Experiments in Participation in London

“If experimentation truly has to do with taking steps into the unknown with the hope of knowing, then it seems that each time those steps are taken they are brand new from the last time. There are certain things that you always drag with you but when the time comes to step off the edge you leave those things behind. If you hang onto them you find yourself in the same place you started. So you start over again.” – Sam Shepard in PAJ (1977)

On the weekend of November 23-24, 2014 I participated in The Dialogue Festival: Talking/Making/Taking Part at the Ovalhouse Theatre and Arts Center in London. Technically the festival was co-presented by Dialogue (Maddy Costa and Jake Orr), Something Other, Theatre Bristol and Culturebot Arts & Media, but in reality, it was all Maddy and Jake. The festival was f**king brilliant; I left transformed and inspired.

Maddy Costa is a London-based theater blogger, critic, dramaturge and cultural producer. I had heard of her mostly through Andrew Haydon and as co-founder with Jake Orr of Dialogue, we had emailed once or twice, but had never met in person until February 2014. It was at the invitation of Prof. Karen Fricker that I participated with Maddy and Jill Dolan in a symposium on theater criticism in the Internet Age at Brock University in St. Catharine’s Ontario. We spent three amazing days immersed in an ongoing conversation about many of my favorite topics: art, criticism, theater, artistic citizenship, politics, aesthetics, feminism, equity, inclusion and cultural production.

Maddy is, like myself, an inveterate over-extending, over-committing multi-tasker, indefatigably committed to unrealistic optimism in the face of insurmountable challenges; a quirky dreamer endlessly tilting at windmills and, most significantly, a total theater nerd.

When the Brock Symposium was over Maddy and I parted ways, Skyping occasionally until this past spring when I informed Maddy I was likely coming to London in November; she replied that this was serendipitous as she and Jake were planning a festival of participation and theater for the weekend of November 23-24, 2014. The Festival was to be called Talking/Making/Taking Part and was proposed, as much as anything, as an experiment in participation.

Maddy, Jake and I have been working separately for a long while and in different way to explore these ideas of performative, interactive discourse. We are interested in questioning the assumptions of theater while expanding its possibilities and possible interpretations, championing artists who are doing the same while finding new strategies and tactics for discourse in and around the work itself.

But this festival was actually going to do things differently by putting dialogue in the conceptual and logistical center of the festival, not merely on the periphery. For all the institutional posturing we hear about “experimental” new work, about participation, socially engaged art, interactive and/or immersive performance, this was the first radical experiment in the festival form that I’ve encountered. And real experiments can fail.

On November 18, Maddy published a blog post on the Guardian’s website, a framing essay for the festival called “Can a relationship with theatre change people’s relationship to society?” I was both excited and terrified as I left for London.

Each day started with a Long Table that I hosted. On Saturday the invited guests were Hassan Mahamdallie, one of the developers of Arts Council England’s Creative Case for Diversity, and Jess Thom, an artist who performs as Tourette’s Hero. On Sunday the invited guests were Jo Bannon, a Bristol-based artist and producer, and Julia Taudevin, a playwright, actor and feminist, who travelled Scotland encouraging people to get involved in the Scottish Referendum.

The morning sessions were followed by a group lunch (cooked by Maddy’s mom!) that coincided with a series of one-on-one performances. On Saturday those performances were by Rachel Mars, Sheila Ghelani, Hannah Nicklin, Ehsan Gill, Samantha Ellis and Andy Field. On Sunday the performances were by Laura Mugridge, Brian Lobel, Rajni Shah, Peter McMaster, Vijay Patel, Rosalie Schweiker and Chris Goode. Because of the nature of the performances – one on one or small group – I was only able to participate in a few of them, but as I shared my experiences with other participants throughout the weekend, I found myself wishing I could clone myself to do all of them!

Everyone was on their own recognizance to get some food, find someone(s) to eat with, strike up a conversation, participate in a performance or watch None of Us Is Yet A Robot’s live-doodle performance Doodle, which is both a performance and a form of documentation.

At 2:30PM both days we reconvened in the café for Afternoon Ideas, another informal discussion session, led on Saturday by Tanuja Amarasuriya from Theatre Bristol and on Sunday by Mary Paterson, the lead artist of Something Other.

After about an hour of open conversation we returned to the main theater for hour-long interactive performances. Saturday featured Harry Giles’s Class Act; Ellie Stamp’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? closed the festival on Sunday afternoon.

