I honestly cannot remember the last time I managed to sit down and blog two days in a row.
Hell, other than the very first blog I started waaaaay back in January 2011 (which…holy shit was eight years ago) when I first moved out to Paris for a semester abroad, I cannot remember when was the last time I made a concerted effort to blog something, even a small thing, every single day for a duration of several months. Given how DAU-centric my last post was (and how much earlier I really should have published it…), I figured I’d give the show I saw yesterday afternoon its own space, if for no other reason that to give my thoughts some room to breathe.
Before that though, some updates:
1. I submitted my application for completion funding for the 2019/2020 academic year last Friday (Feb. 8). I honestly still cannot believe I managed to make it to that point–and let’s be real, if you had told me back in September that I would have been ready to submit this thing on time, I would have very likely thought you were crazy–, but, somehow the mess managed to pull itself together. At least now I can continue writing in (relative) tranquility without the whole ‘financial stability’ thing hanging over my head.
2. Somewhat related to the above, I’m going to be meeting with one of my committee members on Wednesday to finally get some feedback on the…gems…I submitted in the guise of chapter drafts. I’ve pretty much just accepted the fact that the whole ‘imposter syndrome’ thing is just going to keep following me around for as long as I’m doing this, so there really is no point in pretending that I am not internally kind of stressing about how that conversation is going to go. It’s not that I don’t like critiques of my work, I actually appreciate them a great deal. It’s more that there is always the risk of being told that I have no idea what I’m talking about/what I’m doing. I’ve learned to manage that kind of stress better as I’ve trudged along on this ‘journey of writing a thing that like…five people might read’, so at least there’s that :).
3. I took myself out on a solo movie date on Friday after the application had been officially submitted. I’ve been getting slightly more comfortable with doing some things on my own again and not feeling isolated about it (the joys of adulthood: scheduling time with other people is sometimes nowhere near as easy as it used to be in uni). Case in point: I’ve also signed up to this services that organizes live music events around the city, and uses a kind of lottery system to determine who gets one of the (somewhat limited) spots on a given night. I went to my first one of these at the end of last month; going to be heading to another in 2 weeks. Making efforts to get out of the house, even when I have to fight against myself a bit, have proven to be a good thing for my overall sanity (if anything, it’s a nice distraction from the constant thinking).
Anyway, enough of that. On to what I saw yesterday…
So those who read here somewhat regularly (hello all…five of you) might remember a couple of posts back I wrote about a show I had seen at the MC93, entitled Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner. As a refresher, the show centered around a group of foster kids in a group home, and one of my main critiques concerned the fact that the text, rather than being composed of transcribed conversations the production team actually had during their respective times spent volunteering at one such location–or otherwise words that, even if fictional, came directly from the kids in such a way that it allowed them to carry some agency in the communicating of the particularities/nuances of their situation–was written by a someone who occupies a status of societal privilege. In addition, the staging, coupled with the manner in which the piece was composed, centered–purposefully or not–the privileged gaze in its narrative. It would be difficult to say, in other words, that given the aesthetics of the production, the goal was to question or destabilize that particular gaze, and not, as I would argue, leave it intact for the sake of ‘presenting’ a ‘problem’ to a supposedly somewhat ‘ignorant’ audience.
It would be perhaps good to keep the above in mind as I lay out my thoughts on the piece I saw last night, one that also centered a marginalized group, but in a way that I would say was ultimately more successful in destabilizing established structures (in particular, those revolving around the act of looking or gazing). This, I would argue, is in large part due to the fact that, in this instance, those marginalized were given greater autonomy with regards to their storytelling.
Didier Ruiz’s Trans (Més Enllà), as the title suggests, centers on the stories of transgender individuals–seven, in this case–, not only in terms of their personal histories, but how they themselves relate or interpret the question of ‘gender’ and the ‘gender binary’. The seven performers–four trans women and three trans men, ranging in age from 22 to early 60s–are not professionals. Instead, much like with a previous project centered on life while in prison, Ruiz set out to meet with different folks in the trans community in Spain (and more precisely Barcelona), ultimately forming a small troupe with the seven that ultimately appear in the show. The stories they tell are all theirs, though they are not necessarily chronological.
The stage itself–this, by the way, was at the Théâtre de la Bastille–was relatively bare, save for two gauzy screens that curved upstage where they somewhat overlapped to create a sort of hallway from which the performers would enter and exit (exceptions being a few instances where the performers entered/exited by coming around the side extremities of either one of said screens). While the performers were speaking, the screens remained bare, save for the French subtitles that were projected onto them (the piece was in both Spanish and Catalan, depending on what language the speaker was more comfortable with). The exceptions to this were a couple of transitional moments during which kaleidoscopic animations were projected onto them, a burst of color on an otherwise white stage.
