Friday, August 21, 2009

Off to Arizona

It was great to hear about all the other projects that the other fellows did this summer. Only one other was kind of similar to mine. A woman was learning how to combine music and justice and part of her project involved writing music for a very specific community with which she spent some time.

My presentation of my project went well; I did a quick slide show of what I considered the major catagories of community art that I encountered: interactive art that requires no skill, collaborative art that makes use of the skills people already have, art that serves to create a sense of place, art in which the content is determined by the audience/community and then constructed by professional artists, and Theatre of the Oppressed.

Also, I got chance to lead another interactive theatre project with the group (it turns out that one of the fellows has an M.A. in theatre and used to do this type of work all the time but never thought to bring it into her ministry). The mood was very different this time around as the occasion was the fair-well session for a cohort which has become close friends. It was tough to get people to focus and there was an interesting dynamic in that the group was very comfortable and familiar with eachother, but not with the type of activities that we were doing. But with a few modifications to the activities that usually go into ensamble building, we were able to explore some interesting emotions and ideas about ourselves as a group and have a fun time doing it.

Now I'm off to Arizona to begin my year-long internship at Desert Cross Lutheran Church.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Off to Atlanta

I'm headed of to Atlanta for the official end of my fellowship, debriefing with the Fund for Theological Education, and hanging out with all the other awesome fellows as I hear about how their summers went.

Apparently we'll be in a monastery with no internet access, so no updates for the next 5 days.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interactive Storytelling/sharing, or, In Search of a Better Name

On Wednesday evening I appropriated the theory and techniques of Augusto Boal and Michael Rohd to create an event I called "Interactive Storytelling/Sharing" (I think this name is terrible; after you read this post, please help me come up with a better one). Augusto Boal was a Brazilian who noted that Aristotelian theatre is basically a tool that supports the status quo. A few actors do all the thought and action on stage, while the masses passively watch, experience catharsis, and are purged of their "anti-social" emotions so that they can go home happy and placated. Boal sought to create theatre in which the audience became the participants and were encouraged to actively analyze what they saw and change what they didn't like by becoming part of the scene. He saw this as training people to stop being passive and change the world in which they live. Michael Rohd is the founder and artistic director of Sojourn Theatre, with whom I spent a week in July. In the 80's, Rohd independently started doing work similar to Boal's to create a safe environment in which people could talk honestly about AIDS and the issues surrounding it. Then, Rohd met Boal and combined the techniques and has been using them ever since to create a portable form of theatre which can be used to facilitate dialogue, civic engagement, and conflict resolution in any number of situations.

From these two sources, I crafted an Interactive Storytelling/sharing experience that pursued three goals: First, to have fun. Non-competitive play is a wonderful manifestation of the foundational Lutheran theological premise of God's unconditional love for all people. There are no winners and losers and we get comfortable being with each other, laughing with each other, and loving people for who they are. As Michael Rohd put it, "play is community."
The second goal was to connect and communicate using our bodies. Once again, this stems from the Christian concept of the incarnation. God entered into physical reality and became one with it. We are not spirits trapped in flesh; we are whole beings with undivided body and soul, and our flesh is essential and inseparable to our relationship with the divine. Unfortunately, western society and Protestantism seem to forget this. For many, at work their bodies are mechanized, whether it be digging ditches, fitting parts on assembly line, or typing for 8 hours. At worship, bodies tend to be ignored, with only sitting, standing, and the occasional kneeling permitted. My goal then is to reclaim the body as a spiritual tool, one that allows us to express ourselves and connect ourselves in disagreement (and agreement) without the loudest or most eloquent voice silencing the rest. Physicality also lets us communicate with those who speak a different language. After all, God's greatest message was sent to us not on stone tablets or in books, but in a human body which we could touch.
The third goal was to use scripture and our own experiences to create stories that explored themes, questions, and possibilities which mattered to us. Both Boal and Rohd are adamant that they do not create "message plays." That is to say, they do not presume to have the answers to problems and wish to communicate them to the audience through theatre. Instead, they use theatre to help people actively explore their worlds, their difficulties, and their options. Solution may arise, or the questions might just get more complicated. The point is not to make all the problems go away, but instead to empower people to think and act on the issues themselves.

