Something About Belated Avowal: A Performance by Cat Ashley
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When I first heard about Cat Ashley’s performance Belated Avowal, I knew I had to be there.
Held on November 3, Belated Avowal took place at the Black Box Theater at AS220 here in Providence. Swirling, pulsing animated projections illuminated an intricately draped and layered textile piece on the wall behind the performers. The stage was populated with musical instruments, synthesizers, and a computer monitor. On stage with Cat throughout the performance was Daniel Sohn, with Sophia Nelson voicing the third character, remaining unseen. For the entire forty-five minutes, Vyette Tiya flowed all over the room, gesturing through the aisles, around the stage, on the floor, and around the audience.
In Cat’s words (on her Instagram), the story “follows One (played by Cat), Two (played by Daniel), and Three (voiced by Sophia) as they navigate One’s struggles with keeping time. Elements of live music and projection work alongside a surrealist text to emphasize deviations/distortions in timekeeping, centralizing relationships.”
I found myself completely engrossed for the duration of the piece. One struggles to understand her friend Three, becoming frustrated and confused about the ways her conception of time is impacting their friendship. Their disconnect becomes more and more pronounced through repetition of the phrase “I can’t hear you” in various forms. The climax of the performance was what truly struck me, as One approaches a microphone to the left of the stage, layering her angelic vocals into a complex harmony that left me entranced. She walks back to the center of the stage, confronting Two and Three and attempting to reconcile, breaking down in a flood of cathartic, swelling tears. I could feel the room freeze, everyone holding their breath.
I left Belated Avowal in complete awe of Cat and the piece. It is so rare to see something so beautifully honest, such an earnest display of vulnerability. That is what struck me the most about this piece: it felt so earnest. I was desperate to know more about Cat’s process, thoughts, and emotions regarding the performance. Despite our busy schedules, she welcomed me into her lovely studio at CIT. Together, we delved into ways of timekeeping and how Belated Avowal came to be.
KG I was curious about where this piece was born. It felt vulnerable and personal, but maybe it’s not? Can you clarify that?
CA It was super personal. Personal as a result of being born from my research into media theory, performance, gesture, and repetitive ritual. All of those things satisfy the idea of time and keeping time and keeping up with time, killing time, etc. I personally have a different way of moving through time than mechanical timekeeping, and so over the last two years I’ve been developing this idea of centralizing biological timekeeping over standard metrics of timekeeping. I made this equation for myself that was super helpful, it’s perception of time + temporal illusion = perceived duration. Essentially we have our own idea of how long something is based on our previous measurements of the time of our activities, our experiences, our body, and things our bodies do. And then, you add a stimulus that alters that perception of time and you have your new perceived duration. That equation completely omits this idea of keeping up with something rigid or consistent. . .it’s about your experiences, your biases, and your environment informing how you can move through time and space.
A lot of people look at life as progressing through tasks, and then we have a variety of gestures that we’ve used to efficiently complete those tasks. A lot of those gestures align with mechanical timekeeping, which ignores gestures that can benefit our health overall. We are unhealthy because we are fighting to keep up with this idea of time and this idea of task completion and this idea of white supremacy that is just not malleable at all. We’ve set up a system that is so rigid and you’re trying to fit all of these beautiful happenings and these beautiful people into that? It’s not possible.
KG So this came from something that you’ve always been thinking about. . .I know you have a theater background; how did you decide on the musical components? Did you put that together with Daniel or did you compose it yourself? What was that process like?
