Sojourn Theatre Summer Institute, Day 3

When I returned to my Airbnb yesterday, after the last day of the Sojourn Theatre Summer Institute, I ate a small-ish dinner and went straight to bed. (Not that I slept, of course. I watched BTS videos, go figure.) Goodbyes, no matter how blasé I try to be about them, are unsettling for me. While technology has made it easier to stay in touch with others, there’s a vulnerable voice inside of me that wonders: was I able to contribute to a good atmosphere? Was I able to establish a quality connection with this person?

Insecurities aside, let’s instead focus on what happened on the last day:

We started our day by reflecting on the previous sessions. Two terms stood out to me: audience design and complexity. Before I define these terms, I can’t help but notice how akin Michael’s language is to game design speak.1 What is it about this field that resonates with those who create participatory theatre? (I could probably try to answer this, but there are a lot of things I want to cover in this post, so that’s an endeavor for another day.)

Audience design is the conscious invitation of a particular group (or groups) of audience. In the conventional practice of theatre, marketing is blasted to the public and whoever wants to watch (in New York, this tends to be a homogenous group), watches. There isn’t anything wrong with this strategy, but depending on the purpose of the performance, for example, if it were to encourage dialogue, audience design might serve it better. The rationale behind this is a “curated” audience opens up space for complexity–an actual wrestling with issues, a word that acknowledges multiple and possibly tangling perspectives2

I am all for audience design. One of my biggest frustrations, particularly as an Asian artist in New York City, is the Asian/Asian-American performances I’ve watched (or have been in) usually have a predominantly white audience. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. This is merely a reflection of who has access and perhaps this is what the theatre companies themselves want, i.e., visibility in mainstream American theatre.3 I just personally want (my work to have) more engagement with the Asian/Asian-American community.

Physically, we started with an activity led by Rebecca: we worked in pairs and explored a set of instructions non-verbally, i.e., pick stars from the sky. These instructions were a mixture of familiar activities and metaphorical language; the hope is it would inspire playful movement, not only from those who already belong in artistic fields, but those outside of it as well.

I worked with L and we quickly found our flow. (I wanted to talk about this during reflection, but it was still early in the morning, so my “I’M SHY” walls were still up.) “Flow” however can encounter “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” obstacle. What do I mean by this: because we were picking stars, I thought being propped up on her shoulders would make for a lovely image. She was more than happy to “Yes, and” the vision, but I broke our flow by suddenly talking and acknowledging the fact that, “Let’s not. I might hurt you.” The fact of the matter is, if I were propped up on her shoulders, she might break her back because of my weight.4

Afterwards, we began the main focus of the day: getting our ideas on their feet. Again, game design language entered the space: before lunch, we were invited to “test” something with a group of participants (of our choice). This brought to mind “playtesting” as well as Coney’s (a theatre company in the UK) “scratches.” After lunch, we were to share something with (hopefully) both an experiential and performative component.

If I go with a blow-by-blow account of the collaborative process, this will take forever, so here are some highlights:

1. Michael invited us to make sure everyone who wanted to share an idea got to share their idea. Without this structure, there’s the danger of a majority leaping onto one idea that resonates without even hearing everyone’s. While we did hear everyone’s ideas for that round, we fell into that very trap. Unfortunately, it was my idea people leapt on.

Let me backtrack a bit: my group’s purpose was to invite dialogue about interpersonal care. The main ideas that were brought up, structure-wise, was: a.) a care fair, i.e., stations; b.) a gangbuster; and c.) in-role work. In the middle of our discussion–which admittedly no one was quite sure about what to do yet–M mentioned that previously, we’ve also put emphasis on the importance of joy. Which reminded me of play, which reminded me of the game which I know as “Bombs and Shields” (an unwise name in today’s global climate).

