Kim in Video: Feminism, Performance, Pedagogy

This week, I (Kelsey), am proud to share not one, but two (!), videos of Kim talking about her teaching and research.

The first is from a 3MT (3 Minute Thesis) kick-off event at Western University, where Kim teaches. As the name suggests, the point of 3MT presentations is for a researcher to provide an overview of their work … in less than three minutes. No small feat!

In the second video, Kim speaks directly to her approach to teaching, which charmingly begins with her describing herself as a “weirdo.”

(Aside from Kim: I obviously did NOT know they were going to lead with this line!! I’m also pretty sure I had forgotten I was going to be on film that morning, when I put that jumpsuit on…)

These videos might not have the robust arguments of twenty-minute conference papers or the details of hour-long lectures, but it is precisely the absence of these elements that makes them valuable.

Aimed at a general audience, spoken in plain language, and blissfully short, these videos take big ideas and condense them into big accessible ideas. I can imagine showing the first video to a first year undergrad class as an introduction, to a graduate class as a provocation, or to friends who are looking for an entry point for thinking about feminism. They are also highly circulate-able, which means they can participate in the “like and share” culture of social media, and by extension, public dialogue.

This isn’t to say that all our big ideas need to be communicated in three minutes or less. But, the videos do demonstrate the value of using different formats in public teaching practice.

Questions about anything in these videos? Reach out through our “contact us” page!

 

Why Performance Enables, and Disturbs, Democratic Politics

At this critical moment in democracy, with elections looming in the UK and US, talking to student and each other about how political performance work can be fraught. In our guest post, Julia Peetz — Leverhulme Early Early Career Fellow in Performance and Politics at Warwick — offers a new perspective for thinking through the complexity of the relationship between performance and politics.

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Guest blogger, Dr. Julia Peetz

The most intriguing part of the permanent exhibit on the U.S. presidency at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. is the interactive ‘You Be the President’ display. Visitors choose a presidential speech whose script will appear on a monitor as they stand at a podium opposite and read the text out loud. When I visited, in March 2017, ‘You Be the President’ was particularly popular with kids.

I was in D.C. to conduct interviews with former White House speechwriters who had served presidents going back all the way to Ronald Reagan, so it’s safe to say I was preoccupied with the public performances of presidents. It struck me that this is what resonates as an impersonation of the U.S. president: rather than, say, sitting in the White House Situation Room surrounded by advisors and faced with making an important decision on national security or at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office looking through the President’s Daily Brief, you stand at the presidential podium and address the nation.

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It isn’t surprising that this interactive exhibit would highlight the words of presidents, some of which are indelible, taught in schools and carved into monuments. Public appearances are central to the president’s connection with the public, the only way most people come to know their president. And we like to tell kids that they could be president one day: it’s a promise or a threat, depending on how you look at it, that’s reinforced as they stand up at the podium. 

Despite all this, if we think more generally of politicians performing in public, the idea that these performances actually accomplish much of anything is usually dismissed. Commentators speak of the ‘theatre’ of politics, and what they mean is the public bluster of politicians, and their lies.

We don’t always applaud politicians for being good with words, either: Bill Clinton’s ability to ‘parse’ language earned him the nickname ‘slick willie’: he’d claim that there ‘is no relationship’ with Monica Lewinsky, deliberately in the present tense. President Clinton was a virtuoso at improvising: he would extemporize as much as a third of his speeches, but his speechwriters were aware that Clinton’s obvious way with language led people to view him with suspicion, too.

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In the public imagination ‘performing’ stands as the antithesis of accomplishing something of substance. When the president is speaking to the public from the presidential podium or participating in a televised debate during an election campaign, he is not making important decisions on national security in the Situation Room or evaluating the nation’s priorities from the Resolute Desk. Seeking the limelight is seen as a simple activity driven by base—or childish—impulses. It’s slightly embarrassing, not to mention hubristic, then, for adults to stand up and pretend to be Lincoln in Gettysburg. I didn’t see any who tried. 

