Please enable JavaScript

The Sloppy Dance

The Sloppy Dance

July 12, 2016

Vincent Silk

“I really care a lot
although I look like I do not”

— Lou Reed, ‘Nobody But You’, Songs For DrellaI put this lyric here because, well as usual it is to do with my mum. When I was 11 or 12 she was like here listen, this is the song I want you to play at my funeral, and she played this song. And then I had it in my head, and my brain makes these leaps sometimes that I always felt like was just distraction or my inability to concentrate, but I have been lately trying to incorporate these things into my practice, to accept my brain the way it is. And as soon as I allowed my brain to do its thing and stopped trying to pummel it into a different shape, I found I was more open to making different connections and seeing ways they actually were relevant! Oh and also. I guess just doing so much work with men and thinking yeah about how as men in Australian but also wider white supremacist heteropatriarchy, like when do we learn how to show care? And the inability to show care ruins lives.

How to begin? What does it feel like to allow a full spectrum of emotions, including the petty, the ugly, and ones that make us feel shame?

It is notoriously difficult to get men involved in anti-violence work. The anti-violence networks that I have knowledge of, and the ones I am a part of, are populated mostly by women. Maybe this is because it’s not glamorous to be training in anti-violence, or perhaps because not all men are ready to have a mirror held up to their attitudes and behaviours. I know anecdotally that at anti-logging protests, for example, rates of sexual assault are extremely high, but it is difficult to get men to participate in workshops about consent. The guys who don’t want to come to the consent workshops say that it’s because someone has to do what they came for; to go and sit in the tree. My friend tells me how she stands in front of these guys, folds her arms, and says “Ok, you go to the workshop. I’ll go sit in the tree.”

There is a mild, sleepy debate in the green room of The Second Woman at around 8 am. The crew have all been trying to work out why it is that many male participants, performing the role of Marty opposite performance artist Nat Randall’s Virginia, become angry at the moment in the script when Nat drops to the floor, after she and whoever is playing Marty do a “sloppy dance”, also outlined in the script. Someone suggests that it might be because they are annoyed that she has fallen down, she’s incapable. Anastasia — one half of Nat’s hair and make-up team — and I snagged a copy of the script just after midnight, when we were bit fresher, and we read through it again at this point to see if “get angry” is a written direction. It’s not. We suggest that the anger could also be a tension that arises as a result of following the direction “Marty lets Virginia drop to the floor”.

Maybe the anger that comes through, palpably, is this: in this scene empirical, patriarchal masculinity comes not only into contact, but direct friction, with a vulnerable woman. When and how do we learn to show care? Marty can’t fix Virginia with the set directions or scripted reassurances — “you’re smart, you’re pretty you’re young”, so what other options are there for Marty? Maybe the anger that seethes from the guys who, following directions, sit in the armchair while Nat slowly picks herself up off the floor, comes from the perceived impotence of the character of Marty. Virginia wouldn’t be caught, so Marty drops her.

The Second Woman: within ACMI’s Studio 1 a cube of a room is built. The wall facing the audience and the two facing either side of the room are made of translucent fine pink powernetPowernet is a knitted nylon fabric with a two-way stretch, often used for lingerie and compression garments., and the back wall has a door. Against this wall is an armchair and a sideboard holding a big old fashioned stereo. In the front corner of the set is a drinks trolley carrying a tray of clean glasses and three bottles of whiskeyThe “whiskey” is actually a mixture of black tea and apple juice.. In the centre of the room is a small table with a chair on each side. This is the setting in which Nat Randall performed the same scene 100 times over 24 consecutive hours at Next Wave Festival 2016, each time with a different man performing across from her. The scene they performed was based on one from the film Opening Night by John Cassavetes.

The performance began at 1 pm on Friday and the theatre was still packed at 3 am. The small hours of that morning were populated mostly by participants or friends of participants, and crew members, but there were a few keen people turning up, grinning, at 4 am, ready to sit in the front row and watch forever.

Then at 6 am, the man-participant population shifted from the night people to the wholesome earlybirds. The theatre started to steadily fill up again with audience members. It’s hard to describe what draws a crowd to an endurance performance like this. Partly I think the crowd is drawn to The Second Woman by bloodlust. Shivers run through the room when a new man walks towards the door of the set. I think the deep pull of the random, the idea that anything could happen, people find thrilling. My friend who left at 2 am turned up again at 4 am. She’d been to the club but decided to come back. “I couldn’t stay away.” Sophie — the other half of Nat’s hair and makeup team — wakes up at 7 am from her short nap. “What did I miss?” she leaps off the mattress on the floor where she’s been resting and darts around wide-eyed. When my shift finishes at 8.30 am and I can go home, I don’t, and nobody asks me if I want to.

