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Performing the Self

A visit with M. Heather Carver , Associate Professor, Theatre Department

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: play reader audience writing performative writing

M. Heather Carver is framed by her clown shadow—a black mannequin head wearing a pink camouflage hat and red clown’s nose—as she joyfully begins to describe her place at MU. “I come from a background of performing,” the Associate Professor of Theatre offers. “As a means of studying something, we perform it.” As a way of studying autobiography, for example, Carver performs autobiography.

Carver draws upon her vast experience as a performer, writer, and scholar to teach creative writing courses and to co-direct the Writing for Performance Program, which allows students to adapt different kinds of writing—poetry, short story, autobiography, and ethnography—for performance on stage or screen. Carver also serves as creator and artistic director of the Life and Literature Performance Series, which showcases original and adapted work by MU students. This interplay between performance and research eventually led Carver to co-edit the book Voices Made Flesh: Performing Women’s Autobiography (2003) and direct a play by the same title, both of which present scripts of women’s personal narrative and biography. As such, Carver's teaching, research, and creative activity feed off of each other, all of them drawing upon the field of performance studies and performative writing. “So I do it, I research it, and I teach it,” she explains. “It’s wonderful that it all sort of comes together.”

Not surprisingly, even Carver’s writing is influenced by her performance background. “Two Truths and a Lie” is an example of auto-ethnography composed in a style called performative writing, through which Carver exposes the schizophrenia felt when simultaneously “performing” professorhood and motherhood. “I wrote it with parts as if it were a play about my experiences as a mom and a professor,” as she puts it. This kind of “auto-performance” seeks to “bring the self to task in writing and in performance…. You’re writing about yourself. You’re not going to be taking other people’s perspectives and points of view. It’s really about the self.”

In another example of this kind of writing, "Methodology of the Heart: A Performative Writing Response,” Carver resists offering a concise definition: “My students ask me about performative writing all the time, specifically for a definition of it. ‘What is it?’ is a much less important question, however, than ‘how is it?’ Because they don’t really just want to be able to define it, they want to engage in this type of writing that seems so free, so full of promise and lightness. Writing can be so heavy—not the thoughts, but the practice. The act of sitting at one’s desk and putting pen to paper or fingers to keys is so much more daunting than it sounds. For to do so, one must have something to say. I have plenty to say. But I haven’t always known how to simultaneously express my academic and my daily self in my writing. This is why I studied and built a home/career in Performance Studies—because performance and writing are where I live.”

The best way to understand performative writing is to experience it. In the following excerpt from “Methodology of the Heart,” Carver draws attention to writing as performance, at one point making a list, changing her mind, and then crossing items off of it:

“I want to expose the game, to resist the obsessive nature of academic scoring, and yet I am pulled into playing it. I decide I must confront my own batting average in my own academic and daily life. I begin to write…

Two co-edited books
Three invited book chapters
Two peer-reviewed articles
One published conference proceeding
One co-authored book under consideration
One award-winning adaptation
Artistic Director and co-founder of a performance troupe with over 50 performances
Producer of three student authored shows
Director of two mainstage shows
Director of five performance series
Birth of two daughters, (raising them without daycare, a constant juggle with my life partner—an academic with a different time clock—he rises at 2:30 or 3:00am shortly after I’ve retired.)
Death of one father and academic mentor
Two Ph.D. dissertations advised and passed, five more on the not-too- distant horizon
Recipient of two major campus awards…

Uh oh.
This is a list.

If I erase the list it appears as if I didn’t write it. One simple tap on the delete key and I’m home free—score one for the resistance. But that would be dishonest, not only to you my readers, but to myself. I will cross it out. It was there in the essay, but no longer is it a laudatory list, but a toxic prescription for unnecessary academic stress. The list is still present, but absent of its same power. Did you read the crossed-out words in the list? What are we doing here?” (quoted from http://liminalities.net/3-1/heart.htm).

When asked about this strategy, Carver responds: “In ways that we’ve traditionally written articles, the list would just suddenly be gone if I were writing something and decided I didn’t want it to be there. But I’m playing around with the idea of letting the audience know it was there and I don’t want it there.” If performing for a face-to-face audience, Carver might accomplish this erasure with an aside, such as “Scratch that and go back.” In this way Carver seeks to acknowledge the presence of the reader and highlight the ways in which one can “erase and yet not erase through the layering of performance.” Using the page as her stage, Carver tries to “expose the nature of the self in this writing. That’s really what it’s about…trying to make our experiences more raw, more real for the reader.”

While it takes a lot of courage to make oneself vulnerable in this kind of writing, Carver adds that “it also takes a sense of play…such an important part of performance. There’s an honesty that comes from play.” Although readers of her work may not fully grasp the performance theory behind Carver’s attempts to “play with playwriting and performance of the self on the page,” she has sought to make her writing accessible, explaining that “I wanted people to be able to read it at many different levels.”

