Agnes Borinsky’s Weird Classrooms

Agnes Borinsky’s Weird Classrooms at University Settlement, New York City. November 2017
Photo by Matthew Fenelon

John Dewey, the 20th century education reformer, believed that the primary function of school was not for learning facts, but for how learning how to learn, and learning how to be in relation with other people. The classroom, he argued, should be a model for the society we will grow into. According to this view, no algebra problem or cleanup song is too small to plant the seeds for a potentially utopian or devastating future.

Perhaps one way of understanding our moment is that we are living in the wake of a bad education. If our time in school is over, are we stuck? And why should education—or at least this kind—stop at age 18 or 22? Weird Classrooms, an ongoing performance that will soon exist in the form of a printed field guide created by participants in the Weird Classrooms project, invites us to continue the work of educating ourselves.

The last installment of Weird Classrooms, at University Settlement in November, featured nine short and weird workshops led by a performers on a particular skill: one was on noticing the outdoors while inside, another was on “knolling,” a method for organizing objects in a room at 90 degrees from one another that is a good first step for cleaning. The name of each lesson was scribbled on cardboard and framed in blue tape on the wall. Weird Classrooms suggests that these lessons can be swapped in for new ones down the line. And that we all have something to teach.

This open-source format for education could all be nonhierarchical mush, but in the alchemic container that is Weird Classrooms, anyone’s expertise becomes compelling. This is because Weird Classrooms uses the tools of theatre to make learning hover metaphorically. During Brian Rady’s workshop on bread-baking, everyone in the audience was assigned a theatrical role. We were split up into “dough kneaders, “dough rollers” and “people who do nothing except drink wine and comment on the cooking.” This was as much as lesson about baking as it was about how kitchens and society are organized. A drawing lesson began with squiggling two parallel lines on to pieces of paper to make an individual intestine. Then we were asked to assemble our pages into a giant, giant intestine. Each lesson in Weird Classrooms moved like this, unexpectedly from the seemingly whimsical towards a larger collective view.

The project reminds me of Eula Biss’ writing in On Immunity about how we all belong, on a literal cellular level, to a collective body. “We are no cleaner, even at birth, than our environment at large. We are all already polluted…we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are…continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.” Biss moves us beyond traditional feminist rubric (my body is my own territory), towards viewing our bodies as part of a collective responsibility. Tending to our own bodies affect other people too. Weird Classrooms reframes knowledge this way. Where does your knowledge end and mine begin? How are your skills mine? What can we only do when we all do it simultaneously?

Assembling the intestine
Photo by Matthew Fenelon

Learning to notice the light
Photo by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

Weird Classrooms borrows from formal elements of teaching to teach us something about theatre, too. When we entered the performance space, we were guided to a personal cubby where we could store our belongings—and after, we were all able to move about more freely. At the top of the show, the performers walked the audience through the show’s five lighting settings. “We’re not going to tell you how you should be feeling with our lighting design. So we want to show you what it’s going to be in advance.” They then switched the lights from yellow to orange to blue to bright neutral light to darkness. And it was true. When the orange light flicked on, I didn’t make up some novel interpretation of orange. But simply, I noticed the light. And by noticing it, I felt something. Like at the top of a class or a test, each performer explained how long their section would take and what exactly would happen. The show’s transparency felt like a form of emotional care, in that, when I knew what was going to happen, I could relax into it and, for a few brief moments, even lose myself in joy.

Outside of performance, we know the importance of transparency when we are asking for something. I am thinking about sports coaches (“We’re going to drill for 10 minutes), nurses (“I’m going to touch your lower abdomen, my hands are a little cold”), admissions offices (“Here is our financial aid package”). In theatre, not every show asks something of its audience. But I wonder, given the lack of transparency I find in the discipline, if we even know how. When have you seen a show that outlines: here is what we are going to do and here is what we will ask.

As a testament to this, I dread audience interaction, but while watching Weird Classrooms I gladly sat in a circle, raised my hand, and covered myself in flour. When the entire audience becomes the stage, there is no spotlight on anyone. Weird Classrooms made me feel hope for a kind of theatre that asks for something. For theatre that has actual civic possibilities.

Sometimes I wonder if performances that make us the best versions of ourselves could simply go on until we get used to being those people. How could we do this? Maybe if performance felt less like a special occasion apart from life, and more like refueling. I’m happy that Weird Classrooms, which thanks to the field guide can soon include anyone as teacher and can happen in any room, is designed with this ongoing sensibility in mind.

You can find the field guide to Weird Classrooms by visiting some time in late February. Suggested donation, $5-25.

Weird Classrooms was created by Chuey Aparicio, Jordan Baum, Agnes Borinsky, Patrick Costello, Corinne Donly, Mitchell Dose, Ryan Gedrich, Anne Haney, Daniel Lupo, Masrah Ensemble (Beirut), Carol Santiago Medina, Michelle Navis, Bryce Payne, Brian Rady, Hazel Sharhan, Kassandra Sparks, Chris Tyler, Jing Xu, and others. The field guide is being edited by Patrick Costello, Daniel Lupo, Bryce Payne, Kassandra Sparks, Chris Tyler, and Alex Borinsky with the support of others. 

The project was initiated by Agnes Borinsky as 2016-2017 Artist-in-Residence with the Performance Project at University Settlement and produced by Ryan Gedrich. Presented by Rustchuk Farm and the Performance Project at University Settlement, with the support of the Center for Reproductive Labor.

Cubbyholes for audience members to drop off their belongings during the show
Photo by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff

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