Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Affect was Created and Transferred in From Playful to Sadistic: A Deviant Lecture Series by A.L. Steed.

[This was my essay about my final performance project]

Shaking in the back room, I try desperately not to make any noise. I want to get this fake blood out of my nose but I’m preoccupied with listening – listening to the silence. I think I’ve stunned them. Peter Brook in The Empty Space talks about two possible climaxes in a theatrical event – that of cheering and that of silence. Rather than being deafening, this silence sounds like music to my ears. A stark contrast to the all-consuming bodily and emotional experience I’m having in the back room. Finally, there’s applause interspersed with nervous laughter – a welcomed release from the silent tension.

As the audience files out, I eagerly rush to my bowl of soapy water, still shaking, to get the horrible fake blood out of my nose. Eventually the shaking dissipates, but my mind buzzes relentlessly – a typical post-performance high, but this is the most intense high I’ve ever experienced.

Perhaps it’s because of the intense vulnerability of the piece. In investigating the spectrum of deviance from playful to sadistic, I had to allow myself to go into the deep, dark scary place within myself. The progression to the point where I destroy the laptop needed the proper build-up.  So I went there. And it was terrifying – which, oddly enough, goes back to my initial lecture where I killed my classmates/professor with boredom. If I wanted to recapture that terror I felt in boring people, I would have to make the audience uncomfortable – make myself completely vulnerable. I have strong feelings when it comes to vulnerability. I don’t like it. At all. Which is a problem. I feel it holding me back both artistically and in life. And throughout this process, I could feel myself holding back – so I felt it was crucial that I go to the depths of darkness within me and share that with the audience. Granted what I presented was exaggerated or heightened but the thoughts, fears and sentiments are 100% me. I wonder if the audience sensed that.

I wrote these words not long after my performance, allowing enough time for the post-performance high to wear off enough to articulate what I had felt. My hope was to capture my feelings in the moment, but I must admit that I lack the proper mastery of the written word. This does poor justice to the thoughts racing through my mind, and the uncontrollable shaking that took over my body – a body responding to a high intensity atmosphere. The same atmosphere that was responsible for the silent tension and the nervous laughter. In order to properly unpack this atmosphere and the sensations going through my body during and after the performance, we must go back to the beginning of this process.

Having researched lectures and wondered why some were engaging and others were not, I determined that it had nothing to do with the content but the delivery. Boring lectures were presented in a dull, non-engaging manner. So I decided to give a boring lecture. I must say, I succeeded brilliantly on being ill prepared – the most important element in giving a terrible lecture.

With the laptop hooked up to the TV, I set up four chairs for my classmates and professor and a small table for myself with water and my notes. Equipped with my remote I began my lecture on deviant behaviour. After giving a concise sociological definition, I stumbled through slides, didn’t speak with confidence, avoided eye contact, said “um” innumerable times, and read off of my text-filled slides. In other words, I was boring. I mean really, really boring. I could see the blankness in my classmates faces, saw my professor’s eyes glaze over. They were in a boredom-induced coma. My tactic had worked. But internally I was Freaking. The Fuck. Out. Their boredom sent my mind into a panic. Feeling like I had surpassed my 10 minutes (although, I’m sure I hadn’t) I quickened my pace just a little and fast-forwarded through a few slides. I had a failed attempt to engage with them when I asked if they had heard of the Stanley Milgram experiment and gave a quick and muddled explanation of the famous experiment. Finally at the last of my slides I ended the lecture and then got out of character as quickly as possible and transformed back into “Ashley.” The Ashley that loves not just performing, but also entertaining. “Ha-ha – I’m not really boring, I fooled you!” I tried to explain with fervent nervous energy.

This moment of terror, of panic, of uneasiness was a defining turning point in my process. In order to recapture this affect, we need to break down step by step exactly what happened during this presentation.
1)    I intended on giving a boring lecture.
2)    I was successful in giving a boring lecture.
3)    I know this because the audience was bored.
4)    I know the audience was bored because I could see and feel their boredom.
5)    Seeing and feeling their boredom sent me into a panic driven frenzy.

If I a) intended on giving a boring lecture and b) was successful in doing so, then why did I have such a visceral response to boring my classmates/professor? Why did I feel the need to immediately explain my intentions after presenting? Where did this feeling come from, and why were all my “danger” synapses firing? Why did I feel the need to get out of that situation as quickly as possible? If I had planned this boring execution, then why did I feel so out of control?

The answer lies in the audience’s reactions. I had been focusing entirely on the production aspect of performance without giving proper consideration to how people would respond. There is only so much one can anticipate in terms of live performance. Thus the interplay between me as experience creator, audience as responsive, and me as a reactive performer became a defining feature of my research-based performance. If, as in scientific studies, research is a way to predict and control, then in a performance context it’s a way to test the audience-performer paradigm. I’m interested in unravelling that relationship, in how they affect one another and how that relationship affects both the performance experience as a whole and the creative process.

Admittedly this interplay didn’t become obvious until my first scratch performance. Now having begun building the deviant character into my presentation I could feel the audience responding. I was no longer playing to a black hole of participants in a boredom-induced coma – they were laughing, responding, engaged.

