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In my opinion our individual identity is a combination of who we believe we are and how we are perceived by others, with each informing the other. An identity gradually builds over time. Expectations form. Habits accumulate like tartar.
Who am I?
I am a white woman. Tall, slim and often described as “attractive”. While these labels are associated with “compliments” they can become restrictive. And before you jump in with “Bitch please, being a pretty white girl, how f**king restrictive could that be?!”, which is a fair response, please let me elaborate.
There is an immense pressure to be “attractive”, whatever “attractive” actually means, you know, subjectivity. As an actress, this pressure is so normal, it could reasonably be accepted as part of my job. I have been weighed in auditions. I read brief after brief calling for an “attractive woman” and scripts describing “the wife” as “pretty, girl next door type”. Naturally, the identity of an “attractive woman” is believed to be a valuable one. It gets jobs. And men, I’m aware you have similar pressures too, but the value of a woman falls to her appearance so readily and naturally that it is an issue that needs to be addressed until more change is evident.
I’ve experimented a lot with the correlation between the way I am treated and my appearance. On the days when my hair is grubby, my face is naked and I wear clothes that are two sizes too big, I am a breath away from invisible. There are days when I like it this way because when I wear heels, get my pins out and don lashings of mascara the attention can be overwhelming. Greetings from a stranger- “Hey baby girl” (I am clearly not a baby). VERY attentive wait staff. Being purposefully and inappropriately touched on public transport. Well intended friends drowning me in praise. Is this who I am? Is this my identity? My appearance?
When I was studying, working my arse off to be the best actor and singer I could be, the feedback I would most commonly hear was “You are so beautiful”. Ok. Thanks. But did I sing in tune? Did I move you? Was my characterisation clear? Did I communicate anything of value to the audience? Were your ideas challenged? Did I make you want to be a better member of the community?
Did I make you think about feminism, racism, refugees, homelessness, sexuality, violence, the environment, mental illness, kindness, compassion or love? Did my performance make you consider anything human at all? Because, my belief is that connecting people to their humanity is the purpose of all performance and art.
Due to this trend of how I was treated in the arts, I became very angry. I hated being a doll on stage. My anger was so big that I was fearful of responding at all- if I let even a little bit out it would be powerful enough to move tectonic plates.
So, I did what happens too frequently- I suppressed it and adopted the identity bestowed upon me.
I used the commodity of my appearance to be the actor I was expected to be. I embodied it, I played Juliet and the dippy, narcissistic sister, the love interest, the weeping broken fiancé, the girl next door and so on.
BUT I AM MORE THAN THAT!!!
I am different to that. I feel different inside.
The roles I long to play are ugly, they’re mean, unpalatable, rude, horrifying, complex, frightening and untidy.
I can play these people on the improv stage- I don’t have to be “beautiful”. I am liberated. I am no longer an object to be adored and admired. I can be intelligent, have ideas and agency, express my passion for equality. My identity can be redefined in every moment.
These “unattractive” characters are so important, they illuminate, teach and challenge. If we only saw pretty, nice people on stage how could we possibly evolve?
The improv stage is an amazing place to explore identity. Make the audience see you differently- surprise them. Share your complexities. Have courage and become someone other than who you think you are. Connect us to humanity. The world we live in is so difficult to digest and understand, if we continue to be who the audience thinks we are, we will certainly stagnate as individuals and a community. Let the audience laugh at the horrors of the world and at the characters who believe the unfathomable. This is how we activate change through our art. And this is the audacity that audiences love to see- it makes good art.
As improvisors we have the freedom to challenge the identity we have created. The identity that we cling to. The identity we come to believe as “Me” and that we allow others to perceive. You are probably more interesting and greater than who you think you are and almost certainly different to who other people think you are. So, my beloved friends, be brave. Rally against the identity the audience bestows upon you in those first precious moments of a scene. Use the magic that exists between the “offer”, the “yes” and the “and” to expand the edges of your identity. Be surprising in what you reveal and who you can become, try on someone else’s shoes, take a walk in them and inspire the audience to be kinder, more loving, and more empathetic people.
Lelda Kapsis is an Improv Conspiracy student, currently finishing Level 5 in our core workshops program.
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