“Story of A Body”
By Leigh Hendrix
My body and my voice are my tools and material as a performing artist. They are also what carry me through the world even when I’m not on stage, how I am seen and heard. There are a lot of expectations tied up in bodies – signs and signals we use to assess people and make judgements, organize people we encounter. A lot of these expectations are gendered, racialized, coded for class distinction, designed to tell us who has power and what kind and how they are allowed to wield it. Last month, Megan wrote about the body being hyper-visible in Suzuki training and the wonderful opportunity some of us had to be a part of Transformation through Training at Skidmore with SITI Company family and the Suzuki Company of Toga in May. I want to pick up that thread around personal relationship to Suzuki and Viewpoints training and making work in the world as a Queer person, moving through the world in the body of an artist.
In our mission, we describe The Syndicate, “an ensemble theater company comprised of women and Queer actors, directors, playwrights, and producers who make medium-defying theater.” Queer-ness, femme-ness, and womanhood mean different things to all seven of us in the company. We identify and define ourselves as many different combinations of those terms- and more. In the space of the three years that we have called ourselves The Syndicate, each of us has experienced so much; there have been weddings, break-ups, funerals, injuries, new jobs, new apartments, and even a baby(!). The body endures a lot to get through this life. The body changes. And, even when it doesn’t change physically, the body can change meaning.
I chose the last minutes of a company meeting earlier this year to tell my mates that I would be using they/them pronouns. I was coming to understand my gender identity as something not quite girl and not quite boy, something I sometimes want to call “woman+”. I looked at everyone’s faces on their screens, from Los Angeles to the Netherlands, and I said “I’m using they/them pronouns now.” My news was greeted with nodding heads and smiles and generous words of support. To my company, it was a simple announcement, one that made sense because I said it did, and didn’t need any justification beyond that. I didn’t have a doubt it would be any other way. We have worked to create space, both physical and digital, imbued with trust, passion, and empathy. A space where our bodies can be exactly what we want them to be, even as we reach out through the training and through performance to make them more. Open hearts are a given for this group of people.
As I figure out this new relationship with and meaning of my body, it makes me think a lot about the time I spent at SITI Conservatory. It was transformative for me, and for all of us in The Syndicate, not only because we found each other but because we were working so hard to be better performers, makers, and human beings all at once. And those parts of a person, really, cannot ever be taken completely apart; to be a performer means to affect fundamental parts of your body and mind that must change how you move through the world. Or, I should say, I hope that it can. Does.
In Conservatory I learned how to move from object to subject when studying the body, something that I’ve held on to tightly as I’ve moved into other phases of my life. During that year, I spent so much time looking at my own body, looking at the bodies of my conservatory cohort, and the bodies of my teachers. Carrying what I learned, inside of the rigor of Suzuki training, searching for potential inside of form, swimming through the expanse of the Viewpoints, building new images and movement from limitless possibility- I know this work is part of what has tossed me into a new relationship with my body.
And now, because I don’t live in Brooklyn any more, I am learning the bodily longing that comes from finding your people and having to leave them. I am learning the longing that comes from your body learning a way of being in the world and then being thrust into a different context. Instead of practically living in a rehearsal studio where I trust there will be open hearts, I now live in a town of 7,000 people in rural Pennsylvania. I teach at a small liberal arts college. I am learning what it means to be hypervisible as a Queer person. I am trying to see it as an opportunity as an artist.
Kate Kramer writes about this particular longing of an artist’s body outside their normal context. She calls it “the missing position.” It results from living in a place where your work may have less value, audience, and significance than in previous contexts. She writes: “The benefits of the missing position are many: it discourages assumptions about the worth of what you are doing…It helps you to observe with seriousness work that is not the making of art, to understand the value of that work, and then to articulate the ways in which that work is impoverished when performed in art’s absence.” I would like to think this work, of my own body in a new context, is part of what I need to value now, to start from there and then grow my art-making out of that, as she suggests.
My body is not a problem; my body is the story I am trying to tell. Read the lines of my limbs, listen to the rhythm in my foot falls, recognize the flash of desire in my eyes as one you’ve seen before, reflected in a mirror’s moment. My body is not a distraction – it is exactly where your attention belongs. When I don’t know what comes next, I turn to my body – in the world and in the work. This is the gift of the Suzuki and Viewpoints training. It provides me with a diagnostic – the form of Suzuki lets me test the limits, push my potential, measure what is happening against its structures. There is power there, in naming the obstacle and pressing against it until I burn bright with energy. The expansiveness of the Viewpoints suggests there are infinite ways to enter into performative expression, with no hierarchy (not even of the body!).
Inside and around all of this is failure. I’ve failed to meet the expectations of gender. But in my risk and attempts to tell the story of my body with my body, I’ve found new and better potential. Kramer talks about the painful amount of nostalgia that goes with the missing position, and I can attest to that. I am trying everyday to fight it off, to be where I am and figure out what my body and my self are today, now, in this context and what I am going to do with that as an artist. As usual, as with the training, there is no right answer. Kramer says: “The usefulness of the missing position as a manifesto is that it is not prescriptive. It does not know what art needs or what kind of art may be needed. It only insists that, in attending to what we miss, we become attentive also to what is missing, excluded, kept out. It demands patience, receptivity, and an abiding openness…”
Openness. Like what my company members have for me. Like what the training has for me. LIke what I (on my good days) have for myself.
“Most of all it will open you to the notion that the art in your life is less important than the making of an artful life.”
Ah yes. That.