Yep, that is a funhouse mirror.
Those who know me well will know that I’ve long had something of an affinity with Reese Witherspoon’s character in Legally Blonde – specifically in Legally Blonde 2.
“It’s like I said to the Senator the other day… isn’t bill writing super-fun?”
“Come to the rally – I love your necklace!”
It was a moment of simultaneous amusement and horror: “Oh crap, this is how I must seem to the people who don’t like me.”
But self-recognition – or seeing yourself through the eyes of other people – isn’t always pleasant, and while I’ve always had a soft spot for that archetype, that doesn’t mean I want to be it.
There’s a point to this story, I promise. It just takes a little while to get there.
Undoubtedly the best thing about living in London is the sheer volume of interesting, creative things to do. I’ve always rolled my eyes at Sydneysiders who complained about the lack of culture in Sydney – and I still do – but the variety of things happening here is staggering. For someone like me, who thrives on the new and unusual, it’s fantastic. A constant river of cool and kooky new trends to explore.
One such trend (or so it seems) is one-on-one, interactive theatre – in which instead of sitting in an audience watching a play, you interact with an individual actor, or group of actors, one-on-one. I dragged the boyfriend along to one such festival last Saturday night.
Upon arrival, we were each given a schedule of appointments to attend over the course of the evening. The boyfriend was given four, me three, and in between we were invited to drink wine and eat quiche.
You would not have wanted to have a glass of wine before my first appointment, which involved being slid out a second floor window on a wooden contraption that reminded me of a guillotine. For ten minutes. Apparently the idea was to engage with architecture in new and different ways. My mum would have hated it, but I found it slightly challenging, stimulating and a bit weird.
My third appointment involved putting on a disguise and a pair of headphones, which gave me detailed instructions on how to follow/stalk a young female actor around the streets surrounding the theatre (when to slow down, speed up, hide, duck into phone booths etc etc). It turned out another actor was stalking me at the same time, and I was given a photograph at the end of the back of my head. How pomo. (I think the intention was to create a sense of mystery, like a detective novel, but a friend who has experienced sexual assault pointed out how triggering/confronting the experience would have been for a lot of people.)
For me, the most confronting of the experiences was the second – which is why I’ve saved that story until last. Called ‘A Game Of You’, each participant was sent into a large, dark labyrinth of a room in five minute intervals.
The first room I was led into was small, with a mirror, a notepad, some plastic figurines, drinking water and a red curtain. I was told by the actor who took me there to help myself to a glass of water, and I did. I figured, since this was “interactive theatre”, I may as well write something on the notepad (why else was it there?), wrote “hello, hello, hello” and a fourth grade-style rhyme, and within a minute or so, another woman entered the room.
I quickly established that she was an actor, but it only later emerged that she was playing the role of the woman who had gone through the labyrinth two people before me. She told me that she was anxious, because she wanted to get back into acting, but didn’t know if she was still up to it. I told her that she seemed pretty capable to me, being an actor and all. She said she feared that she was too old however, being almost 55 (the actress looked about 35), and spoke of the pressures of balancing the creative impulse and paying the bills. Then she said this “wasn’t about [her] though, it was about [me],” and instructed me to enter the next room.
Where I was confronted by a pretty, blonde woman who was walking towards me, copying my body language as she did so. “You’re copying me,” I said, laughing. “You’re copying me.”
She proceeded to run through everything I’d done in that mirrored room, where it emerged that she had of course been watching me. Apparently I had adjusted my hair several times (in my defence, I had just had it straightened, so it was a bit uncomfortable), and my dress (it was lopsided). She noted that I’d written something in the book – the first person to do so that day, apparently – and asked me if I had related to the woman I’d met in the room.
“Of course,” I said. “I imagine lots of people here tonight relate to balancing creative stuff with paying the bills.” She asked me about what I was doing about that tension, and we walked together into the next room.
Where we sat in front of a television, observing the woman who had walked into the first room directly after me. I was asked to describe her. What would her name be? Did I think she was beautiful? What kind of job did I think she would have? How much money did she make? Was she satisfied with her income? Was she in a relationship? Was she gay or straight? Did she have children? If we met, would we be friends?
Fortunately, I said nice things about her, because it turns out she was given a copy of that conversation after she left. I imagined her name was Ana, that she worked for a not-for-profit organisation, that she was bisexual, that she didn’t have kids (it was 10pm on a Saturday and she was at an alternative arts night, after all), and that if we met, we’d probably get along relatively well. It’s only as I write this that I realise this description sounds somewhat like several Annas I know, minus an ‘n’.
In the next room, the actress pretended to be “Ana” on the phone, and in the next room I was handed the CD that I would later discover revealed another participant’s description of me.
Finally, I was led into a room on the opposite side of the original mirror, where a young, somewhat morose looking, man sat in the same seat I had 20 minutes earlier. The actress who I’d been hanging out with entered the room, and my minute of horror began to unfold.
“Hi, I’m Rachel. I see you wrote in that little pad? I was the first person to do that today. I’m a writer. See, that’s my poem! I think it’s clever. [Reads poem.] I might look like a bimbo, but I’m really not. I’m a writer – I’m writing a book – so I can’t be. I use big words. I have a Big Vocabulary. I had my hair done today – do you like it? I had it straightened.”
There was a lot of hair flicking. And a fair bit of pouting.
“I just moved over here from Sydney, because I met this guy. Isn’t that adventurous? I am living my dreams. I think it’s important to do that. I think things are going to go reeeeeaallly well for me.”
And so on. It was probably a good thing that my next “appointment” started literally the moment I left the room, because I was reeling in horror.
That night, the boyfriend had to put up with my alternately sitting in stunned silence/horror (Is this really who I am? Is this how people see me?) and continuously mulling over the events and how upset they had made me. I imagined how other people I know might have been caricatured, and concluded that there was pretty much no manner in which I could have been imitated that wouldn’t have felt like a slap in the face (well, except for the most flattering one, but I suspect that wasn’t the point of the exercise).
And I wouldn’t have found the whole exercise so upsetting if it hadn’t tapped into fears that were already there. That my insecurities (surely exacerbated by the situation I was in) came across as vanity. That I was self-absorbed. That people thought I was stupid. That perhaps I had internalised those characters I had loved in my adolescence - paging Cher Horowitz - and in my young adulthood (Elle Woods, the Manic Pixie Dream Girls), to the point that they had completely taken over my performance of femininity.
And I suppose all these things are part of my shadow, part of who I am. But my other shadows (we all have them), all the other aspects of my self that could possibly be interpreted in a negative light, wouldn’t have come off any better had they been put under scrutiny and distorted (too loud, too pretentious, too outspoken, too dependent upon being ‘liked’, and so on). And yet I also knew I couldn’t be someone other than who I was.
But if part of my horror came from a kind of perverse self-recognition - that this was what I, at my worst, might be seen as - part of came from a sense of indignant misinterpretation. That this was most definitely not who I was, and that anyone interpreting my performance of self (we all do it) as such as woefully missing the point.
I’d like to think that this was the point of exercise - to demonstrate to extent to which, when we imagine who others might be, we project our own insecurities, prejudices and past experiences onto them. I always knew my ‘Ana’ was a fictional creation - I said as much several times during the course of the recording - but it was only as I wrote about the experience that I realised how much my description of her resembled people I already knew. Same with my perceptions of the “morose” looking young man - who really looks cheerful and engaged when they’re sitting alone in a mirrored room, about to be pounced upon by a bunch of performance artists?
Has anyone had a similar experience?