The fact that there was no set script, and that the performers had a little bit of leeway in their storytelling meant that there was reasonable potential for the subtitles to not be word-for-word precise, or for things to get slightly deviated. This, however, was acknowledged in an opening subtitle text that was projected at the opening of the show, before the first performer began his speech, and, in a sense, it also acted as the first indication as to the degree of performative/speech agency that was granted to the speakers. Even while needing to maintain some sort of degree of precision or consistency, the words remained theirs.
Generally, the performance structure went as follows: one (or several) performer(s) would be on stage. They would look out at the audience for a beat before beginning their narration (one by one, in cases in which multiple performers were on stage at once). Everything was done in direct address, and though there were times in which, when multiple performers were on stage, the gazes of the non-speaking members would veer towards the person who ‘had the floor’ in that moment, the frontal, binary spectacle/spectator relationship remained relatively dominant. Whenever a performer would finish speaking, a few beats of silence would follow, during which the former speaker would fix their gaze outward, scanning the audience a bit before either they left the stage or another performer began speaking.
As I mentioned previously, one of the concepts interrogated in this production is that of the gender binary–and to go further, the notion of ‘transitioning’, of which surgeries, if any, one has done, whether one ‘passes’ or even, the inherent problems of continuing to adhere to this sort of idea, and finally, the degree, if any, to which an individual wants to distance themselves from their former identity–, and to that end, the decision to keep things starkly frontal, I would say, worked rather well in the destabilization of said binary, especially in the intimacy of the Théâtre de la Bastille.
Said destabilization mostly, I would argue, occurred in the silences. Now, I’m still kind of processing through my thoughts on how this worked, so you may all have to just bear with me for a minute as I try to organize things here. Anyway, as a prelude to this, one of the things Ruiz mentioned in his director’s note was the hope that eventually, the conversations around being trans would move beyond what does (or does not) exist between one’s legs. Namely, leaving the gender binary would involve moving past the assumption that there is a sort of endgame of ‘really’ or ‘fully’ transitioning, that one absolutely needs to have a certain set of ‘parts’ in order to be considered a ‘real’ man or woman. Never mind that this essentially erases the experiences of intersex or gender nonconforming folks, it also can pose problems to trans folks who maybe don’t want to undergo surgery, or who perhaps would like to someday but cannot afford it, or rather, cannot find a medical professional to perform it. There are several trans (and intersex and gender non-conforming) folks who have written or talked about their personal decisions to undergo or forego surgery, and if nothing else, it drives the point home (once again) that there is no one absolute way to ‘be’ a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, that gender, much like sexuality, exists on a spectrum. Hell, the binary can be harmful to cis-folks too, but it has become so normalized, so ingrained in our society, that it is still, at least for me, somewhat difficult to imagine that we will ever fully divest ourselves from it (though I really hope I’m wrong on this).
I mean, even looking at some of the conversations surrounding legislation concerning transgender folks betrays the continued dominance of a rather invasive cis-centered discourse. I’m going to focus on how this applies in recent US legislation because that’s what I’m most familiar with but…the bathroom bills, the transgender military ban…to a certain extent those cases are based on a discourse that concerns itself primarily with what lies between an individual’s legs. And this carries forward into the way that individual may be perceived by others. This is the kind of perspective that fosters a gaze that looks for signs of ‘passing’–or inversely, signs that would ‘betray’ an individual’s ‘hidden’ gender identity (please note here, as above, the use of quotes). It retains the privilege of the cis gaze while also ensuring that the binary remains relatively untouched.
It is also precisely the kind of gaze that is called into question during the pauses in Trans….
When a performer appears on stage, even before they begin to speak, they take a moment to look out, to take in the spectators, and allow them to do the same. There is, in this, something of an acknowledgement of the fact that, at least for each performer’s first appearance, the audience’s gaze will very likely be, to a certain degree, that of a ‘sizing up’. We know that all seven of the performers are trans, but we do not know at what stage they are in their transitions, nor how they choose to identify themselves. The first silence, then, is that moment when those first gazes, those that conform to the notion of the ‘binary’ can happen. The fact that the pauses keep happening, however, especially as we learn more of each individual’s story–and though there are some common themes shared between a few, no two experiences are exactly alike–implies, in a sense, that the gaze has to change as well. That those looking must look differently, that repetitive pauses and moments of ‘looking’ bring attention to the act itself, and the positioning of those performing said act.
And this is all made even more present by the fact that those performing are speaking their own words, that they are given a voice and a platform from which to directly influence the shifts in perspective that ultimately lead to the aforementioned destabilization of the gender binary. They are granted autonomy, multiplicity; they are not reduced down to a ‘figure’ that has been filtered through a privileged gaze (though perhaps at another time, there could be a conversation as to Ruiz’s role in staging all this, in his choice of selecting the performers that he did, especially given that he is a cis-man).
Anyway, apologies again for any potential incoherence in everything I just hacked out, but I have quite a few thoughts to sort through, and I’m thinking that perhaps a few of them will have to wait to be hashed out in one of my dissertation chapters.