Talking About Gender? These Filmed Experiments Can Help

by Alex Ates, Department of Theatre and Dance

Gender topics are not just for the humanities. Interpreting gender is pivotal to deconstructing norms and methods in the sciences too. Could a new tool from the Verbatim Performance Lab at help you crack open conversations about gender in your classrooms?

For example, The Serena Williams Project re-enacts the September 8, 2018, argument between Serena Williams and the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos. While arguing with Ramos and other officials, Williams stated that she was being treated differently because she’s a woman.

In the 100-level theater course I instruct at The University of Alabama, we discuss the often-referenced theories of Judith Butler, asserting that one’s identity is performative. Butler’s theories arrive in my lectures as a vessel for expanding students’ understanding of what defines performance.

I can see students’ ears perk up whenever this topic is opened. I can sense their intrigue. Some, particularly first-semester freshmen, may never have considered such a theory. Others have strong feelings about this topic, which can be informed by their cultural upbringings. I am provoked to be more deliberate and thoughtful in proposing the topic to ensure thorough dialogue and to foster civility around issues, which can be triggering for some.

Joe Salvatore and Keith R. Huff are professors with NYU Steinhardt’s Educational Theater program. Together, they run NYU’s Verbatim Performance Lab (VPL). Using actors, their lab takes pivotal moments of mass culture and reinterpret them, reversing the gender of the subjects and keeping the words exactly the same.

While it may seem like a simple concept, the process is complicated: actors embody subjects exactly—even down to the breath pattern and gestures. The process has a way of revealing gender roles with clarity.

After gaining global notoriety with 2016 presidential debate experiments, the lab was formalized; Since then, they have gender-reversed sporting conflicts, television interviews, congressional hearings. They’ve even tackled our state’s much-watched senate race of 2017.

I emailed with Professors Salvatore and Huff to ask them questions about verbatim theater, the lab, and how it might be used in classroom settings. That interview is the first part of this post. The second part offers suggestions for deliberately utilizing the lab’s work at The University of Alabama.

a presidential debate with reversed gender roles
From left: Rachel Whorton, Daryl Embry & Andy Wagner (moderator); conceived and created by Maria Guadalupe, Andrew Freiband and Joe Salvatore performance photographed: Saturday, January 28, 2017; 7:00 PM at Provincetown Playhouse, NYU; Photograph: © 2017 Richard Termine (for The New York Times).
PHOTO CREDIT – Richard Termine for The New York Times

Interview with members of the Lab

Joe Salvatore and Keith R. Huff

The lab’s work feels like a tool for society. How do you want society to use it?

Salvatore: We’re creating these word-for-word and gesture-for-gesture reenactments to try and understand why we respond to certain people and situations that way we do. My work with Her Opponent, the gender-flipped 2016 presidential debate excerpts that I co-created back in January 2017, set me on this path. The audience’s response to a male version of Hillary Clinton and a female version of Donald Trump illustrated that verbatim performance coupled with some kind of flip or change in a perceived identity characteristic helped people to see something that they couldn’t see before.

We want society to use our work as a way to stimulate dialogue around why people believe what they believe. We’re less interested in changing people’s minds and more interested in helping people to articulate their own beliefs based on clarity and objectivity.

As an artist and educator, I think my job is to create ways of seeing the world for what it is, rather than telling people what to think and believe, even when I disagree.

For someone who might be unfamiliar with the social function of theater (or this type of theater), how would you describe what theater contributes to the understanding of our society?

Salvatore: Theater provides us with the distance that we need to see what’s actually going on around us, and that distancing becomes even more important in a society dominated by a 24-hour news cycle containing both accurate and inaccurate information.

As an artist and educator, I’ve always been influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht, but our VPL work over the past two years has repeatedly illustrated the importance of his writings about theater as a teaching tool and as a way to shake audiences awake to see what societal mechanisms are at play. My understanding is that Brecht wanted theatrical performance to interrupt emotional catharsis so that audiences would be more critical of the circumstances they were witnessing. In this moment of fast-paced media consumption, we need something that forces us to slow down and see what’s really happening. 

“Lab” implies an empirical process. Can you describe the ways you control variables and keep the experiments neutral?

Salvatore: Our process involves creating a scored transcription of a found media artifact or an interview that we’ve conducted. A scored transcription notates a person’s speech pattern by taking a hard return on the keyboard whenever there’s a pause in their cadence, so the transcript looks more like verse on the page. Once we have that scored transcription, an actor then studies the speech and gestural patterns of the original artifact, adding their own notations to code for physical gestures and vocal sounds (like an upglide or a dental click).

When we film our investigations in the studio, each recorded take is timed and tracked for vocal accuracy. The take with the least number of vocal mistakes that comes closest to the overall timing of the original is usually the take that we upload to our website.

Our focus on objective elements like timing and verbal accuracy helps to prevent actors from commenting on the people they’re portraying. In our style of verbatim performance, it’s the actor’s job to learn the patterns first and then make decisions about why the patterns happen. We begin with the external to locate the internal.

Do you take race or ethnicity into account?

Salvatore: Most of our projects thus far have focused on manipulating the gender of the participants in the original media artifact, so we’ve used actors of various races and ethnicities in those gender-based explorations. We’re aware that other factors like race, ethnicity, age, and ability also play a role in how people experience our investigations, and we welcome dialogue around that intersectionality as people discuss the work.

Earlier this year we collaborated with Tammie Swopes to create The Serena Williams Project which examined what happened to Williams during last year’s U.S. Open Women’s tennis final. We had a white man, a white woman, and an African American man learn Williams’ speech and gestural patterns during two tense moments between her and the tennis officials. All other participants in the exchanges maintained the race, ethnicity, and gender of the original people.

