Walking the Edge: Grief and the Performing Persona

Creativity gives us insight into the subconscious, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us how to deal with what we find.

Public Domain Image via Pixabay
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

If you’ve experienced raw tears while in front of a crowd, you know how terrifying the lump in your throat can be. Speaking at funerals, empathizing with others whose struggle moves us, or receiving bad news in a public place can bring out vulnerabilities that overwhelm our sense of control. We might think that performers have an easier time with grief and pain, since they frequently imagine and portray people in difficult situations. Such experimentation surely helps them understand themselves. Why, then, do some of our most recognized creative people die young, victims of suicides and addictions? The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a brilliant actor who often played troubled characters, is a prime example.

Walking the edge of the subconscious produces some incredibly exciting art. It is also an exhausting process that requires time to deal with the emotional issues it unearths. Performing artists entertain us by cloaking themselves in illusions distilled from a combination of their own attributes and the character they are portraying. These illusions provide us catharsis while putting the performer’s own reality on hold. Such experiences often contain rewards: escape, money, fame and career, as well as, for those who are lucky, new knowledge of themselves, empathy for others, and expansion of their knowledge and compassion. These experiences also contain risks. As a performer, I can tell you that a character can connect with the performer in unexpected ways. There is always the danger of unearthing someone we don’t like within ourselves or getting in touch with a hidden part of us that is in deep pain. The arts may give us a mirror to see into ourselves, but they can’t make us love what we see there. That requires something more.

image © Wolf Gang with CCLicense
image © Wolf Gang with CCLicense

To complicate things further, modern fame has become a serious business. The more celebrated the performer becomes, the more they are required to behave in accordance with the personality constructed for them. It is one thing to postpone your feelings and emotions while you are doing your job. It is quite another thing to have your life turned into an endless performance, with every moment scrutinized for mistakes. As audience members and fans, we are often willing to watch our celebrities endure a certain amount of tears and pain if we can mold from them a hero or heroine, but we can be quite vicious when our beloved idols miss the mark. Ask any former child star how difficult living up to public expectations can be. In the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman, his persona was of an ordinary looking man who had overcome addiction early on through his immense talent and work ethic, a man who had been able, in some sense, to turn his pain into profit. Is it Philip Seymour Hoffman that we mourn, or is it the loss of that image? 

Performers aren’t the only people with personas. We all have them, although most aren’t molded by publicists. When we lose our sense of control this mask slips, creating an opportunity for growth as well as an opportunity for injury. This isn’t performing; it’s connecting. Human beings need these moments of connection, lest we become robots, and a performer may actually have less opportunity to find them, even though they act, dance or sing at the edge of them all the time. When someone breaks character to cry, this is a big moment. It’s not something to be trotted out like a circus act, but it is very special. If we require our artists to walk the edge of the subconscious, with its unpredictable eddies, we have to be sensitive to them when they are pulled into deep water.

Weeki Wachee Spring, 1947 by Toni Frissell Public Domain Image via wikipedia
Weeki Wachee Spring, 1947
by Toni Frissell
Public Domain Image via wikipedia

In closing, I would like to leave you with a scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, in which the talented Rebekah Del Rio performs a stirring unaccompanied rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying in Spanish. In my opinion, there is nothing that illustrates vulnerable humanity better than an unaccompanied human voice. The wild emotion just under the voice is palpable. Lynch, who was awed by the recorded performance so much that he made a place for it in the movie, does a poetic job of picturing the fragility of the performer. In the end, it is the illusion, the art, that remains.

Video via vibegallov on YouTube.

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