Team Sunshine’s ‘Sincerity Project’

The thin line between sincerity and artifice

The Sincerity Project is billed as an “anti-play.” The performance takes place on a grassy green circle upon which the much smaller wooden sincerity circle is placed. Throughout the show, performers (all friends, among them two siblings and two exes) take turns entering the sincerity circle, getting on one knee, and addressing the audience. The sincerity circle, it’s explained, compels the performers to be as sincere as possible to make an honest, real connection with an audience of strangers.

Distracted by motion.

They contribute to a broader discussion of themes — like the loss of virginity — offer opinions on the other performers, or share the thoughts running through their minds as they perform the show. As a delegation of separate space for sincerity, the sincerity circle suggests that what takes place outside the circle, by contrast, isn’t necessarily sincere.

Outside the sincerity circle, performers wrestle, pantomime licking ice-cream cones, thrash about naked, sing, or chat with one another. These actions provide distractions so the performers usually can’t hear what the person inside the sincerity circle is saying. There’s also a live choir, whose presence in the background can seem either festive (in fact, one of the most charming parts of the show) or downright emotionally manipulative, especially when the harmonizing provides the background music to the performers’ off-the-cuff speeches about serious topics.

Sincere, but . . .

During the show, sometimes I laughed, sometimes my lip quivered in sadness, but mostly I was perplexed. The Sincerity Project allows the audience to get to know the performers personally, but only to a degree. Whenever the person inside the sincerity circle starts approaching a place of depth, she’d get interrupted or it would come time for her to exit the circle to complete a task. The audience sees the performers and their relationships through a narrow lens, and I would’ve liked a wider view.

I walked out of The Sincerity Project as I walked in, unsure about what, exactly, the project is. In the sincerity circle, performers often mention being part of The Sincerity Project, calling it “this thing” or “what we’re doing here.” (The predicates to those subjects include “is serious” and “has changed my life.”) But without the context about the project itself, its goals, or even substantiation of such references to it, I had difficulty grasping what was actually going on. The show doesn’t explore or interrogate the concept of sincerity. It does not define sincerity in relation to or in opposition to another concept. (The New York Times infamously pitted sincerity against irony in 2012, for example, and illustrated how sincerity is taking hold in our present cultural moment.)

Truth or dare

Instead, The Sincerity Project takes the notion of sincerity as timeless, self-evident, decidedly apolitical, and fully accessible via performance, which makes the show feel a lot like a game of Truth or Dare at a sleepover: Amusing to an extent, if not slightly phony, and occasionally revealing of a juicy tidbit, but overall limited to the provided guidelines. One of the performers is described as “really good at being sincere,” which just translates to being really good at affecting sincerity, like affecting joy or distress. I’ve sat through enough poetry slams to be suspicious about the integrity of performed sincerity (or vulnerability), which, especially when self-conscious, can just be a pretense.

The Sincerity Project left me frustrated and unsatisfied, but it’s important for me to distinguish the show that I saw from its long-term trajectory: it will be showing 13 times — every two years — over the next 24 years with the same cast and same structure. The people involved will perform the same tasks and enter the same circle again and again. This creation of a live time capsule strikes me as an interesting social experiment, showcasing how bodies, relationships, and perspectives change — almost like the movie Boyhood, but without the neat narrative arc and with an even stronger dose of earnestness.

The longevity of The Sincerity Project has the potential to be revolutionary in terms of how we think about theater, communication, and marking time, but I wonder how the notion of sincerity will stick.

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