With the 24-hour news cycle and the public ubiquity of politicians—especially U.S. presidents—, though, scholars have had to contend more seriously with the role performance plays in politics. Performance, perhaps rather obviously, has been linked to representation, in the sense that performing politicians represent their public offices, are frequently tasked with speaking on behalf of their constituencies, and represent themselves as credible and competent representatives of and to their constituents.

Because the U.S. president is the only person elected to represent the entirety of the American nation, it makes sense that presidents employ teams of speechwriters and have their speeches carefully vetted. In fact, earlier presidents (roughly those who were in office before Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), followed a pattern introduced by the earliest presidents and consolidated by Thomas Jefferson: they tended to avoid addressing the public on matters of policy. The Jeffersonian model largely limited presidential speeches to explicating the U.S. Constitution and held the president somewhat above the fray of partisan politics. 

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Both to those early presidents who carefully limited what they spoke about to the public and for later presidents who employed teams of specialized speechwriters, performance was an important matter. In representative democracy, political audiences evaluate the performances of those who claim they would make good political representatives and make their preferences felt through the power of the vote. Public performance thus plays a central, though of course not the only, part in determining how voters view their political representatives.

However, acknowledging the importance of performance in creating representative relationships between politicians and constituents is only half the story. It still does not explain why performance in politics should necessarily be viewed with suspicion. If performance is ‘only’ important, then (stage fright aside) why are adults so reluctant to engage with that interactive exhibit? 

This is where the topic becomes interdisciplinary: it’s where the structured thinking about institutions and their functioning from political science meets the more theoretically developed thinking around different aspects of performance from theatre/performance studies. 

In teaching about politics and performance, I’ve found it important to stress these different disciplinary perspectives and their priorities: political science is interested in institutions, how they function and operate on a structural level, where power is situated within them, and different ways of intervening in those arrangements. 

Theatre/performance studies is much more interested in perception than it is in institutions: how performance can shape and reshape people’s perception of the world or indeed why theatre and performance, overall, is viewed with such suspicion and contempt.

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As a result of its unique perspective, politics scholarship sees the ability of political audiences, who are in the position of judging whether their would-be representatives are acceptable or not, in relatively straightforward terms. It mostly puts aside the idea that political audiences often do not judge straightforwardly and instead feel a great deal of ambivalence, distrust and suspicion. 

But that ambivalence, distrust, and suspicion are fundamental to representative politics—and if we focus only on what performance does on the structural level of political representation, then we miss a great deal about its complexity. 

Historical scholarship shows that, as soon as a representative system was introduced after the French Revolution, for instance, contemporary commentators expressed acute and widespread anxiety over political representation, and this was linked directly to performance. The historian Paul Friedland argues that the new representative system ‘could base its legitimacy only on a tautology’: each representative was legitimate only because, and as long as, he was seen, in public by political audiences receiving his performances, to be legitimate.

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Perception matters: representatives have legitimacy as long as they are seen to be legitimate. What continues to be problematic about this is that political audiences often do not know their representatives personally, especially at the level of national and presidential politics. In other words, people have to evaluate their representatives from a distance on the basis of what they do, but also, crucially, on the basis of how they perform in public.

As a result of this, politicians’ performances have to fulfill two distinct tasks: they have to move crowds of people, in effect doing an actor’s job, but they also have to convince these crowds that the public persona performed is a true reflection of who the politician really is. 

Perhaps it’s for that reason, too, that the prospect of performing as the president is both daunting and slightly embarrassing for visitors of ‘You Be the President’: speaking the words of the president drives home that we know the public side, and really only that public side, of the president. We know the words of famous speeches, but we have to imagine what they felt as they performed them. Distrust and suspicion enter because we cannot bridge this gap.

The president’s work at the podium, then, is far from straightforward, simple, or lacking in substance. Indeed, to explain what performance does in representative politics means to explain how different academic disciplines frame their research questions and why certain questions cannot be satisfactorily addressed from within one discipline alone.