For more insight into the festival’s program – who the artists are, why they were chosen, how it was structured – please read Maddy’s detailed overview of the Talking/Making/Taking Part program in her own words at the Dialogue website. Her write-up is more comprehensive, thoughtful and considered than I could possibly be, and written in her delightfully approachable but deeply informed voice.

When I showed up Saturday morning I was jet-lagged and disheveled, having gradually worked my way east from California with two whirlwind days of teaching and meetings in NYC before hopping a redeye to Gatwick.

Maddy and Jake were warm, welcoming, and frenzied. We set up the Long Table and I sat talking with Hassan Mahamdallie (Creative Case for Diversity) and Jess Thom (Tourette’s Hero), as the audience – or, really, fellow participants – began to file into the theater.

Jess has Tourette’s Syndrome with very pronounced – and often hilarious – tics. We immediately started talking about how to talk with her. It is awkward and uncomfortable at first. We are conditioned not to acknowledge or engage with someone’s “disability” and it can be difficult to know what is okay to ask and what isn’t. But Jess immediately disarms you with her humor and intellect, she is open to answer any question you will ask, and over time her Tourette’s becomes like another person in the room: a completely uncensored, unpredictable improviser persistently questioning everything that is said. Jess’s tics can be hilarious, disarming, and sporadically profound as she fixates on some word or phrase that, re-contextualized, takes on new meaning.

Jess characterizes her Tourette’s syndrome as a “superpower” and I’m prone to agree. At least in Jess’s case, she has learned how to take what most people consider a “disability” and transform it into a gift – an omnipresent opportunity to engage anyone, anywhere, in conversation; an unavoidable, ongoing performative intervention into public space and a non-threatening but extraordinarily meaningful interrogation of our assumptions of what it means to be “neurotypical”.

We then began to delve into Hassan’s work on the creative case for diversity, about the political and aesthetic barriers to inclusion and equity in the UK – and globally – and how Tourette’s, disability and notions of the neurotypical widen and complicate “diversity” while also opening up myriad new creative possibilities.

We were having a great conversation when I became uncomfortably aware of the ten empty chairs at the table and the fact that no one was coming to the table to talk. I started to get nervous. I started to feel very much the Loud American.

After a while an actor who had just moved to London from Berlin came to the table and started to take the conversation in a more abstract direction, and it began to get a bit esoteric. I could feel the tension in the room mounting but was at a loss as to what to do.

Eventually an older Jamaican woman came to the table and sat next to me, took out a long list of all the ways this event was boring and irrelevant, and how she thought I was an elitist ass (I’m putting words in her mouth, but that was the gist of it).

I was taken off guard and had to take a deep breath to assimilate the level of anger and hostility I was receiving, so I asked her to help me understand better. She said the event didn’t accomplish any of the things it proposed to do because the topics we were discussing were too intellectual and abstract, how we were trapped in our heads when we should be coming from our hearts and emotions.

Soon Thelma – I had asked her name – was joined by others at the table, expressing dissatisfaction with the format and content of the discussion. In short order Thelma, Hassan, and others got into heated arguments about being too “middle class” or not enough, being anti-intellectual or too intellectual, the problems of elitism, how you can’t discuss class without discussing race, how clinging to anti-intellectualism was actually disempowering when it came to inclusion and equity, and so on.

We stayed in conversation for another two hours as people came to the table, shared, argued, agreed, disagreed, offered opinions, found connections, found friction, and generally engaged in an animated, freewheeling, and lively debate.

I stepped away from the table for a while and someone pointed out to me that – as usual – men were dominating the conversation and suggested I mitigate that. When I returned to the table as host I tried to gently and unobtrusively ratchet down the aggression and hold the domineering male voices in check, making room for less aggressive, but often more circumspect, women’s voices.

Towards the end of the session I asked a young woman who had come to the table and been sitting there quietly if she had something to say. “Nothing specific,” she replied. “I took a seat because I found it frustrating to be in the audience and I wanted to experience what it was like to be at the table. I like it better.”

Her words landed like a flare, a moment of revelation and reward at the end of a very difficult experience. Our Long Table may not have achieved its Platonic Ideal of Democratic Discourse but it had done something else – made literal and tangible the metaphor of “being at the table,” it had created a transformative experience for everyone involved. Some people were bored and alienated and left, some people were active and engaged, and some people were bored, alienated, frustrated or angry and took a seat at the table to be heard and to take part.

