The Building Home project is a story of faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students from the Department of Theatre and Cinema at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and community artists, actors, and musicians working in partnership with our regional planning office. Our purpose was to use storytelling and theater-making techniques to facilitate and stimulate public conversation about the future of our communities in the New River Valley region of southwest Virginia. It is a story about innovative use of performance and storytelling to facilitate community engagement with participatory democracy and civic practice.
In 2010, the New River Valley Planning District Commission (PDC) http://www.nrvpdc.org, an independent agency funded by local governments in combination with state and federal funds, received a three-year grant from the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The grant provided funding to develop a long-term, comprehensive regional plan for the Valley. The PDC's project, called the Livability Initiative, sought public involvement and input. Their leadership looked to go beyond their standard practices of surveys and public hearings, and try innovative approaches. The Building Home project was created in response to this uncommon invitation. The PDC contracted with Building Home to assist in engaging specific populations who would be unlikely to participate in the PDC's conventional data gathering methods. Establishing this partnership between a quasi-governmental agency and an arts group, though virtually unheard of in my own experience, was the easy part. Doing it was not so easy.
As an artist/teacher heading up an MFA graduate program at Virginia Tech called, Directing and Public Dialogue, I led Building Home along with Jon Catherwood-Ginn, then a graduate student in the program. The initial conversations with the PDC happened at the end of Jon's first semester in his three-year program. He joined me in these earliest conceptual development sessions, growing into a principal partner. The project became Jon's primary graduate creative research, extending through his remaining five semesters.
During its two years, Building Home organized and facilitated discussions within small community gatherings throughout the 1,457 square mile, four-county and one-city region known as the New River Valley. We conducted 49 community gatherings, reaching more than 1000 citizens who otherwise would not likely have participated in the planning process. In addition to several incorporated municipalities, this region includes many informal communities and population centers, each culturally distinct, with specifically identifiable unique realities. Some are small geographic entities—Wake Forest, New Ellett, Yellow Springs—whereas others are simply established gatherings of people based on particular needs or interests—Head Start Parent's Council, Agency on Aging's Friendship Café, Wake Forest Community Action Club.
We used storytelling, interactive art-making techniques, and a specially designed board game to stimulate and animate discussions that gave expression to these many diverse perspectives.
Jon and I formed and trained a somewhat loose group of six to ten students and community artists from throughout the Valley. The mix of students and community artists was crucial, insuring an exchange of skills and cross-fertilization of perspectives that informed the group in the realities of off-campus communities, introduced the application of specific theater techniques, and bonded the group as a whole.
We developed a reporting format for our findings from these conversations in order to submit the ideas, concerns, opinions, and perspectives of the participants as quantitative data for inclusion in the PDC's data collection and analysis processes. Under Jon's leadership, Building Home also created two new performance pieces, which we toured throughout the region.
Our first time out was a little rough. We met with housing assistance employees, people who work closely with residents of low income housing and who serve, in a manner of speaking, as gate keepers, potentially providing us access to people who would not otherwise engage with a regional planning process. This gathering was a "trial balloon," a test as to whether Building Home would be given any credence amongst the officials in the town. There was a lot of resistance to the whole idea of theater (or any form of art-making) as a way to open a conversation. We stalwartly moved through our workshop plan, yet the resistance increased. We were successful in that people shared emotional stories, some that led to images of people being forced off land by outside developers. The images brought passion, but the experience as a whole also brought a caustic resentment directed at us, the facilitators, for asking people to reveal those long-held emotional burdens in a public environment. The Building Home team left the event deeply discouraged, dreading our return for a review by the participants of their experience.
That review was shocking. In the four weeks since the storytelling session, those most resistant experienced a profound turn around, realizing they had made unvarnished statements, expressed passionately held values, and recognized important realities that they thought they would never reveal in public. They praised the experience because they could see the complexities of the situation through hearing different perspectives and needs. They recognized that sharing and hearing these perspectives contributed to an essential public conversation. I later heard a comment by Brent Blair, Director of the MA program in Applied Theatre Arts at University of Southern California , that art-making in public provides "a container for complexity" that is rare and vital for healthy civic discourse. Our very first gathering bore out the truth of Blair's observation. Further, it brought us face-to-face with the reality that the heart of an event does not necessarily happen as planned—in this case, the realization of theater's power came later—and that we had better realize that the participants were as much in charge of the shaping of the event as we ourselves might be.
