Monday, June 5

critical review

well.... been a loooong time!

and I was not planning on posting this until after I got my mark for the project.
but seeing as the lecturers are all on strike and i am waiting 'indefinitly' for the results, i just decided to put it up now.

so here is the transcript of my critical review. the work was actually handed in on cd in audio form, and on the cd cover was a photo, and on the back the 'track list' and on the leaflet inside it said:

>My project, exploring the performance of song, began with a huge list of questions. The research process was diverse and disjointed; repetitions and reflections identified themselves, but the topic seemed expansive and infinite. The work in progress show pulled together various threads and brought some coherency to the spiralling thoughts, but it was in the lead up to the final show that the focus was sharpened and the project found its balance. Now, after the final performance zoomed right in the heart of the matter, the critical review must zoom out again and overview the process.

In its very nature, a critical review applies retrospect and perspective, distorting, rewriting and selecting from the many directions the project could have taken in its various junctions, influenced by the final product and the conclusions drawn. This is interesting and important, but must be seen as what it is. For a very different and perhaps purer type of documentation, with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, please go to:
As with all forms of diary or logbook, the thought process here can be seen developing. It is written largely with no hindsight, in real time, as the revelations and decisions were being made.

This critical review takes the form of an audio interview. This allows for thematically structured discourse to take place in a relatively informal way. Many of the questions come direct or are adapted from the questions on the initial proposal. This avoids falling into the trap of asking easy questions and illustrates most clearly the journey the project has taken from its starting point to its conclusion with the final show. I have chosen to take the part of both the interviewer and the interviewee - they are both, in fact, Lail Arad - emphasising the self-reflective element of a critical review.

The interview format also continues the concept of the project in itself: A format that is supposed to get the listener or audience better acquainted with the 'real' person behind the act, it is of course a known way for an interviewee to shape their public's image. Traditionally improvised but so often scripted, the contrived answers of interviews further the notion that there is little difference between reality and performance. Ironically, I play both roles myself, for no doubt, I know the questions in advance...

The auto-interview is presented in audio form, concluding a project where the starting point was singing, with a format consisting of pure voice. The differences in how i use my voice in each persona of myself can be heard. The packaging of the interview is designed like a CD, with 10 track-listings on the back cover, like the songs on a debut album.

Below can be found a list of influences - books, essays, websites, videos and recordings. Selected from the materials which made their way into the project, these are the items which I found most useful and inspiring throughout the research and devising process.<

And this is what was recorded....

>Lail Arad Interviews Lail Arad

1) Intro

Interviewer: Hello listeners, I'm Lail Arad and I will be interviewing a final year student from the Warwick University Theatre and Performance Studies Department, who has over the last six months undergone a research project culminating in a devised solo performance which took place in the drama studio on the 15th of February. Dealing with the broad yet specialised topic The Performance of Song, the student aimed to reconcile her theatrical and cultural theory knowledge with her passion and experience of singing and songwriting, and answer some fundamental questions on the nature of performance. Having followed the student's work from its initial proposal in summer 2005 up to its final show, I have seen the distinct changes and stages which the project has undergone, with the central punctuation of the Work in Progress sharing last December, which, inherently suited to its title, consisted of a collage-like presentation of ideas, mapping out the as yet inconclusive thought processes and research findings up to that point. The Final show, in contrast, was absolutely a performance, a performance about performance, if you will. It encompassed through its concept and detail a number of relevant dichotomies, between off-stage and on-stage, theatre and concert, singing and acting and most profoundly perhaps, reality and performance.

I am very pleased to welcome Lail Arad who has agreed to talk to us at greater depth about her project.

Thank you Lail for coming,

Me: Thank you, Lail, for such a .. a... kind introduction, I feel I have a lot to live up to, oh dear.. ha..

2) Cover Version

Interviewer: Lail, as a way in, lets talk a little about cover versions, as I know this is something that has been a through-line in your project. Do you believe that interpretation or performance style is enough to make somebody else's song one's own?

