THE REVIEW       WEB COLUMNS       ABOUT        ARTISTS 











March 26th, 2021

The Performative Self: On the Work of Leeny Sack


By CAITLYN TELLA
Caitlyn talks to Leeny Sack about spilling your guts, creativity as procrastination, therapy, and excavating intergenerational trauma through theater.


Leeny Sack in Our Lady of the Hidden Agenda. Photo: Jane Bassuk


All actors are terrified that they are bad actors, so they try hard to be truthful––a trap––because effortful verisimilitude reads as bad acting. The TikTok meme “What’s an acting performance that was so good you forgot it was acting?” highlights this phenomenon. Whether stitched with sincere, ironic, or correct answers to the question, the performance of the meme itself reveals the conflation of acting and psychological realism in cultural consciousness––good acting being the ability to conceal artifice, bad acting the failure to do so.

If good acting is marked by Oscars, then why do all Oscar clips scream: I’M ACTING? Instead of passing as straight (the literal jargon for this kind of performance in theater is “straight play”), “good acting” should be recognized as the highly stylized form it is: psychological realism. The cultural premium placed on this style and its codified gestures (think, STELLA! et al.), warps the perception of what emotional truth must look and sound like to be considered real and good.

When concepts of self hinge on psychological terms, “I” don’t get much leeway, and the question that performers are primed to ask—Who am I?—has only obvious (boring) answers. Antonin Artaud, a dramatic obsessed with liveness, wrote, “Psychology, which works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary, is the cause of the theater’s abasement and its fearful loss of energy.”

For performing artist Leeny Sack, psychological realism couldn’t be further from the truth. Born in Brooklyn, Leeny dropped out of Julliard in 1971 to join The Performance Group, an experimental theater company led by Richard Schechner that focused on actors as sources of dramaturgy rather than interpreters of fictional characters. When the troupe eventually split and morphed into The Wooster Group, she developed a solo career. Her body of work has been mythologized under the title “The Performative Self.” It interrogates concepts of self, not by crafting chameleon personas nor by shedding masks to uncover the “real me,” but through ongoing engagement with performance as a consequence of living.

A couple years ago, afflicted by romance, I fell lifeless under the weight of fantasy. I’d known Leeny as a teacher and flew to see her in hopes she could help administer the performative like a medicine. I wanted to find a performance to free me from fantasy.

I recently spoke with Leeny again for the first time in a couple years. Here is our conversation about her work.




Leeny Sack as Kattrin in The Performance Group's production of Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by Richard Schechner. Photo: Clem Fiori, 1975



CAITLYN
You once told me that when you performed your underwear would get completely soaked because you were so aroused.

LEENY
I would get so wet. Because performing was such a full being engagement, everything was flowing. Eros. Life force.

CAITLYN
Have you experienced that life force in the past year?

LEENY
Maybe where I’ve experienced it most extraordinarily was with [my dog] Moose’s dying and death. The life force in the presence of death was astounding.

CAITLYN
How did you ritualize his passing?

LEENY
Some of the usual bells and whistles--literally, bells, candles. Prayers kept coming through. And this extraordinary tension between letting him go and holding him, and knowing I had to get out of the way to let him go. His body was here for almost 24 hours and I would touch him and feel the change in his body temperature, his literal dead body temperature, and watch and feel the--what do you call it when the body stiffens?

CAITLYN
Rigor mortis?

LEENY
I would watch the pain of the suffering, the illness, leave his face. It was an extraordinary, heightened time. After he died, and since, his spirit body has come many times. If I still had doubts about afterlife, I don't anymore. It's so palpable. A simultaneity of warm, loving presence. I don't have language for that.



Moose and Leeny at the Ithaca women’s march, 2017. Photo: Hayya Mintz


CAITLYN
I read in Michelle Minnick’s work that your desire to be an actress when you were young was to become immortal so you wouldn't die an anonymous death--

LEENY
Very much in relation to the Holocaust. Yeah.

CAITLYN
What drives you as a performer now?

LEENY
Hm. The great and very challenging disentanglement from my conditioned ideas about “performing.” The last piece I made, Subtitles, Signage, Signifiers, and Cogitations, I spent most of the month leading up to it in panic and anxiety. And, “How can I get out of this?” That was my preparation. But I'm working differently, not so much detailed scoring and rehearsal. Mostly object work and writing. What it means to be finished is different now.

CAITLYN
My whole creative process has been procrastination, then I'll randomly sit down and do something very quickly. I pretend the procrastination is some kind of gestation.

LEENY
It is, it's an incubation state. And the stuff around it, even the word procrastinating, is somebody else's word, and entrains all the ideas of making work and who we should be and how one is supposed to work. The grip of those ideas has deeply lessened during this time. I told you about the mucus plug, right?

CAITLYN
You told me I need to unplug the mucus plug and connect my sexuality to the earth.

LEENY
It's interesting you remember it that way.

CAITLYN
What did you mean?

LEENY
For a number of years I’d been feeling there was something in the way of my full work. A friend had a baby and she was saying something about the mucus plug. When she said that phrase, “mucus plug” I thought, oh my God, that's it! Somewhere in my belief systems I thought the energy of creative movement moved up and out. I had it directionally off. It was about birthing it back into earth, not going up into the heavens. Since then, my “energetic mucus plug” has slowly begun to dissolve. What I have yearned for is more accessible to me and I'm more out of the way of it.