Performance stills; photos by Jiho Park
CA Daniel and Vyette are based in Philly and Sophia is based right outside of DC. So, we only had four days total to put on this show in person, plus Facetime calls and individual rehearsals. Which is nuts! So, I composed music here in Providence and then traveled to Philly. We had a playlist that had a lot of inspirational music, a lot of Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson. . . and then I composed these two pieces that had a couple sections. Daniel would suggest, “Let’s repeat this moment here.” Led by Daniel’s ear, we essentially took my composition and stretched it over 45 minutes, reintroducing similar patterns and ideas, then re-orienting them to incorporate the other instruments that he was playing. The moment in the middle was a shift of mind. Most of the show I played piano, which was a look into my character One’s mind. One’s sounds are sound bath-y, and they’re dissonant, and feature keyboard and synth and theremin. Then, there’s this one scene in the middle which is the only scene that’s dictated by Two (Daniel). That’s when he asks the question, “How long is too long to wait?” which we ponder together, and this moment feels most like a song. That song is time through his perception. To satisfy that difference, we switched to just string instruments. For that song, I played bass and he played guitar, which was the only time we played string instruments in the show.
*Interlude of me talking about how cool the theremin is because I had never seen one before. Please look it up if you don’t know what it is.*
KG I love the collaboration there. You also had a dance component as well. I wasn’t sure whether the dancer was an extension of One’s subconscious or if she was the physical embodiment of Three?
CA Originally we had Three (1) and Three (2) and so the dancer was the body and the voice was the voice. Together they were one being that would essentially break away from each other because of moving through time differently. As I was directing Vyette through her movement, she would present me with an array of gestures. I’d say “Yes to this” and “Yes to this” and “Yes to that transition” and she’d take those things, do them, and do them again. The process was very similar to the movements, and while we were doing that I realized that Vyette was kind of embodying time itself. So then we moved her into just being time, which allowed her to dance among the audience, behind the audience, in the cameras. She danced the entire forty-five minutes because time never stops or ends.
KG So who is Three? Is Three a verbal push towards mechanized time? You seem to reconcile at the end.
Performance stills; photos by Jiho Park
CA The moment of release that I am feeling is by finally being heard. Being a Brown person being heard/watching that on stage . . .I wanted all of the physical performers to be people of color as well. [Three is played by Sophia, who is the only white member of the cast, and is not physically seen throughout the performance.] I wanted to other white people in this space, whereas to people of color it was like, “You are present.” At first glance it seems like Three is the antagonist, but really, One’s mind is the antagonist. Three is not saying things in a misleading way or in the way that One hears them, she’s actually just talking. Those moments are just a metaphor for when One loses herself in trying to work through this “disordered” perception of time. The three of them are best friends! Three’s saying, “You’ve been working on this thing for x long amount of time, you’re almost always done, you’re acting very weird, can’t you just tell us?” Imagine your friend says to you, “Karina, I have a huge secret,” and you’re like “Okay . . .do you want to tell me?” and they’re just like, “I wanna tell you but I’m just going to try to write it down, and every day they come to you and they’re like, I’m almost done writing that thing . . .I’m almost done writing that thing . . .I’m almost done writing that thing.” They’re always almost done writing that thing, but what is it? And then you figure out that you really are impeding on your relationships with people. This show is about relationships and time affecting those things in different ways. And then, there’s that moment of solitude when One goes to the mic and loops her voice, creating an atmosphere for herself that she feels safe enough in to then use to score her delivery of these words to her friends. Then they both say “I can hear you. I get it, I wish you would’ve said this sooner, I get it.” When you spend forever doing something and then someone says, “It’s okay, I get it,” how else do you react other than to laugh and to cry?
KG That is so beautiful. You crying . . .it was just so raw and everyone was just. . .
CA I could feel it! Breath stopped. . .
KG This is all about time and moving through time in a way that you want and in a way that’s comfortable for you and those around you. I think it’s so interesting that you’re working and thinking about this and then having to present it in the epitome of a place where you’re not given the time you want the way you want to do it. And then you have to present it within that construct? What was that like, what was your feedback like?
