A Poetics: Radical Intimacy and Improvisational Performance


Cornelia Barber, Birthday Party (2014).
Photo: Sherif Ahmed, Courtesy of Cornelia Barber

By Cornelia Barber

Performance, text. Text as performance. Hi. How are you? What do you feel when you read this? What do you want? This is a poetics, as in, this is how words create meaning, and through words method draws us together. You and I. Eleni Stecopoulos writes  “Poetics might be thought of as [this] resonance, the energy of extensions that composes form always as method.” This moment where we might find each other through the language we use, in this case English, and become embodied through the metaphors we create. We become embodied: loud, soft, the performer becoming the performance, the language becoming this performance.

The body as a metaphor, a time capsule. The performance as a poem, a ritual, a spell. Martha Graham writes in her memoir Blood Memory “I’d rather an audience like me than dislike me, but I’d rather they disliked me than be apathetic, because that is the kiss of death. I know because I’ve had both…” Art worlds, “scenes” can be full of corporate apathy. The language of investment and order, the language of neo-liberalism, inverts our sense of performance to align with the system’s motivations instead of with our own impulses. Theater, performance art, poetry, can become about tickets, sales, promotion, and evaluated and criticized on the same terms. What is the anxiety that lies beneath these tendencies?

In writing this I am not making a valuable item. Print this out and throw it in the trash, or hang it up on your wall, or take care of it, put care into it. We don’t want to be sold and re-sold. Do we? Does this performance? Do you?

For both performer and audience performance space can be a place to process, to engage, to resist. It can also be a site for coercion and manipulation. Taken to its furthest possibilities this means that performance has the capacity to be radical, emancipatory, community building, or propagandistic, didactic and alienating. From Antonin Artaud to Augusto Boal, to Lynn Nottage, Marina Abromović, to Kristin Linklater, Keiji Haino, to Meredith Monk— performers, performance writers and artists have forsook likability for change. Augmentation. Evolution. Truth-process. As Meredith Monk says, “If you know what you are doing already, what is the point of doing it?”

I am interested in documenting this process, in writing through a vocabulary not for instruction or prescription, but as a moment in the process itself. The process as the performance. I am interested in performance and poetry as relating forms of radical intimacy. How can you and I be together? And not together? And what are the problems of working this way? Reading and writing this way? And what does that mean for us?

I want to tell you that whether you a performer, or not, there is room for you in this piece. There is room for you to find room, or get mad, or feel bored, and there is room for you to be okay after reading this. Because being together in whatever way we can, finding the room to feel and not work or sell, to take our time, to explore the pleasure of the moment—that might allow us to grow deeper into ourselves and through each other, to grow as artists and to live deeply.

  1. Capability:

What do I feel able to do on stage? What do I feel unable to do on stage? Are the things I feel unable to do, things that I wish I could do or am I content in remaining unable to do them? If I feel unable are they things that are still possibly attemptable and whose failure I/audience might learn from? Might some of the things I feel capable of doing onstage be more worthwhile to be performed as inabilities even if the inability is a lie?

For instance in a movement based piece even if you could raise your leg over your head and it is something that you as a person feel proud of, it might work better, gain sympathy and make people laugh if you were trying very hard to lift your leg over your head and unable to. It might also feel good as a performer to allow yourself to not ‘succeed’ at something in front of an audience, or to keep a talent hidden from them, distancing yourself from the person that they are witnessing. This is only second best to attempting something you are not likely to succeed at in front of an audience. Embracing places of weakness. Processing them. If you are bad at singing, try singing.

  1. Space:

What does a space tell you? The size? The shape? The atmosphere? The vibe? How does it affect the piece? What limitations does it put on you as a performer? How can those limitations become a part of the piece? What expansions does it add? How can those expansions become a part of the piece? What does the space want? What does it need? What does it have too much of? Too little?

