It’s been almost 2 years since I was in a theatre due to COVID19 shutdown. This walked back into The Grand theatre’s rehearsal space for my creative residency titled PUBLIC WELCOME. It hit me like a semi-truck honking its horn as it passes you, barely missing you by two inches — I am in a theatre. With people! This return to the theatre made my heart take flight, my eyes open and well with feelings, and my feet firmly ground. How incredible to feel the power of this magical space we call a theatre and to recognize its impact on people when they come together to experience the live art that occurs here.
Since I walked into my first performance of “Pinnochio” presented by the now-closed Stage Polaris in Edmonton circa 1989, I have seen the stories of humanity played out on stage. Often times this meant me sitting with a large crowd in a dark space. While the actors were lit and the story progressed without any participation from me other than as a spectator. Using the full resources of stage lighting, sound, flying in set pieces, and watching as costumed performers use the crafted props on stage to tell a linear story filled with themes that each audience member can relate to, thus initiating catharsis.
This is my first residency post-COVID-19. I wanted to sit in the question of How might live performance reveal the complex truths of humanity while engaging every person in the room in the truth-telling? In the past 10 years of doing community-based art projects, I have constantly reassessed my power as an artist in relationship to my collaborators and attending audience. In 2015, I developed a show called “Insert [Show] Here” where I began to explore this notion of relinquishing the power of the performer and giving control of the show's lighting/sound cues and driving narratives to the audience. This initial experiment lead to a lot of laughing and joyous moments on stage by the actors and audience, but it didn’t reveal any deep truths. Fast forward to 2021, and I have been on a personal artistic journey of how live performance can support the experiential understanding of the personal and collective lived experience. I have brought to together my research and work with applied performance - Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed”, Jonathan Fox’s “Playback Theatre” and Anna & Daria Halprin’s “Tamalpa Life/Art Process”. These three streams of applied performance have informed who I am today as an artist. They also immensely informed my residency this past week at The Grand.
I put out a call for participation through my email list and posting to different online arts classifieds. I received responses from eight individuals. Throughout the week I invited these individuals to come jam with me in the studio as we explored these different techniques of authentic somatic movement, applied theatre and community storytelling. We did this through a variety of exercises: in warming up we would dance for 20 minutes exploring different somatic elements such as “moving forward/up; moving down/back”, asking the body what it wanted to speak, vocal and physical harmonizing, collective and solo voice. Once warmed up we used elements of Playback Theatre to get our flow going; fluid sculpture and pairs work. And finally, we would initiate long-form improvisations of stories we told each other. Each time, we would examine how each of the Actors/Player’s contributions layered into the story’s metaphor.
There were moments of pure heartfelt joy after a person watched their story be played out: “I feel seen”, “That is exactly how my Grandmother acted”, “I didn’t realize the complexity of what that other person was going through at the time”. On multiple occasions, people welled up with emotion watching their stories unfold in rehearsal and at the performance. There is something about having creative distance from your lived experience and allowing art to capture the complexity of your story, that allows your body to see things through a different lens and gain new perspective and possibly empathy/sonder. This was, by far the most revealing thing that occurred during this residency.
I learned how to ask good prompting questions to get to the heart of the story told by an individual. It was difficult, at first, to prompt the ensemble to tell revealing stories. Some questions offered anecdotal stories that were shallow in theme, and some prompts really allowed the openness that someone needed to tell a story that really rooted itself in something that we could all universally feel. There were also times when, although our larger research was based on climate change and its impacts on us, that a story about the breakdown of communication with one’s parents and their expectations of one’s future, really revealed something about how facts and science can eventually become eroded if someone is not prepared to hear a certain reality about their future. Capturing the essence/metaphor of the story was the most important thing. This turned any story into something universal that could resonate with all the audience members.
PUBLIC WELCOME is a branch of TRAction, an ad hoc collective of artists interested in using art for climate awareness and climate justice. I see PUBLIC WELCOME as a theatre lab for the public where the public’s stories around the complexities of climate change can be brought to life using live performance and ultimately, this art-based research allows all of us to sit with the complexities and truths while also building compassion, empathy and care for one another regardless of political ideologies and beliefs around climate change. Now that this residency is over, I will be inviting the ensemble, and anyone interested in continuing this work, to meet weekly for two hours to work through more exercises in this fashion. The hope, then, is to have public presentations using this community-engaged performance process to continue having a dialogue around climate change and climate justice in the many different communities and with stakeholders impacted by this issue. Stay tuned to my home page for details on when these weekly jam sessions will be occurring.
All photos are credited to Delilah Poon.
Life is a series of emergent experiences.
