November 15, 2011

November 12, 2011

Discourse and community organizing in indie theatre

Previously, I talked about the need for community organizing in indie theatre and what that means. I mentioned that transforming the landscape of indie theatre will require a different way of engaging so that everyone can fully participate.

I want to parallel two recent experiences that bring into sharp relief the need for a new way to navigate discourse in the indie theatre community. The first is the Audre Lorde Project's QTPOC Occupy Wall Street Town Hall meeting. The second is Gwydion's Playwrights Wish List.

At ALP's Town Hall, there were a few things that stood out about the process: 1) the participants came from all walks of life; 2) everyone present participated and was fully engaged; and 3) there were differences of opinion but not debate.

I believe this has to do with the way the town hall was set up. First of all, there were ground rules for discussion which everyone agreed to abide by. They were:

  1. One mic, one diva
  2. Step up, step back
  3. Check your privilege

With these 3 simple rules, it set the stage for this town hall to be a place where the community could listen and share, just to get a lay of the land and see where people are. After sharing those rules, we broke up into 6 groups. We did not have our choice of groups; we just counted off. In retrospect, this was probably a good idea because it gets rid of habitual ways we have of interacting in a familiar group. Each group had 1 or 2 facilitators.

Once we were in our groups, we went to our assigned spaces, we selected a note-taker and reporter (for the report-back). Then we asked 3 simple questions for us to ask about QTPOC involvement at Occupy Wall Street. Not leading questions, just open things for people to share. If I'm remembering correctly, we were asked:

  1. Are you involved with OWS? Why or why not?
  2. Why do you think QTPOCs are marginalized at OWS?
  3. What can we bring from OWS to our own community organizing?
  4. (Bonus) What did you want to get from the town hall meeting?

We were given about 30-45 minutes to talk about these questions. After that, we reconvened, and each group gave a 5-minute report-back that shared the general feeling of the group plus some responses to the questions. Then we had a few minutes for general feedback and to fill in info gaps about what happened in our group breakouts.

It was an amazing experience because I felt empowered and connected in a way that I rarely feel in everyday life. Let's be clear here; I was not controlling anything. I was just one participant in a group. Yet I felt more powerful there than I did in situations where my control is more or less absolute. Isn't that something?

Over Twitter, Gwydion and I chatted briefly about how we could import this model to the virtual world. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about his Playwrights Wish List because that's exactly the kind of thing we need more of in the theatre community. It hits almost every single one of the community organizing principles. Granted, it's going to be tough to sustain that effort since Gwydion took upon himself roles that are usually spread out among at least 3 other people (facilitator, note-taker, report-back). However, comparing the success of the town hall meeting with the success of the Playwrights Wishlist, I noticed that they had a few things in common.

  1. An explicit invitation to a specific group
  2. A clear understanding of what we're there to do
  3. Willingness to allow individuals to speak for themselves, asking for clarity where needed
  4. Responsiveness to the group needs and concerns
  5. Commitment to follow up in the future

Those are just off the top of my head. What other things would you add to creating a truly participatory model of discourse when it comes to organizing in the indie theatre community?

Community organizing and indie theatre

A while back I mentioned an interest in combining theatre with community organizing. For a variety of reasons, November has been the month where I've committed to learning more about community organizing. I'm taking part in the Audre Lorde Project's Daring To Be Powerful community organizing workshop, and I'm really enjoying myself and sensing a lot of growth.

My work with the Audre Lorde Project is a natural continuation of what I've been doing with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond.  With the People's Institute, I've developed the ability to analyze power structures and root them in real history. With the Audre Lorde Project, I'm learning how to apply that analysis in a way that reflects and serves QTPOC (queer/trans people of color - pronounced "Cutie Pock") communities.

This community organizing aspect of my artistic journey is particularly striking because, in my opinion, theatre is the most communal of the arts. It is the art form most intimately connected to where, when, and with whom it happens. You can tell a lot about a community by the theatre it creates.

As this communal element becomes a bigger part of who I am as a theatre maker, it becomes increasingly important for theatre to become the vanguard for exposing, examining, and transforming the power dynamics within our communities. Part of being able to do all that is creating methods of discourse that truly allow for the full participation of the community.