  1. Body:

How does this piece utilize your body? Is it a movement based piece or a theater based piece? Are there elements of both? What are your costuming choices? Does costuming play a large or small part in this piece? Is there nudity? If there is, why? What are the parts of the body that you are most comfortable exposing? Most uncomfortable? Are you willing to reveal parts of yourself that make you feel uncomfortable?

How does your body feel? Do you need to warm up? What is your body doing in this piece?

  1. Materials:

What are the materials you are using? Can the audience also use them? Is it necessary to utilize them? Do you make a distinction between materials and props? Do they add or take away from your intentions? Are they confusing? Do you like that they are confusing? Is it actually a good thing to have props that juxtapose with the seeming intention of the performance? Can you make it clear to the audience that this is a juxtaposition and not an accident? Will it be the worst thing in the world if an audience perceives such a choice as an accident? Will knowing that make you unable to continue a performance?

  1. Theater:

Elements of theater can be used in many different ways, from the most basic things such as having a script, and using blocking, to creating an experimental arch that produces effects of theater performance without any of the benchmark approaches that most people understand as theater. Using these theatrical elements in a piece is different than performing theater. Identifying theatrical elements in a piece can help clarify intentions for both yourself as performer and an audience.

Elements of Theater:











  1. Audience:

What are your limits with an audience? How many people are in the audience? Friends? Strangers? Is this piece audience adaptable or is it for one kind of audience?

  1. Energy:

What is the intended energy of the performance? How does that energy change throughout the performance? What is the relationship to the space, audience, body, theater and props throughout a performance and how does that energy change?

High Energy: High energy is when the performer is full of confidence and the sense of complete dominance. The performer perceives the audience as being pliable, motivated, tuned in, in awe, and expectant. The audience is lending the performer energetic power by establishing a relationship in which the performer is able to move/sway/turn/educate/unbalance/gratify them through their participation in the above ways (pliable etc…) Audience is at ease in this participation and feels safe with the performer guiding them through this performance whether they are being asked to listen, to involve themselves physically or to witness. Even when the performance is very intense or becomes in some ways emotionally threatening, the audience remains confident in the performers ability to guide them through this.

Low Energy: Low energy can come from several different places. It can come directly from the performer feeling unconfident in their work. It can come from a disinterested audience. It can come from the safe relationship between performer and audience not being established. It can come from a power strain between performer and audience, or a refusal from the audience to participate, or a refusal from the performer to guide them. Low energy does not necessarily mean that the performance has to stop and it does not mean that the performance is necessarily ‘bad’. It means that ulterior energies that live deep inside us will take over and that both the performer and the audience might find themselves at the wills of these energies without wanting to be there.

For instance if I find myself performing for an audience that seems indifferent I might take that to mean that my ability to guide and educate is in this case futile, that feeling of futility might rise up in me as fear then as a defense mechanism that turns quickly from fear to anger. The next step in the performance might become unintentionally violent. In losing the safe relationship between performer and audience the energetic field is opened up to chaos and violence. Low energy is very difficult to control and though it might force the audience out of their indifference it is a more base kind of relationship. Performances that are made solely from low energy are usually shocking, maddening, and anxiety inducing. A performance that includes this kind of moment without letting it completely take over a performance can provide a welcome jolt to a performance.

High/Low Energy: When a performer senses that the energy is off, but does not allow themselves to be taken over by low energy, instead works with it to show the audience what is happening and how they are participating in it. For instance, if a performer is in the middle of a movement routine, but the audience is clearly disinterested—someone is on their phone, or people are leaving—the performer will notice this, perhaps feel a sense of futility or a like emotion. Instead of letting themselves fall inside of it they will instead stop dancing for a moment. Perhaps the performer will sit down or take a breath, or start having a conversation with someone in the audience, asking about their day or their name. This does not mean hiding the fact that the performer is angry or upset, the performer might even say something aggressive, use the low energy to help motivate the audience back into their surroundings, but the performer does not let themself sink to the low energy completely. The work of High/Low energy is difficult because it means that the performers work is to re-balance themself, the audience and the space, and whatever the intention of the piece was, the new intention is now shifted to this re-balancing which can sometimes be distracting for both performer and audience. It is imperative to work on balancing exercises outside of a performance in order to be prepared for this kind of work inside of a performance so as to be able to keep the intention of the piece, and guide the re-balancing of the room at the same time.

