Fiction, fan culture, and the unnatural acts we engage in to protect the heart

I sort of lost any New York cool cred I had today by getting up at 5am to go hang out in front of The Today Show in the name of Glee fandom. Weirdly, this turned out to be interesting, not just because I’m relatively unabashed about my fannishness and not just because it was fun (even if it was both early and cold), but because the experience was a completely weird lens, not on the act of being a celebrity, but the process of becoming one.

This strange little window into the celebrity moment perhaps hit me especially hard in the wake of seeing Sleep No More with Patty on Saturday night. It, like most environmental theater I’ve encountered (such as WILDWORKS’s The Enchanted Palace), wound up being about celebrity, albeit, in the case of Sleep No More, through the lens of Macbeth.

Hanging around The Today Show also is invariably about celebrity, and today’s experience had a lot of moments both of exposing the backstage moment (e.g., peering into the studio as performers rehearse) and of performing them (e.g., performers coming out in the cold to greet the crowds), which also, weirdly, gave it an environmental theater-type quality beyond the obvious “we are here to see the in-studio performance” aspect of the audience experience.

On The Today Show front all of this was weirdly complicated by the strange beast that Glee is: The Warblers aren’t a real singing group; the guys you see in The Warblers on TV are all singers, but largely aren’t doing their own singing for complicated production reasons; and Darren Criss (who plays Blaine, effectively the front-man for the Warblers) has become enough of a break-out star because of this whole thing that you get these bizarre moments like when The Today Show introduction wound up being “Darren Criss and the Warblers.” Between that and their being in their (fictional prep school) Dalton blazers, the whole thing runs back and forth over the fiction/non-fiction line in a such a bizarrely incoherent way that it’s a little jaw-dropping, especially when you consider that a major Blaine-related plot point is how he gets too much of the spotlight from the rest of the group.

Of course, stuff that tramples all over the non-fiction/fiction divide is the stuff I love as a scholar, and often the stuff that feeds fandom interests (mine and everyone elses). It’s also the stuff that can make fandom weird: like the chick screaming at Criss outside The Today Show this morning that she wished he was straight. He is; the character he plays isn’t, and in that jacket, who knew which one of them she was talking to. Or what object and perspective any of us were singing to/from when we started an impromtu crowd sing of “Teenage Dream” a little while later.

For that matter, what the hell was going on in any of our heads when we all started singing along with the studio performance of “Raise Your Glass?” Because that song, which I’ve already talked about as a victory anthem both personally and in the context of the show, adds another layer of weird when we’re in this murky fact/fiction place and it’s happening on The Today Show and the fans are singing along: Who’s celebrating who? Who are the dirty little freaks or the underdogs here (and remember that line is “all my underdogs” – the possessive matters keenly)? What are the power dynamics? Are we all getting elevated in that moment or does someone need to call bullshit?

In something resembling a contrast to all of this, Sleep No More, being a play, is obviously and explicitly performative. We meet the actors, not as actors, but as characters, and the lines should, on the surface, enforce much clearer boundaries than those at The Today Show and around the The Warblers phenomenon. The surface, however, lies.

All audience members are required to wear identical bird masks going into the show. We become, perhaps, a parliament of rooks, a collective noun I reference here for Neil Gaiman’s take on the behavior of rooks in The Sandman, where rooks fight for their survival on the basis of the quality of stories told before their peers.

While the masks serve to delineate audience from performers, it immediately also establishes audience members as part of the narrative. This becomes more clear as more audience members enter the play space and encounter actors. Most audience members, upon encountering actors, begin to follow them, leading to moments where two actors coming from two different directions meet at the center of a long corridor, an army of bird-audience behind each of them, ready, it seems, for war, or, at least, a competition based on the scale of their fan following, to see which character (or perhaps which actor) will survive the telling of their tale.

This, combined with moments of peering into “private” chambers within the set (much, like being intentionally allowed to peer at rehearsal while waiting outside of The Today Show) and moments where actors pull audience members into private locations to remove their masks and tell them stories (I saw one girl in a phone booth in tears, after a bellhop who had lip-synched a song about the triviality of tragedy cornered her in there) suggests that the fact/fiction line at Sleep No More is equally, if more convolutedly, blurred. This further suggests to me that the very nature of celebrity may be less about a real person who rises out of a crowd in some fashion and more about a real person whose non-fiction identity is partially obscured or even erased by the act of being witnessed by a crowd.

Temporal distortion also struck me as central to these two, admittedly weird-to-juxtapose, events. At Sleep No More I found a murder scene before the actors did: for someone who once played The Lady in Macbeth, it was strange to have that blood on my hands again because I stumbled, both physically and out of time.

Similarly, because there was a rehearsal for camera that was projected on the screens outside of The Today Show we thought we were seeing a live performance when we were seeing a live rehearsal, and then when the live performance happened, thought for a moment that we were seeing tape. This sense of the correct order of events feeling out of order wasn’t just a part of the audience experience, either; before the show, Criss made a crack on Twitter about having performed on “the Tomorrow Show” yesterday.

