Closing the Gap Between Audience & Actor: a look at the shapes we make with our bodies
The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies by Meg Whiteford. New York City, NY: Plays Inverse. November 2015. 87 pages $12.95 Paperback.
In the early stage directions for The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies, Meg Whiteford charges the actors throughout the play-in-verse to dance, “as though the characters can’t stop moving their bodies.”
Likewise, this is a play to be read while on the move, and so I read it everywhere—in a dimly lit bar on a Monday waiting for a friend who’d just quit his job, as I had, both of us tired of a drudge-in, drudge-out office; on the bus and on the train; curled in a chair on a snowy afternoon after lugging boxes of books and a broken desk into a friend’s new apartment. I read it with an IPA and a cup of tea and I read it while thirsty, while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, for a text that did not come, for my period, which, gratefully, did.
I read it right after Anne Boyer’s Garments of Women (“hybridity of agency and change”), while I was also reading Cynthia Arrieu-King’s Manifest (“a landscape belonging to no one”) and Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (“the fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable”). These happened to be the books closest within reach, and yet, as books do, they began speaking to each other and to the frenzied journey through Whiteford’s book.
I write about my physical encounter with the book because Whiteford, in her stage directions, is first to blur the boundaries between audience and actor, spectator and participant.
Honey is a character with wants, a hunger, a desire, at the same time fearing her boldness, made indecisive by a troubled past we only glimpse. In conversation with or simply in proximity to a group of Maenads (ritually mad or raving women in Greek mythology) a therapist/vampira, and a yoga instructor/lion/ex-lover, Honey attempts to precisely describe her current state, defining it in terms of what is there and what is not, a definition that becomes both physical and philosophical: the heart aching goes baboom baboom, the set moves from a hillside to a kitchen to a courtroom. It is an experiment where the knowledge of self and the method of its acquirement is ever-changing, propelled by the Maenads, who are friends, judges, mystics, instigators, and Whiteford. Always they are quick to take in a new memory, word, or thought, mulling it over, expanding on it or rejecting it as it informs their understanding:
Maenad 1: The universe is unchanging, uniform, perfect, necessary, timeless. There are no flaws. One couldn’t exist without the other: matter without motion is antimatter, motion without matter is antimotion.
Maenad 3. I think they call that inertia.
Silence, as though they’ve heard that word before.
Whiteford is a playwright with an evolving vision, but one she graciously invites the reader into, “You can come and lie next to them too, if you want,” she writes as she sets the scene for Honey and the Maenads, lying on the jade floor of a spa, to reconstruct a memory, and in particular the violence within that memory.
“Let’s hear what this sounds like,” writes Whiteford, in another set of stage directions, “and then we can always change it later.” In this book, we become the playwright’s confidante and co-conspirator in the important work of defining who the self is in relation to changing landscapes, feelings, relationships, and memories. In doing this for Honey, we learn to practice it for ourselves.
“Are we not all complicit in the immensity of desire?” asks Maenad 1, or one of the Maenads, or all of the Maenads, or Whiteford as the writer, or myself as the reader, or my friend on the drive home speaking of another failed date and failed class and failed expectation. Her hand is on the handle though she hasn’t yet opened the door, and so, instead of an answer, I think of another definition, the line which Maenad 1 is given to speak aloud for us.
“It’s a dream about missing legs. It’s a real-life thing about loss.”
Abigail Zimmer is the author of girls their tongues (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2016), child in a winter house brightening (Tree Light Books, 2016), and fearless as I seam (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). She lives in Chicago where she is the poetry editor for The Lettered Streets Press.