No need to check personal baggage at the door. Davis Freeman’s Too shy to stare, performed at the Old School as part of Performance Space 122’s COIL Festival, is all about the viewer. Nine other audience members and I took turns entering seven rooms and witnessing private performances. In each one, a photograph of the viewer was plastered to the performer’s face, forcing you to stare at yourself and encounter whatever it was that the dancers were doing. Themes of loneliness, vulnerability, desire, and aging were evident throughout this eerily voyeuristic experience. Some made me laugh, others made me sad, and one made me shiver. Staring at yourself for two hours forces you to contemplate your own personal journey, and different shades of the same person.
My experience started several weeks ago when I visited PS122 to have my photograph taken for the performance. One photo required a neutral face with eyes open, and the other with eyes closed. At the Old School, the “home base” of Too shy to stare was a small, dimly lit space with tables, wine, and popcorn. Seven curtained rooms were situated off of two long hallways. Entry into each of the rooms was a two-step process: a red light meant that you could pass a card through the curtain to an invisible hand; a green light allowed you to enter and sit in a comfortable armchair for the performance.
The first room that I entered featured a man (Edward RosenBerg III) playing the clarinet and operating a soundboard. A framed photo of me (eyes closed) was placed on a candlelit table. It was soothing but funereal, and I wondered whether the rest of the performance would unfold as my life in reverse chronological order.
The other rooms included solos, a duet, and a trio. A woman – with my face – slowly re-ordered several photographs on a magnetic wall to make a circle. One showed an old woman, another showed a young couple. Another room featured three dancers in nude undergarments moving like apes and occasionally groping themselves. And in another, a man and woman – again, both with my face – sat on a long sofa, shifting between formal manners and primal urges.
It was all too easy to get lost in the performative qualities of the experience. Rather than seeing myself – that is, my own full being in charge of my actions – I often saw the performers as just that: performers who were wearing my photo as a mask. Looking beyond this was challenging, but the waiting period between each room (there were seven rooms for ten people, so at least three were always waiting) allowed for some much-needed reflection and whispering with others to find out which rooms they had already visited.
The most evocative experience occurred with a heavily tattooed man (Matthew Morris), who stood at one end of a long, narrow room, mirroring my movements. When he placed my hand on his chest, with his face – or rather, my face – just inches from mine, it was unsettling and surreal. The pairing of an unrecognizable body with a very recognizable face forced me to question who I was staring at, and who was staring back at me. He mirrored my movements, but the person staring at me was a stranger.
At the heart of Too shy to stare is a question: how well do we know ourselves? And how well are we willing to better understand ourselves? The performers know what we look like, but it’s up to the audience members to stare back at them – at ourselves – and find meaning. It can be terrifying, funny, strange, and eye opening.