It was a rough beginning to the weekend but it set the tone: participation isn’t easy, it isn’t always entertaining (in the conventional sense) and it sometimes requires an enormous amount of effort and skill on all accounts. But the reward is vastly greater than mere spectatorship.

As I ate lunch and chatted with people after the morning session a few things became clear. Despite my introduction of the conversation and format, as a result of the morning chaos during set-up, we hadn’t chosen a specific topic to discuss at the table, or if we had, we hadn’t made it clear. We also hadn’t printed out and distributed the Etiquette Guides that explain what a Long Table was and what the rules are.

Significantly, in the hubbub of the morning setup Maddy had forgotten to mention that her colleague Lily Einhorn, who works as the project manager for the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs Project and co-organizes Theater Club with Maddy, had invited members of those projects to the festival, describing the days activities as a workshop. Theater Club and Two Boroughs Project are related endeavors, with Theater Club serving as a kind of Book Club, for theater. Maddy and Lily focus on engaging people from communities who have, perhaps, been made to feel unwelcome or excluded from theater, bringing them to see plays and then using the work as prompts for discussion.

So the morning Long Table session had been hastily designed assuming an audience of experienced theater practitioners, when in fact the audience was comprised of many constituencies and publics for whom a much broader and more inclusive topic of conversation would likely have been more productive.

As flawed as the premise and execution of the first Long Table might have been, it reinforced the importance of creating platforms for discourse that allow for self-criticality.

For me, the volatility of the experience was revelatory – and thus valuable – in many ways, not least of which was to make legible the British class system and the attendant cultural differences that Americans and Brits are keen to gloss over. I’m well versed in problems of inequity and exclusion in the American context, I know the social cues and conditions of American life; I am always working to unlearn the habits of privilege and cultivate, with others, the practical habits of living in a democracy. But until this moment the cues and conditions of exclusion in Britain had been mostly theoretical.

When Thelma came to the table she had – understandably from her perspective and from the context and situation – cast me in the role of Authority. Even though the intention of the Long Table is to create a porous, egalitarian space for dialogue, I had been introduced as the “leader” and as an intellectual; I present visibly as white, male and (audibly) American, all cultural positions that are imbued with authority, power and privilege. The nuances of my identity and life experience, my actual sense of self and “being in the world” were erased in this new context, those complications likely being illegible outside of the United States anyway. As the embodiment of power and authority at the Table I became the lightning rod for Thelma’s – and others’ – discontent.

A subsequent conversation revealed that other women from the Theater Club group were thrilled to see a working class Jamaican woman take a seat at the table and confront me – and the other “authorities” at the table – while giving voice to their frustration and alienation. Looking at the shifting social dynamics at the table in retrospect, it became eminently clear that taking a seat at the table was not only daunting but – for some of the people in the room – almost unimaginable.

Americans take for granted their right to free speech and expectations of social equality, so even as, for all practical purposes, social and economic inequality is growing precipitously in The United States, our expectation is of equal treatment and equal rights regardless of religion, race, creed, gender, orientation and particularly, station at birth. Being born rich doesn’t give your opinion any more weight than anyone else’s, and every American, regardless of birth or breeding, feels completely entitled to speak their mind, often loudly, and with complete courage of their convictions.

I came to learn – or rather, was educated through conversations – that these women had no socially sanctioned outlet for their grievances. The British class system and its inexorable logic of cultural superiority predicated on lineage alone erases any form of meaningful dissent from the dominant narrative. So as difficult as it was for me to be the brunt of Thelma’s anger, my discomfort was nothing compared to the rage that these women must feel daily at being silenced and erased.

Given this new clarity of insight the theoretical proposition and practical implementation of the Dialogue Festival became even more radical and exciting.

When Tanuja Amarasuriya from Theatre Bristol led the Afternoon Ideas session on Saturday, she discussed some of the strategies she was using to bring more diverse voices and perspectives into the critical discourse. Her approach and ideas were very inspiring and she cast a very wide net as she encouraged people to contribute responses to work they’d seen, to raise questions and address big issues. It turned into quite a lively and wide-ranging group conversation.

All of the one-on-one and small group performances that I was able to participate in carried a frisson of resistance. I only wish I had enough time – and multiple selves! – to do them all. Saturday’s schedule concluded with Harry Giles’ Class Act, an interactive performance/game where the audience is divided by class, given sweets as “capital” and then, essentially, pitted against each other in class warfare, intercut by Harry’s amusing anecdotes and pithy insights. It left me with a sense of giddy, dangerous, possibility.

