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Hyper Masculinity

4 May

Oh well.

DFR performed as part of the May Day rally on Tuesday and, well, Ebenezer missed the mark, plain and simple. Actually, it’s not plain and simple but it is true. True for me, although I know others disagree.

As a performer, it’s hard not to know how things are going in the moments of performance. I for one have a kind of energetic consciousness about what’s happening– not something I’m able to make sense of in the realm of the rational. It’s only after the fact that I can put thoughts and words to the feelings. (And even then, I’m not proud to say that I tend to do so reluctantly — in this case looking closely only because my wife made me.)

I had put so much energy into thinking about that sermon Tuesday; I wanted it to be special. In retrospect I can say I placed some bigger importance on it out of feeling that the DFR had emerged from the same frustrated spirit that sparked the Occupy movement. But what I felt in the moment of “preaching” was that it was missing the mark. It was off. The best way I can think to explain it is to say that the calibration was off. Part of performing live is taking into account all the variables of the event, internal and external, and adjusting to them. Adjusting to audience response. Adjusting to conditions. Well, I’d never performed outdoors and I’d never performed at a political rally. And there was all this drama about our sound set-up and the police and fire department withholding permission to use it until the last minute. And it was cold and drizzly. And I was amped up.  And of course part of the DFR show process has always included feeling rushed and under-rehearsed and just kind of winging it, which provokes all kinds of anxiety in me — anxiety that I am beginning to recognize I’ve begun to deal with by sort of grimly  steamrolling through our performances. (We need to address all of that as a group, but that’s a different post.)

All of which is to say that I calibrated for all of these variables and I overcompensated. I produced something that was just… very… male. (In lighter moods I call it “testoster-ific!”) Male energy in a way that wasn’t terribly… interesting. It was strident. Aggressive. Not charming in the way that EA had been in some previous performances — a charm that is vital to the role and to drawing people in rather than pushing them away. So much subtlety was lost in the shouting, one-and-a-half note performance I gave. It frankly just wasn’t a fine moment of performance.

Now I know that there will be — and are — people who disagree. A number of men — in and out of the group — have told me they thought it was the “best sermon” I’d done. To them, I was “on fire.” It was “powerful.” But I’ve also heard that there were some women in the crowd who appeared to check out… or who never really tuned in. And then again, other women there told me they were really into it, too, and a couple strangers came up and danced with us during our last number.  On one hand, we got more “likes” on Facebook after this show than we had after any other. On the other hand, all who took the microphone to “testify” were men; perhaps I hadn’t created an environment in which women felt welcomed into the space. I don’t know. Obviously, 50 people will have 50 different reactions.

Talking to Aimee tonight, I found myself roiling in the uncomfortable space between defense and apology. My immediate reaction to our conversation was defense and anger — a kind of emotional stew I recognize well, the kind that surfaces when I know I’m being confronted with something true and painful. I felt embarrassed, my least favorite feeling. But my defensiveness comes also from a sincere struggle with what can feel like criticism about maleness, or “male energy.” It’s the same kind of hackle-raising feeling I get (and Aimee gets) when we hear and see people’s reaction to the fact that we have two boys, which goes something like, “Oh, poor you. You must live in a mad house.” Actually, I live in an incredibly joyous, loving, and yes, high energy house. With beautiful and intense boy energy. We both experience a kind of societal resistance to boy energy. That explicit resistance is destructive because what it creates is a mistrust in the boy that may actually exacerbate the negative aspects of male-ness as boys build tough and defensive facades around their soft and vulnerable parts. Being told you are not quite acceptable as yourself — that your energy is too much, too violent, too loud, too hyper — will do that to a person. As a father I am always trying to nurture and model all aspects of our masculinity so that along with Aimee I can offer the world two men who are wholly human. [I wish everyone would watch the PBS documentary, “Raising Cain.”]

