Jess Barbagallo on Becca Blackwell, body work, and creating performance in quarantine
April 26, 2021
Jess Barbagallo on Becca Blackwell, body work, and creating performance in quarantine
IN EARLY FEBRUARY, I hopped in a car bound for Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania with my friend Becca Blackwell. Our mission was a mixture of business and pleasure: to visit Youtube-famous chiropractor, and hallowed muscle whisperer, Dr. Brent Binder. Becca—either a performance artist with a staggering knowledge of touch specialists or an anarchist pervert, depending on your chosen paradigm—is working on a new solo performance installation, The Body Never Lies. exploring the possibilities for healing beyond western medicine, which often fails its Hippocratic mandate by ignoring the idiosyncratic self-knowledge of the patient.
Becca speculates that their piece—created in collaboration with sound artist Max Bernstein—will be an utterly visceral experience framed as an auditory laboratory that invites audiences to move to their own heartbeats. Becca is no stranger to the role of “guide,” having made a trilogy of comedic solos—They, Themself and Schmerm (2016), Schmermie’s Choice (2020), and As Schmerm As It Gets (2021)—that together initiate viewers into Becca’s complex navigations of work and romance as a butch actor who began taking hormones at age forty. The latest piece, an associative play on James L. Brooks’ 1997 rom-com As Good As It Gets, is currently available on wildprojectTV as part of the Followspot Series alongside works by Brandon Collins, Manning Jordan, Jill Pangallo, and Paul Soileau (aka CHRISTEENE). Proceeds from these digital shows, each available for rental at $10 a pop, go to the creators and help support the Wild Project, an East Village treasure whose future has been jeopardized like so many other small, independent venues by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Body Never Lies moves even more deeply into modeling reflective conversations with the self, a reorientation that could be attributed to Becca’s long-time practice of qi gong under the tutelage of Grand Master Nan Lu coupled with an increasing exhaustion from the ever-ballooning vocabulary of identity politics. The project’s endgame is almost inconceivable: to experience self-discovery untethered from language. If this idea comes off a little blurry, the reason might be fairly obvious: Covid-19 has made rehearsals nearly impossible. For now, the project lives as a private experiment and in drafts of grant proposals, although Becca does have the modest comfort of belonging to Soho Rep’s Project Number One, a pilot program launched in 2020 that keeps a small cohort of artists on salary to model a world in which cultural workers are guaranteed the same benefits as traditional 9-to-5ers. While artists are used to spending time in the purgatory of research and development, Covid-19 has amplified the usual insecurities around creating live art into an existential crisis.
In the midst of this collective “furlough,” arts organizations have also been reckoning with issues that plague the field including institutional racism and unfair labor practices. The artist-driven rallying cry against “business-as-usual” is as inspiring as all the mutual aid endeavors that have rippled across our theater community this past year: from Target Margin Theater’s “We Will Take Care of You” mask-distribution campaign back in April of last year, to a surprise call I received late last summer from greer x, Queer Art’s Community Resource Coordinator, just checking in to see how I was holding up. But will this ethos of generosity stick as our brick-and-mortar economy reopens? Or will the costly enforcement of necessary safety precautions for theaters, theater artists, and their audiences make live performance into the ultimate luxury item?
Binder’s practice is an ideal subject for Becca. His videos not only present a bodywork session but also the sounds it produces; a planted microphone documents the intensely pleasurable cracks made by the strategic pressures of Dr. B’s hands. Acolytes of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) get off on Binder’s snapping of stiff toes, or the quick twist of a pained neck, and true believers claim to be personally healed while watching someone else’s session. I get the feeling that Becca is pursuing that creation of internal space facilitated by the chiropractor, and as their amateur research assistant, I am there to document their somatic quest. In exchange, I’ll receive a free adjustment from Dr. B, although Becca scoffs at this transactional assessment of our arrangement. They’re not the first to insinuate that my Capricorn rising is a real drag.