Our work preparing and filming those videos revealed a lot about why those moments happened and how they might have looked differently based on race and gender. Serena Williams was criticized for her response in that moment, but looking at it in other bodies is revealing.

How can these videos be used to guide critical thinking in higher education environments?

Huff: We live in a world where people are consuming information at such a rapid pace that they’re not allowing themselves sufficient time to digest it. Additionally, every piece of media is always laced with a narrative that, pending on the media source, inherently feeds our constructed ideas about the world.

The way we’re using the VPL artifacts in our classrooms serves to slow down the consumption of that information to allow a space to critically assess what is being said and how it is being said.

In turn, this momentary pause also makes room to disrupt and interrogate the narrative that is being told. Through this process, we build essential media literacy skills that allow students to sift through the constant flux of information with a critical eye.

Would you encourage teachers to do similar tests or experiments in their classroom?

Huff: As a starting point, I would encourage teachers to explore verbatim work using the artifacts that VPL has created as a conduit for discussion and exploration.

We’ve partnered with schools that have incorporated our artifacts into their curriculum across various disciplines exploring everything from social justice to media literacy with great insight. These provide a good introduction to the form and an anchor to the specificity and skill that it takes to create a verbatim portrait.

For those looking to create their own artifacts with their students, we have residency options available that can be as simple as workshops and coaching sessions that offer the fundamental skills needed to do verbatim performance, to longer-term residencies that focus on creating larger verbatim documentary performances.

Brett Kavanaugh played by Suzy Jane Hunt
Suzy Jane Hunt as Brett Kavanaugh. Photo taken by Nora Lambert for NYU-TV.

Is there a wrong way to do these sorts of experiments?

Salvatore: I’m not sure there’s a “wrong” way, but I think that mistakes can be made. From our own research, we know that different practitioners define “verbatim” in different ways. VPL takes a very rigid approach to verbatim because we’re controlling for speech and gestural patterns to see what happens when we manipulate other characteristics.

For other practitioners, this might feel restrictive. In terms of making mistakes, I’m very careful about knowing my own positionality and how that might create blind spots as I’m doing the work. Given that we’re trying to maintain as much neutrality as possible in these investigations, I strive to make sure that the rehearsal and recording environment is as collaborative and discursive as possible so that anyone feels comfortable speaking up when they detect a blind spot or sense that something’s off.

How do you see the lab growing? What’s next?

Salvatore: We’re currently watching the Democratic primary very carefully and collaborating with an organization called Artists’ Literacies Institute on an ongoing project called The Democratic Field. Our goal with that project is to use verbatim performances of candidates’ policy statements to illustrate how the content of what’s being said couples with a candidate’s identity to influence a voter’s decision. That may sound obvious, but we believe it’s more complicated and influential than people actually like to acknowledge.

We’re also always looking for opportunities to collaborate with schools and universities to create programs for use in theater and humanities classrooms. We want to encourage a broader understanding of media literacy and civics, and we believe our work has the potential to do both.

Using Verbatim Performance Projects at The University of Alabama

Verbatim performance can be utilized in your classrooms to clearly reveal the norms, stereotypes, and structures socially implied by one’s gender or presentation of gender. However, in tense (and dangerous) political times, when so many students have deeply-embedded partisan beliefs, how might footage of a gender-flipped presidential debate go over? Or even doing a verbatim experiment of your own?

Below are some tips for utilizing the lab’s work in your classroom:

  • woman leaning back a male sailor to give him a kissDefine gender with your class.
  • Give content warnings before the class begins, so students are aware that class discussions will involve gender topics. Be clear about how the content will connect to your course’s learning objectives.
  • Remind students (and yourself) that intention doesn’t equal impact. It is possible to say something with an innocent intention and for it to have a negative impact on another student based on life experiences and perceptions.
  • Create an agreement of norms articulating best-practice classroom behavior, such as a class constitution, so students can hold each other accountable for their actions. Clear terms give students the language to articulate their feelings and interpretations safely and professionally.
  • Explain the lab’s approach. Maybe even share the above interview, so students understand the lab’s intentions.
  • Emphasize that, as an educator, you aim to encourage the fierce and unafraid interrogation of multiple approaches towards the student’s creation of a mode of learning and inquiry. You’re not trying to change a student’s beliefs, but you are trying to help the student understand other beliefs.
  • Use the lab’s guiding questions. For each project, the lab offers essential questions which can help guide a constructive conversation around an experiment’s content. Some examples include:
    • How does the flipped gender of the speaker affect your experience of the emotions on display throughout the remarks?
    • What societal expectations surround the way genders exhibit “toughness?”
    • What happens to your perception of the candidates’ positions on an issue when another body inhabits their words and gestures?
  • Create a variety of channels and opportunities for students to express their thoughts; These can include
    • Articulating protocols that prevent certain students from dominating conversations (e.g. “once you have shared a thought, you must wait for x amount of other students to offer their perspectives before you offer another.”)
    • Create a forum on Blackboard where students can write and share responses and reflections after a class session once they’ve had time to ruminate.
    • Allow students to offer feedback in the form of phrases, images, or colors. Ask students to write or doodle a “moment of impact,” place their reflection on a chair, and have students do a gallery walk where they can silently observe others reactions.
    • Do not force students to share their reflections out loud, as it may be triggering for some students to feel put on the spot.
    • Manage time well. Make sure the class does not go over or under time — plan for community-building activities at the beginning and end of classes to help students warm-up and cool-down.
  • Check out this resource from the Faculty Blog on managing class discussions in tense atmospheres.
  • Share your experiences with other educators.

Access the lab’s projects

Alex Ates is a graduate teaching assistant and MFA candidate studying Directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance.