“In this age of populism, when too many media and political figures try to exploit the dissatisfaction of people who are feeling unheard, it is crucially important to create forums where marginalized voices can take their rightful place in public discussion. We are working to create events where people from different social locations can speak to, not for or at, each other, and where nobody feels like they’ve been written out of the discussion before it even starts.”
— Catherine Graham, TSDC research team lead and artistic director, School of the Arts, “The world’s a stage — for all.”
TSDC plays always focus on public engagement. They seek to open a dialogue that’s organized around the values at play in the situations presented in the performances, and about what we (performers and audience) value, and also would want to change, about how those situations unfold in our City. In this way, an overarching intention to keep in mind throughout the script development process is that we are working to create a narrative arc that prompts a public encounter.
We begin from the conviction that performer-advocate voices are important to public discussion. This is why, from the outset of the project, TSDC theatre practitioners take on the facilitator role in our approach to the performance creation process. As facilitators, we don’t come to the workshops with a preconceived idea of what the story will be about, where it will be set, or who the characters will be. In terms of script development, this means that it’s important to us that the play’s story arc and dialogue come from what performer-advocates do and say the workshops.
We also consider it essential that the plays be performed by the community participants who co-create them. There was a moment during the project when someone suggested that if we worked with professional actors the plays might reach a broader audience. In some ways, their rationale was sound. Whereas relying on the availability of performer-advocates can limit when and where the play is able to be presented, professional actors can be hired whenever and wherever they’re needed. Trained actors’ higher degree of performance skill could also potentially draw a broader audience to the plays.
Yet to hire professional actors would undermine TSDC’s core purpose. As political theorist Nancy Fraser asserts, when marginalized voices are ignored in public discussion, the problem is often not what they say but how their presentations are seen and heard (or misheard) in public venues. This is why we think performance is uniquely well-suited as a means of interrupting usual patterns of exclusion from public discussion — and why we feel it’s necessary that participants perform the plays. Performance offers a platform for participants to show and tell their stories through their own words, expressions, and embodied actions and interactions.
Just as TSDC plays seek to interrupt norms of communication related to public speech, we’re also aware that adopting an encounter-based approach disrupts some of the expectations related to viewing performances. Like TV or movies, theatrical performances are something we look at and take in. Regardless of the content, there’s no obligation to engage.
After going to a movie or the theatre we leave and talk about what we liked or didn’t like. We might talk about the artistry (or lack thereof), the skill of the performers, the aesthetics of the play. If we discuss the story, the characters and their intentions and actions, it tends to be with the people we attended the performance with (partners, family, friends, colleagues — people from our own social worlds) and most often the discussion takes place in the comfort of our familiar worlds. Structurally, we’re called to judgement (it’s the nature of the genre). Even in post-performance theatre talk-back sessions, rarely are audiences in a position where they have a chance to speak with the people whose lives are being represented in the play. Most often, they are speaking to the professional theatre makers (playwrights, directors, actors) who are responsible for the representation of those lives.
Our goal with TSDC plays is not simply to represent a situation that the audience may or may not be aware of. Nor is it to invite audiences to make judgements about the play’s characters, their choices, and their actions. It’s to invite audiences into a discussion with the performers, not about them. Moreover, since community and self-advocates are the ones who create and perform the plays, they’re also the ones who set the terms of the encounter. They’re the ones who say, “We’re here to have a conversation about this”; “This is how we see it”; “The judgements you make about this must be made in dialogue with us.”
In the script, one of the ways we work to interrupt the norms of both public discussion and viewing a performance, is in how the plays begin. Each performance starts with the performers introducing themselves and then introducing their characters, as in “Hi, I’m Jess and I’m playing Joyce. Joyce is….” What they say about the character provides the audience with background information that’s relevant to the kind of action the character will be involved in. Sometimes the character introductions by the performers are really important to understanding the action of the play. But sometimes, they are simply a way of underlining to the audience that the performer-advocates are choosing to show them particular things and not others. The introduction sets up the performers as real people, who are playing roles and telling a collective story that they worked to create about events and situations that they are knowledgeable about, while also making it clear that the play isn’t autobiography.
TSDC’s encounter-based approach is also always underlined in the final scene of the play, which generally involves some kind of call to action from the performers to the audience. This last scene indicates our expectation that audiences assume some of the responsibility for welcoming more community voices into discussions of the issues the play raises. Interestingly, in two of our plays, we found that having the characters simply sit and silently stare out at the audience was as strong a way of doing this as a demanding monologue. In two others, performers ask the audience directly some version of the question: “What will you do about this?” As with all of our decisions about scripting, the decision about how to frame this question to the audience is made with the participants and in relation to the material that comes out of our workshop process. (See The Performance Event for a discussion of some of the ways we organize the performance event to facilitate a public encounter.)
TSDC’s encounter-based approach is designed to:
- Prompt a public conversation where people from different social locations can speak to and with, not for or at, each other.
- Reorganize the social hierarchy of typical performance and storytelling events so that performer-advocates are visible both as people with lived knowledge related to the events and situations presented in the play, and as analysts of those events and situations.
- Fraser, Nancy. Fortunes of feminism: from state-managed capitalism to neoliberal crisis. Brooklyn: Verso Books; 2013. ↵