the Knife’s favorite whore. As an actor, this is an insanely exciting opportunity to be in a great show with a very talented group of people. As a researcher, it presents some interesting thoughts as well.

I have said previously that I like the idea of “trouble” in the academic sense of the word. This means spaces of tension or unresolved-ness where questions arise out of something being slightly strange or other than the norm. I think Brechtian theatre is an interesting style in which to play with trouble, because he has his concept of Verfremdungseffekt. This has been called the v-effect, alienation effect (when badly translated) and more recently either the estrangement effect or distentiation. A literal translation of the word is “to make strange”. The idea is that Brecht wanted to “distance” his audience from becoming too invested in the characters as he thought too much investment would distract from what he saw as the purpose of theatre: to invoke and inspire social and political change. i.e. by watching the play people would want to change the world and make it less corrupt. So an audience would follow and invest in a story only so far as they could learn from it. Trouble, as a concept, is not as inherently political. But it can be about making what seems “normal” or “real” strange by introducing things that are not of the norm into new spaces. For example, putting a bunch of disabled actors in a mainstream and widely viewed theatrical production, like the ThreePenny Opera, is outside of the norm for most people. (This is what Graeae does. It is a disability led company, so one might say they specialize in the good kind of trouble.)

I am diving into this trouble, or distentiation or whatever you want to call it through the hard skinned London prozzie, Jenny. I am a not-so-hard skinned USA-er who, by Brechtian standards, has had a pretty fucking easy life. As a disabled woman, I have certainly had to deal with my fair share of discrimination, but I have never reeeeaaally had to want for work, money, food, shelter, family or friends. I’m not rich, but I’ve always been cared for, and usually am able to do what I want in my life. I am very lucky. So playing Jenny is a bit of personal “trouble” because I am not a broken woman. I don’t have to have sex for money, I haven’t been in abusive relationships, etc. Of course, Brecht would say I don’t need to (and maybe shouldn’t) fully embody her. I need to represent her. What that means and how that will develop in this whole process and rehearsal period will be extremely interesting. I feel like representation often exists in things like gestures, body language, costume, etc. I wonder how visual this process is going to be, and what kind of “trouble” I as a blind actor will come across.

Last week, we focused pretty much on the music… in itself a beast of a task as Kurt Weill does not make it easy for anyone. This week, we knuckle down into the acting, so all things will be revealed in good time…

For info on the show, and to see some publicity shots visit:

http://graeaetheatrecompany.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/573/

http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

Nuts and Bolts

Here are some useful things to know about my research. Again, please ask questions, debate, comment, etc. I am still getting to grips with most of this, so any thoughts and ideas are useful!

1. I’m looking for “trouble”. When I say this, I don’t mean it in a straight forward, “you did bad, go sit in time out” kind of way. Trouble in an academic sense is a space of tension, subversion or rupture. It is a place of conflict where things aren’t (and may never become) resolved. Though this might come from doing something like breaking a rule, the result is not as straight forward as the common understanding for the word trouble insinuates. For one thing, I don’t think trouble is “bad”. These places of tension often bring about possibilities for new questions, thoughts and ideas to occur. Trouble can (should?) be a place of creativity and insight as well as a method for laying down boundaries and rules. 

2. I’m going to use the word “crip” a lot. This too is an academic term. Shocked? Good. That’s the point. There is a whole section in disability studies that calls itself “crip theory.” (Look up Robert McRuer and/or Carrie Sandahl if you don’t believe me) It is based in methodologies from other identity based studies like queer theory and feminist studies. The use of the word is meant to be a tongue and cheek provocation. It is also a common word in disability culture. We all call each other crips, and when we do we’re not just referring to physical disability. Blindies like me get to get in on the action too, as do any others who fit under the disability umbrella if they so choose. 

3. Everything can be a performance, or at least “performative”. Crip theory and queer theory take on the idea of “performativity” which is… difficult to explain in a few sentences. In essence it means that pretty much everything you do, and everything you associate as yourself is performed. Gender, sexuality, culture, social class, and yes, disability (among other things) all have aspects of them that are based in societal structures and expectations that are taught to us from childhood. If this seems unlikely, think about toys that are given to children. The average five year old girl and boy have the same hormonal make up, yet what will the little girl be likely to want for her birthday? What will the boy? These are taught behaviors that are repeated continuously until they become “normative” or what is considered to be normal. Obviously, this is not universal for everyone, but the general systems that are in place are pretty obvious once you start looking for them. 

4. I’m an actor who has trained a in modern, western school setting, which means that I have been taught that an actor’s best tool is her imagination. I am really curious about what the imagination is and what it does for an actor. What images does imagination create? What are those images made of? In particular, I want to know how much of these images are visual, and more to the point, how often methods of acting, training actors, directing actors, etc. expect this imagination output to be visual? The academic way I am phrasing this in my thesis at present god something like, “Is acting ocularcentric (visual)? If so, where does the ocular sit in acting processes?” (blahhh!! …so much for not using words that no one understands!)

So essentially, I am a crip actor who wants to trouble the “image” in imagination. Make sense? No? Good. That’s about where I’m at with it too!

The beginning…

Hello! So, I’m a performer. I act, sing, play musical instruments and dangle from various aerial circus contraptions (trapezes, silks, ropes, etc) whenever I get the chance. I’m also a Phd student, and my research is focused on performance… though try as I may to avoid it, a bit of philosophy keeps sneaking in as well. I am hoping to use this blog to help develop my voice as a researcher, and to discuss questions, themes and troubles in my research. Discussion is highly welcome, so please follow and comment! Oh!  Also, I’m registered blind (or legally blind for my American peeps). I state this not as inspiration porn; I’m not looking for sympathy or admiration. I mention it because it’s part of my research and my identity, and is therefore important. My research is based in…

It’s always a bit daunting to try and explain your research when you’re in the middle of it… often because you’re not quite sure what it is going to be yet. However, throughout these blogs, hopefully it will become clearer to everyone… including myself.

I will also state for the record that I do not want to become an academic that uses language that no one can understand… that being said, to a certain degree, dense wording is the language of the academic world. If you want to live in it, you have to learn to speak it. So I will occasionally throw words out there like “ocularcentric,” or “performativity” or “normative” or “phenomenological”. Needless to say, if I stop making sense, please tell me, and I will try to explain myself.

I won’t go too in depth about my research at the moment (every time I try I write a novel, which makes me think it needs its own blog) other than to say that I am looking at how disability, visual impairment in particular, interacts with various performance practices, processes and techniques. This is particularly interesting for me at the moment as starting Monday, I will be going into rehearsals for Graeae and The New Wolsey Theatre’s production of ThreePenny Opera by the lovely and very German Bertolt Brecht. Info for the show is here: http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/

Come and see if you can! I’ll be playing Jenny Diver, and I have to say, I’ve never been so excited to be classified as a hooker… or maybe I should say, “lady of the night”. A friend of mine once joked that the difference between a “slut” and “lady of the night” is the pay bracket… How she knows that is anyone’s guess. Anyway, I digress!

Graeae is a disability led theatre company with some unique and exciting ways of working and presenting theatre, and Brecht plays use a very specific style of performance, so this is a golden opportunity for me. I anticipate that I will get tons out of this experience, and hope you enjoy me sharing my findings as I go.