Fort Worth — In 1959, American artist and Rutgers professor Allen Kaprow coined a term for the revolutionary movement developing in the performing arts scene: “happenings.” Combining elements of dance, theater, music, poetry, and visual arts, happenings sought to tear down the wall between artists and spectators, with audience participation being the key element in achieving this goal. Although elements of each piece were planned, artists left themselves the space to improvise in response to each individual performance and each audience’s reactions. The movement burned hot, but fast; by 1963, happenings in their original form were over. But the movement inspired a generation of artists, and paved the way for mixed media artistic movements that followed.
Being of a still tender age (by my own reckoning, at least), I missed the original movement by a comfortably wide margin. But damned if writer and performer Laura Anderson Barbata, director Tamilla Woodard, and Amphibian Stage Productions didn’t put on an honest-to-God, old school happening on their stage last weekend, and a transcendent one at that. The Eye of the Beholder is, in part, an exploration of the life and death — and beyond — of Julia Pastrana, a 19th century indigenous Mexican woman born with several disfiguring genetic conditions that led to her exploitation as an international sideshow exhibit, dubbed “Ape Woman,” “Bear Woman,” and “The Ugliest Woman in the World,” But the piece goes far beyond the mere biographical; Pastrana is not even mentioned prior to the show’s intermission. Barbata uses Pastrana’s story as a lens, not only to explore themes implicated by her life — the exploitation of women, human trafficking, the dehumanization of indigenous peoples — but more fundamentally the way our senses shape how we engage with the world.
Barbata’s road to this piece is a winding one, stretching back over 15 years, and it is inextricably intertwined with Amphibian’s own history. Founded in 2000, Amphibian received national attention for its 2003 production of Shaun Prendergast’s The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (2012 ASP revived it to open its current home). Barbata, who designed the costumes for the piece, felt a deep connection to Pastrana’s story for a number of reasons, not least of which was that Pastrana was born in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where Barbata and her sister, Amphibian co-founder and artistic director Kathleen Anderson Culebro, grew up. In a piece of serendipity, Barbata was eventually offered an artistic residency at the museum in Oslo where Pastrana’s remains were stored, a coincidence that spurred a ten-year campaign on Barbata’s part to have Julia’s remains repatriated to Mexico for a decent burial. She succeeded in 2013, and Pastrana was buried in Sinaloa in a Catholic ceremony. But Barbata, feeling that some of the issues raised by Pastrana’s life were equally relevant to modern life, wasn’t done telling her story.
The Eye of the Beholder is as much about what isn’t said, or seen, or heard, as what is, down to the show’s title, which suggests one of the concepts that led to Pastrana’s exploitation without actually using the word—beauty. European standards for beauty deemed Pastrana ugly, sub-human, and made her an object of curiosity. Despite her talents and other attributes — she was, by all accounts, a talented opera singer, dancer, and charming conversationalist — it was her appearance that defined her life; as Barbata states several times in the show, Pastrana was mistreated simply because of her hair. So for the first half of the show, Barbata uses various images to interrogate how we as a culture see — how we see indigenous peoples, yes, but also more generally. Images (combining projections designed by prominent multimedia artist Kate Freer and photographs taken by local artist Loli Kantor) are projected on a screen and on the walls as Barbata speaks of the original European colonists of the Americas, and how the way they depicted the native people shaped the way their culture viewed them. She lectures about her time in the Amazon with the Yamimoto people, sleeping in total darkness in a jungle alive with sound, which heightened her other senses. The end of the first act, which takes place in (almost) total darkness, leaves the audience in a heightened state of awareness and challenges the notions of perception, preparing it for Barbata’s discussion of Pastrana’s life with an eye towards seeing her — both literally and what her story stands for — in a new way. Interestingly, Prendergast’s earlier piece about her also utilized total darkness in telling Julia’s story, though in that case, the entire show took place in the dark.
Throughout this piece, the audience is a key element in shaping the story; not only is the audience asked to participate in group activities, and at times in a form of almost guided meditation, the audience’s names, images, and other elements are incorporated into the show itself through projections, sometimes on the walls and screens, sometimes on Barbata’s own body. It leads to a shared sense of community and ownership — this is “our” show, as much as it is Barbata’s, or Amphibian’s, or Pastrana’s. It is, by design, a unique experience each time it is performed, and thus by the very nature of the show, it’s difficult to capture the feelings it evokes.
But one of the last moments of the piece — a musical composition by Scottish composer Evelyn Glennie played in total darkness — moved me to spontaneous tears even before Barbata revealed the composer is herself deaf, and learned to “hear” music through vibrations in other body parts. Hearing without your ears, seeing without your eyes: this is the message of the piece. Julia Pastrana’s life was defined by how she was seen by others; Barbata’s The Eye of the Beholder strives to give the audience the tools to truly see and hear her. It was a powerful, unique theatrical experience, all the more so for knowing it will not be replicated exactly as my audience saw it again — a testament to the legacy of happenings and the artists who followed after it. Amidst the tragedy of Pastrana’s life and death, Barbata has found a way to let Julia have a voice of her own at last; it was a privilege to hear her sing.