CAITLYN
Do you relate the mucus plug to confessional forms? Like, spilling your guts out onto the stage.

LEENY
“Spilling your guts out” is a very personal thing. You're talking about accessing and “expressing” something personal. I'm talking about being able to get out of the way of things that are coming through. Maybe those things come through the word “I”, but it transcends that. When performing has really worked for me, it's this strange paradoxical thing of--look at me not being me. Look at something coming through me.

Leeny Sack in The Survivor and the Translator, 1980. Photo: Stephen Siegel

CAITLYN
The theater company provides structure, and the director provides structure, and the character too, but when you left The Performance Group you didn’t have any of that. When you started working on The Survivor and the Translator, you were alone.

LEENY
Yeah. I started in a studio alone, naked with a ratty old flannel gray blanket. And I didn't have texts yet.

CAITLYN
Was your intention to make a performance about trauma?

LEENY
Yeah, very much. First I thought I would do a piece on women, madness, and God. Rather large. I thought, how have I encountered those? That brought me back to being a child of Holocaust survivors. And that's the subtitle of the piece “a solo theater work about not having experienced the Holocaust by a daughter of concentration camp survivors.”

CAITLYN
How did you go from lying in the unstructured darkness to--

LEENY
I was inviting in the world of the Holocaust. It was so dark. To open to the deep, inherited memory and the deepest imaginable--I thought, no, no, no, I'm not gonna get through this … well. So I shifted and, completely antithetical to all my training and all my practice till then, I wrote. There was a great typewriter store on the upper West side and when I decided that I needed a typewriter I went up there and as I was walking in Elie Weisel was walking out. I thought, “a sign!” I bought this wonderful little electric Olivetti. The typewriter gave me focus and I wrote for months, researching translation, thinking how am I going to tell this?

Leeny Sack in The Survivor and the Translator, 1980. Photo: Stephen Siegel

CAITLYN
In the performance, your body is a vessel for memories that go beyond your first-hand experience. You are also the translator of those memories, translating between languages, generations, cultures, from memory into performance itself. Your body contains many voices. At one point the Survivor’s voice screams in Polish as the translator continues to translate in English, calm, matter of fact, split-off.

LEENY
The stories were imparted to me in Polish, or sometimes in accented English, or not good English, and also in silence. So that’s how I told it. One day my grandmother came over and started talking, as she often did, about the camps and the war. I turned on my tape recorder and when I transcribed it I tried to translate it into correct English. I would call my mother and say, “How do you say this in English, exactly?” At some point in transcribing I thought––why don’t I just get it down roughly, and then I'll fix it later. So I started listening and transcribing literally--out of syntax, “uh,” “Hmm,” silence, circularity, memory lapses. When I looked at it, I saw that this was the writing I was trying to get at all these months that I couldn't quite get. The space between the words. The failures of language. I threw out most of the writing that I had and began working with that text.

CAITLYN
In Therapy as Performance you strip off another layer of character. In that piece you staged real therapy sessions with three different therapists in front of full audiences. That piece makes me think about the deceit of self-concepts, how even in therapy, with its premium on honesty, whenever you tell your story, it’s contrived, and how confining it feels to only have words to tell your story.

Therapy As Performance (2018) video still. Leeny Sack, Moose, Jeff Collins, LSW, Meditation Retreat Leader.

LEENY
One of the things I was thinking about over time was exactly what you're talking about. The role of the characters of ourselves. I made lists of what roles I’ve played in the theater, what roles I’ve played in life. They got more and more specific, so it wasn’t only “daughter,” it was “my mother's daughter.” I just kept adding to that list. It does go on. 

CAITLYN
Can you talk more about “astrology as performance,” “genetics as performance,” “preparing to die as performance?”

LEENY
Nope.

CAITLYN
Why is it interesting to you to frame those things as performances?

LEENY
The blurring between art and life? It's not a blurring, it's actually very clarifying. As the astrologer Caroline Casey said, “If we don't ritualize, we pathologize.”




Leeny Sack:

Leeny Sack is an interdisciplinary performance artist, writer, postmodern ventriloquist, and originator of The Performative Self™. Her works on identity, including The Survivor and the Translator, Straight Man, PATIENT/ARTIST, and Therapy As Performance, are part of a 4-decade body of work addressing performance as medicine. She has performed extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, and in Asia at venues including the Venice Biennale, The Edinburgh Festival, The American Dance Festival, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the first World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. She was original faculty of New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing (ETW), faculty at Naropa University’s Theatre: Contemporary Performance program, and cofounder of Pangea Farm retreat center for contemplative and healing arts. Sack is a certified Master Teacher of Kinetic Awareness®, the somatic practice originated by choreographer and intermedia artist Elaine Summers. She currently resides and teaches in Ithaca, NY, where she frames her work as Counter Stage, an intermedia performance series that takes place on her kitchen counter.leenysack.com/


Caitlyn Tella:

Caitlyn Tella is a theater maker and poet originally from the Bay Area. Her chapbook, Sky Cracked Open the Proscenium Frame, is forthcoming from DoubleCross Press. caitlyntella.com



NEW YORK, NEW YORK
EST 2020
︎

© THE QUARTERLESS REVIEW ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

︎THE REVIEW ︎         ︎SIGN UP ︎         ︎ABOUT ︎         ︎CONTACT︎         ︎SUBMIT ︎






NEW YORK, NEW YORK
EST 2020 
︎

© THE QUARTERLESS REVIEW ALL RIGHTS RESERVED