Lail: Yes you're right, that was in fact the first assignment suggested to me as a starting point for my thoughts on the performance of song - looking at cover versions in order to isolate the role of performance and voice in songs, as opposed to the songwriting and content. I remember in particular the striking difference between Carol King's original 'Natural Woman' and Aretha Franklin's cover of the song. That for me is one of the rare instances when I prefer the cover version of a song even though I already love the original. The original, even in its recorded format, is an intimate, raw performance with voice and piano, which sounds as though its being sung in a small room to the man it is addressed to. It turns into thus grand, sexy, dramatic declaration out into the public, making sure through its full band and production that the whole world will know that he makes her feel like a natural woman - the transformation is phenomenal. One is not better than the other of course, that's a matter of taste, but its through the voice, its power, its texture, the way its used - and through the performance - the emotion, the energy, the intention - that the song is born again, not through the lyrics, or the music - those remain constant. There are other elements of course - the recording quality, the instrumentation- I'm not dismissing them. But I was interested in how a singer can deliver a song that is not even their own in a completely new way, with new meanings - as a new experience. As for whether interpretation can 'make a song one's own'.. well to answer that would be to discuss ownership and intellectual property and all sorts of complicated issues - for me it is more about what the audience or listener can take from what the singer is giving.
So I chose to finish my final show with a cover version for exactly these reasons - to display my personal performance style in an identifiable way, not compromised by my songwriting or musical tastes. That was important to me: to place, in the context of the show and set against all its tensions, my foot-stamping, piano-bashing, voice-bending style - the way I would play with a song in a normal gig, as opposed to a theatre studies practical option final show performance.

3) In Context

Interviewer: That last comment suggests that you have considered the implications of context or setting on a performance. Could you tell us how this played out in your project?

Lail: Context and setting are central to any performance. Concentrating on the performance of song, for example, the different requirements for a small intimate venue such as a bar or and for a huge stadium concert with thousands of people, are not just technical - those different settings demand completely different things from the singer as a performer, if they are to successfully engage with the audience. I have chosen two extreme ends of the spectrum to make the case clear but this goes for every single venue with its particular features, and the same goes for theatre stages, dance studios, classical concert halls - any type of performer should be aware of this.
Hand in hand with the physical space, comes the context of the performance, and most importantly, the audience it brings.
In my project, I had the context of it being one of my degree modules. From my very first blog entry (where I kept a record of my progress), my ambivalent attitude towards the set-up can be noticed. It reads: "I find it strange that this is part of a university project. I feel like I am about to embark on the most intimate diary...And on this I will be assessed? It seems too fun, too easy, and far too difficult. It will combine my degree, my studies, my education with my passion, my work, my music. These have up 'til now existed in separate worlds for me and I'm eager (though admittedly very tentative) to introduce them to one another...I'm confused - not only about what I want to do but also what I am allowed to do in this bizarre new framework for my song-writing, suddenly monitored by official eyes."
And indeed, for my final show, the audience consisted firstly of friends who knew me well, secondly of peers from my course who knew the requirements well, and lastly the tutors, who were assessing my work. They had not come out of specific interest in the material and this was very strange for me. In order to deal with it, I decided not to shy away from the context, but to address it within the performances, drawing attention to its very peculiarities. My script included lines such as: "Its an audience full of people who know me. And in a strange framework where i'm being judging from a supposedly official view, not just one of taste. I'm just so scared they won't get it..." and later: "The reception was quite good.. weird because the selection of people weren't there for the music exactly, so i don't know if they 'liked' it, but they were very well behaved.. the focus was much higher than in a normal gig so that was fun to play with..." This public self-reflexivity and calling of attention to the specificities of the situation made the audience super-conscious of me as a performer before them, and them as an audience watching me. There was something Brechtian about this, which detached the audience from the action by making them aware that it was a show, and more than that, aware that I know its a show. Yet it was still, undeniably a show in many ways - so a complex discourse developed. By addressing the specific performance context, questions were raised on performance in general, which I could apply to my exploration of the performance of song.

4) Site-specific Song

Interviewer: Am I right in saying that this mode of performance, site-specific almost, to the Warwick theatre studies studio and all its connotations, started developing in your work in progress show?

