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.


Liz said...

This sounds like it went really well, Ben. A couple of comments:

I think all the 'pre-work' required to get people comfortable IS part of the work, not just the preamble. You wouldn't just jump right into Eucharist, but the rest isn't preamble, right?

Do you see this kind of activity building at a parish? Or maybe as a kind of parish, an alternative Sunday event? It could evolve into a troupe too, that toured churches. I'd like to try this activity with tougher/more troubling passages, especially NT.

If one of the goals is to interact with biblical texts, you could call it Actio Divina (as long as you now give me a cut...) :>

Interesting that you used the word 'appropriation.' I'm thinking about whether Boal/Rohd would agree/approve of religious contextualization.


MFConnection said...

I'm glad it was so well received, even though it is complex. It made me think of a cross between sophisticated group games involving storytelling, e.g. Beyond Balderdash or Dungeons and Dragons or Charades, card games (with their emphasis on trying to read the other players' intentions), and group dancing, such as traditional folk dances. The opportunity/challenge of telling your own story through gestures, while trying to understand other people's story in relation to the Bible passage, gives the interaction an intensity that should be engrossing. It will be something young people, less socially inhibited and still in touch with their bodies, will respond to. I'll be curious what name evolves for it. "Biblical acts and signs" comes to mind for me. Or "Godly Gestures", which suggests both the physicality and the conveying of religious ideas and feelings.

MFConnection said...

Wow, "Actio Divina" at 2:12 pm and "Godly Gestures" at 2:13. The coincidence must be something more, perhaps a divine act or sign!