Energy Exercises:

  1. Spend at least fifteen minutes a day not doing anything. Meaning no TV, no eating, no computer, no reading, no nothing. This is not meditation exactly because your physical body may not be doing anything, but your emotional, mental and spiritual bodies will be busy at work and your goal is to try to become a little more aware of what they are doing and what they need. The emotional body might feel depressed over an ex boyfriend, the mental one trying to prepare for what you’re going to do after the doing nothing is complete, and the spiritual one very fearful for the future. Notice this. Notice how these bodies manifest to you. Are they voices? Colors? Do they have shapes? Accents? How do they interact with each other? Do there seem to be only two or more than three? Can the self that is noticing them interfere? Can you talk or color with them? Or do they feel very separate from the you that can notice them? You don’t have to change anything, just notice. Maybe when you are done you could write some of it down, but you don’t have to feel obliged to.
  1. Talk and interact with many different kinds of people. Homeless, rich, waiters, businessmen, men, women, trans, black, white, asian, friends, sick, young, babies, teenagers, people who seem unfriendly, and all the places where these identities might intersect. Notice how with each person you change your gestures, notice how they make you feel, how your voice changes. Notice when you feel very comfortable and when you feel very uncomfortable. Notice the kinds of interactions that make you feel happy or fulfilled and the kinds that leave you feeling empty and gross. When you feel happy what is the next thing you choose to do? When you feel empty what is the next thing you choose to do? Notice the impact you make on other people, are they comfortable? Uncomfortable? Bored? Do they seem like they want to get away from you or keep talking? When you are performing it is all of these kinds of different people that are watching you and you will have to interact with all of them at the same time.
  1. Practice engaging with your own feelings. If you feel sad don’t pretend to feel happy, try to live in the feeling of sadness and see where it takes you. If you feel thrilled about something, let yourself feel it, don’t obscure it or deaden it or pretend you don’t care. If it is difficult for you to engage with a certain feeling, live in it, notice it. Even at an art show. Even when there are expectations for you to act in a certain way. Notice what breaking from those expectations feels like. Where the feelings live in your body.
  1. Manifesting change: The above exercises have to do with noticing and participating in your own life experience; getting to know your energies, your body, your feelings and other peoples energies bodies and feelings, living inside your own and engaging with others. It is about taking all the information you gather during an ordinary day, what you notice, and putting your newfound knowledge into action.

Cornelia Barber, Becoming Land (2015), Bard College.
Photo: Gabe Rubin, Courtesy of Cornelia Barber

Two summers ago I worked with a Shaman in Upstate New York. We worked together around becoming grounded, becoming able to take in all the sickness and joy of being alive, and of living amongst each other, and the plants and animals of this world. We worked together for three days. Each day I felt myself opening more and more to her directions. One day, we walked in the woods for a few hours. I was blindfolded for the first part of this walk. “Listen to your feet” she told me. I did. Then she took me to a river, asked me to walk through it and advised I sit on a rock in the middle of it. I did. “You do good around water” she told me. I had always known this about myself; I have always loved swimming, and being near water. I grew up next to The Hudson River and went to college upstate on the same River. Yet, when she told me that water is healing for me sitting in a tributary of the Hudson, when she put into words to, a feeling I had always had, but never completely allowed to become a part of my everyday life, it was surprising as if brand new information. Drink more water. Swim more. Travel to beaches around the world. Get naked and jump in the ocean, walk into large bodies of water even in the winter. She helped me to realize I needed more practice engaging with my own inner realities. That in order for my body, or any-body to heal themselves (or to accomplish whatever the task is) there has to be a relationship between how we follow our own thought process, how we take our feelings around with us, and what we do to them. Becoming more aware of how important water was for me led me to become more aware of how fiery of a person I am, and how water helps me to align some of the discomforts that come from too much heat. When I perform, when I am divided between vulnerability, costume, character, the energy of a space is shifting and the energy in me is shifting, it is important to recognize this heat, and keep pushing myself to work with it, instead of muffling it into something more palatable because I’m too scared to face it.  Every emotion, every memory, every trauma has the power to become your greatest strength while improvising. And it will all, always, come out. You might be able to hide from yourself, but you can’t hide from an audience.

