A User's Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling — PME-ART
Feb 5-6. Western Front. PuSh Festival 2020.
By Alex Lazaridis F.
Authenticity is a performance convention.
I don’t think Jacob Wren, the solo performer of A User’s Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling, would disagree with that statement. Wren has always had utopian goals for the kind of work PME-ART creates, but he is a confessed self-doubter. What he means by ‘authenticity’ is a performance in which the actors try to respond to one another, in front of the audience and sometimes with the audience, in a raw and spontaenous manner. They do this out of respect for the discriminating intelligence of the spectator. But while Wren holds to his youthful and enduring idealism, another part of him questions what authenticity really is.
He knows what it isn’t: conventional theatre. I understand his reservations. Conventional theatre divides a performance into two fairly discrete worlds: stage and seating area. Even when actors directly address the audience across a ‘fourth wall,’ they tend to do so armoured in character, or they offer a self-curated version of themselves—an ideal persona they are comfortable sharing with the audience. Wren compares actors in theatre to politicians and con artists.
Again, I get where he’s coming from. Most plays I see try to convince me of something, something the playwright and director think is important, or something they think the spectators will think is important. This can usually be summed up in a moral platitude, one that a self-regarding middle-class audience can easily digest. Like Wren, I’m rarely moved by these experiences.
Conventional theatre also tries to sell us on the idea that its ‘liveness’ will invoke communion. The spectators, by being in the same place at the same time with ‘real live’ actors, will have a communal experience in which they recognize their common humanity, and in which serious differences of opinion will dissolve. In my many years as a theatre professional—as actor, writer, director, dramaturg, spectator, producer, critic—I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this happen. And why should it? It’s a dangerous delusion. It’s the opiate that cult leaders and demagogues trade in. The willingness to express difference—of opinion and of experience—is crucial in a democratically minded society.
PME-ART chooses to model difference. The boundary between Wren (in jean jacket, t-shirt, and jogging shoes) and the audience is very porous. Really, there is no boundary, not even a conceptual one. There’s just Wren and his book, record player, and records; and there’s us, sitting in our chairs. He reads from the book—Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART—and speaks to us according to a loose script he has prepared, or simply as the moment strikes him. He questions almost everything that comes out of his mouth. In modelling a different, more authentic way of being on stage, Wren and PME-ART model a different kind of society, one where confrontational difference of opinion is welcomed—even though, as Wren says, it can be a wrenching experience.
In truth, this ‘authentic’ type of performance is nothing new. Some of its lineages can be traced to mid-20th century performance art, postmodern dance, visual art ‘happenings,’ and counter-culture theatre of the 1960s. The idea has gathered steam since then and the performer-as-self has become a staple of the performing arts festival circuit. It has itself become a convention. PME-ART has been doing it for 22 years so that puts them fairly early in the latest surge of this trend.
I don’t mean to dismiss the convention. On the contrary. When Wren tries a new joke, gets no response, and then admits he’s never tried it before and will never try it again, he humbly opens himself up to scrutiny. When he reads and then stops to wonder if what he wrote is still valid, he really is interrogating himself.
I’ve seen a lot of performances that aspire to this level of anti-theatrical authenticity. Some of them have been brilliant. But what makes Wren’s version so fresh is his humility—and his lack of confidence. He confesses to hating performing solo. He seems to have regretted the choice. And what does he actually have to offer besides a couple of hours of very personal reminiscences? Even these are problematic. He is uneasy about using a personal tragedy, the death of his fellow actor and hero, as material for the show. He doesn’t like it when other artists do this. He’s not sure he should be doing it.
It took me a while to invest in Wren’s story. I’d never heard of PME-ART. So when Wren journeys back through the company’s repertoire year by year, using projected stills from past shows, I have so little reference its hard to care. But gradually as I come to understand the company’s political and aesthetic mission, it becomes meaningful to me. I get to know Wren, his dreams, and his challenges. I get to know a story.
And that’s the paradox of PME-ART’s anti-theatre stance. One of the things that makes A User’s Guide to Authenticity is a Feeling work is its traditional narrative structure. Despite Wren’s honest and self-deprecating style, he is still the protagonist. The story becomes more than a meandering reminiscence because the protagonist goes through the usual contortions that fulfill a dramatic arc. He sets out with a goal: to make a more meaningful type of theatre. He encounters obstacles and challenges: although he is a writer, circumstances force him to be an actor, including in non-english contexts where he doesn’t understand what others are saying; his friend and personal hero dies, exacerbating his long standing depression, and he almost succumbs to suicide. He overcomes all this by renewing his faith in his fellow artistic directors and the company’s mission.
I like that mission: “We believe acknowledging uncomfortable realities, instead of pretending they are not there, is of fundamental importance for the development of critical approaches that are generous and unpredictable.” (For a full read of PME-ART’s Artistic Statement go here: http://www.pme-art.ca/en/ ; it’s worth a read).
Oh and did I mention that Wren is really funny?
PERFORMER Jacob Wren, with the explicit or implicit contributions from PME-ART’s collaborators COSTUMES Claudia Fancello LIGHTING Paul Chambers PRODUCTION & TECHNICAL MANAGER Nikita Bala