Care & accountability
We’ve all heard the expression — “The show must go on” — a saying that speaks to the idea that a performance should proceed despite any difficulties that arise. In TSDC, we don’t accept this as a foregone conclusion. Instead we ask ourselves:
Does the show need to go on? If so, why? Who and what are we accountable to, and for, in getting this show into a public venue?
Our answers to these questions shape how we approach care in the context of facilitating TSDC workshops. At its worst “the show must go on” can suggest a lack of care for performers by placing the importance of the show over their well-being. It’s worth remembering that the phrase seems to have originated in the circus entertainment world of the 1800s, when it was used to insist that the paying customer must get the entertainment they had paid for, whatever the cost to performers. Since TSDC doesn’t define its relationship to its audience as a commercial contract in a marketplace of entertainments, this sense of the phrase isn’t applicable to our work.
At its best, however, “the show must go on” can be seen to reflect a commitment to the performers’ creative voices and their rights to be publicly heard. The saying is also often understood as an affirmation of theatre’s capacity to improvise in the face of challenges. This is how TSDC understands it. Just look at our current situation. Covid-19 may have put an end (for now) to live performances, but the show-must-go-on principle prevails with creative vigor via online experiments. (See Exploring New Frontiers, Going Virtual for a peek at TSDC’s efforts in this arena.)
In early circus work, the performers themselves may have had another understanding of the “show must go on” idea: that they must support each other if something went wrong. In a spirit of solidarity, a performer could trust that others would step in to distract the audience and create space for the performers in difficulty to recover. They would look after each other, no matter what. This is the basis for a kind of accountability among workshop facilitators and participants that we work to encourage.
We want TSDC workshops to be a place where group members engage in solidarity, treating each other with respect and care. We commit to ensuring that people in positions of power within the group nurture solidarity and act to make the group environment as safe and caring a space as possible for all participants. We expect to be held accountable on this point.
In many theatre-making processes, theatre directors expect performers to leave their life struggles at the door. That’s not the case at all with TSDC: in this project, the stresses and struggles of participants’ everyday lives are a part of the story that needs to be told. As we noted previously (see Potential Challenges), in projects like TSDC, performer-advocates’ lived experience often puts them “into close proximity with really stressful situations.” These stresses and struggles also affect the creative process.
Both the embodied explorations that are a part of TSDC workshops and the group work of collective creation can stir up feelings, memories, and conflicts. The multiple worlds and perspectives present can also lead to tensions within the group. So for us, “the show must go on” implies that we must pay attention to how making the show is affecting every participant. To carry out our commitment to solidarity and care, facilitators and community workers need to take the time to reflect on what’s happening for participants and ourselves, and to plan carefully how we adapt and respond.
But this approach to solidarity and care is not an end in itself in the context of this project. Rather, it creates the conditions that allow people who experience marginalization within our communities, and who are working hard to advocate for justice, to address a broader public in a way that invites that public into a more accountable relationship with the groups that the community and self-advocates represent.
TSDC organizers don’t insist that any particular show must go on; the choice always belongs to the performer-advocates. But people who take part in TSDC workshops do so largely because of their desire to have a public voice. Because of this, as workshop facilitators we see ourselves as accountable to working with participants to create and perform a play to a broader public. For us then, the challenge is how to create a caring environment and address barriers in order to continue to do the creative work that needs to be done in order to create a public discussion of conditions and issues the performer-advocates want to see addressed.
Since theatre facilitation is our area of expertise, we look to elements of theatre and its creative process to work with the difficult feelings that sometimes emerge, recognizing that:
- Focusing attention on the collective storytelling process fosters a sense of group accountability where everyone recognizes that for us to collectively reach the goal of creating and performing a play, everyone needs to work together.
- Theatre offers a unique opportunity for speaking collectively because a play’s range of characters can demonstrate differences within a group.
- Since TSDC performances are intended to prompt public discussion about our collective futures, through their creative work performer-advocates often model to audience members ways of communicating and finding solidarity across differences.
TSDC workshops require a certain amount of emotional labour from everyone, participants and facilitators. Some observers perceive the creative process and the care that’s offered by facilitators as a kind of therapy for individual participants. We don’t see it that way. For us, the emotional work is part of a process of developing social solidarities and exploring differences of perspective. The healing some participants have identified from the experience emerges in part, we think, from the connections that develop and deepen between participants, and from the validation of concerns that are often ignored.
For some potential participants who are facing significant immediate stressors in their lives, a TSDC workshop or performance may require too much emotional labour at that particular moment. Participants for whom group work or public performance is very difficult at a given time, or who are unable to regularly attend workshop sessions may be better served by other forms of artistic expression that don’t require the same level of collaboration.
Throughout this chapter we’ve discussed some of the ways we approach theatre facilitation and structure workshops in order to cultivate a supportive environment for collective creativity. An awareness of the participant-performers’ life situations, and of the potential for the creative process to generate strong emotions, has led us to these practices:
- Before beginning a workshop series, check-in with a community partner to ask for their reflections on what we need to keep in mind as facilitators when working with groups of participant-performers who share similar experiences of social marginalization.
- Structure in time for meal-sharing and an informal gathering within each of the weekly workshops as a way to build relationships and trust (a topic we’ll continue to discuss in the following chapter, Workshop Activities & Exercises).
- Have everyone (theatre facilitators, the community worker, and workshop participants) take part in appropriate workshop activities to cultivate group solidarity and as a way of building an awareness of changes in participants’ willingness or capacity to participate.
- Consistently ask participants: what they need in order to take part? What information or supports are meaningful to them?
- Provide and make visible multiple avenues for participants to give feedback both within the workshops and privately.
- Let participants know that they can stop an activity (or withdraw from the workshops or the project altogether) at any time and without explanation.
- Slow things down. Set realistic goals, especially for the first time people try out an activity.
- Take time to reflect on our own responses as facilitators to interactions within workshops and to work with community partners to help us understand the themes or dynamics that are unfolding in the workshops.
- Sarah Adjekum, TSDC research assistant and member of the Choose Your Destination workshop team. ↵