…because I could feel the audience responding, I no longer had the terror of presenting to an essentially dead space. I’ll never be able to capture that terror I had which is both incredibly sad and retrospectively beautiful. Now I finally understand the ephemerality of performance. I understand that no two performances are ever really the same from my personal experience as a performer; but as a performer, I’m supposed to capture emotions and sensations and then reiterate them time and time again. I’ve found the responsive repetition of performance quite soothing and relish in the ability of skilled performers to make that repetition feel new, instant, spontaneous. There’s something curious about the affect of repetition on the real emotion rather than the imitation. I’m not imitating myself and, therefore, will never truly capture that raw terror again. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Although I had determined that recapturing that terror as no longer possible, in that moment I had failed to recognize the possibility of another mode of transmission. And even though I had mentioned the role of a skilled performer, I had failed to recognize that a skilled performer also affects the atmosphere. I was also failing to properly interpret the cause of my initial emotional state of terror. I wasn’t actively feeling panic or fear and therefore concluded that due to the new shift in audience responsiveness I would never be able to attain that unexpected fear. Again, it goes back to discovering the impulses of fear and panic I had felt in that initial boring lecture. That feeling of panic came from a sparring between expectation and anticipation. I as a creator must play with and anticipate audience’s expectations. With this scratch performance, although I had begun playing with expectations, I hadn’t anticipated their reactions and thus lost all the uneasiness of my boring lecture. In other words, I was presenting new material but expecting the same reactions. Therefore the interplay between creator–receiver–reactor needed a proper playground to explore the audience-performer paradigm. If I wanted to recapture the uneasiness felt in the boring lecture, I would have to actively place it back into the fold. In order to do this, I replaced the fear of feeling out of control with my own fear of vulnerability. Therefore, I made myself vulnerable, uncomfortably so, and invited the audience into that vulnerability and state of uneasiness.

In creating the final project, I was now actively working on what I call the triangulation of affect, a play on Teresa Brennan’s seminal work on the language of the body and its Transmission of Affect. Although I was doing a solo piece, I had created two distinct characters and their interaction relied heavily on audience responses. These reactions were anticipated in order to create the characters. Although the deviant character of the PowerPoint was fixed, the lecturer, performed by me, was not. I was able to react to the audience in real time while simultaneously anticipating and playing out the sequence of the piece.

According to Brennan, affects are overwhelming emotions and the only thing salient about them is that they are transmitted. She privileges feelings over affects, because affects are thoughtless and not attuned to language and sensation. This inability to properly communicate affects troubles Brennan and although I was sceptical in this inability to process the physiological change that affect has on the audience it wasn’t until I actually performed that I understood her concern. After my performance, those I asked had trouble articulating what they just experienced. Many mentioned feelings but weren’t able to communicate exactly what feelings were felt. It’s as if the affect of my performance somehow short-circuited Broca’s area of the brain – making language production difficult. My own physiological shift immediately after the performance was completely short-circuited as my autonomic system shook my body ferociously until the energy eventually dissipated.

What happened in my performance to cause this? Where in my triangulation of affect allowed for this build up of energy or ‘energetics’ as Brennan discusses, i.e. ‘the study of the energetic and affective connections between an individual, other people and the surrounding environment’?  The connection between myself, the audience and the environment was made explicit in the structure of the piece. Using my basic understanding of the audience-performance paradigm to my advantage, I slowly shifted and shaped the audience’s responses. Whenever they would laugh or respond to the presentation, I would acknowledge it, thereby encouraging them to continue responding openly. Then came the shift from a cognitive interaction to a physiological or visceral response. As Brennan argues, we don’t just read bodies with our eyes, we read them with all of our senses. We smell fear, are attuned to the quickened heartbeat of nervousness, we tense up with others’ tensions. Affects are material things, meaning they have a physical impact, albeit an unconscious one. In other words, they created a physiological shift through a chemical and energetic response in the nervous system. It’s only after the affect has occurred do we become aware of them.

As my nervous energy grew, so too did the tension in my body – this tension transferred to the audience. They grew tense with me. They became increasingly uncomfortable in my own discomfort. Not only does my energy transfer to the audience but the charge continues within the audience as well. With the climactic crack of the laptop against the corner of the table, the audience shared a cathartic moment, a communal release. In inviting the audience to respond, in playing with their expectations and creating a highly charged atmosphere of uneasiness and nervous tension, I was able build affect into my project and able to facilitate it bodily, physiologically and thus transfer my energy to the audience, and in turn build upon their energetic responses. It’s as if, momentarily I had created a perpetual motion machine of affect as we continued to build off of one another. Although I am the creator of the affect, I still rely on the audience’s collective response – without it there would be no concentrated tension, no build-up and thus no subsequent release.  


  1. Hey girl! This is exciting to read, really a lot to think about for me as it ties in to some performance analysis I've been mulling lately. It speaks to an effect I've heard musicians talk about when they go on about an energy in the audience that they feed off of and give back so the audience gets even more into the show which comes back around and even further jazzes up the performers....


  2. You are a fabulous writer. I could feel what the audience was feeling, I'm sure I would have loved the performance its self.