Profile in Performance Art: A liturgy for Fresno’s Haley White includes close friends and a shave
By HEATHER PARISH
I can count on one hand (with fingers to spare) the number of performance artists I know in the greater Fresno area. Of all of them, only Haley White mines the experiences of her life and body with such immediacy and across so many disciplines.
From rage to laughter to grief, White uses her interdisciplinary art — film, collaborative theater, poetry, or solo performance — to form her emotional understanding of an experience, connect it to her body, and share it with her community. In “Head Shaving Ceremony,” her most recent interactive piece presented on July 3, 2023, in Fresno’s Tower District, White transforms her human frailty into the strength of community. The result is a unique and uplifting liturgy connecting the artist and the audience in intimate ways.
Recently diagnosed with breast cancer, White (one of the founders of the Fools Collaborative) is undergoing her own path through a wood that so many others have hacked their way through. While the cancer diagnosis may be the same, everyone’s journey looks slightly different. In just a few short weeks, she has posted art photos of her body’s scars, recorded video diaries about her treatments, and her bodily and emotional ups and downs.
White’s mother fought a brain tumor a few years back, and White was her primary caregiver. To face a similar trial and similar treatment must be daunting, especially as her mother died after a three-year struggle.
When she approached me to use my central Tower District yard for a space to shave her head, I was happy to provide. Initially, the idea was to stage a similar photo to one taken of her with her mother. She shaved her mom’s head in a backyard and wanted her sister, Lindsay, to do the same for her, then place the two photos side by side. But as news of her diagnosis spread, so did the support of the community she built around her. People wanted to connect. And White had more to say than she initially thought.
“Think of the art that will happen!” said a friend of White’s upon hearing of her diagnosis.
And so, the project began with a snapshot and grew into an intimate piece of ritual art focused on claiming physical identity, being seen, and receiving community support.
“From Sampson and Delilah to Jo March’s ‘one beauty,’ to Medusa, whose hair was turned to snakes as a punishment,” explains Brooke Aiello, one of the appointed ‘goddesses’ guiding the ritual, “hair can either be a tragedy or a potent experience of being alive.” And so, White intends to flip the cultural script of her hair loss, embrace the removal of her hair, and take ownership of what is happening to her body.
Thus, a Head Shaving Ceremony. For many cancer patients, the need to shave their hair due to the effects of chemotherapy and radiation is very emotional – even traumatic. It is a shift in identity and self-perception that can be disorienting, to say the least.
“Hair is a weighted subject in our culture. It is also Haley’s specialty,” Aiello continues. She describes how in 2017, White was cast in the StageWorks Fresno production of “Fun Home,” in the role of Allison Bechdel, which required a short cut, radically different than her long, dark locks. “Bitch lost her goddamned mind!”
Six years later, White has a different feeling: “Fuck the hair. I don’t care.”
But it is an opportunity for an interactive, community-gathering piece of art. And about that, White does care.
The Ritual of the Shearers and Shavers
Another guiding deity, Camille Gaston, opens this section by dedicating the space as “a place of asking for healing, for love and support, for miracles,” and for the divine in each of us to be shared with Haley and each other.
“Open us to transformation,” she proclaims.
The ritual includes a team of “Shearers” who cut White’s hair one by one and a team of “Shavers” who then shave the remainder away as tears roll down her face. The audience sits in a quiet state of calm suspense as they watch White’s laughter bubble up through tears. White’s delight and pain play across her face as her sister sits at her feet, gathering each lock. In the quiet of the hot summer evening, the wind picks up and the sounds of the garden chimes float by as a good-humored solemnity settles over the yard. The Tower District’s sirens and traffic fade into the background.
The Ritual of Seeing and Being Seen
“Many with an illness are asked to hide the evidence of their diagnosis, to soldier on at work, to keep up, to reduce others’ discomfort, to be a ‘hero,'” says Aiello, introducing the second part of the ceremony. “Haley is here to be seen and to have witnesses on her journey. The best way to see each other is through art.”
During this interactive portion of the piece, White invites all who wish to come forward and sit facing her in her newly shorn state for 20 seconds of seeing and being seen. This ritual honors Marina Abramović, whose work “The Artist is Present” went viral during its 2010 run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Of her experience, Abramović stated that it was a “complete surprise…this enormous need of humans to actually have contact.”
White admits that this segment is designed to challenge her discomfort with being seen in vulnerable ways. However, most of the 40 attendees line up for their time with White. Some sit awkwardly, others raise their hands in blessing, some laugh, others cry. But all have a visible reaction to the experience of intimate connection with the artist. White, for her part, visibly relaxes and engages with each individual, exhibiting one of White’s unique strengths as an artist, building a community one person at a time.
The process culminates in White looking in a mirror at herself in her newly bald form — a moment of acceptance for the artist and witness for the audience.
As the sun sets behind an elm tree, creating a deep shade over the circle of people, it casts a calm and loving connection among the audience watching as White is crowned with the laurels of a victorious warrior. Simultaneously the audience’s breathing slows, activity settles, the heat dissipates, and a single bird sings, then takes flight.
While I cannot ascribe a change in the elements to the collective experience of 40 people in my backyard, I can say that everything aligns to form the space into a cohesive sphere, and all inside of it receive an affecting change in the presence of White’s transformation.
If what our hosts say is true, that “theater is learning to make a circle,” Haley White is spending her life as a wheelwright of experiences for herself and others. She’s undertaking the arduous and rewarding challenge of creating a life that is art in and of itself.
In the photos below, left, Haley White shaves the head of her mother. At right, Haley’s sister, Lindsay, shaves her.
Haley White continues her interdisciplinary art throughout her chemotherapy and beyond. You can follow her at haleythestoryteller.com, where she keeps a blog and lists open calls for collaboration.
Heather Parish is a recovering thespian and cheery misanthrope who recently returned to scribbling after decades of cheating with theater. Her occasional writings can be found at The Munro Review and via her nascent newsletter at heatherparish.com.
Photos by Kristin Goehring and Heather Parish. Full album by Kristin Goehring available at SmugMug.