CA I started writing the script in June. Before I came to RISD, I told myself, “I’m taking a break from performance. That’s not what I’m doing here. I’m just going to work on installation art, and work on developing that part of me. But then, this summer, I just felt like, “I can’t not do this? I do so much research on these gestures and these movements, I’m performing in other projections, and live performance is what I do. I’m just going to write a small little five-minute piece. And then I’ll put that on mid-semester in Fletcher or something.” As I started writing, I realized I had more to say. And so the piece got bigger. And then I started looking for space. And then I brought more people on. And then I was like I need to design these projections. The scale was so large and if I did it within the confines of the time that they allotted us to do it I would not have gotten it done. I had to find a way to keep up with everything else here while my whole world was this show. RISD did not present me with enough space or time to do it. I had to go beyond that, and this is now a third of my thesis.
With this piece I was only met with awe. It makes me think about how when it’s dictated to you that you can do anything you want, how often do people actually take advantage of that? In conversations with my GPD, she was like, “How can I help you? I feel like you’ve done everything?” and I was just like, “Yeah..you’re right.” To be on schedule, I would’ve had to think about this stuff at a totally different time. And now, also, they’re supporting a medium that they’re unfamiliar with.
KG Yeah, I was gonna say . . . being in FAV, in Open Media, they say that it’s installation and performance and all these things. Even though I don’t do performance, I’ve always been interested in kinds of installations that I just can’t do, and I have to find my way around the limitations of the space.
CA You have to make it happen for yourself.
KG And you had it as AS220, which isn’t a RISD space, it’s a Providence art space.
CA The self-producing part was really hard. There were a lot of things that were left for me to do that I didn’t initially plan on. . .setting up ticketing, running the tech, all this stuff. The cast and a couple of friends loaded in, installed, and striked the show. I used ticket sales to pay the performers, my scenic associate, and graphic designer. We should be employing each other. Half of it all is just getting to know people that you can work with later.
KG Pivoting back to the performance itself, the component of being heard was really interesting to me. You touched on it before as being a brown person, but did you feel as though doing this piece and presenting it to everyone was the way you were being heard? Or do you feel like it was an expression of how you aren’t and a hope of what you could have?
CA I think it’s a level of being polite. For someone to say something that makes no sense to you . . .? It wasn’t until the end of the show that I said, “You speak in these run-on phrases that make really no sense to me, they make no sense and I can’t hear you.” All those other times at the beginning, Three says, “When you’re ready I think it’s time to go a little further than I can right now for a second, etc., etc.,” and One responds with, “I can’t hear what you’re saying. There must be something about me that doesn’t allow me to hear you because I trust you to communicate with me. So I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Really, there was this block that didn’t allow One to really hear what was being said. This idea of someone saying, “Turn down the music, I can’t hear when I’m driving?” Language like that is where I got that phrase, “I can’t really hear what you’re saying when you talk like that.”
KG I totally get what you mean. I left your performance very excited thinking, “Wow, okay, people are doing things!”
CA That’s very kind. And it’s possible!
KG Yes, and it’s possible to do them! It’s really wonderful to hear the community that you do have around you. That your friends helped, that they came.
CA Yeah, I wore a lot of hats. But every single one of their jobs, I didn’t have to do anything, I didn’t have to check in. This was my first written and self-produced performance piece, but I put it on with people that I have devised work with, performed with, have worked with in this capacity, and above all I fully trust.
KG And you could feel that!
CA You could feel the familiarity. We were all so comfortable. If the whole catalyst of this piece is One’s fear of losing their relationships with people, why not bring this piece into the world with some of my closest friends and family?
My conversation with Cat left me even more impressed than when I first saw the performance. In what ways can we work together in our communities to support one another and our passions? How might our perceptions of time, particularly in temporally rigid structures like a university, impact our relationships with ourselves and with each other? How does it feel to be heard? Belated Avowal was a beautifully poetic attempt at beginning to answer these questions. As it’s my senior year at RISD and I’m becoming more and more aware of the passing of my time here in Providence, One’s experience reassures me that time doesn’t have to be my enemy but rather my closest companion.
Documentation of Belated Avowal can be seen on catashley.com/belatedavowal
Karina Garbarini is hugging her friends and going on walks.
Cat Ashley is always eating grapes.