Performance deconstructs definitions
Author: J.P. Allen
Amid the flurry of Winter Term events and speakers, performance artist Scott Turner Schofield quietly staged one of the most unusual, exceptional presentations Middlebury College has seen all year. Schofield was invited to Middlebury by T Cooper ('94), and visiting Winter Term professor, who included some of Schofield's works in T's class, "Transgressive Fiction."
Schofield began his genre-crossing performance by handing cups of sweet tea to every audience member and politely chatting about his Southern upbringing. After pouring the last of the tea, he turned his blue-eyed, open face to his laptop and called up a picture of a large, segmented circle with words like "male," "female," "gay" and "straight" written in each slice.
"Which of these words would you use to describe me?" he asked. After some sheepish seconds and a few mumbled audience responses, Schofield launched into what he called "the nuts and bolts." He is a man who was born a woman. Although he has not yet undergone (and may never undergo) expensive and complicated "bottom surgery" that would replace his vagina with a facsimile penis, he has been injecting testosterone for years and is convincingly male in appearance. He is a "lesbian-turned-straight guy" as his books' dust jackets concisely state. However, his journey through the maze of gender and sexual identity has been far from direct. Schofield's work is based in the psychological, emotional and philosophical effects of that journey.
Schofield did not perform full versions of his works. Instead, the presentation was minimally structured and highly participative: the audience asked questions about Schofield's life and work and Schofield answered with conversation, multimedia presentations from his laptop or performances of selected pieces. The writings, which Schofield called simply "stories," varied in style, from poetry to prose-poetry to monologues with stage directions.
The event was a cross between an interview and a collaborative storytelling session, with Schofield assuming the roles of master of ceremonies, tour guide and human exhibit. The medium (or, more accurately, media) of the performance dovetailed with its larger themes. "Gender is a performance," Schofield remarked, but unlike a play or poem, gender performance is constant, unavoidable and inherently multimedia. Every moment is simultaneously "real" and performed.
Many of those moments can be hilarious. Schofield's performance thrived on the humor generated by breaches of social norms. For instance, he told a harrowing, hilarious story of returning to Georgia to participate in a friend's debutante ball (a ceremony ironically known to Southerners as "coming out"). Because very few people in his hometown knew he was a transsexual, he was forced to pull together a convincing female outfit, crossdressing ("double-crossing?") back to his former gender.
Some of Schofield's stories seemed too funny or dramatic to be true, prompting one audience member to ask simply, "Do you embellish?" Schofield smiled. "Great question," he said. "It's not about embellishment. It's about word choice: what choices do you make about telling the truth?" In writing, one can choose to move "closer to" or "farther from" a story, but in either case, Schofield believes, the story can retain an authentic core.
Perhaps the greatest joy of the event was Schofield's obvious love for his job. He praised live performance's ability to reveal truth "through stories, not through lecture" and to forge genuine human connection. "Performance is one of the last bastions of incredible grassroots action," he said. "If you're going to open your heart to anything, you have to see the performer, you have to see each other and the performer has to see you." For these reasons, Schofield refuses to perform for more than 100 people at a time.
Schofield's presentation uniquely combined form, structure and content into a compelling, earnest statement of identity.