To achieve these goals, I structured the evening so that we would first get comfortable playing with each other, looking at each other, and touching each other. We started with a game called, "Thumb Grab," in which the participants stood in a circle with one thumb pointing down and resting on a another person's palm, and someone else's thumb resting on their thumb. Then on the count of three, everyone tried to grab a thumb and prevent theirs from being grabbed.
Then, we walked around the space and got used to looking people in the eye. When someone stopped moving, everyone stopped moving; when someone started moving, everyone started moving. Similarly, when one person dropped to the floor, everyone dropped to the floor. Then we took suggestions for other things we could add. People suggested that when someone jump, everyone jump, when someone spin, everyone spin. We played a few more games, including one where people partnered up, froze in a handshaking pose, closed their eyes, separated, and then tried to find their partner and return to the pose with their eyes closed.
To get people comfortable making stories with their bodies, each person in the room created a single action that they had done that day (examples included checking the time and putting on a backpack). Then they shared the action with the other people in the room. Each person picked two other action and added them to their own in any order to create a sequence of three actions. When these sequences were performed for the whole group, individuals made up stories that the sequences might be demonstrating. The point was not to guess what the actor intended, but instead to notice how three simple movements can be interpreted to make any number of different stories. At first, the group was hesitant to interpret the sequences, but eventually they started creating very intricate and imaginative narratives from the very mundane actions.
Then we read a passage of scripture (1 Kings 19:4-8). And talked about what themes and issues it brought up for people. We wrote these down on a piece of paper. And then played another game in which partners shook hands and froze. But this time, one partner would unfreeze and assume a different position in relationship to the 2nd partner based on one of the themes. The 2nd partner would then unfreeze and assume a new position based on what the first partner did as well as the theme. This continued for sometime with occasionally different themes being thrown in.
Then the partners were asked to sculpt each other into frozen images that represented the themes. They could move their partners' limbs or model for their partners, but they could not talk. One set of partners had finished sculpting, they could walk around and look at the other sculptures. Then the partners would switch roles of sculptor and sculpture.
Finally, I had one of the participants sculpt everyone in the group into an image of one of the themes that was connected in someway to his life. When he had finished, I asked him to insert himself into the image. Then, one by one, I replaced each frozen participant so that they could see the image that was created. Without having anyone talk, or having the original sculptor share any more about the image other than the theme, I asked each participant to think about who they were in the image and what their relationship was to everyone else. Then I asked them to rearrange themselves to what happened right before this image occurred (once again without talking). When they had done that, I once again replace them so that they could see the image. Then, I had them arrange themselves to what happened right after the original image. Finally, I had them go through each of the three images in chronological order to create a "flipbook." They did all of this without talking, or knowing what story the other participants were imagining, but still they created a coherent and very compelling narrative.
Afterwards, we talked about what thoughts and emotions the experience had brought up for people, both in terms of their own lives and the theme we were exploring. We also shared what each of us imagined the story to be and who our characters were. Finally, we re-read the scriptural passage and briefly had the option to speak any new questions that the text had for us. We concluded by sharing the peace.

In general, I was very pleased by how the process went. Most people sort of knew each other, but a couple didn't at all, and yet by the end everyone was very comfortable playing together. Afterwards people talked about the experience and seemed very excited about it. The first two goals of fun and physicality were definitely met, and I feel confident I could lead this activity with a mixed group of English and Spanish speakers. I'm unsure about how deeply we explored the themes and how they concretely connect to our lives, but people said they thought about the text in a whole new way (it had been one of the readings the previous Sunday). This is probably what I will tweeking most in future. And as Elana pointed out to me, I can't expect to accomplish everything at once. For my first attempt with people who had never done this type of work, it was probably good that I focused more on the skills and comfort required to do it. Plus, the people that I talked to seemed to have connected with others in a way that valued them for who they were--so I guess the gospel was proclaimed.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Interactive Live Action Comic-Strip!

The goal was to create interaction between people in front of the downtown Berkeley BART station that was both fun and caused people to reflect upon the space in which they exist.

To this end, passersby were asked to offer adjectives, people types, etc. that they associate with the area. Three actors interpreted suggestions to create a tableaux that interacts with the physical space. Passersby were then asked to pick random numbers; these numbers corresponded to quotations overheard and recorded earlier in the same space. These quotations were written on giant poster-board "thought bubbles." When two numbers are picked, the corresponding "thought bubble" quotations were placed behind actors to create a single-frame cartoon. Business cards were handed out with this address so that passersby could see the pictures.
(clicking on a photo will enlarge it)

We had great participation from the people walking by, and people seemed to really enjoy seeing what their suggestions produced.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Soap Bubbling Painting!