Lail: Well the work in progress show was more of a presentation. But yes, the song which concluded it, and which I later developed for the final show, was overtly self-referential and addressed not so much the context or setting, but the subject of the exploration: the difficulties of being honest in performance, of exposing yourself through song-writing and singing, or disguising your identity through performative elements which help create a character or persona. The first part of the song was sung a cappella, as bare and pared down of typical performance elements as possible, standing in the centre of the studio, looking directly at the audience. It began: "Trying to be honest with you, to take away the show, its not easy, excuse me, if I take it slow" can see how directly it discussed the situation at hand. Concluding the section by explaining that I feel too 'naked' and vulnerable, I explained "I present to you instead, my beautiful twin". Walking over to the piano, red theatre lights came on, I began to sing through a microphone, I put effects on my voice, I could hide physically and musically behind the piano accompaniment, I put on a layer of attitude, and sang an inverted chorus, where instead of singing about revealing myself I ended with a line about concealing myself: "there's foundation on my face, nothing real for you to steal". I hoped that this would make the audience not only consider the dilemmas singer-songwriters have regarding honestly, but also to question whether in fact performers that they assume to be exposing their true selves on stage are in fact putting on some sort of a show. Some audience members found my performance understandably uncomfortable. My feedback report from my supervisor stated: "In the first half of the song it seemed as if you were forcing together the undeniable facts of our shared presence in the room (referring to this with your lyrics) with an equally undeniable heightened form of communication (singing). The performance became considerably less awkward to watch once you embraced an overtly performative style that I could equate with 'the singer' rather than the individual." I found notion of 'the singer' and the degree of performance an audience expect and desire from a concert fascinating.

5) The Mirror

Interviewer: Lail this leads us nicely on to talk about honesty and the identity of the singer as a performer which was largely your preoccupation in this project. Lets start by asking, do you think that people always present an image of themselves to the outside world?

Lail: I didn't use to think in those terms, but through my research, especially the writings of Erving Goffman, it became something I felt very strongly about. The framework of the final show aimed to highlight the extent to which, consciously or not, people create an image of themselves - in fact many different images of themselves - through which they aim to control how they will be perceived by the outside world. The studio was bisected by a curtain so the show took place in two 'spaces'. The first one the audience encountered was the dressing room, the off-stage, where I was getting ready for 'the final show', as though it hadn't yet started. A dressing room, the anti-thesis to the stage, where one is typically alone, away from the public, is not usually associated with performance - this was the perfect framework to examine how the singer prepares their image before a concert, and how a person functions through their image in daily life. Through scripted phonecalls, different relationships and places were brought temporarily into the dressing room, displaying the pretences which exists in our interactions with other people. I conversed in a different way according to the image I wished to convey, giving a very different version of 'the truth' such as "I'm not nervous" or "I'm so nervous", depending on whether I was communication with an ex-boyfriend, a friend, my mother. That was through text. The theme was developed in other ways too.
The centrepiece of the space was a dressing table with a mirror, the type you get in dressing rooms with light bulbs around the frame. This was placed with its back to the audience as though up against the 'fourth wall' of the room. The mirror-glass was replaced by perspex so that, through specially-designed lighting, I could see my reflection perfectly as though it was a normal mirror whilst the audience could also see me clearly through it. The symbolism of a mirror, the icon of narcissistic privacy, of self-reflection (both literally and metaphorically), was perverted by its one-way transparency. The audience not only saw me getting ready in my private sphere, but saw me seeing myself and adjusting my make-up and expressions according to my reflection. They saw the faces I made in preparation for facing them when I get on the stage. It took the naturalistic theatre notion of the audience looking through the fourth wall to satirically exposing level. Ironically, this was both the extreme of naturalistic theatre and at the same time the opposite of acting, because I literally put on my make-up, as I would before a show, there was nothing fake about it, other than the fact that it was happening on a stage. This again blurred the line between the performance of theatre and the performance in everyday life. Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray were two big influences on my understand of the performativity of gender. The layering of my face with make up, cover-up, power, colour, in order to disguise my blemishes was another aspect of the scene which explored the presentation of an image to the public. This process was of course exaggerated because I was getting ready for a show - but many women go through the putting on of make-up as daily process, just to walk out on the stage of the city and live up to cultural expectations. So yes, unfortunately, I believe people spend a lot of time on presenting an image of themselves to the outside world.

'Each of us is three different people: the person we really are, the person we believe we are, and the person other people see us as.' Primo Levi

6) Freedom

Interviewer: Might an artist be more themselves on stage than in real life?

