A performer stands alone on stage reading a text from a screen in front of them. It is a different performer every night but the text is always the same. The performer has never seen the full text before. For each line that appears the performer has a choice. They can either say the line on the screen or replace it with a sentence of their own. It is a kind of game they are playing with the writer but it is an extremely difficult one. The writer has all the advantages and the performer has only the adrenaline of the real time encounter. In many ways it is completely unfair to the performer, and at times we will definitely watch them squirm. (Perhaps the most honest pleasure of theatre: when something unexpected happens, when something goes wrong.) However, in the end the performer will prevail.
Speaking These Lines for the First Time is a game about freedom and unfreedom. What does it mean to use the freedom we have in our culture: on stage, in the media, in our daily lives. We say in a democracy we are free but often our options to utilize this freedom can feel extremely limited. Is the stage a place we can make use of our freedom? Is the media? The internet? The text that appears on the screen will playfully, but also sometimes cruelly, navigate within the labyrinth of such questions. At times the text will throw the performer soft balls, giving him or her easy opportunities to replace what is written with his or her own honest convictions. It is a game in which the first rule is that you read what is in front of you and the second rule is you can break the first rule at any time. But if you break the rules does it actually change anything? And if not what would?
For the next hour I will be reading sentences from the screen in front of me.
The sentences will be divided into four sections.
In section one, I will be reading sentences that I have seen before but have never spoken aloud.
Section one is, mostly, an explanation of what will be happening here tonight.
After that, the work begins in earnest.
Because – in sections two, three and four – I will be reading sentences I have never seen before in my life.
For each sentence that appears I have a choice.
I can either read the sentence as it is written.
Or replace it with something I would prefer to say.
When I am saying something different from what is written, you will know I am doing so because what I say is not what appears on the surtitle above my head.
I can also choose to say nothing and stand here for a moment in silence.
All of this is a kind of game I will be playing with the writer.
In this game, the writer has the advantage.
Since he knows what is coming next and I do not.
Much like in Las Vegas, the house always wins.
Or how, no matter which political party you vote for, the government remains the government.
No matter how I try to intervene, the text is still the text.
I can change things within it, but it will continue on regardless.
At times, the writer will make me say things I couldn’t possible agree with.
“Former Nazis make the best teachers and parents.”
“When you commit suicide you bring yourself a little closer to God.”
And I will have to decide whether to say them or not.
These are of course statements the writer doesn’t agree with either.
He is trying to win.
What exactly he is trying to win is unclear.
He is putting words in my mouth that might make me feel foolish, vulnerable or confused.
By putting unexpected words in my mouth, he is trying to make my performance more real.
Our lives are surrounded by things that we might describe as “not real”.
Television, movies, photographs, advertisements, the internet, pornography, etc.
One of the reasons we might wish to go to the theatre is to see something that feels more real.
More real than television.
More real than photographs.
More real than advertisements.
You get the idea.
I am really here, standing in front of you.
I am really speaking each of these sentences for the first time.
The way this text is written it is very difficult for me to intervene.
This is much like many other things in the world.
If I wanted to change something in the world that I think is wrong it is also very difficult.
Much like if you, as an audience member, wanted to change something in the performance here tonight your options would be limited.
You could stand up and walk out.
You could yell something.
You could run up on stage and do something unexpected.
However, none of these things are likely to alter my performance in any significant manner.
Much like my own interventions in the text are unlikely to greatly alter this evening.
Unless I were to start changing every single line.
To say something completely different each time.
Which is not the game.
Which is not what I have been asked to do.
Of course, there is not only the matter of what I say but also the question of how I say it.
However, on this point as well, because of the straightforward manner in which the sentences are written, there is limited room for play.
Limited, but within limitations there are always possibilities.
If I say something with sarcasm it might mean the opposite of what the writer intended.
Or if I make the “crazy sign”, moving my finger in a circular motion directly next to my head, I might imply that what the writer is saying is crazy.
There are likely other options along these lines.
As I continue to play the game, and get into the swing of things, it is possible my options will increase.
When the writer writes isolated statements he makes the game easier for me.
If the sentence doesn’t directly relate to the sentence that came before or after, it is much easier to replace it with one of my own.
To demonstrate, what follows is a list of twelve isolated statements.
“The first world thrives off the blood and sweat of the third world.”
“Life in the Western world is wonderful.”
“Poor people can still live lives filled with meaning and joy.”