Here is basically what happens in the scene that’s repeated 100 times: Nat stands, facing one of the pink powernet walls. Then, a man enters the room carrying two noodle boxes in a brown paper bag. He’s brought dinner, for which she expresses gratitude. He fixes her a drink, which she throws back in one gulp and and the two of them sit at the table, with the food between them, and have a very tense conversation, which displays how their relationship is fraught with misunderstanding. The gist is that they don’t seem to get each other. Virginia throws out all these invitations for Marty to be compassionate, or connect with her. They bounce off him like he’s a brick wall.

There is a moment in the script that is make or break — Virginia prompts Marty to say that he loves her, but he doesn’t take the hint. Virginia stands up, walks to the stereo, and turns on the music, but not before throwing her food at him. He comes up behind her and holds her around the waist, but she doesn’t stay still. Maybe it’s the whiskey, maybe it’s the mess of the relationship, but Virginia flops around, sags against Marty, grabs his face in her hands, and eventually falls to the floor. After a moment, where she collects herself, she turns off the music, takes a $50 note from her purse and hands it to Marty, and says “Marty, I think you should leave”. Marty leaves, but turns at the door and delivers his final line — either “I love you” or “I never loved you”. The participant chooses.

After watching the scene so many times, with so many different performers, I get the feeling it could be humiliating to play Marty. When you are in the little cube of a room, with the gauzy pink walls and the stage lighting, you can’t see anything outside. But you know they are there, two camera operators filming live, their footage projected onto a screen directly beside, and the same size as the set; you know your extreme close-up is being watched by an audience packed onto ACMI’s benches and spilling into the aisles, who are seeing every reaction as it plays across your massive face, live. And the audience laughs. It’s not that Nat is necessarily playing it for laughs, but there’s something that happens in a group, when watching something awkward or vulnerable, where people start laughing. First a nervous titter, or sometimes an uncontrollable burst, but I notice it again and again when something awkward happens. In the script there are several moments when the direction is for Marty is to kiss Virginia. Almost every time somebody tries to kiss her, Nat pulls away, an unimpressed look on her face. This always gets a laugh. And it is funny, I think it’s funny to see this character trying to fix everything up, his attempts to band-aid with a reassuring list of her good qualities, and to see it not work. Failure is funny, particularly the failure of masculine heterosexuality to achieve what it so confidently sets out to do. When the participants play Marty through this vector, it exposes how rare it is for the performance of “heterosexual male” to be laughed at.

The power of the humour is that for all the vulnerability, tragedy and wretchedness of the character that Nat plays, she’s the subject of the piece. It’s her the audience has watched toss herself down and pick herself up off the floor over and over, it’s her we laugh with as she throws food at her constantly-morphing Marty, it’s her we follow as she hobbles around the stage, cleaning up the noodles she’s most recently tossed and pouring herself another drink. Maybe the bloodlust you can sense in the room isn’t over watching this woman get more and more raw and exhausted in each performance, but watching her expose man after man to this covert examination of masculinity.

Then I realise my mistake and blurt out, “the food is good” and she says “mine’s frozen” and dumps the contents of her noodle box on the table between us.

At about 4.30 am the stage manager comes over and asks me if I want to do the scene, a couple of scheduled men haven’t turned up. I say sure, and have a read over the script, though I don’t really need to. At this stage I’ve watched the scene about forty-five times, and know it almost by heart. It’s a few hours before I get asked to go in, after they’ve filled as many holes as they can with other participants. By the time I’m walking towards the door, I’m nervous. Two scenes before mine, there was a guy who demonstrated what I would describe as distinct boundary respect issues. The way he was touching Nat was aggressive and didn’t indicate that he was concerned with whether or not he was hurting her. He didn’t respond to her body language cues – such as her pulling away from him or moving his hands off her body – that communicated that she was uncomfortable. Obviously, it was uncomfortable to watch the interaction, as he tried to kiss Nat on the lips and she pushed him off. There were six of us in the audience, and whereas five minutes before we’d all been slumped around, watching with comfortable interest, when this guy entered the scene and it became clear from his vibe, the way he touched and spoke, that he had no regard for Nat’s comfort, we were all tensely perched on the edge of our seats. It’s clear that Nat has done risk assessment and that this is work that involves risk. The random element of the 100 men isn’t standardised, and I know she has thought about this. In the waiver that participants are required to sign before entering the scene there is a clause stating that if a participant engages in any behaviour that is disrespectful or aggressive towards Nat, they will be asked to leave and will not receive their $50 honorarium. After I watch this guy, his performance sticks with me. I think we are all shaken, in different ways. Alice, the stage manager, waves at me from the door. At first I think she’s waving me over because I’m, not quite professionally, doing my job of tallying the audience members from the audience and not from the door, like I was earlier, but no, she wants to tell me that I’m next. “Are you ready?” I’m very unready. The same could be said of the majority of men participating in The Second Woman, who don’t seem at all prepared for what it feels like to play out this scene, intimacy as spectacle.

