Day 21: On learning new languages in a civically engaged theatre-making process

by Jacob Watson | Aug 11, 2016

This guest post is part of our countdown to Lab 2016 un/spoken: The Language of the Stage. Every day for the 30 days leading up to the Lab, we’re featuring an article or resource examining different aspects of language and communication in theatre.

As a theatre maker, I’ve always sought out unconventional opportunities. Whether that’s staging a giant spectacle with 30 young people wearing rabbit masks on the rooftop of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (happened) or re-imagining a Japanese folktale in someone’s living room in an unfamiliar part of the city (also happened), I enjoy the challenge and the satisfaction that comes from doing something that requires a kind of translation.

Sometimes that means a translation of space, sometimes it’s about the population involved, and sometimes it’s the structure of the process itself that requires translation.

In my current collaboration, it’s all of those. And more.

This summer, I am working with the Lyric Opera’s Chicago Voices program, on a project called the Community Created Performances. Essentially, these performances are an opportunity for communities from the Chicago area to tell their “untold story” with the resources and support of a large cultural institution.

Many groups competed for the chance to participate and three finalists were selected, all of whom receive their own dedicated artistic team, rehearsal space, a stipend, and the opportunity to devise and perform an original opera downtown at the Harris Theatre on September 24. It’s a hugely ambitious project, and one that requires careful attention to the various languages at play: both in production itself and throughout the process.

We can start with my title on the project: Animateur — which, as I’ve been explaining to folks, is really just a fancy (maybe French?) version of the word “animator.” Someone who enlivens stories.

It’s actually a great title for what I’m doing, and I’m a huge fan of the role. But even it requires a translation.

In some ways, it’s a bit like being a director, except that my focus is more on generating story than presenting it. (In addition to me, our team consists of a scriptwriter, a songwriter, and a stage director who is ultimately responsible for guiding the piece that we create into production.)  So far as the Animateur, I’ve functioned as a space-holder, community-builder, idea-offerer, bridge, feedback-giver, peacemaker, story-shaper, advocate, and cheerleader.

As I thought about this work in the context of this year’s DirectorsLab theme, I was struck by the phrase “the Language of the Stage.” Given that our project is called Chicago Voices, I have to wonder: exactly whose language are we talking about here?

Of the three groups participating in the project, the one I am supporting is Tellin’ Tales Theatre, a cohort of performers with disabilities and their allies. This is a group of incredibly talented performers and writers who have been making work together for over 20 years.

On a fundamental level, the very language of how these artists make work is different than mine. As such, there are unique challenges and opportunities that emerge as I navigate collaboration within this new community.

Although we are still very much in the thick of this process, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on what makes work for directors (or anyone) in a civically engaged theatre-making economy slightly different from our work in other contexts. In particular, I’ll focus on the theme at hand — “the language of the stage:”

Insight #1: expertise means many things

I think it’s easy to consider the term “expertise” as synonymous with “knowledge” or “skill” in the formal sense: as in, an expert is someone with lots of degrees, or great training, or an impressive résumé. But especially when we’re working in community-based contexts, it’s important to consider that expertise also refers to life experience, to perspective, to adaptability.

In other words, expertise doesn’t always align neatly with the hierarchies we build, and certain types of expertise are less obvious than others.

This became clear to me very quickly. As a teacher and a facilitator, I prefer embodied experiences to purely mental ones: I only have so much patience for sitting and talking before I want to get moving. From my perspective, this also makes for more interesting performance. I brought this spirit to the group and mostly they seemed to be enjoying the process.

A few weeks in, though, one of the participants came to me and said, “You know, we really like all the activities but all this movement is exhausting for some of us!”

In that moment, I really had to step back and ask myself: how well am I considering this group’s needs in a way that both pushes them to grow but also respects them as experts in their own artistic process? And so I shifted things to be more of a mix: some moving around the space, some work done sitting in chairs, and lots of writing — which was a natural skill of the group.

