Updated: Mar 17, 2020
By Andrea Assaf
This article was first published by The Public Humanist (September 14, 2009).*
Perform: to give form to. To carry out, enact, or fulfill. To give a rendition of; to follow a pattern of behavior; to play. To do in a formal manner according to prescribed ritual; to be in a state of performing. To use language that actualizes what is spoken. To do thoroughly; to complete.
For me, personally, the urge to perform is multi-dimensional: it’s an urge to express; to live in a heightened state; and to enact something meaningful in public space, that shifts perception, has impact, or itself enacts change.
The imperative of the stage is to live fully and truthfully, moment by moment, in the presence of other people. It is to focus all of one’s being and energy on the realization and embodiment of the imagination. For some of us, performance is a spiritual practice as much as it is a creative or critical one. It is giving form to impulse. At its best, it is both being a vessel for pure energy, and carefully building a structure through which that energy can flow. The repetition and perfection of that structure, which we may call the craft of acting or performing, is (as Stravinsky said) the basis of the experience of artistic freedom.
A dear old friend of mine, Shantanand Saraswati, who is a spiritual teacher originally from India, once saw me perform Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst at New York City’s Circle in the Square. I was not even twenty years old at the time. He came back stage to see me after the show, and I was anxious and curious to hear what his reaction might be. He squinted at me for a short while, and then said only, “You live better on stage than you do in your life.” Although I felt a bit devastated, I understood him immediately. He was referring exactly to what I had been training intensively to do as an actor – to be fully present, to express openly and without inhibition, to be keenly aware of and connected to my environment and all beings in the space, to follow impulse truthfully and without judgment – in other words, to surrender myself to what he would call the universal flow of the river of life, leading to the ocean of pure consciousness. Honestly, we always had a funny friendship, because I was a rather argumentative skeptic; but I respected his devotion to philosophical inquiry, and I think he was entertained by my tendency to challenge. I never forgot what he said. I knew that he had pinpointed exactly why I continually return to the stage.
The urge to perform, for me, is an urge to return to the place I feel most at home, and most alive. It’s extremely hard to get there. It’s ever-elusive and risky. The moment you take it for granted, it will disappear. If you lose focus, if you don’t commit yourself fully, if you haven’t trained, rehearsed or memorized enough, if you stop trusting yourself and those you share the stage with, if your ego overshadows the work of the art itself – any of these will take you quickly down a path of, at best mediocrity, or at worst, the emotional torture of knowing when you’re bombing on stage. But if you devote yourself unequivocally to the ritual of your craft, and remain absolutely present moment-by-moment; if you open the channels of your body, voice, and awareness; if you allow yourself to be inspired by the unexpected (because anything can happen on stage); if you stay acutely connected to all other performers; if you commit completely to the world of the imagination and live fully in what you have created – then, only then, might you reach a state of transcendence or euphoria, a rush of life-blood extending beyond the body, a state in which pain disappears, and everything outside the imaginary world temporarily dissolves. When you have lived like this on stage, you are usually both exhausted and exhilarated. Spent, but deeply satisfied. You may not always remember what you did or how it happened, but you know you went to places deep and high. You look forward to returning, and you’re curious about what you might discover, or perfect, the next time.
This is the unique pleasure of performance.
And on the other side, there is the emergency: the need to express. The deep wells of abuse or pain from which many of us draw our most urgent expressions. This is the catharsis of the performer, which may precede the ascendance. This is how we heal ourselves, or at least how we survive. It may be fulfilled, for some, by the process. For others, art requires an audience; the catharsis must be witnessed, heard, and shared by as many people as possible.
The need to express is probably something that all artists and writers share, although not all desire to perform. Some of us both write and perform. When the artist truly has something to say, the urge to say it, to express or make it visible in the public sphere, can drive us to great lengths. We can pursue that articulation, through words or through the body, for our entire lives. Because the urge to perform is also about impact – how what we create, express and embody as performers resonates in the community and the world(s) we inhabit. Performativity is about, not only what we enact, but what that act does in the world. What the art itself performs, what it brings into form or being.
For artists like me, who are inclined toward political analysis and obsessed with the notion of justice, having something to say is what drives the creative process to production. We are not only provoked by what disturbs us in the “real” world, but also by the concept of hope – by belief in possibility, in creating alternative realities, and by our visions of what the world could be. We desire to open spaces of imagination and belief in the public consciousness, so that more and more of society might see, not only the reflection of our ills and injustices, but also these visions of the possible … so that we might envision together, you could say, a new world …
There is an urge that drives me on. Even in the face of what some may say is impossible. It’s the urge to give form to vision. The urge to carry out, to enact, to fulfill. The urge to actualize what has been spoken. And to do so, thoroughly and completely.
*Many thanks to Mass Humanities for publishing this and other blog articles by our Artistic Director! For more, visit The Public Humanist and search for Andrea Assaf.