When I came to Browning in 1961, I looked "on paper" like a high school English teacher certified to teach dramatics. That’s not really what I was, but it’s hard to say what I really was and, in any case, Browning began to reshape me as soon as I arrived. The key was in the difference between being trained as a word person, who worked on a paper page -- that was not me -- and an acting person, who valued actual life above all derivatives, all arts.
In those years there was just beginning something called performance art, which is a performance presented to an audience , traditionally interdisciplinary. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer's body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.
In short, performance art is just life -- but life attended to, reflected upon, and not in writing. Even responded to, but in ACTION. I’m rereading and putting on-line the notes I took from a remarkable acting teacher, Alvina Krause, who believed in action and the spoken word above all else. I don’t know whether she ever attended a pow-wow, but she would love NAID, because it IS action and the spoken (well, sung) word. It is relationship among peoples and between the peoples and the land. Dancing, singing, percussion, walking . . . I’l leave it at that. A lot more action goes on outside the focus of the dance arena.
With print, one has to stay pretty much with what is on the page. If one is teaching English the way it was supposed to be in those days the idea was to get all the students to be correct. In the context of a rez school, this meant conformity to the conventions of putting words on the page as the patterns had developed in the Western (meaning Euro) world. Entirely foreign. The whole idea of teaching was to convert, missionary-style, so that people would conform to standards. That was 1961 -- the great challenges to authority, the big “why not” were still underground but gaining strength.
I’m typing the “notes” that AK (Alvina Krause) gave us when we were in plays or as comments to our journals. (Not unlike some kinds of blogging.) And also a long article about the better known actors she had taught. Her writing in the long article is about that same as in the notes: unconventional. Colons everywhere. (You’re not supposed to use colons or semi-colons unless nothing else will work.) Almost no paragraphing. (You’re supposed to start a new paragraph for every new thought and, if you’re a journalist, as often as possible.) Her notes are jammed with underlinings. When I type them, I have to decide whether to use underlining as she did, go to bold or italic, ignore them -- what? How important are they? Should I just edit the text to what is proper? What I’m saying is that this sophisticated and highly trained college professor did not observe the basic rules of good writing that I was supposed to be imposing on my students in 1961.
The text behind this (that post-modern thought would finally pick up) is that if you’re exceptional enough and productive enough, you can break the rules. I’ve been wrestling with that as a principle ever since. And it was soon pretty obvious that it disqualified me as a teacher, at least in the context of that time and place. I didn’t want to be proper anymore.
But what I did pretty well instead of shoving everyone into obedient propriety, was to imagine what it was like to be them. Not the way of an anthropologist who wants all the structure and interaction and rules of the game. But like an actor. What was it really like to be, say, Earl Old Person or Stoles Head Carrier or Wilma Franklin or Eula Sherburne or any of the kids in my classes, many of whom were already functioning as adults. I’d been taught to watch walks, eyes, gestures, and to listen carefully to voices -- not words but the sound pattern. There was no element of judgment, because that would shut the observer off from the truth of what they were observing. The point was seeing the truth. And understanding it in human terms. What was the person yearning for? Where was their pain and what caused it? How did they go on in spite of everything? What made them laugh?
Whether or not I got it right or “well enough” is beside the point here, because the point was the great difference it made in what I did, which totally disabled me in the terms of those times but set me free to do what I’m doing now, which is writing. Words on the page. But not for their own sake -- as a means of capturing the reality. Not for sale. Not that reality stays in place. Or that anyone would want it to, so the words also need to capture possibility -- where things are going. That means that words may need to go outside the rules.
Tim and Cinematheque are far more “performance artists” than I am because they use all media, in particular, video. They dance and sing. I have to stay in the watchers’ seat for that, but a writer needs to take seriously ALL media, ALL things human, ALL dreams and songs and drumbeats.
When I look back at AK’s remarks in the margins of my journal, she repeats over and over again, “How do you WORK?” And “What is your daily WORK?” I didn’t have any idea what she meant. Now I do. It’s not getting my butt in this chair and typing every morning, though that, too. It’s more like the headlight on a locomotive, always sweeping the track ahead, trying to see where I”m going and always searching at the forward edge of the cone of light. What is that out there?
Here are the notes: REALIZATION. SLAP!!!
MOMENTARY PAUSE. (In Blackfeet: KIKA !!)
So part of the work is finding a different track, switching, and part of it is continuing on the same track. What I find is that the more I switch (teaching/law enforcement/ministry/environment) the more the tracks converge. On writing.