Lail: Well that depends if you believe anybody can ever be 'themselves'. We must first accept and put aside Goffman's idea that we are performing constantly in everyday life - that is, the idea that there is perhaps no such thing as being 'yourself'. Or rather we must accept ourselves as inherently performing and manipulating beings. It is only then that we can compare the degree or devices of performance on stage and in real life. Having established this notion, we can no longer dismiss this question by answering 'well how can you be more yourself on stage if you can never be yourself?'. And so, with this understanding might an artist be more themselves on stage than in daily life? I think the answer is yes. Many performers admit feeling most comfortable on a stage, most at ease expressing themselves - many songs reveal truths and emotions which would probably be censored in normal conversation. More than this, the stage, an artistic framework, gives the performer the freedom to be themselves - there are less restrictions enforced by social etiquette and convention which constrain language, behaviour, movement - I would argue that this provides a platform for greater honesty and presentation of character. This character, however, might not be the one the public (even personal friends or family) expect - it is not the same type of performance the performer gives in everyday life (it may be more subtle, more extreme, more emotional, more confident), but who is to say it is not more true to their inner desires, feelings and beliefs. It is a different side of who the performer can call 'me'. This was one reason why I chose as the cover version to sing Aretha Franklin's 'Think', emphasising the Chorus - Freedom, Freedom, Freedom - by using it in the introduction and mixing in part of 'This is Freedom' by Jurassic Five. I think the artistic freedom granted to performers by the stage is something that should be taken full advantage of - in dictatorships, this is one of the first things to be censored.

7) The Mask

Interviewer: So then, when you are on stage, can you be so honest that you are not performing at all?

No. I think the problem here is in the question. A distinction has to made between honesty and performance - the two are not mutually exclusive or in a negative correlation to one another (as I naively maintained in the early stages of this project). Even in examining Joni Mitchell performing of 'A Case of You' (1971), a performance that I value as one of utmost honesty and exposure of inner self, there is no doubt in my mind that she is performing. This is not simply because I believe we are constantly performing, even to ourselves when we are alone - it is more than that. There is also something specific about being on a stage in front of an audience which implies, demands and produces a conscious performance.
In the final show, I opened the concert section with a reversed version of the song from the work in progress sharing, so that it started with the 'beautiful twin' persona. When I walked on to the stage the audience expected me to look as they had left me at the end of the dressing room scene, but as they were finding their seats in the new space I had put on a big colourful carnival mask - an extreme version of make-up, really. When the spot light hit my face and the show began, all the elements of a 'show' were utilised - not only the surprise factor of the spectacular mask covering my face, but the exaggerated lighting, the loud microphone, the raised platform where I sat with the piano - so this was the show, a big lie, full of effects. But the lyrics were increasingly open and exposing, mask came off during the song, the dramatic lights faded...all the performative elements were stripped away and by the end of the song I was singing in my plainest voice, with no tricks. I was no longer acting, I was myself, as far as is possible - but I don't think anyone who saw it would say that the new honesty meant I was no longer performing? Far from it - song is an intrinsically performative form which heightens, elevates and intensifies the emotion and experience of real life.

8) Voice

Interviewer: Lets talk about the voice itself. How can tone of voice and vocal training effect a performance?

Lail: The work in progress show opened with just voice, in darkness. But I was not singing, I was speaking. Now might be a good time to read you a small section from the text:
"Each human voice carries the history of the person to whom it belongs - everything they have ever said and sung and even what they have eaten and the air they have breathed - it is conditioned by their lifestyle, the country they live in, the people they have met, the accents they have been exposed to and have adopted - the voice holds the memory of every time it has shouted and each time it has cried... When a voice sings, this personal history can be heard - it is what makes each voice, and each note, unique, like a finger print."
So you see, I believe that the voice itself, even in its natural state, absolutely has an effect on a performance, even on a private listener in everyday conversation.
In terms of vocal training, this enters a new realm of possibilities. Apart from being important for the care and safety of the singer's voice, vocal training and technique, or even natural and instinctive control of the voice, allows the singer to use their voice in different ways and manipulate the listener through the decisions they make. The final show opened with me doing my vocal warm ups in the dressing room. I then sang a known gospel song, using it as an exercise, trying out lines in different ways, choosing which sensual and emotional effect works the best and suggesting that yes, tone of voice is very important to the meaning and experience of a performance. These exercises were also interesting in the context of honesty and performance. As warm-ups, sung only to myself, they explored further questions of whether a stage and an audience are needed to constitute a performance - and whether you can sing without performing - was i performing to myself? Obviously the huge irony of the discourse was that i was actually on stage right in front of the audience!!

Interviewer: Yes of course, I hadn't thought of that!

9) Dualities

Interviewer: So you've given us a picture of the dressing room and the concert room, could you talk a bit more about what these two spaces represented for you and how they functioned in relation to each other?