Our appointments are at eleven o’clock in the morning. At Pain Relief Chiropractic, I observe thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Binder to be a slight, muscular man, handsome and charismatic, and alert in a nearly hyper way. He has a shaved head and well-groomed facial hair, and wears a uniform of dark tailored slacks, black suspenders, and a pale blue button-up. His videos prove that he looks like this every day, and his familiarity is comforting. He and Becca begin their session sitting across from each other, at a distance and wearing masks, discussing topics ranging from gender transition to parenthood-as-prolonged-psychedelic. At one point Binder ruminates, “How do you know what it’s like to be a man if you’ve never been a woman?” Becca enthusiastically nods.
After the two have sufficiently gotten to know one another, Binder begins his examination, asking Becca to remove their shirt and march in place as he eyeballs their movements and murmurs “postural sway.” During a seated spinal examination on the table, Binder observes the symmetry of Becca’s back, slowly tracing their spine with his fingers, noting an increased clamminess in the mid-section and explaining that the presence of moisture is due to excessive heat. Together the two collaborate on possible explanations: Slipped disc? Testosterone? The natural condition of a Scorpio rising?
Being privy to the session is akin to watching a love scene unfold. At one point, Binder instructs Becca to slouch and wrap their arms around their own chest. Gently cradling my friend, Binder lowers them down onto the table, using his weight to precipitate fuller release in Becca’s back. Their repartee is consenting, salty and open, and full of laughter:
BECCA: (chuckling) Can you tell I’m a top? It’s hard for me to let go.
BINDER: But you could be a power bottom.
BECCA: It’s really fascinating how afraid of relaxation [I am] … I can feel that. When it’s all I desire.
BINDER: It’s not just letting go. It’s you surrendering to me.
Watching the video of my own time with Binder, I am struck by my response to the intimacy he offers, observing my well-trained instinct to perform a speedy cosmetic appraisal of my half-naked form, rather than broaden my focus to admire the actual profundity of our chaste threesome. I have known my body for almost forty years, Becca has known it for fifteen, and Binder for just half an hour—distinct temporalities that result, for me, in a buoyant trust exercise. Becca playing the role of Witness somehow makes me feel more worthwhile, even excitable, as a subject. Binder as Listener hovers over the stiffness in my left shoulder, the genesis of which I can now narrate in a way that I couldn’t when we discussed the history of my body at the outset of the session. I now remember the endless physical therapy appointments between matinees and evening shows when I was performing on Broadway three years ago, although it seems like a lifetime ago. In my early thirties, I found myself executing choreography made for actors ten years my junior, nursing shin splints and a sore neck that was best eased by carrying a heavy laundry bag on my days off, a repetitive motion injury I was pretty convinced at the time would plague me forever. The sagging musculature of my back became a little less ugly to me, and even transformed into a site of pride when I acknowledged that I was able to recover from the mild traumas of the commercial theater machine. Not only did I recover, but I changed, and my life changed, and the aches moved to different places and then disappeared altogether.
That evening, Becca and I returned to Binder’s office for a sound bath, which drew us deeper into the holistic medical complex. The lights of the room were dim, and we turned our cameras off. Becca and I laid down on tables arranged perpendicularly to each other and closed our eyes. I thought I heard a bowl being softly struck, rippling the shared airspace and suggesting the shimmering materiality of sound. I caught myself falling asleep as new sounds filled the room and vibrated through me, suspended somewhere between the permission to be vulnerable and the desire to control my physical response. When we emerged from our repose, Binder relayed his intuitions: My overactive third eye creates a surplus of thought that impedes action; Becca’s great humor sometimes serves as a distraction from a full realization of self. We chuckled over these snapshot narratives, which felt momentarily correct and as comforting as a good Tarot reading. Louche and moody, shooting the mystical shit, I found it hard to leave that room where we didn’t really need to talk to hear each other. Strangely, re-entering the world bore some resemblance to being herded back into a cage more ominous than skin or fascia, which is ironic because there are stretches in the countryside of wide-open Pennsylvania where you can drive for miles in supreme quiet with nary a man-made enclosure in sight.