For further reading from Julia: here and here

Performance as mental health crisis intervention: an interview with Natalie Alvarez

Friends, once more I’m thrilled to be able to share with you the full text of a piece published in my new (August 2019) special issue of Research in Drama Education. (If you missed the last two freebies, please click here and here.) In this interview, Ryerson University Performance Studies professor Natalie Alvarez talks about an extraordinary research and development project she is currently helming in southern Ontario, and reflects on how that project debunks some of the persistent myths theatre and performance scholars carry with us about what performance-led interdisciplinary work should look like. I learned a huge amount from conducting this interview with Natalie and, although it’s long for a post on this blog (4500 words), I hope you can make the time to read it. It will be worth it.

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Natalie Alvarez, Ryerson University professor and investigative lead on the SSHRC-funded four-year project, “Scenario Training to Improve Interactions Between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy”

Living the interdiscipline: Natalie Alvarez speaks with Kim Solga about conceiving, developing, managing, and learning from a large-scale, multidisciplinary, scenario-based project supporting police de-escalation training in Ontario

(Published in RiDE 24.3 [2019]; click here for a free download of the published interview.)

Ryerson University theatre and performance professor Natalie Alvarez is currently helming a large, interdisciplinary team of forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians, Applied Theatre practitioners, police trainers, and community stakeholders with lived experience of mental illness in southern Ontario that is testing the power of Forum theatre to build better, more responsive scenarios for police officer training in de-escalation and mental crisis response. Funded by a four-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the project, titled ‘Scenario Training to Improve Interactions Between Police and Individuals in Mental Crisis: Impacts and Efficacy’, is already significantly changing the paradigm for police training in response to persons in mental crisis in the province.

In this interview, Alvarez sits down with issue editor Kim Solga to talk about where this project came from, what challenges arise when working in an intensively interdisciplinary way—and how theatre and performance can serve effectively as a methodology at the heart of a wide range of scholarly investigations, both inside and outside of the arts and humanities.

KS: To begin, can you say a few brief words about your own training and background? As a scholar, how do you ‘identify’?

NA: I would have to say that I identify now as a performance studies researcher since I am most interested in how performance can be used as an optic and method of analysis to examine cultural practices both onstage and in the public sphere. But my training, formally, has moved from English and dramatic literature with a focus on discourse analysis and critical theory as an undergraduate student to theatre and performance studies as a graduate student.

KS: Can you give us the project’s ‘elevator pitch’, and tell us what stage of the project you are at right now?

NA: The project is tough to distill in two to three sentences—you are testing my pitching skills!—but in short: it’s a four-year, evidenced-based study that brings together theatre practitioners, forensic psychologists, mental health clinicians, people with lived experience of mental illness, mental health advocates, and police trainers to develop a scenario-based training program designed to improve police response to individuals in mental crisis. I realize I squeezed a lot into that first sentence. Sentence two: We are using a mixed methods approach that is longitudinal, with quantitative and qualitative measures, to determine whether a scenario-based program can improve skills in effective de-escalation and reduce stigmatizing attitudes towards individuals living with mental illness. We are in year two of four of the study.

KS: Where did the inspiration for this project originally come from?

NA: It emerged from the field research I did for my book, Immersions in Cultural Difference: Tourism, War, Performance(Michigan, 2018), which took me to military training sites in Canada, the US, and the UK. I was struck by how these large-scale, pre-deployment training environments of simulated Afghan villages were using high intensity scenarios to test soldiers’ capacities to engage in ethical decision-making while under extreme stress.