No one really knows what will happen to a baby in its life as it grows older. The chaos that is life provides it the right amount of disturbances, changes, adaptations, reflections and transformations that propel it forward. As this child grows, it attempts at achieving something and failing becomes its existence. One could look at these failures as a way to bound their inability to grow. But, the reality is that, for all humans and species on this earth, resilience is natural. It is the substance that makes and propels life forward.
I am in interested in the emergent qualities of life and live performance. I remember when I was a very young emerging artist, I enrolled in an extra-curricular class in high school called "Theatre Appreciation". As a group of students, my peers and I, would venture to a theatre once a month, typically a regional A-house-type theatre to watch your basic mainstage type programming ("Hello Dolly", "Of Mice of Men", "A Street Car Named Desire", etc.). Sitting there amongst the 300-or-so audience members watching a live performance, I was taken by a moment when an actor, playing a character on stage, dropped a handkerchief on the stage floor. The dropping of the handkerchief had no meaning to the narrative. This was a moment when the actor had accidentally dropped something on the floor. Something unscripted. The scene went on, but nobody picked up the handkerchief.
It dawned on me, at this young high school age, that, in real life, regardless of what was happening, if I had an object in my hand and it had accidentally fallen to the ground, I would, uninterrupted from what I was doing, naturally bend over and pick it up and keep doing what I was doing. I would not wait until the moment I left the area (or the "end of my scene") to walk by it, pick it up, and leave.
The experience of watching this at a young age stayed with me while I went forth with my theatre education. Later, in my early thirties, this moment back in high school made me realize the importance of liveness and what the real potency of live performance is. It is in these absurdities (ie. the actor on stage attempting to figure out when a good time to pick up the handkerchief would be so as to not interrupt the flow of the dialogue or action on stage) that we propel art into a space that is devoid of realness. However, in the theatrical representation of realism, we also breed the act of non-participatory citizen engagement. (I have a future blog post scheduled on my thoughts around church, state & theatre)
Going back to this moment of failure on stage, this moment made me embrace the emergent elements of live performance, usually based in theatre as failed moments, or unscripted moments, or things that were not supposed to happen on stage. These moments bring with it an increased level of liveness, not just for the performers on stage (Actor thinks: How do I pick up this hankerchiek and make it look nature in this scene?) but also for the audience, who sits there thinking: How will that actor pick up that handkerchief? Do they know they have dropped the handkerchief? Is this part of the show? Was the actor meant to do that? Suddenly, all 300 audience members and the actor(s) on stage are in a shared state of liveness -- a liveness that was due to a small unexpected element in a highly structured and solidified performance.
And so, when applying live performance understanding to real-world ways of being, I see this ability to embrace the failed/unexpected moments as moments for potentiality, in which one failed or unexpected element can turn into multiple possibilities for a future. This failure turns into re-organization.
This is what makes live performance magical.
It is in these emergent qualities to embrace the aesthetic of failure that we can begin to bring into existence the real transformative power of live performance.
Of course, I say this all, with the inability to know everything at the same time. It's a giant paradox. In an attempt to fail, one needs to somehow unlearn and untrain. Not to mention the many years of placing a public in front of a proscenium theatre that separates the artists from the public, putting the artist on a raised stage that creates a high level of non-interactivity or non-participation, embedding in the audience, this notion, that there are rules here you have to play by and that those on stage should be listened to. (Sounds like any form of authority to me). Moreover, as it has become increasingly popular to do today, when something is uncomfortable on stage it is introduced with a long list of trigger warnings telling the audience what they are about to see before they have even experienced it, subjecting the audience to a certain level of coddling and hyper-safety.
This doesn't treat the audience as a brave spectator, who has shown up, who have re-organized themselves through millennia, adapted during heartbreak or disaster, and who, until the dawn of social media, didn't turn to erasure as a way to become robust.
I am now sitting at my desk transcribing what I initially dictated into my smartphone voice recorder. At 8 am on December 16... no, make that December 19, 2020, I recorded the above thoughts into the voice recorder. After quiet contemplation and reading from my list of essential books to read, I voiced these emergent thoughts into my recorder. And even now, after I review what I said and am transcribing them into this blog, I keep manifesting new ideas. New reflections pop into my head. I propel forward with new knowledge due to wanting to edit, change and reorganize my initial thoughts.
As I move forward from that moment back in high school to this late-30s era I am in today, I am reflecting back on the many points in my life when I was challenged. In those moments where I felt like I would fail, I look back now, and realized, that time kept going forward. And, from those moments of uncertainty, I looked down to the ground, picked up the handkerchief and kept going. This time, with a handkerchief in my hand.