Lail: Well I think they functioned together different levels. One was that they showed opposite sides of a coin - offstage and onstage, acting and singing, private and public - and each space worked to enhance the other by contrast. First of all the audience were not aware of the second space until they were escorted there by the steward, so there was that surprise element. Then in the concert everything was about the show - the lights, the colours, the volume - and in contrast, in the dressing room the details were subtle, and naturalistic - the aesthetic of the two spaces were very different - and the audience were supposed to have completely contrasting experiences in each. So on first thoughts, the spaces complemented each other because they were so different.
The two rooms also worked together to advance the exploration of the show as a whole - the questions of honesty in the concert section was made more poignant because it was sandwhiched by the dressing room scenes. For example, in between the two songs, I spoke a little to the audience. Taken in isolation this was a very natural speech - I explained why my voice might sound croaky saying: "i was bad and went out last night" and told the audience in a seemingly genuine voice that: "it is so nice to see so many familiar faces". It was only in the context of the rest of the previous dressing room scene the audience was forced to question whether i am really dropping all guises and being honest, as was suggested through the symbolism of taking off of the mask. They remembered me explaining in a previous phone-call that my voice is still recovering from a cold, and is croaky despite the fact i haven't been out all week; they remembered me explaining how uncomfortable it is to perform to familiar faces...and so on. For whatever reason, I chose to twist the truth when on stage addressing the audience, even though the way I spoke and the smiles I gave implied that I was being honest. The 'honest' and natural performance of the second song was also consequently thrown into question. Or maybe I was being honest on stage - maybe it was in the phone-call that I was lying? The point is, that these discrepancies are highlighted and amplified by the on-stage/ off-stage framework, but occur all the time from day to day.
Finally, they two spaces also worked to demonstrate how much overlap there actually is between reality and performance. In the dressing room, little effects were supposed to introduce the idea that everyday life can so easily become performative. For example, when singing sustained notes i got very close to the mirror as though looking into my mouth. This steamed up the perspex and showed my breath fluctuating - i could almost draw shapes with the steam. Later i also brought a mug of boiling water over to the table as if to drink and again the steam made patterns on the mirror. When the kettle was boiling, too, a little light was directed on it from the floor which caught the steam rising and created beautiful shapes in the air. This showed how when noticed, when amplified, when placed on a stage, the most mundane things can constitute art and performance, and questioned how much difference there really was between the simulated 'reality' of the backstage and the proclaimed 'performance' of the concert.

10) The Stage

Interviewer: And finally Lail, could I pick up on something you touched on just now, which is the role of the stage, because you had two very different types of stages in the two spaces.

Lail: That's right, very different. The stage for the concert was turned at a right angle to the stage space in the dressing room again to separate the two experiences. I sang on a raised platform, typically associated with a stage and performance, and the seats were set up like in an auditorium. When I finished singing and left the stage, the audience assumed the show was over, and were surprised to find a concluding post-show section when they returned to the dressing room.
In the dressing room the audience stood, almost as though they were not invited and looking in illicitly. The only thing separating the audience from the stage space was a line of black tape on the floor, level with the back of the mirror, marking out where the fourth 'wall' of the room would be. There were no instructions to the audience not to cross this line, but the lighting and the etiquette of theatre I guess made them stay politely in 'their' space and watch me in mine.
At the very end of the show, I explained in a phone-call that I was going to face the audience and get feedback 'the truly scary part' I said. I looked in the mirror and took a deep breath before crossing the black line, as though about to go on stage - a final comment on how all the world is a stage and we are always keeping up appearances. Ironically of course actually about to really step off-stage and end the show. As my foot touched the ground on the audience's side of the line the dressing room stage lights went off and the house lights came on. And then something I had not prepared for happened. I hugged some of my friends and was about to go over to my parents who had come to see the show only to realise people were still watching me. "The show's over now!" I had to say! I guess after one false ending in the concert, this time, stepping from the dressing room after-show scene, to the real after-show situation, the audience were confronted with not quite knowing if the show was really over this time. I was quite happy with the confusion because it pointed clearly to the blurred distinctions between reality and performance. There was of course no real difference between the two 'spaces' - but that is the role of the stage. When i crossed the line, the experience was quite strange for all of us i think..

Interviewer: Lail Arad, thank you very much for talking to us.

Me: No, thank you very much for listening!<