In this training designed to prepare soldiers for deployment in Afghanistan, military training personnel worked with special effects teams largely drawn from the film industry to create scenarios that would expose soldiers to what would be, in many cases, their worst possible day in theatre: surprise insurgent attacks requiring them to rehearse their tactical responses and rules of engagement. But in the context of a mock Afghan village, scenarios were also designed to build soldiers’ ‘Cultural Intelligence’ (or CQ) about local populations in Afghanistan to better establish working relationships for the purposes of a counterinsurgency mission. Scenarios would unfold 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a large-scale environment: in the case of CFB Wainright, outside of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, four small Afghan villages were set up across a wide swath of Alberta prairie to create this sense of full immersion. This fully immersive, 24-7 form of scenario-based training is a far cry from the short, discrete scenarios in contained environments that we now design for police, but it’s nevertheless instructive since it shares many of the same principles that underlie scenario-based learning in police training contexts: the creation of high-fidelity scenarios designed to capture the stress of the encounter and develop trainees’ capacities to think critically, responsibly, and ethically in the heat of the moment.  

There was one debrief I witnessed during pre-deployment training at Wainright for soldiers headed to Afghanistan that made a particular impression on me, and sparked the idea for this current study. It happened after a mass-casualty scenario involving actors in-role as Afghans in a village that had just been struck by an IED, which killed a member of the Afghan National Police who was well known to villagers. It called on soldiers in training to manage frightened and grieving villagers while following through with their protocols to establish a safety cordon and contain the area.

The scenario debrief was impressively led by a staff sergeant and I found myself struck by his teaching skills: he asked soldiers to replay the scene in their minds and hit the ‘pause’ button at key moments in their recounting—effectively, to ‘rewind’, replay, and reconsider their courses of action and decision-making. The moment made me think of how useful it would be if soldiers had this opportunity to pause, rewind, and reconsider on their feet, in an embodied way, in a kind of modified, Boal-inspired use of Forum Theatre.

It was around that time that the Sammy Yatim incident occurred on a streetcar near my home in Toronto on the night of 27 July 2013. Yatim was armed with a switchblade and behaving erratically, exhibiting signs of mental distress, and he was alone on the streetcar by the time Constable James Forcillo arrived on scene with his partner. Forcillo fired two volleys of shots, nine in total, to subdue Yatim. Forensics revealed that the first three shots killed Yatim almost instantly. Forcillo was later convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to six years in prison.

After that incident, which made headlines around the world, the Ontario Ombudsman, Paul Dubé,issued a report investigating the state of police training in Ontario with respect to de-escalation in cases where mental illness or distress is a factor. I have an elder sister who lives with schizoaffective disorder, and so I find these incidents of lethal force in response to people in mental crisis harrowing and deeply concerning. As I was bringing the book to completion, I kept thinking about the Ombudsman report and whether the discoveries I had made in my field research could evolve into a new context of police training.   

Auspiciously, around this same time my former department, the Department of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, hired Dr. Yasmine Kandil, a specialist in Applied Theatre. Shortly after her hire, I cornered her in the university cafeteria and pitched the idea of this project that would aim to realize many of the recommendations that had come out of the Ombudsman report. The vision I had was to take officers in training through a spectrum of scenario-based training—from the stop-playback method of Forum-inspired scenario training to a high intensity circuit of scenarios that would assess officers’ critical decision-making while under stress—and gather a multidisciplinary team from across the humanities and social sciences alongside community stakeholders to design, execute, and measure it.

KS: I hear you saying that police and armed forces already use complex scenario training—hence your work embedding with and observing them for your 2018 book. Can you speak briefly about how the scenario work you envisioned for this project differs from existing scenario training models for police officers?

NA: Our stop-playback method of Forum-inspired scenarios, which allows a multidisciplinary team to ‘press the pause button’ and offer feedback to a trainee in the moment, is a significant departure from how police training typically unfolds. In general, mental crisis response knowledge is most commonly conveyed in a de-contextualized classroom context with guest lecturers often delivering information about signs and symptoms of mental illness with minimal scenario-based learning. Scenario-based learning is most often used in police Use of Force ‘block’ training contexts, which don’t necessarily prioritize cases of mental crisis and are comprised of five- to ten-minute uninterrupted scenarios that are led by and debriefed with police trainers only.