I left the Ovalhouse on Saturday evening inspired and in good spirits. I returned Sunday with renewed vigor and, after much discussion, Maddy, Jake and I decided to stick with the Long Table format for the morning session, despite Saturday’s rocky start.

For Sunday morning we had printed out the Etiquette guides and picked a topic that seemed specific enough to focus the conversation but vague enough to leave room to go in multiple directions, but it was still tough going.

Sunday’s invited guests were Jo Bannon, a Bristol-based artist and producer, and Julia Taudevin, a playwright, actor and feminist, who travelled Scotland encouraging people to get involved in the Scottish Referendum. Both had fascinating stories to share and insights to offer about participation, politics, theater, community, engaging with different publics, etc. But try as we might to stick to the practical and immediate, we found ourselves regularly losing the thread or moving into abstraction.

The first group to come to the table were graduate students who led the conversation in a decidedly theoretical direction, with strong assertions authoritatively declared from unquestioned assumptions and using the sort of puffy, indeterminate academic vocabulary that creates the appearance of rigor while serving primarily as legerdemain.

Saturday’s experience  made the structures of power and authority became newly visible to me, and when one of the young men began to speak, I now could recognize his accent as posh and plummy. His carefully mussed hair, the style of his wool sweater (what in America we once would have called “preppy”) and a certain studied casualness to his gestural vocabulary made his assumption of class privilege legible to me in a way it had not previously been.

As I listened to this young man glibly, condescendingly dismiss and undermine everyone else at the table with one specious assertion after another -“Inclusion is such a woolly concept and if we feel compelled to be inclusive we must acknowledge, then, that we must also, by definition, be exclusive…” – I could see and hear privilege baldly assert itself; I was witness to an act of structural violence that was as unavoidable for being systemic as it was now obvious. I began to discover my inner Thelma and I saw how, despite my best intentions, I might well have appeared to her.

One of my favorite essays of all time is Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things To Me”, which gave rise to the term “mansplaining”. On this trip to London I discovered what I call “poshsplaining”. This is the tendency of those invested with social or cultural authority to expound prodigiously on matters they have determined are of great import, and of which they may (or may not) be possessed of great knowledge, proclaiming the indisputable truth of their position while subtly (or not so subtly) eroding the legitimacy of the lived experience, acquired knowledge or expertise of an audience dispossessed of the visible trappings of authority.

The underlying assumption of cultural authority is that it derives from superior knowledge only accessible to those who have the time, resources and “natural” intelligence to cultivate it. In fact, in most cases, cultural authority derives from privilege alone; that privilege afforded to the upper classes by economic and political power made accessible by lineage and tribal (racial) affiliation.

Knowledge is, in fact, very different from understanding, and while not mutually exclusive, the relationship between the two is fraught. Knowledge can be considered an accumulation of information, “facts” and theories abstracted from experience and transmitted through study. Understanding, on the other hand, is most often derived from experience in the world. While knowledge may expand or inform the nature of lived experience, and thus alter the quality of understanding, knowledge is rarely sufficient unto itself to lead to understanding.

One might posit that expertise is a rarefied condition where knowledge and experience combine to create a more fully realized state of understanding, at least of a given situation, context or condition. For human beings to move more completely into mutual understanding requires an awareness that “knowledge” is rarely, if ever, objective, and in fact exists as a cultural construct, the boundaries of which are defined by social biases.

Stefan Kaegi of the theater collective Rimini Protokoll coined the phrase, “Experts of the Everyday” to describe the work the company makes with non-professional collaborator/performers. It is a profound re-framing of the relationship between artist, audience and public; it calls upon us to look again at the world, and people, around us, to pay attention, perceive them anew, not as we assume (“know”) them to be.

But while the work of Rimini Protokoll – along with that of many other artists bringing “the everyday” into the performative frame – is gradually changing the way people think about authority, expertise and participation, this work is generally presented at festivals and by institutions that structurally resist the possibility of non-“professional” expertise, institutions that assert cultural authority even as they make gestures at inclusion.

So when the actor Janet Suzman say that theater is a white invention, she is merely articulating openly the underlying assumption behind most of the arts establishment in the UK, Europe and the United States, particularly if we read “white” as “elite” or “upper class”.