For a reason unknown to me, the majority (or at least those with loud voices), leapt onto that idea and we began building on it. I suspect it’s partly because we were desperate and it had a clear structure we could play with. While of course I was happy that it was embraced, I wasn’t comfortable with the fact that we left our initial conversation behind too quickly (I should have brought it back up). But in any case, with the concept of care in our heads, we modified the rules of “Bombs and Shields” and that was what we tested.

Because we moved too quickly however, some voices were unheard and people were confused. I really appreciate E for speaking up about it during lunchtime after we presented. Transparency is so refreshing and I wish I could develop that much courage.

2. That said, a part of me feels extra squirmy because I was the one who primarily facilitated the pre-lunch time “scratch.” I did well due to many factors: I’ve facilitated this game before (most important); my ensemble–and the entire group, actually– were supportive and engaged (even more important); and my mentors have trained me well. It felt really good to have my facilitation recognized, not only by Michael, but also by my peers. J, who was part of my ensemble, shared that I was a pleasure to watch. S, who gave me her calling card at the end of the day, commented that, “She’s (meaning me) real good.” It feels immodest to note this, but given how critical I am of myself most of the time, I’d like to just keep this nugget for days when I feel I’m invisible.

3. When our ensemble reconvened after lunch, we assessed what happened to our process and moved to the next step. I was more than willing to throw away the game and just think of something that preserved its tension, but S (who was from Syria), made a great suggestion: keep the structure (pragmatic, because of time), but individualize the mechanics (which is an in-role of sorts and would inspire some kind of complexity).

Also, in passing, Michael mentioned that the final image of our “game” (hands towards cheeks) was resonant. He also mentioned–and this was to the larger group–that a good challenge would be to include both performative and experiential elements in our presentation. Because I knew my partner from yesterday, (another) S, was interested in performative work, I mentioned that and proposed we add a part that frames the experiential activity (the modified game) that we wanted to do. While in my head it was a completely separate movement piece, through the suggestions of my fellow ensemble members, it was a movement piece that was based on our individualized mechanics. In a way, it was both a movement piece and modeling.

We had one final part which was dialogue. S (from Syria) and I facilitated it. I don’t think I did well at all and mostly gave the ball to S during that time. We didn’t have a lot of time to think of strong questions, so I was a bit out of it.

In any case–and I know this is a poor description of what our iterated piece looked like (I’ll be more descriptive in the paper)–it went well and while there were parts in this process that zoomed pass a couple of us (I know I felt it), we held tightly together as an ensemble and felt proud of our work.

4. Michael shared where Sojourn was with this particular theme, i.e., care, and I was a.) thrilled to hear a part of it (it was sci-fi-ish, so right up my alley) and b.) it reminded me of how Coney works; this entire process of playtesting and all. I want to do that too.

5. One last note for reflection: workshop dramaturgy. Or what I call experience design. Or what others call lesson plan. Again, my mentors in both my MA and PhD have highlighted the importance of thoughtful scaffolding and modeling when teaching. This was evident in the entire three days.

6. Michael also uses the Liz Lerman Critical Response Practice. I really, really agree with this practice and I remember getting a bit agitated by a friend who looked at it as some kind of censorship (on the side of someone who has something to say).5

It was a great three days. I was inspired and admittedly, became frustrated and impatient over my current position in life. I want to be able to make things. I want to work with like-minded peers. I want to work with communities and see how I may be of help to them. Hopefully, the next three days, beginning tomorrow morning, would help illuminate these desires.

  1. On the same note, I find myself using that language more and more, and, in a way, adding that field into how I see myself as an artist.
  2. Rohd uses this word instead of diversity, which is a word that’s too easily bandied these days. There may be a diversity of opinions, but are those opinions in dialogue? Complexity, I feel, includes that.
  3. Albeit an outsider, I have a lot to say about this, but another day.
  4. I acknowledge that a part of this is my own body image issues and maybe things would have been fine if I embraced her offer. If I were too heavy for her, for instance, we would have found a solution together. But I was too nervous to risk that.
  5. While there’s merit to his opinion, if our purpose is to generate (more) creativity, agency must be handed to the makers.