As a gay male, the concept and art of performance is in my DNA. I believe “the closet” only reinforces this, not to mention gay males are usually drawn to different types of performers and performing. Theatricality is our essence and our existence in the world. While we are in the closet we are performers, and when we are out, we still perform. Many homosexuals become artists, actors, singers, writers, fashion or interior designers because each of these involves performing, putting on a self and exhibiting it to the world. Each of these professions involves vocalizing desires, thoughts, dreams, and perspectives on an infinite variety of things. In a word, homosexuals perform their voice, their selves through art and decoration in these careers. They have a vision and implement it for others to see, read, hear, wear, and inhabit.
Since the closet keeps us off the stage of the real world and even the literal stage for so long, preventing us from being our true selves, we must show the world who we are through art, through performance, which is, as is the closet, a mediated space. Thus, there is always an abyss between the spectator and the performer in all art and performance, and so the mask is never removed, the true face never exposed to the light of day. If this is so, then the question to be asked is “What happens when there is no mask, when the space between actor and spectator is contracted and dissolved? Is this art?” I would have to say no; it is the terrorizing experience of real life, and who wants to see that? We engage with the trials and tribulations of real life every day of our lives and are haunted and stressed by them. It is also quite difficult to see the bigger picture and meaning behind our experiences and major life events until well after they have receded into the past. Thus, we have art and performance to show us the true universal human character and experiences that have paraded across the stage of the globe since human experience (as history) began to be recorded.
When we engage with or witness art and performance that is overly sentimental or melodramatic, to me it is of no service to us as humans. Art and performance is meant to show us our selves, our fellow human beings, and the world around us. So how does one perform? (I will keep my ideas localized to acting for the purposes of this piece.) Art and performance holds a mirror up to nature when it’s done right, and reveals deep truths through its fiction and lies. It has fascinated me to no end for almost a decade now that in order for human beings to discover truths, not facts, they must do so through being creators and spectators of art and performance.
I was told many times in my youth that I should be an actor, but never dreamed of being one. I cannot act for one key reason, and that reason is what makes many performances on stage, film, and television so compelling, so truly worthy of being classified as art. The reason I speak of is lack of self-consciousness, which is something I have never been able to achieve, and so could never become a performer. Hence, the reason why I write—I need not struggle to erase the self unless I wish to for something I want to say from a purely objective standpoint.
Actors are breathtaking to watch when they enact the foundational lesson of their craft: erasure of the self, of one’s self-consciousness, to put on the self (the mask) of another individual, a character, a human being from history or literature and become them through and through. On stage and screen, the actors themselves should not be present; rather, the individuals they play should be. As spectators, we shouldn’t have to willfully suspend our disbelief; we should immediately be spellbound by the characters onstage and have no thoughts concerning the concepts of illusion and reality. An actor’s performance should be so good, so dynamic, so real, that the world we inhabit becomes swallowed up and consumed by the world, the reality, of the stage or screen. “The theatre is the only reality,” says Jimmie Langton, Julia’s mentor from beyond the grave, in the film Being Julia. This is the task of all actors: to make us believe that the stage and screen and the performances that appear on them is the only reality for the hour or two that we are experiencing them.
When an actor achieves total self-annihilation, and in every way assumes and becomes the character they are playing, this is true acting, true art, and true performance. In a sense, the actor isn’t even acting, really. This erasing of one’s self-consciousness so completely to seem as if one no longer even exists in the act of performing is a consummate achievement, and worthy of endless accolades. In denying their subjectivity, the actor is creating the space for their character’s subjectivity, their human experience, to come to life and be received by the audience. When an actor so wholly becomes an other, a different person, we can respond to the character as a human being, and not as a fiction or a satire. We are then able to see ourselves individually and human nature and experience in a broader perspective. The actor’s objectivity produces the subjective voice and vision of the person they are playing, thereby allowing us as spectators to recognize the virtues and vices of the human condition and respond accordingly, whether with empathy, fear, hatred, or love, for example. In this way, we are able to contemplate and react to the timeless, haunting themes of human existence: God, love and desire, sex, death and the soul, youth and old age, relationships, Nature, Art, and other eternally looming riddles that press upon our hearts and minds throughout our lives.