While largely unabashed about my fannishiness, being a fan is often weird for me. There are all these different types of things I’m not supposed to do because I’m a professional in all these different types of ways. Sometimes I break the rules in ways that are good, and sometimes I break the rules in ways that are bad; mostly I break the rules in ways that matter less than anyone thinks.

Sleep No More and the complete destruction of my New York coolness factor this morning don’t say a lot about whether these types of lines are good or bad, but they do say a lot about how profoundly artificial lines between audience and performance are, as well as the lines between fact and fiction that we are often so insistent about. When we talk about these lines blurring, we often talk about the discomfort inherent in that blurring, and then mistake that discomfort for implying something unnatural about those acts of blurring.

I think the blurring is instinctive. And natural. And sort of fundamental to how we experience performance and audience-to-performance object love. I think it’s also fundamental to the instincts people on the performance side of the fence have towards fans; the gut says — at least in the process of rising to the previously mentioned obscurity or erasure — to let them in, even if wisdom and custom say otherwise.

In turn, I think these fences and lines are established to impose order — not just against all the stuff I’m sure we can all cite in the annals of bad fan and audience behavior, but against the heart, instinctively public and defensively misunderstood.

Ultimately, the link between these two experiences comes back to the wisdom of New York for me. I don’t know or even talk to my neighbors, because I can hear them having sex through the wall. I don’t look at people on the street, because then I’d never get to stop saying hello to strangers all day long. These barriers are artificial, and even toxic, but they allow us privacy in a place, in the place, without.

Fact/fiction and audience/performance barriers serve the same function, and are there to protect not just performers and the fictions they execute on, but to also protect audiences and fans from the permeability of all our extraordinarily vulnerable, easily bruised, relentlessly public and so very human hearts.

6 thoughts on “Fiction, fan culture, and the unnatural acts we engage in to protect the heart”

  1. I recently came off of an experience that strikes me as a bit similar to this.

    I play in the SCA. Within the SCA, I have a persona. My persona is a performer, a bard. As a storyteller, I fall into being multiple people within a story.

    Recently, we organized an event themed around the telling of all of Beowulf. I was heavily involved in the production as both assistant artistic director & assistant technically director. I also had a section of the epic.

    Part of the magic of the day was the partcipation of our audience. We’d built the interior of a meadhall. There was no stage — we were audience when we weren’t performing. The audience treated each of us a scop/storyteller, and, were willing to be as vocal as people at a crowded theater watching an action movie.

    Leading up to the event, I found myself examining just my own identity. I’d have to be careful to answer emails with the “correct” name. I found myself feeling blurred between all of my roles.

    And then there was my performance itself.

    I was Amanda playing the part of Aoife the storyteller. Aoife the storyteller was speaking the part of a messenger. The messenger was not only relaying the news of Beowulf’s death, but, then told two stories of the Geats with multiple characters involved. The hardest part was keeping all of the layers.

  2. I’m trying to figure out how this fits into the few rock music signings and meet-and-greets I’ve been able to go to, and the artists I interact with through social media. When I got to meet Alkaline Trio, I brought a stack of CDs for them to sign, including a bunch of compilation CDs with one track of theirs apiece, and then I apologized for being such a dork, and Matt Skiba said “No, we’re the dorks,” although I can’t quite see why. And it’s always kind of a thrill whenSteve and Donna recognize me at Ego likeness shows from my userpics, but apparently to them I’m the fan who always gets the Dark is Rising quotes. It’s odd when I see people as more than just their stage selves. I wish I could clarify it as more than “strange.”

  3. Although I have excellent boundaries for other people’s character/person distinction, I have terrible ones for myself. Like, almost none. And I don’t know why, but when I’m writing a character or doing (like I did years ago) some RPG, I take on the character in my day to day life. Which is kind of ok, because I’ve learned a lot of things from my characters through the years. But still, it’s weird, because it’s not me, but in some small way it becomes me.

    How’s that for blurry?

    Also, about Raise Your Glass — when we sing someone else’s song, I think sometimes we take on their voice, and, in that way, we’re celebrating our *being* someone’s underdog rather than claiming some of our own? Does that make sense?

  4. Randomly, the issue of “Raise Your Glass” reminds me of the arguments around “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ages ago.

    1. Interesting. That song, despite being the right age for it, never did anything for me, so it’s all sort of a big void to me, but the connection is somewhat obvious, although I think I have some feeling that the Pink song is a more “up” song musically and that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had a feeling of self-hate/anger not just in the lyrics but in the sound. Of course, all colored by my, “never really got the Nirvana thing” thing.

      1. It was definitely a more angry thing. But there was a weird solidarity in being the freaks and the not cool. That whole scene cultivated a “we aren’t you, we are the un-cool” sort of thing pretty viciously. (Randomly I remember the person I dated during my teens threw a Green Day record out the car window after they got a major label deal.) I distinctly remember the sort of rage people would have when “popular” kids professed a liking for Nirvana, and the mentality that they were somehow sullying it, infringing on this space the freaks and geeks carved out for themselves.

        I get how Raise Your Glass is supposed to feel more celebratory, but it makes me cry every time.

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