When we began identifying action steps for the project, we imagined we were tasked to design and facilitate theater-assisted discussion groups. We quickly realized our work was as much community organizing as it was a design and facilitation assignment. We grew to understand that our gatherings were part of already existing and often hidden conversations. We needed to learn where people were already gathering, why they were choosing to gather, and what they wanted to talk about. What we might bring to those conversations had to be discovered through our own learning about the communities we intended to enter. This took many weeks.
We learned, on reflection, that this organizing process was, also, a dramaturgical strategy, that is, one of a set of strategic designs for determining what stories to tell, how the story telling unfolds in a performance, and how receiving the story happens within the audiences of a performance. We came to realize that conversations already happening in the communities had to be the central drive of our gatherings. While this may seem obvious to those who have done such work, the implications are profound. The keys to the action we sought resided in the people's conversations.
We had first, then, to enter those existing conversations as listeners. Consequently, every community gathering we intended to schedule began at the first meeting with each contact we approached. Sometimes this was an introductory presentation within an established group's meeting agenda. Sometimes it was a one-on-one meeting with an individual.
On one occasion, we had identified a low-income housing facility as a possible gathering site. After several false starts, we found a person who was willing to talk with us. This gentleman was a kind of community leader; that is, he kept the grounds and concerned himself with the well-being of his neighbors. He explained that many in the facility had serious sewage problems, but that complaints put residents in jeopardy of being evicted. Everyone was fearful of meeting to talk about this or anything else. This single conversation established a relationship, which led to meeting other residents and finding our way to a community gathering.
In organizing terms, this was trust building. In theater terms, this was a learning and sharing of backstories and exposition, the givens of who, what, where, why, and how amongst the participants—ourselves and those with whom we were planning to gather. We quickly learned that this process of building relationships one person at a time gave us a depth of understanding we could not gain otherwise, and it gave us a base of individual people invested in the project. These gains insured the eventual coming together would be constructive and fruitful. We found ourselves, from the very outset, in a dramatic event that included those we met as principal players.
The Building Home team learned, invented, and utilized numerous strategies to implement this interactive community dialogue. Strategies from this perspective went beyond conventional dramaturgy, from designing how the storytelling unfolds to designing how receiving the story happens.
We had to become as adept and disciplined in our invitation for audience engagement and participation, as we are in crafting story and performance. To take up this challenge, we found ourselves thinking of dramaturgy as strategies for combining the imaginations of the artists with those of the audience, and vice versa. These strategies represent the work of generations of artists/activists in this country and around the world, as well as the Building Home team's own research and training.
Key strategies started with story circles, a practice we learned from Donna Porterfield, Managing Director of Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, KY. But its roots are in many places and peoples—notably in the work of theater artist/community organizer John O'Neal in the 1960s with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Free Southern Theatre, and its organizational successor, Junebug Productions, as well as around kitchen tables, camp fires, and gathering places of families and friends throughout the ages.
At the heart of this storytelling strategy lies the simple but critically important principle that the story tellers are the authorities, the experts. By centering information gathering on storytelling, Building Home recognized each participant as the authority of her or his own life experience, personal values, and unique understanding of life in the region.
A resident in a transitional housing unit participated in a circle that included the housing administrator. The formal process of acknowledging each participant's authority—reaching agreement together about the group's purpose in gathering, asking for permission from each participant to tell stories together, recognizing that "what's said in the circle, stays in the circle," and agreeing on the basic guidelines that everyone may speak, each in order, but no one is obliged to speak, that there is no "cross talk," contradictions, or interjections during the telling of each story, and that everyone in the circle is there to listen to each story—set up an environment that allowed the resident to speak from her heart about the problems she experienced. This storyteller recognized with considerable enthusiasm that she had been heard, perhaps for the first time, by the others in the circle, including the administrator and the Building Home team representing the PDC's planning project.
