By Laura Mullaney
One of the things I’ve always loved about theatre is its own inherent language ‑ a sort of secret code that only performers understand. There’s also a great deal of “rules” when it comes to playing the role of an audience member. The act of sitting in your seat, turning off your cell phone, waiting for the lights to go down, sprinkling occasional, respectable laughs, and clapping at the end has become normalized to define a traditional theatre experience.
Enter Joseph Bricker, here to disrupt those norms, create a new definition of the theatrical experience, and guide patrons through questioning our own role as spectators.
When I entered about fifteen minutes before show time, Mr. Bricker was already fully present in the room, with a blank canvas sprawled out on the floor, and two mirrors at opposite ends of the theater. He walked casually throughout the space. He wasn’t necessarily warming up, but acclimating to the blank space ‑ a sea of possibility laid out in front of him. Before settling into my seat, I noticed a notecard lying face‑up on my chair. It read, in small print:
I was struck by the simplicity of the text on this notecard. And right off the bat, I was drawn to Mr. Bricker’s refreshing candor. Right away, he dismantled traditional theatre norms. Maybe, I thought to myself, Playbills really are superfluous. I couldn’t stop thinking about how ritualized theatre had become. My brain was moving at a rapid pace throughout the show, checking my own theatrical habits, which was probably Mr. Bricker’s goal all along.
The play begins with silence, occasionally disrupted by a voiceover providing instructions for Mr. Bricker about a project he’s been assigned. Long moments pass without a word, and there’s both great power and great discomfort in the silence. I look around, seeing if other people are experiencing what I’m feeling. But it was in that initial moment that I started to grasp Mr. Bricker’s intention, and I was hooked.
As the play progresses, we learn that Mr. Bricker has been assigned by the voiceover (God? Himself? A mix of both?) to create a self‑portrait. The voice assures Joseph that it doesn’t need to be good (it’s rare for one person to be both visually and theatrically artistic), but it does need to be authentic. Of course, this makes Mr. Bricker incredibly anxious, and as an audience, we’re reminded of the times we ourselves have been faced with creating something personal ‑ from elementary school art projects to the dreaded college essay.
“The Self‑Portrait Project” is a joy to watch, in part because Joseph Bricker is clearly a trained actor. And while this piece often parodies the stereotypical actor, Mr. Bricker’s talent makes his commentary believable. This is particularly manifested in his “O for a Muse of Me” speech ‑ a self‑indulgent take on the “Henry V” monologue. But it’s even more enjoyable to watch the vulnerability of being an actor play out on stage. Mr. Bricker writes out his character traits on a mirror, attempting to place himself into stereotypical boxes. He performs exercises straight out of an undergrad Voice and Speech class, lying on his back and breathing in the world. I’m reminded that being an actor often feels like your existence is placed under a microscope, and that’s incredibly terrifying.
At times, he perfectly fits into the actor stereotype ‑ breaking out into a rather long rendition of “Who Am I” from “Les Mis.” In these moments, it’s hard to tell if he’s reinforcing traditional theatre or working hard to tear it down.
Mr. Bricker’s message is most effective about two‑thirds of the way through the piece. He acts out a series of auditions ‑ flipping a light switch on, and wearing different hats in the casting room. He tries out different slates, each one peppier than the last. We see the desperation in his eyes. He tap‑dances, recites his resume, and does push‑ups, all to stand out. He paints his Instagram handle in bright pink letters across the blank canvas. In this moment, I saw 65 different iterations of a self‑portrait. I saw Joseph Bricker trying to step into the portrait, molding himself to fit some existing structure. In some ways, that is exactly what auditioning is, right? Perhaps it’s what it shouldn’t be, but it’s what it has become.
By “traditional” art standards, Mr. Bricker doesn’t produce a tangible self‑portrait at the end. In fact, there’s more paint on his body than on the canvas on the floor. However, it’s within a monologue addressed to the audience at the end that we finally see his self‑portrait take shape. He presents himself exactly as he is, reminding the audience that he’s here to serve us. Mr. Bricker’s vulnerability is charming, and there’s clear strength and resilience in his acting. Watching him exist paints a captivating, thought‑provoking portrait that stayed with me long after the lights came up.
“The Self-Portrait Project”
Written and Performed by Joseph Bricker
November 12 at 7:30 PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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LAURA MULLANEY is a New-Jersey native who has had a lifelong interest in the performing arts. Previously, she has written for American Theatre Magazine and Limelight, the official newsletter for Actors Theatre of Louisville. Currently, Laura works in arts marketing and communication roles promoting theatre. More at: www.laura-mullaney.com.