Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dinner Party as Embodied Performance

"Social Potluck is a philosophy more than anything else. It is the belief that the heart of culture, art and society is located at the dinner table."

Food activists, community activists and children's advocates spout the virtues of the family meal saying that it promotes healthier eating, children's vocabulary, brain development, healthier lifestyle choices, and family harmony which in turn means that it is good for the community as a whole (You are who you eat with - Yes Magazine). Everyone benefits when families eat together. What a great way to improve the world we live in. The importance of breaking bread together does not stop with the family as the same effect can be created by eating with friends, colleagues and strangers. We are all children of the world (I know that sounds flaky but bear with me) in that we are always learning and susceptible to new influences. Beware those who claim to have nothing to learn. There is no better place to learn than at the dinner table. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the table is a performance venue which places everyone on equal footing (more on this later) and the second is that the ritualistic act of eating quite literally lets people internalize knowledge. Knowledge, stories and food are digested into a piece of embodied memory. It is through sharing experiences and stories both as performer and spectator that the dinner table becomes a site for an embodied community performance.

This is all well and good but how is it performance? Certainly the idea of having guests over to your house for a dinner party feels like putting on a show as the good dishes come out, the house gets cleaned and some flowers get stuck in a vase. Often times it can feel like a one person play. I know Martha Stewart tells you how to prepare weeks in advance making a dinner party feel like the staging of Phantom of the Opera. How you plan your party is certainly part of the performance and if you plan it just like Martha told you then that says something about who you are and what you value. That is not a judgement, just a statement of fact. I will talk about location later. My interest has to with what happens when the guests arrive because that is when the performance truly starts. Everything before that is set dressing and props, though important as it can certainly affect the performance, it isn't performance until there are bodies in the room. Suddenly the decorations don't matter as much as when there are live people interacting with live people because there is no script, just a common sense of courtesy to act as guidelines for topics and behaviour.

I say this because we perform ourselves every day. What we say and how we say it gives off clues to who we are, what we value and who we strive to be. This communication is a whole body experience as we communicate not just with words but our entire body through gesture, body language and movement. It is through combining the mind and the body that we provide a more accurate and complex performance. Humans do not just respond to language despite the fact that our society is for the most part text focussed. We also respond to the body. We can sense intuitively or intellectually what an individual is communicating with their body. It is through these sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory means of communication that we live as both spectator and performer. As any student in an acting class learns, we operate with objectives and subtext that may not be apparent in our text. The director's exercise of watching a rehearsal first with the ears plugged and then listening with the eyes closed in order to tell if the play is understandable to only once sense at a time can also be done in real life, the only difference is that the plots in real life tend to be a little less dramatic though infinitely more meaningful. We are all performers and play our parts in a long improvised show. A dinner party with strangers is an opportunity to perform in and be entertained by an improvised community play.

In this project I am requesting a story be presented as payment for the dinner. The story will be presented to the group and recorded so I can refer to it later for accuracy purposes. I tell people to present a story that they tell often, the kind of story your family or spouse is sick of hearing because you always tell it. If they can't think of one they should just ask their family, they will know. I want this story for a couple reasons. The first is that they have told it numerous times before so it has been what we in the performance world call rehearsed. There is a good chance the teller knows what kind of reaction they will get from it because, just like a performer, they know your material. Most likely they know what will get a laugh or cause a tear; they know how to work your material. See, I told you we are all performers. The second reason I want this story is that because they tell it often I am inclined to believe they like their story and what it says about them otherwise they wouldn't tell it. These don't have to be flattering stories, often we like to tell stories which feature our own foibles because it can put others at ease, or because we want to demonstrate your own humanness. It is a story which, without consciously realizing it, says, "This is who I am." Because the Social Potluck is a dinner with strangers this is a perfect way to cut through the small talk and get right down to an embodied performance of self.

I was at a party recently and I realized how long we spend trying to pry information out of people and how it devolves to asking about work or family. Facts do not make a person. I just wanted to ask them to tell me a story because I don't really care about their work (and I could tell some didn't care about their work either) so we could cut through the formalities and hang out because once we have done that we can truly connect.

In Social Potluck after we share our "payment" story we can eat and talk. My hope is that some stories will spark discussion or other stories, as that is often how it works. I have conducted a number of story exchanges and often people attend "just to listen" because they think they aren't a good story teller or that they don't have stories; two of the most common things I hear. Usually half way through these "listeners" have been reminded of a story that they want to share. Asked point blank almost nobody can think of a story but given time or an opportunity to hear someone else's story suddenly ideas start appearing. That is what I hope happens as we eat. Secondly, these stories are not being recorded, sure I will listen and remember what I can but most likely I will forget most of the details, so people can be freer with their stories. Also, because everyone is in the same boat and has taken the same risk there is a release from expectations which allows people to be more honest and relaxed, in effect, they can be themselves. I am interested to see if the stories told during the second half of the evening are different than the stories from the first half. Will people perform themselves differently? Will the show change?

The other aspect of note during this second half of the project is the ritualistic act of eating. By sharing the physical act of eating with strangers along with the mental act of presenting a story allows for the transferral into this second stage of embodied experience where we consume food, ideas and knowledge. Eating is a ritual, regardless of if you eat items on your plate separately or mixed up. We have been eating for our entire lives. It is a reflex and a pleasure. We must eat and accept that others must as well so to share an eating experience with strangers is to create a communal event; as equals eating the same food, at the same time while sitting in a circle is an embodied statement of community without anyone speaking a word. There is comfort in ritual and by tapping into humanity's oldest ritual Social Potluck believes the comfort of this act allows defences to come down to allow freedom of performance and acceptance of new ideas so that we, as children of this world, can continue to be ever learning members of the world.

How we conduct ourselves with our families, colleagues or strangers is an embodied performance of who you are and what we believe in. As public figures we present how we want people to regard us while as private citizens we behave, usually, a little closer to how we actually think and feel. Sometimes these performances contradict each other and sometimes, usually, they don't because our bodies can betray our motivations and objectives. Horrible liars know what I am talking about. You may say you are innocent but your body flushes and vibrates with the truth and there is nothing you can do. By telling public stories before taking part in the very human ritual of eating together Social Potluck aims to explore the differences in how we perform ourselves at the dinner table.


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