The story circle complements conventional planning practices of surveys and public hearings. While in themselves valuable, the conventional practices are framed by the assumptions and intentions of the survey makers and conveners of hearings, and often privilege those with the loudest voices or crankiest points of view. In the story circle, as facilitated by the Building Home team, everyone is equal, has equal access, and is acknowledged and respected individually. This process puts participatory democracy into real-life practice, one person at a time, in the form of a self-governed contribution to a public exchange of ideas around local, immediate issues of common concern. In the contemporary environment of polarized positioning, we found that it is important to use carefully wrought guidelines for the circle's governance and process, to help make a space where the participants feel safe to speak honestly and candidly without fear of judgment or repercussion. The stories brought forward are framed by the experience, assumptions, and intentions of each teller, not a sponsoring agency. The story circle process privileges the perspective and experience of every teller. For the PDC's planning project, these perspectives and opinions could be trusted as authentic, individual-based information, providing significant contributions to the analysis of community needs. Used this way, the story circle serves as a safe and accessible medium for effective civic engagement.
As suggested above, our standard practice was to ask participants to reach agreement on a commonly shared purpose for gathering and, subsequently, on a commonly shared community concern or issue that would be the theme for the stories told in the circle. By putting the substance of the conversation in their hands, the participants embraced the event as direct participation in the life of the community, its planning and governance. They offered their personal thoughts, ideas, and hopes as contributions to the future of the New River Valley.
Finally, within our story circle practice, the teller is free to tell her or his own story without interruption, in her or his own style and aesthetic. These choices put into practice the teller's authority. Agreement on the story circle's few formalities are important. For Roadside's guidelines, please visit http://roadside.org/asset/story-circle-guidelines?unit=117.
From this base, we asked a simple question: What do we need to include in order to make a complete picture of the New River Valley as you know it? We took notes of the ensuing conversation on flip chart paper. The participants reviewed the flip chart notes together, to assess for accuracy and completeness, adding and editing along the way.
Community members' input on the wide variety of topics being addressed, and their responses following a round of storytelling, included something like this:
|Depend on buddies and friends|
|No transportation to Roanoke|
|"My doctor is in Salem."|
|"That's why I live here."|
|Post Offices are closing.|
|Hard to pay bills on time|
|Flowers/tomatoes/peppers in my yard|
"Politicians are ripping people off."
We also reviewed the flip chart that determined the meeting's purpose as a source to find a commonly agreed theme for telling stories. Examples of themes included:
|Helping community conversation is a civic responsibility.|
|There are gaps in our community.|
|Gaps exist between the farmers/locals/"natives" and those who have come recently.|
|We are often in one-sided conversations. We need to be in many-sided conversations.|
|Honoring what has gone before is critically important for strategies to be effective.||The wind farm controversy is polarized.|
|Local government does not acknowledge receipt of citizen input. Local government is non-responsive.|
Themes we took forward into story circles included:
|A memory of an economic uptick or downturn in your community|
|The decaying roadways and bridge in the community|
|A memory of an encounter with substance abuse in your community|
In one circle, the group chose to tell stories around their observation that "People aren't getting the help they deserve; short-term help has happened, but there is not enough long-term help." The stories that came forward told of local, state, and federal programs that did or did not serve the needs of the participants in the gathering. The stories told of personal challenges—poverty, physical and sexual abuse, chronic unemployment, and inadequate education. They told of being forgotten as a person, while becoming a client of a program. These stories remain with their tellers and are not recorded or documented. They were often raw, exposing families in extremity, loss of trust between parent and child, despair and disillusionment rendered nearly intolerable. They were also often full of hope, expressions of faith in the way of life of the teller, and deep love of the teller's community and part of the world.
This particular circle deepened participants' understanding of their theme, as a result of listening to their own stories. Their stories confirmed that "short-term help has happened," but also revealed that the help only focused on short-term solutions, whereas the problems they commonly faced were long term. The group had an "aha moment" when they realized what they actually were missing were long-term solutions. The group revised their observation about needing "long-term help" to needing "long-term solutions." This re-thinking, which provided a valuable insight for the planning process, emerged through the cross talk, or interactive response, that typically follows a round of stories.
