This is a little personal reaction to some work other members of my program have been focusing on lately that has brought up some questions in my mind.
I’ve been struggling a lot lately with the question of identity. Firstly, I have to say that many people told me I’d probably end up being a real patriot once I left America. I don’t know if I could have been categorized as either patriotic or unpatriotic before, and although I always bled a great streak of Anglophenia, I’d like to think I still came off caring about America in my way. “In my way” is the phrase that raises some eyebrows, I guess. Honestly, the idea of what composes identity has always been confusing to me. I remember an exercise for a once rehearsal where we had to think of terms or labels that we fell under, either all the time or in certain social settings, and I couldn’t think of anything past “actor.” I missed the obvious ones like, “daughter,” “woman,” “student”—they just never came to mind. I think the reason I’ve never been overly patriotic, religious, or generally extreme in any way (that last point is up for debate I suppose) is because I always felt it was part of my job as an actor to come at something from all sides, to always be available to see a situation I may otherwise find abhorrent in a positive light. If I ever get cast as an extreme, right-wing, racist politician, who is also exploitative, a coke addict, a mega-bitch, and a rapist, I better be able to not judge that character because that will diminish the honesty of playing her. Just saying. I guess that’s one reason I tend to stand on the fringes of political discussion, because one: I’m not totally aware of politics and usually have little idea what people are talking about; and two, I don’t know if I could completely identify wholly with any one party’s agenda. I like gun ownership (RESPONSIBLE gun ownership), but I also like the right to choose. What’s to be done? Often we shape our identity by knowing what we are not. But at this age, or perhaps at any age, how can we have a great enough understanding of the world to know all of the things we are not? Does our sense of identity grow over years of experience, or do having so many experiences open up the flood gates to so many options that it just muddies the water further?
There is a fear that by defining yourself by some leading characteristic, you close doors to other kinds of identity, to having opinions that differ from that main label you call yourself. People are meant to be the most interesting in their contradictions, so taught me Roger Danforth in my directing class oh so many years ago. In this time that is so ripe for personal construction, should I revel in my contradictions or try to change them? Do I throw out everything “un-useful,” or let myself hold onto some vices—everybody, in my opinion, needs one really good, solid vice to keep them human.
Sitting in the National Portrait Gallery, looking at all of these faces I’ve heard about: there’s Thomas Moore, there’s Cromwell, there’s Ben Johnson, there’s Richard III not looking murderous at all. There’s the lone supposed-Shakespeare portrait←for the record, they don’t have any historical fact to back up that’s him. There’s Elizabeth Regina, shown in so many phases of her life that by the time you see her in the Ditchley portrait, you can see history in her face, the age and wear in how the artist defined her features behind that eggshell white. Many portraits in the gallery (indeed, many portraits generally) were commissioned. The sitter wanted themselves painted at a specific time of their lives and portrayed in a specific way. You can see how aspects of their historical actions and personalities affected how they were portrayed or what pictorial elements are shown in the portrait. Nowadays people take pictures all the time and photo shop them till they get exactly what they want. It’s the same principle, even if the methods have changed. There is still a distortion of the actual subject. A photograph is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional figure (that’s why you look ten-twenty pounds heavier) and a digital image is really just a series of zeros and ones when you get right down to it. So what are we? Is there any answer to that question really?
When you look into a mirror, what are you seeing? Is that actually you or something constructed, something waiting to be constructed on and painted an inch thick? Or did something get lost in interpretation—anorexics see something vastly distorted from reality. Is a model only the image that is sold after hours of make up, lighting, lenses, airbrushing and color enhancement makes the person in the print ad unrecognizable from that person who stands in a room too frightened to eat?
These ponderings come from a discussion I had recently with a fellow classmate regarding a project she’s been working on with several other strands. The designers, the directors, and the lone visual media girl (LVMG), Connie, have been in talks about how to build a work concerning itself with the Narcissus-Echo myth. The project sounds like it will remain strictly theoretical, never actually culminating into a performance of theatrical piece—not right now, anyway. LVMG Connie was actually the person who brought up the project to me, and I instantly thought about the book House of Leaves. Within it is an entire chapter of the ‘Navidson Record’ that discusses the myth, as well as the concept of echo location. Connie recounted that identity had come up in preliminary talks—that, in terms of echo, you could never know what you were, who you were, only what you produced, said, sent out somehow whether in action, print, or blogation. (Am I my blog? God I hope the answer to that is a resounding “NO.”) In a sense, you only know what you are in how you are perceived or interpreted from those sources as well. A classmate calls me "Foreigner" every time he sees me. So am I American because I sound American? Or because I vote in American elections (yes, I have my absentee ballot, stop worrying)? Or is it because I was born there? Or is it because I like cheeseburgers and diners? And what is America anyway?
I no longer have those little touchstones that created my day to day identity so long, those basic things that made up a routine that was important in understanding who I was at a time--I don't have my job, I'm back in school, I don't take my subway route, I don't buy the Times, I don't read the New Yorker (I have found it here, but it's pricey), I don't see the same people (Heidi aside). What is it that still makes me Lea? My haircut? My sardonic sense of humor? My name? My body? Whatwhatwhat?!
Can anyone ever really know us if we can never really know ourselves? What does one have to do to be interpreted correctly, not only in terms of the context of their life and surroundings, but something that goes beyond all that? Is that even possible? I caught myself staring into the eyes of my second reflection on the tube the other day, in a window comprised of two pieces of glass creating two other visages, figures I don’t know who looked tired and transparent, and thought, “No matter what I do, I will never get close to that. I will never know who that person is, who that projection is meant to be.”
I know this rambling is a bit mad, some embodiment of the quarter-life crisis, and all these questions feed into themselves, and again we return to the idea that this has nothing to do with the topic of this blog and is far to personal for the purposes of this forum. But as someone who wants to explore American identity and existence in performance (it’s been bouncing around in my head for a bit, particularly the past few weeks appropriately), these questions also seem completely relevant. What do you kids got for me on this one? I’d love to hear your thoughts.