I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently to the question of what really makes a lasting impression on me when I see a play. There are many things that can impress me in the moment: I love to hear a great turn of phrase delivered in a skillful way; I can be blown away by impeccably-performed choreography; I may experience a kind of ecstasy when witnessing a moment of perfectly balanced tension between two actors. Any one of those is reason enough to see theater.
But there’s something that can set some performances and some productions apart, something that enables them to leave an indelible mark on me, to actually change the way I see the world going forward and alter the way I perceive and relate to other people. I’ve been trying to pinpoint that something, to name that elusive quality that affects me so deeply. And I think I’ve found an answer (maybe not the whole answer, or the only answer, but an answer at any rate) that can be encapsulated in a single word: Vulnerability.
I’m not talking about weakness or insecurity, even though those are synonyms for vulnerability. Exposure comes closer, because in order to be vulnerable you must be exposed. But I’m focusing on the root meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin verb vulnera, meaning “to wound.”
Are you strong enough to be hurt?
A person who is truly in a state of vulnerability is showing their truest self, fully exposed, their secrets uncovered, uncomfortable truths acknowledged, fears admitted, and wounds on display, unprotected and susceptible to new hurts. It’s risky and raw and revealing. For a performer to fully embody this condition on stage involves a remarkable degree of emotional strength and determination, as both the character’s and the performer’s own defense mechanisms must be deliberately stripped away. It is that effort—the paradoxical exercise of strength to open oneself to pain and be vulnerable—that touches me so profoundly. Nothing else gets me to feel for a character, to root for them, to identify with them, so immediately and completely.
I’ve seen a number of performances over this past year that achieved, or at least approached, this quality. Kimberly Richardson, Maggie Chestovich, and Randy Reyes in Ten Thousand Things’ production of As You Like It; Lindsay Marcy in 20% Theater Company’s Where We’re Born; Wade Vaughn’s magnificent portrayal of Edward Kynaston in Walking Shadow’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty; and Sheena Janson’s heartbreaking turn as the Baker’s Wife in Theater Mu’s Into the Woods all leap to mind, though they’re not the only examples.
But there was one show last season that was essentially built on the concept of vulnerability from start to finish, and as a result is probably the most moving and revelatory production I’ve ever seen. The Naked I: Wide Open, produced by 20% Theatre Company, is a collection of stories and poems by and about transgender and gender non-conforming people. These are people for whom, in our society, vulnerability is an inherent and ongoing condition as they encounter discomfort, misunderstanding, dismissal, rejection, fear, and hatred from others on a regular basis. Simply because they are who they are. Because they’re not as easily categorized as people want other people to be.
The pieces they wrote touched on universal themes (identity, relationships, sex, body issues) but are intensely individual stories—stories that, as an audience member, you know must be based on true events because no one could have made that stuff up. The show opens with "Naked," an ensemble piece that traces the various meanings and implications of that word while the actors increasingly embody it.
Red Rover, anyone can come over.
Then the production moves through a number of monologues and scenes detailing the extraordinary experiences of the authors: Fateful conversations, mind-boggling decisions, botched surgeries, unasked-for confrontations, and unexpected embraces. Many of the stories are painful; some are jubilant. They all involve people striving to get at the core of who they are, what they want, and how they fit in this world. When I saw the show, some performers were experienced actors and dancers, including some of the authors; some were new to the stage, also including some of the authors. All of them were brave and strong as they put their words and their bodies on stage and inhabited their vulnerability.
The stories feature events and situations that are out of the ordinary for most of us, but this show is not about peering in from the outside to see what these “different” people are doing. It’s about people expressing their fundamental humanity under some of the most challenging conditions imaginable. It’s about realizing that we are all broken and naked and scared in our own ways, and that all these infinite individual expressions of vulnerability are actually evidence of our indelible universal bond as human beings. A declaration of this universality comes at the end of the show, in the powerfully poetic closing monologue: “We roll millions deep. We are yelling ‘red rover’ and anyone who wants to can join our line. There is nothing more dangerous than loving ourselves exactly as we are. We may be terrified, but this is our time.”
(Yes, I bought a copy of the script.)
Not very long ago at all, it would have been utterly dangerous for transgendered people to express themselves this boldly and honestly. In many parts of the world, it still is. I am overjoyed to be alive in a place and time where it is possible for the creators of this show to be truly vulnerable with each other and with the audience, safely, and to use that vulnerability to build trust and understanding, make connections, and improve people’s lives. Mine is certainly improved for having seen The Naked I: Wide Open.