Confessions of a Drama Queen

On theater, emotion, and transference.

Posted Apr 28, 2010

As a young adult, I acted in a theater company that performed above the "City Diner" on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. We played to small houses mostly, papered with people from Audience Extras, often to senior citizens who spoke out at the actors as if watching TV. Yet the stage was crucial because it gave me a place to put my emotions.

How do we take feelings from one place in our lives and use it in another?  "Transference" is the psychoanalytic term for the relocation of affect. Transference is universal, claims Nancy Chodorow, and is activated "whenever feelings, fantasies, and emotional meaning are given to people and situations." It is our invention of others on the basis of our past relationships. Such is the stuff of great theater. Creativity is barren in a space devoid of affect.

Among my roles was Hedda Gabler, killed by self-inflicted gunshot wound; Miss Julie, who slits her throat at the urging of her "lackey" lover; and alas, the virginal and water-logged Ophelia (death by drowning).

Dying is one of the great luxuries of theater, but classic female characters do it all too often. (One of the main ingredients of feminist drama, I learned during my foray into Women's Studies, is the female character surviving the last Act of the play!)

Then I discovered downtown performance art, which was freer, bawdy, in-your-face. Most intriguingly, it fused life and art. You write your own script.

Emotion plays a big role in this form of theater. "Life stories of performance art," claims Ann Cvetkovich, "are often structured around, if not traumatic experience, moments of intense affect that are transformative or revealing."

Think Karen Finley, who began by performing in strip clubs after the watershed event of her father's suicide: "He went into the garage, laid a piece of cardboard from a vacuum cleaner box on the floor, and put the gun to his temple."

Finley's monologues are unusually aggressive, blatantly sexual, full of rage and humor. They address issues of gender, abuse, and American politics.

In her most legendary work, she used food in a ritualistic way -- smearing it over her nude skin. Finley took something emotionally very messy and externalized it. The body became a bulimic landscape of chocolate syrup, raw eggs, sprinkles, feathers. Who knew the surface of the flesh could be such an expressive canvas?

Performance art is made from autobiography, improvisation, chance. Its personal narratives often reflect larger cultural contradictions. 

The human body is the primary aesthetic instrument.

This work can take place on any makeshift stage: in your living room, a cafe, a church, in the street or a nightclub, across a bar countertop.


The costume department is the back of your closet or a friend's. Props are objets trouvés: a broken chair becomes a castle -- or whatever meaning you choose to transfer.

Transference occurs all the time in our everyday lives accidentally: we don't like someone because they remind us of a punitive aunt or we married our father.  It is how we reanimate our strongest emotions and the embodied experience of a corresponding past object relation, in all its pleasure and pain.

Artists turn this process into a tool. (Political leaders do, too, by the way, in order to reconfirm collective identity or inflame group conflict.  But that's the subject of a future post.)

For Obie award-winner Holly Hughes, solo performance is a strategy of emotional survival. Her first show, written in the wake of her mother's death, "was about navigating grief... it was a lot about this huge relationship, this really important relationship that was never going to be resolved."

The stage became an imaginative platform for working through difficult feelings of lesbian love and homosexual prejudice. Performance was a healing illusion, a haven that eased the pain of a splintered self and helped Hughes regain a sense of self-cohesion.

"Having an audience is a form of protection," Hughes says. "It's like having the light of a hundred tiny private suns helping me find my way from one side of the story to the next."

Finally, pioneer Anna Deavere Smith and her unique brand of journalistic theater taught me how the stage can be used as a reservoir of group emotion.

Smith, a light-skinned African American woman, grew up in Baltimore during segregation, terrified of white kids and haunted by images of blacks being burned and hung in trees. Her world as a child was almost entirely a world of black people, and it wasn't until she was a teenager that she had a white teacher or shared a classroom with Caucasian students.

Before "The West Wing" and "Nurse Jackie," Smith's performances were about "identity in motion."  Her early work emphasized shifting interpersonal boundaries and the mutability of group affiliations. As she put it:

"I am continually leaving safe houses of identity. When you leave the house of what is familiar to you - your family, your race, your social class, your nation... it is not likely that you will find another house that will welcome you with open arms... I would call these places that are without houses crossroads of ambiguity. One the one hand, they are not comfortable places. On the other hand, in them one acquires the freedom to move."

Smith showed me agency, with regard to race and personhood. She presented the self as dynamic, rather than brittle. Her acting was more than the restaging of traumatic injury, but also a way to disengage from a personal history to which one is in thrall. 

Did you ever think of creating your own solo show?  What better way to play in adulthood -- to explore new object relations and social realities?

Everybody's got personal baggage. Why not use yours to travel!

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Main References:

Karen Finley, Shock Treatment (San Francisco: City Lights, 1990).

Holly Hughes, Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler (NY: Grove, 1996).

Anna Deavere Smith, Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics (NY: Random house, 2000).