COME BACK (via Five Stage Approach):
A Performance Research Process
Michelle Levy, 2014 –2015
COME BACK is an evolving performance exploring the rise and fall of a man. My father. The title refers to my father’s brief self-proclaimed comeback moment a few years ago that prompted me to embark on a project about him. But when the “comeback” faltered, so did my project…
At the height of my father’s career as a motivational speaking technology salesman, his colleagues called him "Lucky" Levy. Lucky was a performer and an operator. However, he eventually went on an emotional decline from which he never fully returned. He lost his job. He never worked again.
After years of increased seclusion, my father had a survival experience which inspired and empowered him to get back in the game. He created a sales campaign for electronic cigarettes (just becoming popular at that time), including a commercial starring himself, as “Ron Lightman.” The fallen “Lucky” who had struggled for years, now arose a man with a vision and a plan. I empathized with him artistically and became inspired to investigate Lucky of the past while tracking the developments of Ron Lightman.
I asked to borrow all of my father’s old product “rollout” videos of which I had fragmented memories seeing in my youth. When I explained to my father I wanted the videotapes to do an artistic work about him, he insisted I name the work The Comeback.
However, when the Lightman Limited e-cigarette campaign didn’t go as planned, things took a downward turn. I could no longer pursue The Comeback project. The videotapes sat in a bag in my closet for quite some time . . .
One of my father’s favorite sayings is: “When the pain to change is greater than the pain to remain the same, you remain the same.” By deciding to return to this story, I have realized there is something more elusive going on here than an attempt to reify my father…perhaps it is an interweaving of losing and winning, like a braid.
Ron Lightman’s e-cigarette campaign was an impossible moment – an apparent miracle of the human spirit -- a high that there had to be a fall from. But what would a comeback, had it really happened, even have entailed? How much of our past identity, and future ambition, is, or is not a fiction?
A year of extreme lows and crises followed the electronic cigarette disappointment. Then, last summer, at a time when I had lost all expectation, my father left me a message that he had a new, “crazy” idea about dating. I learned of his plan to have bright t-shirts made to wear walking along the beach (where he lives) marketing himself as an eligible bachelor. On the front and back would read “Rent/Lease/Buy,” referring to dating, long-term commitment, and marriage, respectively. When I expressed daughterly concern about his plan, he argued simply that the focus group loved the idea. I was fascinated. Who was in this focus group? Where did it take place? What transpired? There was something worth exploring here.
Returning to the subject of my father two years after my initial prompt, I asked how can I approach this unpredictable personal subject and not set myself up to lose? I channeled the Lucky Levy spirit to create my own motivational guidelines to follow in earnest. I called these guidelines “The Five Stage Approach to Creating an Effective Artistic Experience.” As I developed and followed the five stages, they evolved to become:
1 - Urgency
2 - Risk (Embarrassment)
3 - Projection
4 - Manifestation
5 - Recursivity (the Wishing Fountain)
I used the stages as a method to communicate what was happening with the project.
In order to re-explore “The Comeback” story, I held small “focus group” presentations in the conference room of the art organization where I work -- creating a portal from my workplace to where my father is in the old videos, and suggesting connections between art, security, and sales. The goal was to show the audience the story as much as tell it, to have them feel it as much as hear it. To have them participate in helping me tell it.
Results from one focus group presentation would determine what happened in the next, and with each presentation, I expanded the audience reach, inviting in more strangers. In this intimate and unusual context, there were poignant moments where the audience shared memories and associations. Some asked if they could come back and bring a loved one. Something interesting was starting to happen.
A suggestion from one focus group was to have my father’s “rent/lease/buy” shirts made based on how I imagined them to look. After familiarizing the participants with Lucky’s world, I then invited them to wear his shirt and to connect with and improvise as him.
The focus groups were followed by two larger performances (five iterations in total, echoing the Five Stages), where I began to imagine a potential future manifestation of all of this research, a conflation between my father’s vision and my own. The first was held in a black box theater, the second in a white box theater. One informed the next. The images representing my father came from his golden years as Lucky Levy. Present-day Lucky was represented through audio only. Any physical manifestation of him had to happen through me, and through the imagination and embodiment of the audience.
The rollout presentation of my father’s that I always remembered was a spoof on the Phil Donahue talk show geared towards alarm dealers. When I watched the old footage in preparation for this project, I became obsessed and it created an aesthetic and structural subtext for me. All participants except for the host were part of my father’s alarm company. There were call-ins, jump to video clips of alarm dealer testimonials, audience questions, and the entire show was geared towards discussing the benefits of their new wireless alarm system with a remote control.
While thinking about the present manifestation of Lucky Levy in the Rent Lease Buy shirt, I was also thinking about Lucky Levy who was the mastermind behind this “Donaview” event. How might I resurrect aspects of that moment? Where can I find my father in what he did?
By the finale performance, I found myself in the role of show host, using a wireless mic and a remote control. I was not just the storyteller--I was becoming the object/subject contending with/interrupted by voicemail messages from my father in present day. What had been shared in the small settings of the focus groups was now theatrically heightened-- moving towards a new form. This performance felt most like a ritual.
The audience followed along, reading the Lucky levy quotes en masse
The volunteers who stood up to reenact Lucky Levy did so with extraordinary commitment.
A volunteer Rent/Lease/Buy chorus sang the theme song (from Stage 3: Projection).
The question I continue to ask through all of this is: am I doing this to bring me closer to comprehending my father’s story, or farther away? Am I using my own performance to escape from the subject of my performance?
Throughout this process, I continued to talk to my father (who has remained in an up-and-down cycle) about the project, and at some point he offered to send me his original shirts … which actually say “buy lease rent!” Having the shirts and hats worn by him at least a few times before giving up, prompted me to wonder would happen if I carried out his “project” and “worked the shirt.” The t-shirt idea does not represent a comeback, but rather the insane gestures we all feel impulses to do (even if we do not do them) in order to in search for happiness out of our reach. In one performances I announced that if my father couldn’t find love this way, maybe at least some other special cases can in his honor. I asked if anyone would join me in solidarity. I got three volunteers.
My first subject was Nicholas. We met at a park. We spent three hours roaming, testing out the shirts and talking about the trials of finding love in New York City. Beyond gaining a lay of the land in the shirt, I developed a hunch this could be a very interesting, off-line wingman dating service. A possible Come Back spinoff?
During the final performance of COME BACK (via Five Stage Approach), I showed video of Nicholas’s “exit interview” where he explains that the biggest lesson from the experience of going around in the shirts is that it is very intimidating to try to embody Lucky- much harder than it looks.
I was somewhat startled and haunted by this one still from my performance documentation-- where the shadow cast by me looks just like my father. It IS my father. The shadow I cast is the shadow of him. Perhaps this is a clue for where to go next.