Telling individual stories in small groups around common themes, the complexity of community concerns, values, and dreams becomes immediately evident and mirrors the complexity of difference amongst the individuals in the circle. In Building Home, this complexity was typically received with enthusiasm, astonishment, and positive energy—responses much sought after by theater-makers, to say nothing of those who struggle with public decision-making.
Upon considering their long list of issues, one group identified the most germane and commonly shared concern to be "a personal encounter with substance abuse in our community." This became the theme for their story circle. They were incredibly open in the stories they chose to share, particularly considering the sensitivity of the theme. Several group members wept as they spoke/heard stories about teenage drug abuse, prostitution, alcoholism, division among friends as a result of substance abuse, the interplay between substance abuse and mental illness (specifically, how the two are so often misdiagnosed and ineffectively treated), and the cycle of intergenerational addiction within families. Participants were enormously respectful of and sensitive to those who shared their stories.
In nearly all the gatherings, the process of telling stories evidenced circumstances of the community at an impasse, a troubled situation without a satisfying resolution. Inevitably, as common as any group's chosen topic may have been, the individual stories revealed differences in perspective, opinion, and experience. Each story circle became energized by the very differences participants began to recognize within themselves. These unresolved scenarios of community concern became the ground for deeper exploration.
In support of this momentum, Building Home used two strategies developed by Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal as part of Theatre of the Oppressed: Image Theatre and Forum Theatre (Boal 1992).
Image Theatre invites participants to make physical images of common issues and concerns. Participants mold or "sculpt" their own bodies and/or the bodies of co-participants into a gesture, shape, or image expressive of that issue. The participants expand their understanding of the many facets of the issue by shaping and re-shaping the bodies. This process creates what Boal calls a "dynamized" dialogue about the issue. This practice of "speaking through" commonly held vocabularies of body language opens up new avenues for communication. Image Theatre facilitates the emergence of unique perspectives on everyday realities, revealing deeply felt but rarely acknowledged dynamics. Within an environment made safe for honest expression and shared discovery without pre-judgment, participants recognize and explore solutions to community problems that typically linger below the surface of social consciousness.
In one gathering, for example, the group shaped an Image Theatre sculpture that depicted one person slipping a hand, undetected, into another person's pocket. As the group adjusted, refined, and responded to the image, a conversation emerged that clarified and deepened the original observation that long-held, small family farms were severely threatened. Through the image, the group unpacked the impact of county administration support of housing developments, revealing that the consequential increase in the tax rate was an unreasonable and destructive burden on the farming family—picking the small farmers' pockets, so to speak. Further, this burdensome reality had been experienced over many generations, suffering the loss of land to increasing tax rates ever since George III chartered the land to them.
Another group felt that their community was so far down the long list of county priorities that the single road in and out of their small valley was in dire jeopardy. The one bridge was so overdue for repair that the community feared being stranded, literally beyond the reach of EMS, police, or fire departments. A series of Image Theatre sculptures, going from the "real" to the "ideal" image without "magic" (a Boal term meaning an ideal ending that might be desired but was not grounded in the known realities of life), brought forward a possible solution. A representative from the community appealed directly to the governor. The person who played the governor was extremely effective at shutting down the community representative. The plight of the representative was so real to the gathering that they laughed in gales of recognition. As the group laughed and applauded the effective shut down, they began offering comfort and encouragement to the representative, eventually urging her to try again. In her second effort, everyone present offered strategies and retorts to the governor's wall of rejection. This time, the representative ducked, dodged, and successfully brought the focus of the conversation to the actuality of 75 families facing life and death situations unless something was done. The governor, try as he would, was forced to stop his tirade and listen. In reviewing the exercise, the group recognized that "everyone in the room was a back up."
Three months later, in a second gathering with the same community, the Building Home team learned that the community had, in the interim, gone to the local Department of Transportation once again, this time with greater success. The group, which has a long history of organized community action over many years, was pleased with their accomplishments, while remaining fully aware of the hard work still ahead. They expressed their appreciation for the earlier conversation that reinforced the importance of representing themselves in larger numbers.