When I enter the room and Nat asks me, like she asks everyone, what I’m thinking about, I say: “your eyelashes look fantastic”. I’m self-conscious, so I say it so quietly that only she can hear. I’ve watched so many others do the scene now, and the Man-Wrangler“Man-Wrangler” was the name given to the role of briefing the participants, overseeing their signing of the waiver, and managing on-time arrival of each participant to the stage. was right, you can’t see anything beyond the room once you’re in there. I’m not afraid of masculinity or femininity in myself, but I feel the pressure that maybe the other participants have felt too, that the script is set in a certain way, I am playing a certain character, and this character is a dickhead. I think about everything I know about interpersonal relationships. Nothing really prepares me for how I act in the moment. The relationship has a tipping point, and in the script is supposed to go like this:

Marty: Ok. You’re capable. You’re capable, and you’re funny, and you’re pretty, and you’re young, and you’re outstanding, and you’re great, and…
Virginia: And… and I love you.
Marty: And you love me.

The catch is that Virginia is not actually telling Marty that she loves him, she’s suggesting that this is what he should say; that he loves her. The lack of comprehension of this hint to Marty often results in a frustrated gasp from the audience. This interaction is also the moment in the script that, if performed as scripted, causes Nat to crack the shits, and tip her food over Marty. But when I’m in there I fuck up the lines, I’m nervous, it’s 6 am, or for whatever reason, when Nat says “and I love you” and I say “and I love you… er… you love me”. Oops. Then I realise my mistake and blurt out, “the food is good” and she says “mine’s frozen” and dumps the contents of her noodle box on the table between us. There is what feels to me like a tense pause. I poke Nat’s food on the table with my chopstick, and she’s not exaggerating, it’s a lump of ice with noodles and carrot sticking out of it in little tendrils. I say something like, “oh that’s terrible”, and sweep the frozen lump off the table into the noodle box, feeling fairly ridiculous. I figure that we’ve gone off script now. Nat moves to the stereo and plays the song that is the cue for the dance. By the end of the 24-hours I will still be straining my ears to work out if the lyrics are “love to taste your love” or “love to test your love.” I am a lot shorter than Nat, so when I stand behind her and hold her around the waist, like the script says to do, I’m standing sort of to the side of her, resting my head between her shoulder blades. We’re friends, we’ve known each other for years, although we’re not close, and maybe this has something to do with why she doesn’t mash my face around like she does to some of the other Martys, and when she falls I get the impression she’s falling slowly, going easy on me, and I have time to set my stance to catch her more effectively. Or maybe she’s just tired. Because of our height difference, when she falls I’m well-positioned to fall with her, and we sort of put ourselves on the ground together. After the period of silence that follows the fall, she stands up, takes the $50 note from her purse and hands it to me, saying “Marty, I think you should leave.” I say “love you” and give her a quick hug, then leave out the door. I think because I watched the work for so many hours I felt less pressure to do a perfect performance, or like everyone would remember whatever I did, than I would have if I had just come to participate, and gone in without watching others first. Because I saw so many different participants, I knew the reality of doing Marty: that we all blended together, accessories to Nat.

Obviously, there is not only one way to play Marty. Late morning on Saturday, in front of a packed theatre, a guy who looks a bit like the singer from mid-2000s Australian hard rock band Wolfmother riffs on the script. When Nat says “Well, you don’t think I’m capable, and that’s what I want to be, I just want to be capable”, this dude moves his chair close to hers, holds her hand. He does a condescending little smile. His presence is comedic and, I’m actually relieved to note, completely benign. The laughter isn’t uncomfortable. He’s one of the last, towards the end of the 24 hours.

“You are capable,” he says, “I mean, look at this place!” and gestures around the set. The live recording shows a closeup of Nat’s face smiling, the smile she does when she thinks something is genuinely funny. Gesturing to the room is a great point. The room itself is an effort, and as a set it’s beautiful: the front and side walls of sheer pink, lights illuminating the space in a kind of dreamy haze. When it’s time for the sloppy dance, this guy doesn’t put his arms around Nat, but takes her arms and awkwardly dances with her in a sort of bizarre Year Six disco style with both his arms stuck out straight like fins either side of, but not touching, her torso.

