Residency: Public Welcome
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.