Yet as a community, theatre tends to be more reactive than proactive. We react to what the NEA is doing. We react to this or that theater's decisions. We react to this or that critic's statements about The Ultimate Truth About The State Of All Theatre. We react to this or that article or book being published. And I'm thinking, "Shouldn't this be the other way around? Shouldn't we be telling them what needs to change? Shouldn't they be listening and responding to us?"

Then again, how would they do that? It's not like we're being invited to fully participate in conversations about things that affect us (To me, this is what differentiates the Haves from the Have Nots - see HowlRound). And it's not like those things are receiving sustained effort and attention. As a result, it seems that we're having the same conversations all the time, and we're starting from ground zero each time we have these conversations. No matter what the discussion is, we always have to deal with
  • Denial that there is a problem
  • Refusal to believe things can change
  • Disbelief that we, collectively, have the power to make those changes
  • Unwillingness to act even in small ways
So what we have are stimulating discussions with brilliant people that never seem to lead to concrete action. We lack for nothing: not vision, not knowledge, not resolve, not know-how, not resources. Look at what we actually accomplish! Look at how much time and energy and brainpower we've put into doing the work we do just for the love of it. We're not powerless. We're not lazy. We're not stupid. We have the ability to make things very different for ourselves and our communities, but we seem to keep doing the same old thing.

Allow me to go on a bit of a tangent and explain different ways to work for change because without it, what I say after this won't make much sense. There are 4 basic aspects to working for change. They are:

  1. Service - focus on individuals and respond to immediate needs
  2. Advocacy - work with representatives to change policy
  3. Activism - mobilize individuals to increase attention about issues
  4. Organizing - community members change power relations to address root causes

Because of what I've learned from the People's Institute and the Audre Lorde Project, I've come to understand that what theatre needs now is organizing. When I talk about organizing, I don't simply mean doing things in an orderly fashion. I'm using the Audre Lorde Project's definition, which states that organizing is:
a strategic process for building people's collective power to achieve self-determination and justice
Political action is one of the more overt forms of community organizing, but there are many ways that it can be applied. Of course, just waking up one day and saying, "We should organize!" just doesn't work. Organizing efforts need to be guided by solid principles. In my experience, having clear, explicit principles for action cuts down on a lot of dysfunctional bullshit that makes dealing with some organizations a real pain in the ass. The Audre Lorde Project outlines a few organizing principles:

  • Self-determination - those directly affected by the problem decide what should happen and are in leadership
  • Power - build a base of people/community power; make changes in power relations
  • Justice and movement building - in line with justice for all oppressed people
  • "We" not "I" - broad base of community members; act together based on shared vision for change
  • Direct action - actions that directly take on those in power; using our voices, minds, bodies, and creativity in numbers for empowerment
  • Address root causes - address underlying causes; address the ultimate reason for a problem ("-isms")
Of course, this is just one group's set of organizing principles. How could we refine them for the indie theatre community?

November 3, 2011

Will you contribute $50 to support theatre by and about queer Black women?

“When I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid” — Audre Lorde

Earlier this year, I wrote and produced a play called Tulpa, or Anne&Me that debuted at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Since that first production, I’ve often been asked about what’s next for Tulpa, or Anne&Me. This is a great sign because it means that the play has touched people in some deep places and led to powerful moments of growth and healing for many. I feel a real responsibility to make this piece the best I can make it and bring it to as many places as I can where people want and need to see it.

Right now, I’m talking with someone who can offer me an opportunity for more performances in mid- to late April. Despite the fact that I’m based in NYC, there are still only a few plays by and about queer Black women being made. Although the world we live in wants me to be comfortable with feeling insignificant, I no longer have the luxury to deceive myself into believing that my work and my voice are not important.

I am raising $3,000 for the 2012 production of Tulpa, or Anne&Me. If only 60 people contribute just $50 each*, I can reach that goal. If only 60 people contribute just $50 each, my work will have another chance to do what it’s meant to do — pave the way for healing and transformation in our lives, relationships, and communities. If only 60 people contribute just $50 each, they will be doing more than putting a story on stage, but creating a vibrant opportunity to honor those of us who are Black and woman and queer.

  Will you contribute $50 to be part of that process?

(*That works out to only 1 person a day for the next 60 days.)