In the five minute break between scenes when Nat resets the room, the studio is deafening around us with the sound of dozens of conversations. I am squished into a gap between a seat and pole. Holly leans down to talk to me, and we discuss the Wolfmother dude’s approach. See, you can play all the lines true to the character of emotionally incompetent male-ness without being an asshole. You can play the lack of comprehension without the stoicism, you can play the inability to engage with Virginia’s needs without the arrogance. The guys who play out the character of Marty with rage and indifference are bringing something personal too, we decide, but also they are enacting a normalised idea of how to “do” masculinity. The way that is rigid, “practical”, and can’t hold up in the face of feminine-coded instability, or as Marty is scripted to put it, uncomprehendingly, “You’re hysterical.”

Nowhere in the marketing copy for The Second Woman is the exploration of gender mentioned, or specifically masculinity, although this element is integral to the work. This, I think, is the particular genius of The Second Woman; it is an experiment where the controlled elements are the woman, the set, the specific characters of Virginia and Marty, and the pre-written, pre-consumed text of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. The work exposes something completely different in every single participant, no matter how they play the scene.

After the show is finished, I tell someone about the incident with the boundary-pushing guy, and they say “yeah, but Nat can handle it, she’s tough.” Nat is tough. She’s also kind, funny, interesting, and compassionate. And an amazing performer. The way she handled the interaction left no ambiguity about who was in control, as she pointed to the chair where she wanted him to sit, and said something in his ear that the rest of us couldn’t hear. Later she told me that she had delivered the same line as she said to everyone else, “I think you should leave”, only she didn’t hand this guy the fifty. I respect how she handled the situation, how she kept her response in line with the work, but my respect isn’t contingent on her doing so. I would respect any response from her, whether she “handled” the situation or not. This situation made me think about how perceived “toughness” is often used against people who have been hurt to minimise violence that they have experienced, no matter how positive the intention of calling them “tough”. When I talk with teenagers about violence I ask them, what are different ways of responding to violence? This is one of the hardest things to talk about, because there are few clear answers. The ways that we respond to violence are informed by our life experiences and, often, fear of further violence.

Later, I’m thinking about the boundary-pusher guy again and about what might be the opposite of him, guys who didn’t want to accept the $50 note Nat handed to them. I loved how easily the action of being handed money in exchange for a moment of intimacy disturbed them. The power of money in patriarchy is pitched unceremoniously out in the open. I’m speculating again, but it’s almost like the act of not taking the money is a last ditch attempt at redeeming the character, or reluctance to concede control. Or maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on this, maybe it’s just to do with performing socialised politeness; we pretend to refuse an offer of money at first, and only take it when pressured to do so. The same way participants who play Marty with masculine authority seem like they’re not used to being laughed at for their performance of masculinity, these participants seem deeply challenged by accepting payment for their intimacy and touch.

It pumped through me, watching as the guy Nat asked to leave left, looking confused. The secret fear that hits when I remember that people perform ideological perfection in public, but hurt each other in privateThe concept of ‘ideological purity’ was introduced to me by philosopher b. binaohan, to describe the ways that value in communities based on shared ideology is often contingent on meeting criteria set up by people in these communities who hold the most power.. The secret fear that rides me when I remember that, often, people who cause harm get away with it, because they are at the centre of networks that other people rely on. The secret fear that people can’t change. That there can be only prisons. That people will only stop themselves from using violence out of fear of punishment, rather than a desire to not hurt others.

Eileen Myles says, when writing about the work of Nicole Eisenman in The Importance of Being Iceland: “No one really wants to talk about what’s done to women, in our families, in our homes, at our jobs, in the art world, in the bedroom and everywhere else.”

In anti-violence activism, or work that aims to prevent violence from a place of community response rather than carceral measures, there has to be an underlying politic, if not a personal belief, that people can change. And I believe it. It’s a hard thing to believe, change is brutal, it requires work from inside that a person is not always ready for, it requires real honesty from friends and peers, and too often requires labour from people who already carry unequal weight and pressure to fix things. It can feel so overwhelming, so much bigger than individuals. And it is bigger than individuals. How can we honour our labour, the hearts that love the people who cause harm, the hearts that break? What we do is work. How can we engage with the structural causes of violence, without shafting survivors and subtly demanding that they shift their needs to fit with the political framework? We can only work from where we are, but it’s good to struggle against what binds you.

Vincent Silk is a writer. His work has appeared in un magazineSeizure, MIX NYC, and Alien She. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.