“Till I allow you to speak.”
Let’s talk about violence against actors.
In my research, as well as my own personal experience, I have noticed a disturbing trend in the treatment of actors. When observed, you can see a pattern of symbolic — and even physical — violence emerge. Actors are often treated less like people and more like objects by audience members. This is true of all actors, but especially of both minority and female actors.
My coworker, Brett, is an Asian American actor. We work together in immersive, audience-participatory theatre. In his time with this company, he has been referred to as “Jackie Chan,” “Jet Li,” and “Short Round” on a regular basis. Audience members have, by his account, done racist asian accents, slanted their eyes at him, and asked him if he can do kung fu innumerable times. My other coworker, Margaret, has been subject to countless lewd comments and physical harassment. She has been hit on, made fun of, even groped by audience members. The other night, she had to pretend to die for a show. When she did so, various audience members thought it would be funny to try to perform mouth-to-mouth or to pretend to stomp on her. One audience member even yelled out “Take her top off!” I myself, as a mostly-white, male actor, have still experienced such things. I have been called “oriental”; I have been put in a headlock and kissed on the cheek; I have been groped under the pretense of “frisking for weapons.” All by audience members. And through each of these incidents, in all of our experiences, I notice something striking. The audience members thought it was not only acceptable, but hysterical.
Actors, like many artists, are very closely, personally identified with their work. However, acting is unique in that the actor, both mentally and physically is the product being consumed. Their body, the performance they produce, is the commodity. They are their work, and they themselves are the product that the audience pays to consume. As such, the audience members see themselves as entitled to you, to use you as they wish, as they would with any purchased good. You, the actor, HAVE to laugh at their racist, sexist jokes. You HAVE to let them treat you how THEY want, because THEY paid for you.
This raises a very interesting question: as the product of their own labor, does an audience alienate an actor from themselves? The audience doesn’t see an individual who trained for years, rehearsed for weeks, died a bit every day to give this performance. The audience sees an actor whom they paid to see. You aren’t you. You are divorced from your personal opinions or viewpoints, from your personality. You exist exclusively as entertainment. When you think about it, you realize it’s a familiar sentiment. And it isn’t restricted to unknown, local, theatre actors.
Last night, I was performing a show at a hotel. I went over to a table of seated audience members and, as is procedure with these shows, I tried to get them involved. A certain individual at the table continued to talk over me to his friend. Following procedure, I tried to regain their attention.
The following was his response, paraphrased from my memory:
“Hey, you don’t interrupt me, okay? Listen, I’m serious, I’m not joking, listen. You don’t interrupt me, okay? I know you have a job, I appreciate that, so do I, it’s how we’re paying you. I’ve been doing my job all day, and now I’m talking to my people, so you don’t fucking interrupt me when I’m talking, buddy. You wait till I’m done, till I allow you to speak. So shut up.” He talks for 20 more seconds. I remain silent. Finally: “Okay, I am now allowing you to speak. You may continue.”
How does this dehumanization, this commodification of a human being, affect a person? How does the identity of “actor” factor into how others view you? How do your other identity categories complicate it? I can only hope my further research sheds more light on the subject.