Beyond her work in performative writing, another dimension of Carver’s work draws energy from her interest in women’s health. Since graduate school she has been performing personal narratives about such topics as HIV/AIDS and date rape. Not surprisingly, when she came to MU she found kindred spirit Elaine Lawless, Professor of English, who recently published her ethnographic research about women surviving domestic violence (Women Escaping Violence, 2001). “I read her book and felt these were stories that needed to be told to audiences.” A collaborative project was soon born, as the two began adapting those stories for performance and in 2003 formed the Troubling Violence Performance Project, which performs these personal narratives about domestic/relationship violence in order “to create a venue for people to communicate about intimate partner violence.” Each performance of the stories closes with an open dialogue between performers and the audience members. Although the troupe originally performed stories from Lawless’ book, the stories soon came from the audience itself: “People starting coming up to us after the performances, asking if they could give us their stories.” In this way, the troupe has collected a great deal of testimonies, so that they now perform more stories given to them by actual audience members—a dynamic that nicely blurs the distinction between audience and performance.

Speaking humbly of the importance of this theatre troupe, Carver says, “We don’t think we’re going to perform and all violence is going to end. We just know that if people don’t talk about it, it’s going to be swept under the carpet.” With statistics citing epidemic rates of domestic violence—impacting one out of every four women—“we need to really speak out,” she concludes. And they are speaking out in more ways than one. Once having performed an average of four or five times per month during the first years, the troupe’s schedule has “slowed down a bit last year because I was battling breast cancer,” Carver laughs irreverently, “but it’s going to be back the next year in stronger force!”

Speaking of breast cancer—a topic avoided by many people—in the fall of 2006 Carver premiered her autobiographical play, Booby Prize: A Comedy about Breast Cancer. “It’s a one-woman show featuring me,” she chuckles, and how she was “lucky” to be the one of every seven women to get the disease. “Breast cancer is something that people don’t know how to talk about, and it is so frightening. ‘You—have—cancer.’ There’s no way to explain those three words and the impact they have.” Knowing she would eventually perform about her experiences with breast cancer, assuming she survived it, she wrote about it daily in her journal. But not knowing “where it was going to go,” Carver allowed the project to evolve organically.

How she received the inspiration for Booby Prize is a well-told tale. During chemotherapy, when her hair began to fall out, she asked a friend to shave her head. For no particular reason, the first row to disappear was at the top of Carver’s head. With her curly hair poofing out on the sides, Carver saw that resembled a clown more than Joan of Arc (as she had dramatically imagined given her background in the theatre): “She shaved it down the middle, and I looked in the mirror, and I couldn’t help starting to laugh because I looked like Bozo! And it was at that moment that I realized that I didn’t have to be anyone else going through breast cancer; I could be myself.”

Through Booby Prize, which is still evolving, Carver is able to combine her interest in social activism, women’s health, and autobiography: “I decided that I could have breast cancer, still have a sense of humor, and still do my work. And so that’s when Booby Prize became born. [It embodied] the idea that—unfortunately—I won the prize. I won the Booby Prize, which you don’t want to win; you don’t want to be the 1 out of 7 who wins, but I won, and so that’s how I start off the performance.” Much of the play features Carver performing actual stories that happened to her, infusing humor into the reality of decidedly unfunny situations. “When people enter the theatre, I greet them, I clown around with them, and they help me generate excitement around opening this box to see what I won. And I win the Booby Prize. And then I take off my wig, and my clown outfit, and begin to tell my stories.” Involving the audience at every step of the performance, she narrates the ups and downs of her situation—for example, the irony of being invited to breakfast at the White House shortly after chemotherapy when she was “bald as bald” and deciding “to make the most out of it,” the loss of her father, who used to take care of Carver when she was sick as a child, and the devastating rejection she felt when a host did not want to seat her at a restaurant, a moment when Carver recognized her earlier privilege as contrasted with the discrimination felt when she realized that her “bald female self was threatening an establishment and a person.” In this way, the stories seek to address a wide variety of issues about cancer and life.

At the conclusion of Booby Prize, Carver warns the audience against expecting closure and a happy ending. Despite the clean bill of health at her last medical checkup, the possibility of cancer returning lingers on, and so Carver reminds the audience, “I don’t have a pretty ending… my ending is still up in the air.” Among audience members, Carver notes not only laughter and tears, as might be expected, but “people doing both at the same time, and not quite knowing what to do about it.” The thread that runs through Booby Prize—like most of Carver’s other projects—is storytelling. Some of the stories are painful, and some are funny. Either way, Carver always tries “to keep it raw.”