Faith in Fakes

Some rambling thoughts about Wrecking Ball

17th Oct 2016

I recently got my first pair of glasses. I spent about ten minutes in specsavers picking a pair that I thought suited me best. Having never worn glasses before it was a strange experience. I was trying to find a pair that meant I still looked like me when I had them on; I didn’t want to look like a different person, or someone new, but because I’ve never worn glasses before they all had the effect of transforming me into a slightly different version of myself. In the end I picked a pair that created a new version of myself closest to myself.

Yesterday I spent the day in a meeting in a new temporary job leading a unit on an MA course. I was wearing my new glasses and a new shirt I bought specifically for this new job because all my existing shirts were old and scruffy and not be-fitting a university lecturer. I felt a little bit more confident than I otherwise would because my new shirt and new glasses had the effect of creating a very slightly adjusted version of myself who was more comfortable in my new surroundings.

On my way home from the meeting I went to a shopping centre to look for a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes to wear in the performance Wrecking Ball. The experience of trying on jeans and shoes felt pretty identical to the experience of trying on the new glasses and the new smart shirt for my new job. I was looking for items that created a slightly adjusted version of myself closest to myself. Its an experience I’m familiar with when shopping for ‘costume’ for the shows we make. We often wear our own clothes in work and we’re often playing versions of ourselves but when a performance gets repeated over a period of time it makes sense to buy a dedicated set of clothes for the show so your own wardrobe doesn’t get hijacked by the shows you’re performing in.

-There’s a box in our garage with a pair of my jeans and a pair of my shoes in that I used to wear when I was in my mid-twenties but the show A Western hijacked them and they’ve remained in that show ever since (my mid-thirties waistline slightly struggling to get the skinny jeans on everytime it gets re-performed)-

In Wrecking Ball this slippage between myself, and a slightly adjusted version of myself is particularly pronounced because Wrecking Ball is deliberately scrutinizing these subtle ways in which images are manipulated. This way of being on stage is in lots of ways almost identical to our way of just being in the world as it exists today. We’re all asked to play simultaneous versions of ourselves and we’re all expected to navigate a fake territory as if its real and we’re all trying to do everything in our power to avoid sincerity but we’re doing that with all the truth and belief in ourselves we can muster.

Our celebrities have become beautifully grotesque versions of this kind of humanity. They constantly re-invent themselves as themselves, re-jigging and re-interpreting their “personal brand” in an ever tightening circle until the “real them” that they were determined to present to the world is indistinguishable from their waxwork. They say things like “I want to be the real me” and they look like aliens from outer space as they say it. As if the closer they try and get to themselves the further away they get from the truth of who they are.

When I’m performing Wrecking Ball this tug of war between the persona I project into the world and the person I really am is felt even more keenly because the theatre space fictionalises everything. It co-opts anything you do and coats it in a sheen of make-believe. Like the celebrities who try and rebel against the fakery of the industry and end up appropriated by it in an infinite loop, the attempt to be ‘real’ on stage, or to try and be your authentic self is nearly always appropriated by the stage into something that lacks the ring of truth. It’s a fact that sometimes on stage you have to do a shit load of pretending to seem real at all.

In Wrecking Ball we’re both presenting quotations of ourselves and the piece itself is also a quotation of a play. All its contents are also quotations. We’re presenting a fake version of reality absolutely as if it is real (but the whole thing stinks of fakery (even though some of it is real)). I am a quotation of myself, even when I’m being for real and at one point in the piece Gemma asks me “Are you wearing a fucking costume?”. And neither me, nor the “character” I’m playing really has a sufficient answer to that question.

The experience of performing Wrecking Ball is disconcerting because it feels totally fake and its ugly in its fakery and yet it feels all too familiar and its all to easy to put your faith in it. It’s a particular kind of seduction that we’re all very familiar with in our lives (and in the theatre). I ‘play’ a hipster misogynist who finds it all too easy to be believed in, both because its such a familiar dynamic and also because, really, its not too far from the truth.

Our belief in this kind of fakery is something we’re we’ve always been keen to explore in our work. A few years before we started making work together we both read Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyper-reality by Umberto Eco and at the beginning of this tour I happened to pick it up again. What struck me was how much of what he says sounds like a description of Wrecking Ball. When he talks about ‘the flattening of real against fake’ in his chapter describing wax museums in America, or when he describes how their ‘concern with authenticity reaches the point of reconstructive neurosis’ he couldn’t better describe the approach to making Wrecking Ball. He goes on to say how the ‘logical distinction between real worlds and possible worlds has been definitively undermined’. If I could sum up what we were trying to do with Wrecking Ball in one sentence, that sentence might be it.

Eco documents how we’re seduced by things that are as close to real as possible but that we know are not real (he references the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World). We crave it more than we crave the truth. We’re interested in something that appears to be ‘the real thing’ even when we know its not. He wrote most of the essays back in the 70’s but he could have easily written it all yesterday. As a culture we’re not actually interested in realness. No-one wants realness, they just want it to look real.

A friend of mine described Wrecking Ball as ‘dangerous’ after he saw it and I think he defined it in this way because of how much it demands its audience to see what’s really real even after its signposted its own act of fakery so overtly. In that scenario its the reality that loses out because the audience are more attuned to believing the make-believe. Like the celebrities who want to be ‘for real’, none of our attempts to shed the layers of fiction that surround us make us any more believable (or trustworthy) to our audience. The resulting atmosphere is a kind of confusion; a deliberate confusion, but a confusion none-the-less. Wrecking Ball removes the safety blanket of both clearly defined theatrical convention and presentation of the authentic self and ends up being both and neither at the same time. Its within this framework that the author of the proceedings (the semi-fictionalised male director/photographer/artist/playwright) ultimately wins out. From within the confusion he can carve a defined space for us to believe in. Somewhere to put our faith. We’re left with little option but to follow his lead and he makes it feel like it was our idea in the first place. Its a very contemporary form of manipulation and its a manipulation we’re less skilled at spotting because the perpetrators don’t look, sound or act like the ‘bad guys’.

Perhaps the ‘real’ ‘truth’ is that there is no distinction between reality or fiction either on or off stage. Our existence in the world is always slipping through various states of reality, fiction, representation and presence. In the same way even the most method stage actor could never truly deny the presence of their own body, and its accompanying politics, on stage, and the most dedicated performance artist could never deny the inherent theatricality of their actions, the world is peopled by individuals acting out in various representative states which depend on all kinds of external factors such as where we are, who we’re talking to, how we are communicating and what mood we’re in. The increased plurality of our existence has increased the quantity of these states we’re expected to navigate in everyday life so, as the photographer says to the celebrity in Wrecking Ball, “everything was clear and now its fucked and no-one knows who they are anymore”. And its in amongst the chaotic debris of this representational wasteland that the authors of our fate get carteblanche to re-write our futures without much protest from us. When we’re all unsure which parts of our reality are real and which are fantasy and it feels like there’s very little tangibly present to hold onto, we’re primed to accept the adjusted version of reality that’s the most like the reality we imagine (or hope) to be true.