Forum Theatre grew organically from impromptu scenes generated by story circles and Image Theatre, reflecting unresolved issues commonly identified within the circles and images. Forum Theatre provides a safe, open, inclusive space (a forum) for community members to "role-play" their ideas to remedy community ills. The scenes are structured as "unresolved story lines" which imbed a problem in specific, problematic circumstances to which community members offer possible resolutions, solutions, or strategies in order to address the intransigent problems. Participants may attempt to solve staged conflicts by providing suggestions for the actors to play out or intervening themselves (Boal calls them "SpectActors"), performing their own alternative actions. Observing how the different scenarios play out, community members, in a safe environment, discuss the success or failure of each. The experience of viewing multiple alternatives opens the planning process to well-considered ideas for solutions and, thereby, sets the stage for effective community action.
In one Forum Theatre scenario, a black woman was confronted with an "inadvertent" racist statement from a well-meaning white male employer. A conversation emerged between several African American participants, each offering different solutions to the impasse. In the course of the exercise it became clear that the different solutions were based on different understandings of the unresolved situation. One person suggested that the black woman needed to stop the conversation and leave, because she was in an impossible and dangerous situation that did not hold any promise of a positive outcome for her—"it's not safe for us to try to solve the white man's problem." Another person suggested that the black woman compassionately confront her employer with a description of how she received his statement, because "if we don't confront these moments they will continue forever—we must take advantage of teachable moments." The many strains of this conversation played out through the enactment of the possible strategies in resolving the situation. The passions ran high, but respect for one another and for the process itself brought the participants to a deeper comprehension of the problem and a mutually expressed commitment to stay in the struggle.
In the context of such complexity, the skills and responsibilities required of a gathering's facilitator—in Boal's terms, the Joker—are considerable. Jokering requires more than leading the various theater exercises, and more than insuring every participant has a chance to speak. The Joker must become aware of emerging agendas as the gathering proceeds, as well as those agendas brought in by the participants and the project's organizing team. The Joker must find an effective balance among these agendas and move forward on one (or a compatible set of several) in ways that satisfy and energize the group's ownership of the event. This is a hard-earned skill and a sizable responsibility. It is best expressed transparently, acknowledging the origins of agendas openly and often, as well as voicing the consequential strategies for the group to pursue. There are many pitfalls, which, with practice, can be avoided or bridged.
In one of our gatherings the facilitator, in the zeal of allowing full participation in the group process, invited the participants to decide how a speaker might best be recognized. While based on our underlying commitment to democratic practices, the facilitator's choice shifted the group's attention away from the actual focus (choosing a theme for story circles) to a free-for-all discussion about the merits of and alternatives to Robert's Rules of Order. (The group was a bit fractious.) This discussion took time away from the intended story circle. Under certain circumstances, this discussion could be extremely important, but in this situation it was a diversion, sidestepping the challenges of the intended conversation. Thinking of the facilitator as the Joker, the wild card, the shape shifter, while at the same time the guide, the insurer of group safety from threat of judgment or intellectual bullying, places a key responsibility on learning in the moment how to suss out the many factors involved and to act in the moment to support the group's expressed intentions, as well as the group's actual learning processes.
Jokering public dialogue rose to a more intense and challenging level of responsibility when we began devising the two theater pieces that Building Home produced in parallel with the PDC contract: Whether System and behind a stranger's face. Incorporating these strategies of inclusive, public dialogue (sometimes referred to as interactive theater) into a formally performed piece brought up a whole new world of challenges: how to structure interactive audience experience into a written piece and how to manage that interactivity using an actor in the show as the Joker, which calls on the actor to shift between enacting the scene and guiding/provoking the audience to interrogate the scene.
Many people helped guide our creative choices. One influence throughout was Michael Rohd, artistic director of Sojourn Theatre, director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, and author of Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue (1998). Rohd knew and studied with Augusto Boal, and has incorporated and transformed Boal's practices into his own as a publically engaged theater maker and innovator in art-based civic practice. Rohd's approaches are exceptionally accessible, introducing theater exercises and critical thinking in familiar American idioms and frames of reference.