From the physical architecture of the buildings, to lobby design, to ticket prices and high-minded panel discussions on important “issues” that are almost inevitably populated by cultural “experts” possessed of copious knowledge and sparse understanding, our entire enterprise often merely reinforces exclusionary structures that inhibit the realization of our professed desire for a dynamic, democratic arts ecosystem.

At the Dialogue Festival I reflected on the problems of culture and context, and how they can take so long to reveal themselves, and require so much attention and skill to negotiate. Each of us knows, to some extent, how we imagine ourselves to be in the world, but we are necessarily limited in our ability to determine how others perceive us. So how do we negotiate the challenges of context and the cultural assumptions we all bring with us (and that are placed upon us) in every interpersonal interaction?

I will propose that it will be by hard work, experimentation and actually doing things differently, not merely creating the appearance of difference. America appears to be different than England, but in practice is much the same.

For instance, the American suspicion of, and scorn for, pretension demands that intellectual accomplishment be performed in colloquial idiom. Thus Bill Clinton’s natural “Aw, shucks” demeanor masks a fierce intellect and Obama, no doubt Clinton’s intellectual equal, over time learned to soften his speech, drop his “g”’s and appeal to a broader constituency. Our politicians and public intellectuals on both the Left and the Right succeed inasmuch as they are able to perform accessibility to the public at large.

But the ability to perform accessibility is a far cry from actual democracy; it is merely a performance, a gesture towards meritocracy in a society that is increasingly stratified by income at birth and skin color. If British society is immobilized – and inequity instantiated – by a deeply entrenched and repressive class system, then Americans have lost the habit of democratic participation upon which the country was founded. We not longer even perform the gestures of democracy – voting, public discourse – even as we profess the rhetoric of liberty, equality and freedom. Those of us who profess to love liberty and democracy, equality and justice – on both sides of the Pond – are called to hold our governments, society and ourselves accountable for how fully we realize those aspirations.

Theater is an inherently social art form, one in which an audience can be transformed into a public; where we can engage each other as citizens. We move from our private spaces into a public space of collective presence and imagination. The way we design those spaces and experiences, how we invite people to participate, the questions we propose when we are together and the way we listen – much more than the way we lecture – determine our character as individuals and the quality of our society at large. It is incumbent upon those of us who make work that must exist in public, among various publics, to deeply consider not only the art we produce but the invitations we make and cultural situations we create.

Back at the Dialogue Festival late Sunday afternoon, after a stimulating day of one-on-one and small group performances, unexpected encounters and provocative conversations, we gathered in the theater for Ellie Stamp’s disarming Are You Lonesome Tonight? Ellie’s winsome persona belies a keen insight into human behavior and the considerable craft with which she has constructed this performance.

Conflating fact and fiction – or at least blurring the line between what might be fact and what might be fiction – Ellie entwines a “personal” narrative with the mythology of Elvis Presley in this interactive performance that asks the audience, “What is the difference between an imaginative thought and a delusional belief?”

Like Harry Giles’ Class Act, Ellie’s show isn’t interactive in a gimmicky way, she structures the piece so that the questions she poses and the answers we give surreptitiously increase our awareness of our relationships to each other in the room. What’s more, she uses those relationships – speculative, real, and fanciful – to bring us into a state of doubt about what is imagination and what is delusion. In experiencing that doubt we come to understand the emotional fragility of those who truly cannot differentiate and what’s at stake.

As we left the theater after the show, I considered that we had come full circle – starting with Jess Thom’s re-framing of her Tourette’s as a superpower and ending with Ellie Stamp’s gentle but poignant interrogation of what is real and what is delusional, of the social forces that determine the boundaries of the acceptable and known world, we had covered extraordinary terrain. Those who stayed In Dialogue had fostered a small revolution, taken a turn around the wheel and arrived somewhere new, somewhere a bit further on; we had arrived at a place where we could see things differently.

A young woman turned to me in the lobby and said, “The only problem with this festival was that every time I walked past someone I overheard a conversation I wanted to join, and I couldn’t possibly talk to everyone here or experience all the performances with just one self.” And I had to agree.

The Dialogue Festival: Talking/Making/Taking Part was a festival as formally innovative as the performances it hosted. Maddy and Jake boldly and bravely launched a true experiment that took real chances and in so doing brought together a diverse and thoughtful group of people who, over the course of a weekend were able to transform each other, or at least their expectations of what we can do, together. I can’t wait to see what happens next!!

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