On Actresses and Big Emotions

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The cast of "Actress Fury." Photo courtesy of Jennie MaryTai Liu.
The cast of “Actress Fury.” Photo courtesy of Jennie MaryTai Liu.

A crass definition of “fury”:  fierce passion, rage, even madness. One of the first usages of the word “actress“, from the 1500s — a female who does something.

The term Actress Fury is beginning to define itself through the making of the piece with that title, part one of which is being created as part of REDCAT’s NOW festival. This is the stuff my collaborators and I are getting to explore: passion for raging action, untamed histrionics, the gray area where acting mad turns into madness.

The piece takes a stab at unpacking the nature of ambition, and — because we are female — particularly female ambition: a deeply knotted rope of heartfelt aspiration, issues of ego and competition, tireless discipline in the face of ever-surfacing doubt. Three performers conjure one tormented actress inspired by various formidable and vulnerable stars: Joan Crawford, Frances Farmer, Chinese opera star Xin Fengxia, and the legendary dancer-gone-mad Vaslav Nijinsky.

Jennie Liu
Jennie MaryTai Liu

A kind of three-headed monster, this actress takes on dual roles — Ajax, the great, shamed mythic warrior, and a colonial woman escaping a volcanic eruption with her baby. Tragedy erupts like lava through the bodies of this actress as she deals with the problem of expressing emotion in the face of both failure and judgment.

This process makes me ask — what is failure as an actress? Not being able to be present, feel, and be seen? And what is the price the actress pays once she is able to be so vulnerable? Having recently moved to Los Angeles, I am newly intrigued by the phenomenon that some female performers tend to disavow the term “actress” and instead use the masculine term when describing themselves. There’s shame in the feminine — it’s hysterical, impossible to take seriously, all about bodies and faces and sex.

A screenwriter friend of mine recently made the argument that the actress is perhaps the most fiercely loved yet degraded figure in our culture. Men are often glorified for being sensitive. When women are publicly emotional — the kind of emotional that gets real, ugly, unbridled — they are often ridiculed. The actress, whose job it is to be publicly emotional, is rarely protected or respected for her efforts. She goes really deep in order to move her audience, and then she’s embarrassed by her snotty noses, screechy voices, and quivering chins. This piece is somehow a dirge for the egos of such poor actresses. The story of both Ajax’s shame and the volcanic eruption are shovels that help us dig into this gross terrain.

Coming from a post-modern dance and Grotowski-based training, and reared on artists and companies such as the Wooster Group, Big Dance Theater, and Richard Maxwell, I have always been interested in how investigated, physical forms can be containers for feeling, character, and meaning. I like creating characters from the outside-in.  I’m inspired by gesture, rhythm, vocal intonations and accents, how behavior appears on the surface. I believe that you can conjure a new feeling-body by wearing the outer layer, putting on a costume and painstakingly embodying investigated choreography like a magic spell, and that this person-wearing can work repeatedly.

Jennie MaryTai Liu
Jennie MaryTai Liu

In theater school I always rather snobbishly looked down upon performers and directors who talked about actions, motivations, sense-memory — working from the inside-out. “That” kind of acting seemed so un-inventive, entirely in the head, and pretentious. Now I realize that many of these techniques are just that: structures that help a performer get out the way of his or her own ego so that they can (kind of) become someone else. These are just completely invisible forms, mental choreographies, inner gestures. The process of making Actress Fury  is humbling me; I am only scratching the surface of the alchemical properties of acting.

This process is also an opportunity to scream, perform madness, practice crying on cue, and shroud ourselves in weird wigs and masks. We’re exploring supreme self-indulgence and its repercussions. Even to suffer shame is to be so consumed with one’s self that it becomes intolerable. I feel privileged to have a forum to theatricalize this conundrum — that acting is perhaps the most selfish endeavor in the world, and yet through it, self can cease to exist. Also — you don’t do it for yourself, you do it in the hopes that you will move other people.

So many people feel so passionately about acting that they willingly suffer all manner of hardships and gamble years away to do it. I think it’s not just about money and fame. I’d like to access this phenomenon in my piece and create a sustained moment wherein those in the audience can reflect on the unreasonable desires that motivate their own lives’ work.

Actress Fury, New Original Works Festival, REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St. (corner of W. 2nd and Hope streets, inside Walt Disney Concert Hall complex), LA 90012. August 1-3, 8:30 pm.

Full REDCAT NOW schedule: Week 2 (Aug. 1-3): Jennie MaryTai Liu, Tyler Matthew Oyer, Waewdao Sirisook & Ronnarong Khampha. Week 3 (Aug. 8-10): Daniel Corral; Morgan Thorson & Meg Wolfe; Paul Fraser, Genevieve Gearhart & Deena Selenow. Thu-Sat, 8:30 pm. Through Aug. 10. Tickets: $18; Festival Pass, $36. www.redcat.org. 213-237-2800.

Jennie MaryTai Liu has been working in experimental dance and theater as a director, choreographer and performer since 2004. Her original work has been presented by Dance Theater Workshop, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, HERE Arts Center, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Bushwick Starr, as well as internationally in Vienna, France, and in her native Hong Kong. She was a resident artist at the Bogliasco Foundation, Yaddo Arts Colony, HERE Arts Center, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and received grants from the Multi-Arts Project Fund and the Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Program. As a performer, she has worked with Big Dance Theater, Peter Flaherty, Faye Driscoll Dance Group, Nellie Tinder, Witness Relocation Company, and Cathy Weis Projects. Her first short dance-film Scout Hut screened at Chez Bushwick Presents at the Center for Performance Research in May 2012. With Karinne Keithley Syers she is currently in post-production on a documentary on The Wooden Floor, a non-profit after school program in Santa Ana, which annually gives 375 underserved California youth tools to live fuller, healthier lives through dance. She trained in theater as an undergraduate at the Experimental Theater Wing at NYU, and received her MFA in Dance from Hollins University.

Jennie MaryTai Liu

Jennie MaryTai Liu