In retrospect, I think I had been so focused on not underestimating the group’s ability in one area that I totally overlooked a different way of working that ended up being much more productive. Sure, I knew lots of great activities and exercises, but if they didn’t work for this group they were no good. Or as Ali Stroker, the first person in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway (in the recent revival of Spring Awakening), said in a recent keynote address I attended: sometimes it’s as simple as offering: “you know, there are five different ways to do this.”

“Usually,” she says, when something doesn’t quite work, “the person with the disability has the answer if you can just probe a little bit.” In that experience, I needed to listen for a different kind of expertise.

Similarly, as we began to tell stories it became clear that there were pieces to the puzzle that my Lyric collaborators and I weren’t going to be able to fill in; that wisdom was in the group itself.

Insight #2: message matters (a ‘good story’ is not enough)

Another interesting moment happened slightly later in the process, as we were putting the finishing touches on our script.

Our scriptwriter had been working diligently to weave together the various threads of narrative that had been generated throughout our early rehearsals, and we finally had a storyline that connected many unique characters — all with different disabilities — as they navigate life, love, work, travel, and the general complexities of grownuphood.

There was one particularly funny storyline in which two characters are on a date at the Olive Garden and things just aren’t going well. The waiter is patronizing toward them, one of the characters can’t seem to muster up enough confidence, and the romance fizzles. The story was based on a personal experience one of our participants had shared, but there was a problem.

A different participant pointed it out to us. He reminded us that a lot of people think folks with disabilities don’t like themselves — that they don’t have a lot of self-confidence — and that’s just not true. In fact, it’s a bit of a stereotype.

So while it was absolutely grounded in somebody else’s real experience, that storyline wasn’t doing what the project itself set out to do, which is to tell the untold story of people with disabilities. All it was doing was perpetuating what is potentially a harmful myth, and at the very least an overwrought generalization.

So, we revised the storyline. The scriptwriter and I talked, and I shared an experience from my own life — how, as a person who is queer, people often assume that I’ll get along great with their only other queer friend even though we might have nothing else in common.

I wondered if that experience might be similar for people with disabilities. We brought the changes to the group and immediately there was a resonance that hadn’t been there before.

Now, the two people on the date are both quite confident; they are just a terrible match. It’s much funnier.

Insight #3: if it were easy, we wouldn’t be doing it

The last thing I’ll share is the mantra I’ve been repeating to myself every time this process becomes a bit more difficult than I had anticipated: “if it were easy, we wouldn’t be doing it.”

At the same conference where I got to hear Ali Stroker speak, I attended a session that articulated the difference between inclusion and access. As I understand it, access means inviting somebody else into your house; inclusion means building a house with them. This is one scenario in which the language we use — and the meaning behind it — can make a huge difference.

Access is much easier. It’s much easier to build the process the way you’ve always done it, and then make a few modifications for people whose needs might be different. And access itself can be a good thing; there’s nothing inherently wrong with providing access.

The trouble comes when we conflate access for inclusion. If we are going to promise a truly inclusive process or experience, we have to be clear on what those words mean — both to us and to the folks we are involving from the community.

There have definitely been moments when it’s occurred to me that, if this were a more traditional rehearsal process, there would be some shortcuts we could take. Decisions might be made quicker, roles might be a little clearer, progress on the work might be steadier. But efficiency and ease are not what we’re here for. We are creating a space in which people whose voices regularly get pushed to the margins can tell their stories: if that were an easy thing to do, then we wouldn’t even be here in the first place.

Jacob Watson is a Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and facilitator. In addition to his work on the Chicago Voices project with the Lyric Opera, Jacob is a founding member and workshop leader with the FYI Performance Company, a program of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, which designs theatre-based approaches to sexuality education. He is also a frequent collaborator with various theatre companies across the city, including Erasing the Distance, Theatre Unspeakable, and Piven Theatre Workshop. Jacob currently manages a K-12 arts integration program based out of Columbia College’s Center for Community Arts Partnerships. He holds a B.A. in Theatre from Northwestern University.