As one particularly gratifying outcome of our contract with the Livability Initiative, the PDC commissioned Rohd and his Sojourn Theatre compatriots, Shannon Scrofano and Liam Kaas-Lentz, to redesign a board game they had previously created called Built. Originally made for a project with the planning office in Portland, OR, the game is comprised of numerous land-use pieces (library, factory, parking lot, apartment house, open space, etc.) scaled to accommodate up to 20 people at a time, playing on large map-like boards representing the geographic area under planning consideration. The game's redesign for the Livability Initiative, called Built—NRV, relocated the locus of the game from an urban to a rural environment, providing the boards and the playing pieces with characteristics specific to the New River Valley.
Rohd and Kaas-Lentz trained the Building Home team and staff of the Livability Initiative in facilitation techniques required by the game. Playing the game in some 14 different locations throughout the Valley gave the planning project excellent public input and significantly deepened the Building Home team's facility in interactive theater techniques for generating cogent, public dialogue.
Looking back to bygone travelling tent shows, we hear the magician ask, "May I have a volunteer from the audience?" Herein lies an extraordinary tradition: the insertion of the non-performer into the formal structure of a performance.
The magician uses the volunteer from the audience as a willing innocent, entirely at the mercy of what the conjurer might unfurl. The volunteer is a palpable representative of the audience—someone whom we each might actually be (but thankfully are not), up there with the fascinating but undoubtedly suspect person in the top hat. Consistent with this risky business, the gracious magician will often make fun with the volunteer. "Please stand close to the ground" will bring laughter from the audience and an amusingly wan smile on the face of the volunteer trying valiantly to maintain unflappable coolness. That scenario goes on to its successful conclusion, in which the willing participant is not cut in half or otherwise degraded, is roundly thanked and applauded, and goes back to her or his seat unscathed and generally relieved not to have been altered in any meaningful way, leaving the magician elevated in the esteem of one and all, and entirely in charge of the whole affair.
However, when the audience was invited to join the 1969 performance of Richard Schechner's near riotous Dionysus in '69 , the volunteer entered a new province, mixing vaudeville practices with political intentions. The volunteer was invited beyond the realm of the magician's constructs, into the unknown realm of joining in creating/constructing what would happen next. Get naked and have fun in public seemed to be the call of the moment. Underneath this revelry lay another more deep-seated call, come join in the revolution, the change, the transformation that we, together, can make beyond this moment of performance. Yikes, a call to action on both the imaginary and the actual levels of reality. Schechner's Dionysus in '69 had its moment and slipped into the history of legendary giants. The Rude Mechanicals from Austin, TX, brilliantly re-enacted Schechner's original production in 2009, acknowledging the radical influence of the original on current and future theater-making (http://www.rudemechs.com/shows/history/d69.htm
The impulse to bring the audience onto the stage and into the creative act has multiple roots and branches. In Shakespeare's soliloquies, speaking alone, the actor turns to share directly with the audience. John Barton, renowned Shakespearian director and acting coach, touches on the core matter when he advises, "The actor must open himself to his audience, and make them think with him because he needs to share his problems" (Barton 1997, 102). Taking this act a step further, in Bertolt Brecht's plays the actor is often asked to interrupt the narrative to talk with the audience about the play, not in character but as if in the actor's own person. This same impulse for direct engagement between audience and performance drove the form-bending experiments of the Futurists and many art movements that followed in the twentieth century. Referring to interactivity between art and audience, RoseLee Goldberg reminds us, in her thought-provoking chronicle Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, that performance art "has become a catch-all for live performance of all kinds . . . obliging viewers and reviewers alike to unravel the conceptual strategies of each" (Goldberg 2011, 249).
Two more contemporary, trailblazing productions gave deep, practical guidance to Building Home's play-making. Robbie McCauley's Obie Award winning Sally's Rape(McCauley 1994, 211–238) calls on the principal actor to play out scenes of her own enslaved ancestors and, nearly in the same breath, to enjoin the audience to comment on and even enter those scenes. Sojourn Theatre's unpublished On The Table (2010) brings the entire audience right onto the stage and asks them to join the actors in playing out the final act of the show. The successes of both plays point like finger writing on the wall towards an exciting new future.
