"Performance is about the urgency of vanishing."
I remember hearing these words spoken in a dusty black box theatre in Evanston my senior year at Northwestern University. It was the week before our final performances for our Non-fiction Studies class and we were gathered around the stage with our scripts and our props (I was probably packing a pince-nez and anguished letter to Maud Gonne as part of my transformation into the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats), listening to a pep talk from our professor, Dr. Dwight Conquergood.
He was the consummate enthusiast though that term -- "pep talk" -- doesn't quite capture all that went into one of Dwight's addresses. Dwight (he wanted us to call him Dwight; no one ever called him anything else) could go from the quotidian ("Eat lots of yogurt! Complex carbohydrates are good for boosting energy!") to the pedagogical ("Performance is about the urgency of vanishing") to the encouraging (just about anything else the man ever said) in the span of one spirited burst.
Though I remember him saying many things that were wise, this phrase is the one I remember most: "Performance is about the urgency of vanishing."
Even before that day, it had been an intense semester. The point of the Non-fiction Studies class was to research a historical figure we were interested in, arrange the research -- all primary source material -- into a script, then put it together into a one-person show. I was armed to the teeth with Yeats books and would spend long hours at the Pita Inn consorting with Emily, Jill, and Sarah -- Toshi Maruki, Bette Davis, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, respectively -- over jasmine tea and falafel, talking about our projects. Dwight liked to call the class "a caravan." It was a fitting metaphor. There we all were, piling things into our separate cars, carting our own baggage and tricks, but we were all on the same journey. We were all headed for the same scary but rewarding place: the stage. Other students took a class with Professor So-and-So. We rode on a caravan with Dwight.
But as for the show itself, what did I know of the seriousness of such an endeavor? I was twenty-one years old. I was just a bundle of energy and coffee. I grew very interested very quickly in the nuts and bolts of the script: what aspect of Yeats' life to focus on, what "lens" to put on it, and wouldn't it be cool if I threw in some ancient Rosicrucian ritual stuff to the blocking? It was Dwight who gently guided us to the idea that we were not just putting on a show. We were performing somebody's life, and to do that well required much more from us than the simple audacity -- "Hey look, I'm this dead poet/ movie star/ important religious figurehead!" -- we all vaguely felt. It wasn't enough to just slap together a script and say a couple of lines and hope it all held water. What we were doing required empathy. We had to try to see a life from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
When we first walked into his course one blustery fall Chicago day, we'd all heard great things about Dwight Conquergood's class. He was academically respected and the chair of the Performance Studies department. We immediately liked him: a positive, smiling, sharply intelligent man with little wire-framed glasses, slim build, and fair skin and hair. His friendly appearance gave the impression of a lovable uncle, or -- if not for all that vast intelligence underneath the cheery demeanor -- even a greeter at Wal-Mart.
Weeks before he uttered those lines about performance and vanishing in the black box theatre, there was one day in class -- maybe to give us a break from our own projects, maybe because some of us had asked -- Dwight presented some of his research on gangs. He showed us slides of Latin Kings' graffiti and spoke of the semiotics of gang symbols. His area of interest was working with disadvantaged or marginalized communities: Hmong refugees in Laos, gang members in Chicago. What we hadn't known was that in the eighties, he moved into a housing project in Albany Park called Big Red, a part of Chicago so rife with crime it was known as "Little Beirut." Gangs, crime, graffiti, and disorder -- that was what he faced on a day to day basis. No one told him to do it. It was his idea. He was studying a community, Dwight reasoned, so there was no better way to do that than to live among the people he was trying to get to know.
Little by little -- and often at great risk to his personal safety -- Dwight became part of the community. He gained the trust of gang members. He learned about them because he had a profound desire to understand and wanted help give them a voice in a society that thought they had nothing worthy to say. He didn't see them as academic subjects. He tutored and mentored them. He attended their funerals. He thought their stories were important and deserved to be heard. Even after he suffered an assault while living alone in Albany Park, he stayed in Big Red. When he said that to represent someone's life was a great responsibility, it was because he knew it firsthand.
Did my performance about Yeats and the occult change lives? No. Did it give voice to someone marginalized and misunderstood? Depends, I suppose, on your definition of marginalized and misunderstood. But I did learn a great lesson in the process of putting on my dusty old cape and pince-nez and reciting "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead." If we are lucky enough to have a written document of a person's life -- what they saw, thought, and experienced -- we are left with a great gift and a great responsibility. And the fragile quality of that gift is what can make a performance so poignant, or an untouched drift of snow beautiful, or a wonderful holiday somehow painful: because we are aware that as it is happening, it is also leaving us.
One day a few years after graduation, I heard from a former classmate that Dwight had been diagnosed with cancer. He was no longer teaching, and the cancer, I was told, was gradually worsening. The next day, I sat down with a big pad of stationery to write Dwight a letter.
It was a difficult letter to begin. Of course it was. But there was no choice. I had to start. I told him how much I had learned from him. I recounted my memories of "the caravan" and tried to put into words my gratitude. I tried, already grieving, to still be present in the moment, to simply say what I was able and hope it would be enough, even as I knew it could not be. I signed my name with love and enclosed a photograph of me, Emily, Jill, and Sarah -- friendships I forged in Dwight's Non-fiction Studies class, fellow passengers on that mad, wonderful caravan, friendships that remain strong to this day. I sealed the envelope. I put on a stamp and walked down the four flights of stairs of my Brooklyn apartment and out to the nearest mailbox. I took a deep breath, then slipped the letter in the mailbox.
As I walked back home from the street corner -- no tears yet, only a lump in my throat -- I thought back to that enthusiastic, gesticulating professor giving us a pep talk in the black box theatre, speaking excitedly of yogurt and empathy. I thought, again, of that day when he talked to us about the urgency of vanishing.
When I received word a few months later that Dwight had passed away, I returned, after hanging up the phone, to some of my old notebooks. In them, I had placed important papers from college (I threw away nearly all my notes), and I found some hand-written notes from Dwight. He would watch our rehearsals and give us feedback while we stumbled through our lines or tripped over our props, and his notes were always written in his elegant, scrupulous script. Everything he wrote was positive: not a mindless optimism, but a deeply grounded, intelligent reflection on what we were attempting. Any small feats of empathy we achieved -- we captured someone's true voice, we were sensitive to the difficulties of cross-cultural or cross-gendered representation, we had done our research well -- Dwight treated like a great victory. It gave us courage to attempt what felt like the unattemptable. I can think of no greater gift a teacher can give his students than that.
Dwight saw performance in everything around him. It was interchangeable with life. It was, in his own words, both "a contest and struggle." The urgency he described to the whole endeavor, well, I feel that a lot, whether or not there's a curtain rising or falling. That's part, I guess, of what makes life so precious. Vanishing is not just a fact of performance, it's a fact of life. But what a shame it is when the vanishing comes so soon.