Showtime (Guest Post)

Management Associate Rae Charles offers her perspective on perception and its limitations: 

“All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts...”

--William Shakespeare, As You Like It

I believe that helping performers realize the roles we’re performing in conjunction with those scripted on the stage, is an integral part of the work Colloquy seeks to do. As performers, we are often the medium of our art: we are not, however, blank canvases. We are performing, or at the very least presenting, an identity that comes with its own associations, contexts, and expectations at any given moment.

Let me offer an example:

Recently, I was riding the L train into Manhattan late at night. A few stops in, I look up to see a man who looks vaguely familiar sitting on the bench opposite me. He was in his early 60s and one of the ambiguously “ethnic” looking types. He had long wavy hair, which sprawled from underneath his baseball cap. The man was reading a book he needed glasses to see. In between doing the “Don’t I know you...?” eye-dance with me, he constantly checked a cell phone, presumably for the time.

Did I also mention that the man appeared dirty and smelt a bit as well? (We’ll come back to this important detail later)

So, the man and I ride the train a few stops further together and by this time, my anti-social tendencies have taken over--shutting down any and all potential for obligatory social interactions. That is, until show time. The man, observing his cell phone one last time startles me as he shoots up from his seat and gets into character:

  • He takes off his coat and folds it into his small backpack
  • He also places his glasses, book, and cell-phone into the backpack
  • From the backpack, he pulls out a crinkled plastic bag and a couple ratty periodicals
  • His bushy waves of salt-and-pepper hair he gathers from below his shoulders and rather deftly tucks into his cap; producing the appearance that his has hardly any hair at all.

The man, now clad in only a dingy t-shirt and cap, throws his backpack onto his back and gathers his papers in hand as he heads towards the door. Suddenly I place him: this man is a regular panhandler on the L train. I’ve encountered him and even given him spare food or money on multiple occasions. I’d done so less recently as I came to have the sense he was giving a habitual spiel each time he crossed my path. That he was, because as the subway doors opened and the man prepared to leave, he turned and gave me a knowing wink and exited stage left.

I had just witnessed a man cognizant of his life’s necessary performativity. Now, I won’t presume to know the validity of the need he proclaims on the trains each night. Just because he owns a coat and has a working cell phone, does not mean this man was not poor or homeless. It could mean that he isn’t and has conned us all. That is besides the point. More interestingly, let’s discuss why most of us find it hard to see him as something in between? What I saw was agency in performance. This man chooses to ask others for money and has discovered a few more effective ways to do it. He knows his audience, he knows his call-time, and he most certainly knows his costume.

But why are any of these things relevant? Why is there a time and place where people are more likely to take pity and give charitably? Why do seemingly arbitrary adjustments to a man’s appearance like tucking back one’s hair, removing glasses, and pocketing a cell phone, make him more worthy of sympathy? Is it perhaps because there is somehow a proper way to play “homeless”? Poverty has a face in our country, one that has been drawn by a number of institutions and systems. Somewhere along the way, most of us learned which poor people needed our help (worthy, working, safe) and which to shun (the addicts, the lazy, the criminals, the cons) and that’s precisely the bias my friend on the train was playing on.

In the performance, he saw an opportunity--a lesson I think we can all take to heart. When you walk into that audition, onto that stage, or into that conference room, your reception depends on your presentation. This statement is not meant to limit you, instead let it motivate you. Not being a blank canvas makes a space for nuance, complexity, and for you to take whatever is written on yours as source material for the story you wish to author.

Rae Charles - Management Associate

Colloquy Collective