A Reflection on Identity, Body, and “Everything You Touch”

Let me preface this by saying I find it kind of awesome and hilarious that Ingrid Michaelson’s “Be Ok” was the first song that popped on in Pandora when I sat down to write this. I think you’ll understand why by the time you’re done reading this.

This evening, well, sort of last evening now, I experienced a play, “Everything You Touch,” written by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Jessica Kubzansky, staged at Boston Court. I say “experienced” rather than “attended” or “watched” because I don’t feel like I was just a spectator. I found it to be a deeply personal experience. The space really invites you in, the performances even more so. I felt like I, along with the cast, was called into vulnerability. They answered the call, and I want to do so, too, in responding to it. Disclaimer: I’m not a theater critic, nor an actor.

The title, “Everything You Touch,” comes into play in a brief song, where the line is “Everything you touch, but nothing you notice.” Jess, the main character, powerfully portrayed by Kirsten Vangsness, is singing about feeling marginalized, feeling invisible, feeling like scenery, feeling like a furniture. Jess’ interactions with her physical body, physical surroundings, imagined surroundings, past surroundings, future Jess, are all tied into these themes of self-perception, self-esteem, externalizing self, internalizing shame, family dysfunction, along a journey toward self-acceptance.

The promotional blurb for “Everything” on the Boston Court pamphlet reads, “A viciously funny look at the struggle to find an identity that’s more than skin deep.” If I were to boil down the themes layered into the play, I’d have to say that it comes down to bodies being seen; the marrow is this idea of how we often look outside of ourselves for definitions; we externalize the task of self-acceptance and, in doing so, we inhibit our ability to experience any acceptance at all. This is summed up well in one of Victor’s lines, “We are all victims of ourselves.”

Tyler Pierce‘s Victor and Kate Maher’s Esme were stunning at portraying the “light” their characters reference. Their stories don’t end happily. Theirs is a tale of dependence on external validation, on the demands of creative profession, of how bitterness is destructive, of loneliness. Victor declares at one point, “I want to participate in humanity… Also I don’t want to be ashamed of it.” Yes to that, so much yes.

Two side notes: Tyler Pierce as Victor eating a cupcake, simultaneously smoking an herbal cigarette, was terrifically amusing. There’s a point where Victor just says “Sigh!” quite dramatically and falls to the ground. Priceless. We might all need to start doing that in real life.

There’s Louella, whose mother is a “firecracker,” charmingly written by Callaghan and charmingly portrayed by Amy French. Louella and Jess both utter this line at different points, and this may be a slight paraphrase, perhaps one beginning “I’m afraid,” “I came to realize I’ll always be the one doing the looking and never be the one looked at.”

Throughout the play, I saw the externalizing of self again and again, the externalizing of body, the projection of self outside of self. It brought into painful relief how we let ourselves be defined by bodies that are external to us. The set itself reinforces this externality, this disjointedness of body. A particularly disturbing chair is a jumble of mannequin hands and arms, perhaps legs, too. A chorus of three models serve as set pieces much of the time, serving as different objects — gumball machine, steering wheel, keyboard, to name a few.

Each in their own way, Jess, Victor, and Esme are stuck in cycles of projection, of seeking to define self by external means. Esme, a model, Victor’s muse, asks him poignantly, “What kind of material am I?” Victor, a fashion designer, seeks validation through fame, success, and approval. Jess is tormented by “seeing” the chorus of three models constantly. The microexpressions and reactions of the chorus, portrayed by Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Fryer, and Candice Lam, were really astute, and though they didn’t speak often, they delivered when they did. The three are tremendously exposed in skin-tone bodysuits much of the time.

Lewis, played by Arthur Keng, serves as an external push for Jess over and over again, even making a list of “freakishly awesome’ things about her that he leaves as a voicemail. Keng’s energy, enthusiasm, and sincerity served as a balance to some of the darker moments. Jess offers Lewis a brilliant breakdown of the Chipotle experience that had everybody in the audience who’s ever been to Chipotle cracking up.

There are themes of “you’re already awesome, but you keep trying to be someone else,” of feeling like we are not being looked at the way we want to be seen, of not being visible at all, of carrying hate that we’ve “inherited,” and of releasing the burden of the things we’ve inherited but that we don’t have to keep holding on to.

It was entirely coincidental and delightful that I happened to attend on a night that was followed with time to meet and chat with the cast. I attended the play by myself, which means there’s no safety in numbers factor in this kind of close but open space. Kirsten was gracious, warm, and kind, and it was such a pleasure to meet her and talk about some of the body image themes in “Everything.”

I also approached Allegra and Candice from the model chorus, and that’s when things really emotionally started to impact me. See, I experienced the play as a fat woman, living in an often-marginalized body, sitting in an audience of not-fat women and men of varying sizes. I experienced a sidelong glance or two from a couple girls down the row from me, and their glances felt pretty judgy.

As I introduced myself to Allegra and Candice, I found myself saying, “I’m kind of scared of skinny, tall girls, and I wanted to come over and talk to you.” I found myself talking about how their vulnerability was brave and how impactful their parts were in emphasizing this ingrained behavior of transposing our bodies on to other bodies. Insecurity is not limited to any particular demographic, it seems pretty universal. It doesn’t rule me unless I allow it to rule me. Acknowledging my body and my insecurity out loud to them, not with a message seeking validation, but affirming that the validation is inherent was very meaningful to me, very powerful.

That’s the truly beautiful, meaningful message that I hope you’ve stuck with me to read: My body is my body. Your body is your body. Stop seeking external validation of internal, inherent self. Stop projecting self externally. Stop asking other people to define inner self. My body is valid in and of itself. Your body is valid in and of itself. You and I are freakishly awesome in ways that we aren’t even awake to, we each are “the most rare creature on the planet,” and we are empowered to define ourselves and so become enabled to live into the full expression of those selves.

A great big thank you to Sheila, Jessica, and the entire cast and crew of “Everything You Touch,” to all the parties and supporters who made it possible, and to Boston Court.

If you live in the SoCal area, go see it! It’s at Boston Court through May 11.

Everything You Touch postcard

P.S. If you’re financially challenged, there’s an economic stimulus show on May 7, all tickets that night are just $5, not available through advance purchase, available only at the door, check or cash, and there’s a limit of two per person.

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