Vulnerability in Practice

I listened to a podcast recently in which the guest, a visual artist, was saying that it is the job of all artists to be vulnerable and to make that vulnerability public. I’m still thinking about it. I have certainly bared my heart and soul and fear and courage and pain and love and tears and tits for an audience, and I know what that vulnerability feels like (what many things that vulnerability feels like), I found myself wondering if I am being vulnerable with my current work, and if not, why?

I knew, after performing CHAOS THEORY, that I wanted my next piece to focus even more on the audience- to see how far I could get with a thesis that centered around leaving space for the audience. The three performances of KNOW THYSELF I’ve presented this weekend were different in tone, in content, in audience interactions, and in the particular spirit of play that each group brought to the piece. I was on my toes the whole time, feeling the audience out and giving them space to make the piece their own. My role as a performer in KNOW THYSELF is, among other things, to be the bowling lane bumpers that keep everyone moving toward the pins, not into the gutter (narratively speaking).

I’ll spare you the circuitous ramble I went on while considering whether or not I am vulnerable in KNOW THYSELF (especially if you haven’t seen the show yet) but (emotional spoiler) I came to the conclusion that… yes, I am wildly vulnerable, but no, it is not necessarily public. KNOW THYSELF is open to the public, and everything about it stems from my vulnerability as a human and an artist, but the vulnerability of the piece exists primarily in the minds of the audience; in opening up space for participants to explore their own mental models. CHAOS THEORY drew strength from the fact that I, while performing, modeled vulnerability in a big way. The vulnerability of performance was in being profoundly seen. KNOW THYSELF draws strength from providing space for audience members to model vulnerability for each other. The vulnerability in performance lies in stepping back from the spotlight. In order for it to work, I have to trust the piece, the team, the audience, the moment, and… myself. The latter is always the hardest.

Being vulnerable takes many forms and sometimes they are invisible. In order for the audience to trust their ability to make choices in the piece, my challenge as a performer is to model less and trust that the audience will push at the boundaries of the piece in exciting ways, and that’s not just ok, it’s great. No one experiencing the piece would necessarily think that leaving space was an act of courage on the part of the creator, but it is. Resisting the urge to answer questions audience members pose during the piece, or jump into a discussion prematurely, is an act of vulnerability in which I trust that the audience can, and will want to, think through the challenges presented in the piece for themselves. If I read the room wrong, I’ve lost them, if I read it right, they have exactly what they need at a specific moment in order to connect the dots for themselves. Choosing to make a show that centers audience experience in a way I’ve never explored before is a scary and vulnerable act that came at the cost of choosing to make things I’m more familiar with. A public learning process (through playtesting and performance) is an act of vulnerability. The vulnerability of working through the script while knowing folks I love and respect will be at the show- wanting them to have a great experience- is an act of invisible vulnerability. The financial vulnerability of putting up a show is absolutely massive and largely invisible. The hours of delicate and precise prep that go into hand-making props for the show is an invisible investment and a vulnerable act of caring about every object in the show. All of these vulnerabilities take place behind the scenes. There are countless others. So yes, it is my job as an artist to be vulnerable, and I take that job seriously. I also know that vulnerability looks different with each project.

Our work, our vulnerability, is a research project, and the more data we can get about what reaches the people, the better our work gets and more interesting and nuanced the exploration of vulnerability becomes. I read a comment this week from someone who came to the show in which she said she went to bed thinking about the piece and woke up thinking about it some more. That, to me, is a success, but relatively few people share the ways in which this piece (or any piece) grows in our minds over time, or makes us vulnerable as audience members. I’ve never reached out to most of the folks whose shows I still think about, though I am getting better at doing so because it matters profoundly, not just to know the work reaches people, but to know how it hits them, so we can grow and learn as artists.

Today, I am in awe of all of us, artists and non-artists alike, who are invested in vulnerability and find ways to explore it. As explorers, we get to look in the crevices and shadows that haven’t been mapped yet, and mapping the vulnerability of this piece has been, and will continue to be, a journey. I encourage you in the coming days to recognize the vulnerability you live with every day and to honor it. It is worth appreciating and acknowledging when we are open and taking emotional, financial, social, and physical risks that help us to grow, even if we’re the only ones who see it.

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