  1. Performance Space as Sacred Space:

Whatever kind of performance you are doing the space you are doing it in is sacred. It is sacred because it belongs to so many dimensions of reality that are out of your control and that you do not understand: bodies, feelings, perceptions, identities, sexualities, language. Whether the performance is raunchy and rebellious, or if it is subtle and short, if it is meditative, whatever the content of the piece is, the space is sacred and sacred space must be blessed with energy and boundaries.


Sacred means that stuff can happen here that can’t happen anywhere else and also that there are limits for what can happen. Creating a piece with no limits is like entering into a classroom of teenagers without a lesson plan. Even the most raunchy and debased performance knows limits, even if the limits are not having any, or more likely being perceived as if they don’t have any. Limits have range. Example limits are: it has to be at least 15 min long, I can’t address any one person directly, I won’t touch any of the props I have on set with me, I will find at least two moments where I am doing nothing, I won’t get naked, I won’t reveal my intentions through text only movement, I won’t raise my voice above a certain level.


In order for the performance to take place there needs to be some kind of preordained message sent into the space in order for everyone to feel protected and in order for there to be possibilities for change, excitement, education, and performer/audience alignment. It can be vocal blessing, a silent one, a movement based one, but it has to demonstrate humility, promise to do good work, set intentions for the piece, and ask the universe for strength and protection in the coming performance. The blessing is also where you set the intentions that you have been working with in rehearsal to manifest fully in the performance.

  1. Rhythm:

Every performer should understand their natural rhythm and how it changes under different circumstances. All aspects of performance depend on rhythm to carry the content of the piece. Whether it is a collaborative rhythm found between performer and musician or an individual rhythm that works out of the impulse of a performers own nature, being aware of rhythm is an essential element of performance. How does your blood move? If you lack rhythm there is no way you can carry a piece. The more disjointed a rhythm is, the more practice it takes for you to control it.

Exercises for Rhythm:

  1. Listen to and memorize your favorite songs, then trade lyrics so that you sing a tune you know by ear with lyrics you’ve memorized in a completely different way. This will help you sharpen your ability to hear subtle differences in sound.
  1. Notice how long it takes you to respond to people when they talk to you.
  1. Watch a lot of stand up comedy and listen, watch their movements, how they deliver different segments of bits and how the audience responds to them.
  1. Tune out all parts of music except percussion and try to follow it all the way through.
  1. Choose different parts of instrumentation to follow with your body, then change which instrumentation to follow and see how your body reacts to the change. How long does it take you to react to something once your mind has been made up about executing it?
  1. Perform text in front of a mirror either with a friend or per-recorded voice, look at yourself while responding. Notice when you choose to respond to things, how long it takes you and think about what you’re doing in the space where other people are talking. What are you doing with your face, your body, your hands?
  1. Intention:

What will you let yourself feel? How deep will you let yourself go? Who do want? Why are you doing this? Where are you?

What part of the body does this performance come from? Where is your trauma? How did this get started? How long will it take? Are you ready? Is it time?  How does it feel? Have you seen this before: when, where, how? Who do you love? Who hurt you? What do you want from them? Is there a reason? Is it necessary? Will you die without it? How do you love yourself? What has changed since you started? Does this ever end? When do you cry? Is it enough?


Cornelia Barber, Water Colors + Poetry (2016), Babycastles, New York.
Photo: Lenny Simon, Courtesy of Cornelia Barber