Both plays incorporate Boal's techniques of jokering and invite audiences to enter the realm of the performance, not simply as guests on stage but as contributors to the dramatic action. McCauley relocates the core dramatic action of her play from the stories of her ancestors to the audience's experience of being "moved to think" out loud, with the performers (Patraka 1993, 26). On The Table asks the audience to include itself in the play's fictitious storyline and to join the performers in creating the final scene. What the audience says and does directly affects the flow and progress of the performance. Holy Smokes, we're not talking about the audience joining the play, we're talking about the audience leading the play.
While the Building Home team itself devised plays out of the stories and experiences we encountered in the PDC project, we wanted the action of the plays to be the journey of the audience moving through the progression of the enacted stories. We desired, in McCauley's terms, that the dramatic action be the audience's "movement to think." We wanted, in Sojourn Theatre's terms, for audience members to move between the narrative fiction of the enacted stories and their own actual experience and understanding of the realities and impacts of hidden, unacknowledged racism expressed in ordinary daily life in the New River Valley.
Building Home's first play, Whether System, presented three distinct stories and their contexts sequentially, and then invited the audience, in the semblance of a town meeting, to engage with the issues expressed in all three. Though this piece had its successes, the team realized that the play's basic structure separated the performed storytelling from the interactive elements, weakening the effects of both. The request for the audience to "wait for the third act to respond" distanced them from the moment of storytelling itself and, when finally asked to respond to the story, the telling was only a memory. The play relied on its structure to frame the audience's experience, rather than relying on a changing relationship with the performers themselves. This led to our next play.
As conceived and directed by Jon Catherwood-Ginn, the dramatic premise of behind a stranger's face lies with the audience, a gathering of people with common interest in the welfare of their mutual communities— a town meeting. Drawing on the lessons of both Sally's Rape and On The Table, behind a stranger's face starts with an energetic dialogue between the players and the audience about the Building Home project—what the players experienced and learned, what rose up to them as key concerns in the region, and how the audience themselves understand and experience the same concerns.
Within the first minutes of this discussion, the performers invite the audience into a dialogue by asking, "When's the last time you had a conversation about race or culture in the New River Valley?" It was a nightly astonishment what this simple question elicited. People told stories of parenting teenagers who were dating across racial boundaries. People spoke of not remembering when a conversation about race had occurred in their own experience, and were passionate about its importance in theory and its absence in practice. People expressed their fear of the topic.
Then, in the context of these real-time conversations, the performers enacted a set of stories that originated in the community gatherings of the PDC process.
Laced through these enactments, the performers continued to reach out to the audience as fellow citizens in the room together. This was a much more successful strategy. The audience consistently knew what it was experiencing. Audience interaction was invited in the immediate context of specific moments. The performers knew how to help the audience interact with them as the show shifted from one aspect of theatricality to another.
To reach its climatic moments, behind a stranger's face used the story, mentioned earlier as a Forum Theatre exercise, about a confrontation between an African American woman and her employer, a white businessman who wants to untangle himself from a family legacy of overt racist activism and hate. The actual story is that of the performer, Shawanda Williams, who plays herself in the piece.
The story proceeds to the moment when the white man is unable to see past his own assumptions and fears, and confronts Shawanda with an apparently inadvertent but nonetheless racist comment. Shawanda is caught between her impulse to extricate herself from the situation, her desire to respond to the man's avowed interest in self-improvement, and her need to maintain her job. Drawing directly on the model of Sally's Rape, Shawanda shifts out of the scene to appeal to the audience, saying, "I'm stuck here. I'm in trouble. What should I do?" She becomes her own Joker in a Forum Theatre scenario, and plays out audience-generated strategies.
Shawanda Williams has training and extensive experience in race-based conflict mediation, as well as reliable acting instincts. Nevertheless, this climatic scene was risky every evening. The piece had a built-in way to re-enter from the audience discussion back into the dramatic progression of the show. That notwithstanding, each night brought about new iterations of how the audience could take this moment into its own hands and hearts. Williams' mediation experience proved invaluable. She invited alternative ways of thinking and conducted a discussion with the audience. Williams was the audience's volunteer, the person the audience could use to try out their own ideas for action. Moving an audience to think "is an act," McCauley says, "it is not before or after the act" (McCauley 1994, 213).
