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David Levine’s new monologue at the Brooklyn Museum raises concerns about authenticity in our dangerously mediated present. Titled Some of the People, All of the Time, it builds on Levine’s ongoing interest in the working actor and the different kinds of spaces in which performance is received. He has, for example, paid actors just to do their day jobs. For another piece, he trained a method actor to plant potatoes, and the performance consisted of the actor planting potatoes in a field in Germany.
At the Brooklyn Museum, the monologue is performed by multiple actors in a gallery space for which Levine has selected the objects: a head of Nero, an antique goddess with a broken nose, and several photographs enlarged and re-printed by Levine. The monologue tells a story about the actor or actress who is performing, an all-too-familiar tromp through thespian drudgery: hopeless auditions, the money drain of even more acting classes, giving it a go in Los Angeles, and giving up Los Angeles for New York. The spoken text is scripted and plainly impersonal and artificial, since it’s performed seriatim by different actors over the course of museum hours during the exhibition. At the performance I attended, there was also a prompter with a script, and the actor called for a line at one point. The script that is being recited, however, says it’s improvisatory and pretends to talk spontaneously about very personal events and relationships.
The monologue segues to the theme of the fake crowd or claque, essentially people planted in a theater audience and paid to applaud or boo, as the case may be. In his artist talk on opening night, Levine cleverly linked this tradition to fake news and particularly to Trump, who in fact hired actors to appear at Trump Tower when he announced his candidacy. Levine got a good laugh by showing photos of the hired actors wearing identical pro-Trump T-shirts and then matching them with their acting resumes.
Listening to the actor perform Levine’s monologue at the museum, I could not help but sympathize with the desperation that causes actors to hire themselves out when other professional work is not available. It’s a brutal life. Coincidentally, an out-of-work actor I know was serving drinks at the opening night reception.
In his talk Levine revealed that in his background research on fake citizenship he found a news report about an actor who was hired to persuade a local city council to take action in a place he did not live and had no voting rights. His “testimony” was a script created by his employer. Levine asks the important question whether the fake crowd is a threat to democracy.
The actor’s trade is always a deception, creating the appearance of authenticity, and in fictional work on stage or in film or television we comfortably succumb to this fakery without fear of losing our sense of the factual world. With so-called “reality television” and its presidential avatar, the line dissolved. Some substantial part of the American public was fooled into believing that Trump was a business whiz because he played one on TV, despite his record of bankruptcies. In office, Trump has trashed truth and authenticity through his epic public lies and demonization of the legitimate press and institutions of government.
Levine’s ethical question applies to actors, however desperate they may be for money. Surely it is wrong to pervert democracy through a fake public appearance or a fake crowd. (Promoting a perfume or snack food, however, I would put in another category.)
Levine’s broader question for the audience is a more complex one. How do we train ourselves to know the truth when film or photography shows a crowd of supporters? How do we figure out who is an actor at the city council meeting? How do we recognize popular support when some people are being paid, such as the actors at Trump’s campaign opening? Levine also noted the “followers” for sale en masse on Twitter and other social media.
Levine is comfortable on a stage, having appeared in some of his work and lectured as a teacher. He was acting during his opening night talk, but in a way that wears its mask of genuineness and spontaneity lightly, unlike the readily discernible artificiality of a hired actor performing a 45-minute scripted monologue in the round in a white gallery space while people walk in and out. The contrast between theatrical performance and the lecture performance is easier to spot than the fake Trump supporters at the announcement of his candidacy. Do we still remember the fictive crowd that Trump had his spokesperson announce about his inauguration (“largest audience to witness an inauguration, period”)? The photographs and video easily disproved the claim, but the fiction lives on for Trump and his supporters.
Levine’s talk was good, but it was surprising when at the end of his lecture a couple of dozen people gave him a standing ovation. More people then stood up gradually in sympathy, but I suspect others wondered as I did whether Levine hadn’t availed himself of a crowd-hiring service to tweak his audience.