My first community interactive event was painting with soap bubbles.
I added clothing dye to large pans of bubble solution and made giant bubble wands out of coat-hangers.
Then I took the set-up to the park and started catching bubbles that Elana made with a huge piece of foam board. When the bubbles landed they would leave colorful splats, wavy circles, and drip lines. When people saw the bubbles and the bright colors on the board they wandered over and we invited them to join in.
We got a couple of waves of little kids. They had difficulty making the giant bubbles. In future, I would probably have more small bubble blowers (I only had two) and smaller pieces of foam board so that the kids would have an easier time of it. But they had a lot of fun popping the bubbles.
We provided smocks, safety goggles, and gloves, but they kids wouldn't always use them, especially the gloves. Smocks were fairly accepted.
Because there is no way to control where soap bubbles will fly, painting with them is an inherently team-building process. One person makes the bubbles, and another person holds the foam-board and tries to catch them.
People seemed to meet each other and make connections.
After 2.5 hours we had gotten around 25 people from children to retirees who participated, and many who stopped and watched. All in all it went well.

The completed products
The second foam board
Sometimes bubbles would leave nice circles with wavey soap-oil patterns.
If you're interested in seeing more of this sort of thing, my inspiration was Free Style Arts Association in New York.

Berkeley Activity Schedule

Now that I've finished with most of my travels, I'm entering into the synthesis phase in which I internalize what I've seen by making my own community creating collaborative art.

I have three events planned.

Friday, August 7, 5pm-8pm: Painting with giant soap bubbles! Soap suds mixed with dye mean that when bubbles pop they leave a giant colored stain. Everyone can join in on the art making. Inspired by Free Style Arts Association. Willard Park, Berkeley.

Sunday, August 9, 2:15-4pm: Living Cartoon. The goal is to create interaction between people in front of the downtown Berkeley BART station that is both fun and causes people to reflect upon the space in which they exist. To this end, passersby will be asked to offer adjectives, people types, etc. that they associate with the area. Three actors will interpret suggestions to create a tableaux that interacts with the unique physical space. Passersby will then be asked to pick random numbers; these numbers will correspond to quotations overheard and recorded earlier in the same space. These quotations will be written on giant poster-board "thought bubbles." When three numbers are picked, the corresponding "thought bubble" quotations will be placed behind actors to create a single-frame cartoon. Digital pictures will be taken and uploaded to; business cards with this address will be provided to passersby who participate or inquire. Inspired by Elana McKernan.

Wednesday, August 12, 7:30-9pm: Interactive Story-telling/sharing. An evening of sharing and creating stories from your own experience and biblical narratives. Wear clothes you feel comfortable moving in, because your whole body is a tool and repository of knowledge for storytelling. No acting, movement, or storytelling background is necessary; guidance will be provided and you can choose your level of participation. Theory and technique inspired by Augusto Boal and Michael Rohd. University Lutheran Chapel (corner of College and Haste).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Community TV Revisited

Six weeks ago, Nick and I created a "Community TV" in the Albany Bulb. The goal was to create a piece that would encourage others to add and change it positively and within the same spirit and artistic vision.

A week later, a friend took this picture. The TV seems essentially unchanged.

Yesterday, Nick and I returned to find that the back was completely tagged over and the antennas were knocked over (though from the pile of rocks, it seems someone tried to prop them up).

The murals by Sniff are still visible, though they have a few more tags on them.
The front, however, is a success! Someone has added a great new screen within the TV frame!
"REKN" has written on the top (still respecting the TV frame), "Brake UR T.V."
So Nick and I repositioned antenna, and all is well.
The remote is still looking good.

All in all, I think my first attempt at creating community interactive art went well.

Also, I briefly met with Ava, the founder and director of We Players, a Bay Area theatre company that does large-scale site specific work that aims "to bring communities together, reclaiming local spaces for public discourse and civic celebration through art." Readers may remember the production of Macbeth that took place in Fort Point last year. Ava talked about her desire to bring a sense of magic and wonder at the artistic beauty that constantly surrounds us in our life, if we would only notice it. Her work stems entirely from the the space which she encounters, and she picks the plays she does based on what feels right for the space (for instance, she did a production of the Tempest at the Albany Bulb). Currently she's the artist in residence for Alcatraz, so if you're in the Bay Area, keep an eye for events happening there over the next year.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

World-Class Theatre in the Sticks

On my drive from Seattle to Berkeley, I stopped by two of the biggest names in ensemble and community-based theatre.

Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre is located in Blue Lake, California, population around 1100. Dell'Arte moved to Blue Lake about thirty years about right when the logging/salmon debates were just getting fierce. Being the artsy type, Dell'Arte was expected to side against the loggers and therefore encountered significant initial hostility. Instead, Dell'Arte committed themselves to becoming a member of the small community; they sought to learn, tell, and poke fun at both sides' stories. Three decades later, Dell'Arte is a central and much-loved part of Blue Lake.

When I asked what the key to their success was, Dell'Arte cited simply living in the same space as everyone else. In a town as small as Blue Lake, you couldn't help but get to know your neighbors. To accent the point, they gestured to the cafe next door where everyone in the town stops to get their coffee. It's the local rumor mill; spend any time in there, and you'll know what's happening in town. I did, and sure enough, everyone who entered was greeted by name and shared what was new in their life.

Second, Dell'Arte stresses community service, and not just through their art. They sign up for the help cook at the Rotary Club's pancake feed, and if there's a town clean-up, they pitch in. The service they felt was most influential was volunteering to teach theatre in the local schools. When parents saw their kids being more confident public speakers and capable of giving strong presentations, they began to see the value in what Dell'Arte was offering.

Students at the school of physical theatre are required to be involved in the local community from meeting the elders of the town at a Rotary story swap, to volunteering, to living and working with a specific community within the town or even smaller neighboring towns to create specific theatre pieces for that place.

I also stopped by Eureka, California, where my friend Stacia is working with Cornerstone Theater (based in L.A.) this July to create a production for, with, and about the northern California town.

Cornerstone goes to a different community each summer and does a community-based piece with them. From one day's worth of watching the tsunami of activity that goes into creating a show in a month , this I what I've gathered from their process. The company first picks a community based on where they have some pre-existing contacts and where they can find space to house a small army of theatre folks for a month (in Eureka's case, they knew a drama teacher in a Catholic high school with dorms). Before the summer comes, they send in a playwright who interviews people in the town and holds story-circles to get a feel for the place and the narratives of those who reside there. The playwright takes these interviews and stories and uses them as inspiration to create a rough script. When summer arrives, the theatre company rolls into town and starts a massive community engagement campaign. They advertise through standard media, but also through organizations that they have connections to (local arts organizations, religious groups, fraternal orders), and by walking up to random people on the street. But Cornerstone isn't trying to get people to come see their play, they're advertise to get people to help make their play. They gather quotes, take pictures, invite people to audition and help with the production. About half the cast ends up being people from the local town, most of whom are without much theatre training. Cornerstone doesn't try to make actors out of these people, instead, they just focus on helping them carryout their roles. As the newly formed hybrid ensemble rehearses, they adapt and refine the script to include the insights of the community members as well as to take into account the venue that they are using. In Eureka, the show is being performed in a functioning lumber and woodworking mill, and the cast makes good use of the space. Old boat hulls, log stumps, and working forklifts are all put to use as the show climbs about the the mill's workspace.
(photos by Stacia, to see more, click here)

By the end, so many people are involved in the production, they can't help but have a huge turnout. From the rehearsals I saw, the show looks really good, so if you happen to be in Eureka August 6, 7, or 8, check out Jason in Eureka. Also, there is an official blog with photos that records the process.
(not only is the photo of this poster by Stacia, but she also made the poster on a nearly century old hand-press in the mill)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Gathering Water

There's a couple interesting collaborative art projects in Seattle based on the premise of individuals bringing in pieces that they've either made or gathered and then having an artist put the pieces together into a coherent whole.

The first is called Mater Matrix Mother and Medium and was commissioned by Seattle Public utilities to increase awareness and conservation of local streams and watersheds.The artist met with different groups of citizens and had them crochet blue patterns, which she then combined to form a "river." The river begins by rising out of an actual stream in an urban forest located in Seattle.

(Abbey and Will, with whom I stayed in Seattle)

(little drops of rain in the river)

Eventually, the river returns once again to the same stream bed from which it originated, but it does so in a place where the water has run dry. Just as the stream peters out, the crochet trains off with a single thread.

Another similar project occurred at Faith Lutheran in Seattle (where Abbey, featured above, is a pastor). In this project, parishioners were encouraged to bring rocks to church which had some meaning to them. An artist gathered the rocks and created a pattern in which to utilize them for a mosaic. Parishioners continued to be part of the project by gluing the rocks to netting on which the pattern was laid out. The artist later came back and filled in the cracks with grout. The whole mosaic was placed in the frame of a old doorway that was no longer being used after a renovation. Member of the congregation can (and did) point out the rocks they contributed and glued.