Building Home discovered that this ambitious strategy puts both formats—the storytelling and the audience's movement to think—on the line. Both actors and spectators/spec-tactors are called on to give voice, listen, take stands on matters of public importance, be prepared to change, comprehend complexity, and live with uncertainty—at least for the moment. This kind of art-making is effective practice for significant community building.
Artists who work in this realm take responsibility to protect the audience from the anarchy of abandoning the order of an artistic creation and, at the same time, to guide the audience through the turmoil of its own self-expression. There is real artistry in finding and keeping this balance.
In Building Home, audience members, some with a deep commitment to undoing racism, others for whom the subject was simply terrifying, voiced their opinions and perspectives. Many options were offered, each revealing new, previously hidden realities. Sometimes spectators recommended that Williams stop all interaction with the white man. Sometimes the conversations were so intense that they could become more important than the play itself, raising the possibility that the play might need to give way to the conversation. The possible eventualities were palpable as each evening's encounters unfolded. Williams was tasked with managing that continuum, which she did with considerable success. The Joker's audacious task, though surrounded with traps that transparent vulnerability can encounter, is filled with extraordinary potential for moving an audience to think.
Our experience bears out that audiences absolutely love being moved to think when their authority is respected as equal. We are all struggling with these human realities, artists and non-artists alike. The insights that artists can offer, in story and image, are best partnered with the same from every human's experience and authority. Ron Short, an ensemble member with Roadside Theater, believes that theater "is a place where common people, everyday people, can get up and speak their mind and have other people listen to them" (Leonard and Kilkelly 2006, 30).
The Building Home project is rooted in what Short describes thusly: "The process of dialogue with the audience enters into the collective consciousness of that community and helps shape that community" (Leonard and Kilkelly 2006, 30). These are the stakes of projects like Building Home, which invite and facilitate an open public dialogue as the cornerstone practice of a democracy. McCauley challenges us to consider this exchange as an essential part of the dramatic event, and, further, as a civic action for change in and of itself.
I entreat the reader to join Jon Catherwood-Ginn, Shawanda Williams, the Building Home team, and the thousands of other artists and community partners who are committing themselves, their art, and their theater experiences as distinct and effective contributions to the robust public conversations going on all around us that help shape our communities. This is a call for responsible artistry to deepen this exploration, to continue to grow a disciplined, comprehensive, daring dramaturgy for theater as civic practice with rigorous strategies for combining artist and audience imaginations for the public good.
Back in June 2010, the ten elements HUD's innovative Sustainable Regional Planning Grant Program identified as essential for community sustainability included Art and Culture. Rocco Landesman, then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, did visionary work to help HUD and several other federal agencies recognize Art and Culture as essential, not marginal, to community building. Landesman's vision at the federal level must be seen in the context of successful art-making at the local level over the last many, many decades slowly retrieving art-making from the clutches of the elite and leisure classes. This work is hardly over. In the immediate, HUD's granting program fueled the creation and successes of the Building Home project and others like it. At a broader scale, this program represents a potential sea change for artists working in communities. We are the stories we tell ourselves.
Leadership at the local level is looking for ways to animate these ideas into the fabric of their communities. Let us artists, applied researchers, community organizers, and cultural workers step up to these opportunities with our expertise and our creative energy, in order to make enduring partnerships with the very communities in which we work and live.
Barton, John. 1997. Playing Shakespeare. London: Methuen Drama.
Boal, Augusto. 1992. Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London and New York: Routledge.
Goldberg, RoseLee. 2011. Performance Art–From Futurism to the Present. Third Ed. New York: Thames & Hudson.
Leonard, Robert H., and Ann Kilkelly. 2006. Performing Communities: Grassroots Ensemble Theaters Deeply Rooted in Eight U.S. Communities. Oakland, CA: New Village Press.
McCauley, Robbie. 1994. "Sally's Rape." In Moon Marked and Touched by the Sun: Plays by African-American Women, edited by Sydné Mahone, 211–238. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Patraka, Vicki. 1993. "Robbie McCauley, Obsessing in Public." The Drama Review 37 (2) [T138]: 25–55.
Rohd, Michael. 1998. Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue: The Hope Is Vital Training Manual. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.