But I digress. The point is, the question comes up for me, “well what’s wrong with male energy?!” Is male energy in and of itself a bad thing?

I’m not about to complain about being a white, “straight”, male. I recognize all of the unfair privileges this particular packaging comes with. At the same time, I’m also not going to apologize for my identity. To quote the Gaga, I was born this way. So there’s a stinging in the criticism because I feel like I work hard to be vulnerable (on stage and off, and not at all successfully a lot of the time; I, too, struggle against conditioning) and to bring forth what I feel are the positive essences of male energy through my work in community and in this project. I was raised in a family where I was taught that the greater the privilege the greater the responsibility. This lesson was a primary reason for abandoning my pursuit of having a Broadway career, and why I started studying “theater for social justice.” Recognizing that my privilege is mine by the accident, primarily, of my skin color and gender, my goal has for a long time been to redirect that privilege, to use it for the greater good. But there is a sticky aspect to that for me since the talents I posses have to do with performance. It’s also what I love doing and where I feel most connected spiritually. Thus, I am often front and center. And the fact is, I’m a man and my energy is male. I do believe that no matter what I do, or how I do it, being a white male leading the show, being center stage, is going to provoke a negative reaction in some people. And I get it. I understand. People see — and have always seen — entirely too many white men leading the show, and doing it from a place of arrogance, or unconscious to the arbitrariness of their position. At the same time, the defensive response is to ask if as a white male I’m disallowed from leading? Am I not supposed to bring my creative ideas forward? Am I only to lead in a way that opens space for others but not for myself?

I see now that an ongoing performance like this requires constant and ongoing calibration. I think all I can do at this point is to keep stretching myself and stretching the DFR concept so that all feel truly welcomed and represented in under the big tent. I’m bummed about May Day. I recognize I overcompensated for external elements and allowed my ideas about what a political rally should do and feel like push the energy too far toward aggression, provocation, and maybe even anger. I don’t know if I would have called it “too male” if it wasn’t pointed out to me, but I know that there was something in it that wasn’t welcoming. Too much output; too little input. On a practical level, as I keep saying, we need a director. I need a director — someone to watch what I’m doing who can offer constructive feedback.

I’m really hard on myself to begin with and was feeling pretty low after the performance Tuesday — something I attributed simply to feeling like, “oh, man, when are we finally going to pull this show together. Something’s not quite there yet.” So when others weigh in with additional critique I admit to being overly sensitive. I’m still getting to know Ebby. I’m still trying to figure out this project. As I said, I suppose the opportunity is to keep working to create a kind of character — and the kind of project, with others taking significant turns at center stage — that welcomes and reflects us all.

Back to work.

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2 Responses to “Hyper Masculinity”

  1. Denise May 28, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Hi Eben,
    I appreciate what you are saying about masculinity here. These are not easy things to sort through and talk about, so kudos! We (very general “we”) need more of this kind of reflection and discussion.

    I agree that the disconnect that day (which prompted confusion and perhaps overcompensation on your part) was with the context, and the way in which it was different from anything we’d done before. Normally we are trying to encourage reflection and charge people up for action, but our performance that day was following a May Day march and rally… we were speaking to a highly politically active group who had already heard (and many of them had given) a number of speeches that day, and had participated in a bank protest action. It seemed to me that they were all talked out, done with argument, too tired for reflection, and ready for music! We should also hold on to the fact that their response was overwhelmingly positive.

    Your blog post made me think that perhaps we should do a debriefing in the week after each performance, so that you can hear feedback from several more of us and we can learn more collectively from our experiences with various approaches we try out, and various audiences we interact with.

  2. Ebenezer Abernathy June 5, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    Thanks, Denise. I agree with you. My first response was, “Yeah and when I tell people we’ll be debriefing, almost everyone decides it’s a night off!” But so what, right? Those who want to debrief can come and debrief. Those who don’t, don’t. So I think June 13th will be a full season one debrief. Thanks.

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