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  • A Body’s Mind Experience in Tim Miller’s Workshop
  • Katy Ryan (bio)

I’m a graduate student in English literature: I read books, stare at a computer, read, stare, read. Sometimes I make a phone call. Very often, my body seems incidental to my work. The last time I performed on a stage was in my high school’s production of South Pacific. I danced with a towel around my head while Nellie sang “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”

At the November 1996 “Performance Art, Culture, and Pedagogy” symposium at Penn State, I signed up for Tim Miller’s workshop. He had announced that there would be no limit to the number of people involved, and I assumed, “Great, I can easily hide in a large group and still ‘participate.’” After I had arrived at the workshop with 150 others and had seated myself comfortably in an auditorium chair, Tim insisted that there be no spectators. Everyone had to be involved. Dutifully, I joined the crowd in the front of the room as Tim divided us into two groups for the opening exercises. He then directed the first group, of which I was an uneasy member, to spread out on the floor. We milled about and smiled politely at one another as Tim quickly explained our first assignment: for fifteen seconds, we were to walk in a large circle, scratching our pubic hairs, and listing what we had for breakfast. Go!

A swarm of bodies began to move around me; a buzz of voices erupted. I had the distinct feeling that I had been flung into water without taking a breath. A woman with maroon hair confidently thrust her fist down into her jeans and started yelling, “Cigarettes, cereal, coffee, another cigarette, coffee.” A fifty-something man casually unzipped his pants, fumbled into his white underwear, and began scratching as he quietly catalogued, “Cantaloupe, banana, orange juice . . .”

Trapped in this murmuring bodily force, I was vaguely aware of my right hand scratching, through clothing to be sure, some region of my body closer to my belly button than my crotch; I heard myself mumbling, “Coffee, um, coffee . . .” Actually, I had not had coffee that morning; I had no idea what I had had, so I was simply repeating whatever I heard from a passing voice. At some point, I echoed “bacon”—I’ve been a vegetarian for the past decade. About a dozen seconds into the chaos, I became aware of my other hand: it was furiously [End Page 205] scratching behind my left ear. What was it doing that for? I had been so focused on my right hand not scratching where it was supposed to be scratching that I was quite oblivious to my left hand. There, in a crowd of strangers, with no one paying any attention to me—but me—my body underwent some kind of bizarre physical schizophrenia. As I stared in bewilderment at my traumatized left hand, Tim happily screamed, “Great! That’s enough.”

Yes, that’s enough. I fled to the sidelines. Anxiously, I searched for an exit, but I was crammed in the farthest corner from the door by excited bodies that exhausted me by their sheer bulk. Reluctantly, I decided to persevere; after all, this was an expensive conference, and this was exactly what I read and write about: moving bodies, simultaneity, performance. In the next half hour, I surfed while singing Italian opera, feigned orgasm while walking across glass, and ran as fast as possible into seventy-five people who were running at my group, all of us chased by the thing we fear the most. Which did not, for me, require a great leap of imagination: I ran from myself running from the thing I fear the most at a performance workshop.

I offer this anecdote to illustrate (performatively, here in writing, in what José Muñoz describes as a “queer act” 1 ) the uneasiness that accompanies entrance into new territory and to rehearse the possibility that our bodies act, not only in staged performances, but in theory. For those of us who think about theatre more than do theatre, it is...

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pp. 205-207
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