“The internet is more democratic than television.”
“Life is short, seize the moment.”
“People’s misdeeds are generally caused by insecurity.”
“People will behave differently in different situations.”
“There would be no crime if there was no poverty.”
“Greed is not natural.”
“Listening to me say these things is a waste of your time.”
“I like things that are evil.”
“This text is far too didactic.”
To further assist me, when the writer believes he is writing an isolated statement he will place it in quotation marks to indicate that I might attempt replacing it with another sentence.
But, of course, I can also attempt replacing sentences that are not in quotation marks.
Isolated statements occur frequently in our society.
For example, one of the strategies employed by television news is that each of the different stories are presented as if they don’t directly relate to each other.
This makes it more difficult, rather than easier, to make sense of what we are watching.
The news presents not a coherent picture of our world, but a series of seemingly disconnected facts.
What would the news look like if it instead tried to present a more coherent picture?
If it tried to link the various news stories together?
If it tried to show how the various news stories relate to each other?
If you use this as an analogy for my task here tonight it creates a paradox.
When the sentences I say are more isolated from one another it is easier for me to intervene.
And when the sentences are more connected it is more difficult for me to intervene.
Unlike the news, where the lack of connection between different statements makes the world we live in seem more incoherent, in this game, a lack of connection between statements makes the game, for me at least, more empowering.
However, this is true only if we assume that it is more empowering for me to say my own sentence rather than the one that is in front of me.
Which is by no means clear.
Since what is written might very simply be more interesting than anything I am able to come up with on the spot.
This is another way in which the game is extremely unfair to me as a performer.
But I am brave and stubborn.
And will persevere.
Now that we have explained the basic premise, we will listen to a song for approximately two minutes.
It will give me a moment to catch my breath before we continue.
[A song plays for two minutes. During this time the performer can do as he or she wishes.]
As previously announced, I am now reading sentences that I have actually never seen before.
And, as was explained in the previous section, in this task I have a certain degree of freedom.
Freedom is a strange idea.
One might think that one can only be free in a pure sense.
That freedom means having no responsibilities or connections.
But, in fact, one can only be free in relation to rules and restrictions.
There is no such thing as pure freedom.
To be free is not to be able to do whatever one wants.
To be free is to be able to change the spoken and unspoken rules that one exists in relation to.
In this game I can change some of what I say.
But it is unclear whether or not I can change the rules.
For example, if I were to stop reading, and spend the rest of my time on stage dancing, would that change the rules?
To change the rules is always difficult.
It takes time.
And if it goes wrong it can result in complete disaster.
Totalitarian states are an attempt to completely change the basic rules of how society operates.
They do so through violence. By force.
Changing the rules through solidarity is even more difficult.
As well, one person’s freedom is often based on another person’s unfreedom.
The fact that I am free to stand here on stage and speak is based on the fact that you are sitting there willing to listen.
Which is another way of staying that you are not free to speak.
If everyone here were to speak at the same time it would be chaos and my freedom to speak would be canceled out.
So my freedom to speak is based of your lack of freedom in regards to speaking.
Of course, in a sense, you are all free to speak.
But the rule we have all agreed upon is that I speak and you listen.
My freedom to buy a cheap pair of running shoes is based on someone else’s unfreedom of having to put together those running shoes while being paid a very small amount.
However, both my freedom to buy the cheap running shoes and the child’s unfreedom to put them together for a low wage serve another purpose.
To make money for a corporation.
My perceived freedom and the child’s obvious unfreedom work together to create profit.
Profit is what occurs when some people make more money because others make less.
A billionaire could never become a billionaire in a world that was fair and reasonable.
But, of course, life isn’t fair.
When we say life isn’t fair we are also, in a way, accepting the unfairness of the world.
By believing the world is unfair we also create the conditions for unfairness to occur.
Unfairness begins at birth.
Some people are born:
“In wealthier countries.”
“With richer parents.”
These people will, in general, have an easier life.
People who are privileged are rarely aware of the extent or origins of their privilege.
Most people in this room fall into this category.
The things that really upset us do so because they remind us of things in ourselves we don’t like.
If I am upset that the world is unfair, it is also because I am nervous that I am unfair.
Or that I directly benefit from injustice.
Guilt is conservative.
Guilt is not connected to action but to inaction.
Guilt says: I am doing nothing, but it is all right because I feel bad about it.