Our study, by contrast, uses scenarios as the primary method of content delivery, so that material that would otherwise be delivered in a lecture format becomes immediately demonstrable and experiential. And we’ve designed the forum scenarios to have a host of built-in ‘what ifs’ or hypothetical circumstances, so that trainees can discuss and practice a range of de-escalation strategies in fluid situations with minimal to significant complexity and discuss the potential circumstances leading to that crisis situation. Trainees then receive feedback from multiple perspectives: a mental health clinician, a person with lived experience of mental illness, and a police trainer.

KS: This is clearly a very larger project with lots of people of very different backgrounds and skill sets involved. Who are your collaborators? How did you go about realizing you needed them, and then finding them?

NA: The research team formed over the course of two years, as reading one publication led me to a particular researcher who then suggested another publication that led to another researcher…and so it went. I began with Dr. Terry Coleman and Dr. Dorothy Coleman’s 2014 Mental Health Commission of Canada report on the state of police training in mental crisis response, Ontario Ombudsman Paul Dubé’s 2016 investigation into police training, and the Hon. Frank Iacobucci’s 2014 independent review of police response to individuals in crisis. And I read through their works cited lists to follow the trail on the existing research on scenario-based police training, de-escalation, and mental crisis response. I visited the Ontario Police College several times to meet with trainers and curriculum designers and observe their scenario-based training.

All of this reading and all of these meetings made clear to me the fact that training of this kind exceeds the insights and capacity of any one discipline and any one individual. It demands a multidisciplinary team: we needed mental health clinicians who could offer insight on signs and symptoms and best practices on how to engage effectively with persons in mental health crisis; we needed police trainers to marry those best practices with police de-escalation training that prioritizes safety and the sanctity of life; and we needed people with lived experience of mental illness who have had encounters with police to be at the table in both the design and delivery of the training in order to help guide officers on how best to realize consumer-centered decision-making. We also required individuals who specialize in intercultural communication, and who can support an intersectional understanding of the experience of mental illness as informed by ethnicity, gender, class, age, and thus help develop trauma-informed approaches to persons in mental crisis. Many, many phone calls with experts in these areas and many, many meetings later, I had assembled our core team of 12 research collaborators and partnered with a police service in southern Ontario. We have since added 6 trainers and instructors and have developed 7 scenarios that involve over 26 actors.

And, of course, we required theatre practitioners who know how to craft and direct effective scenarios that have complex and credible levels of challenge and escalation for officers-in-training to practice a range of de-escalation strategies in a host of possible ‘what ifs’. This project also requires theatre practitioners who know how to direct and work with actors who have a very particular kind of skill set: our actors need to be able to toggle between the role of actor and that of educator as they navigate high-affect scenes while improvising within certain parameters set by the scenario and guiding trainees through various rewards or redirects based on the choices the trainee is making.

Iacobucci’s report in particular made evident to me the need for partnerships between researchers and police services. His report emphasizes the need to measure the efficacy of de-escalation training and the impacts that training is having on the person in crisis’s experience in the encounter with police. For this study to impact police training standards or make a persuasive case for more robust mental crisis response training in the province, generating meaningful and reliable data is imperative. That’s what brought my co-investigator Dr. Jennifer Lavoie to the project. Alongside Yasmine, Jennifer has been pivotal to the success of this project. She isa forensic psychologist in the Department of Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in policing and mental crisis response; she has spent over 250 hours in ride-alongs observing police response to individuals in mental crisis. She designed the qualitative and quantitative methods for data collection and analysis for our study. Critically, she led the team in the design of a tool to assess police performance in de-escalation strategies, which I feel is a key contribution this study has made to public culture. As a humanities scholar, I never thought I’d find myself thisexcited about an assessment instrument, but it’s truly a beautiful thing. It’s the product of input from people with lived experience, advocates, psychologists, police trainers, and performance practitioners… . It’s basically the first, validated assessment tool in Canada, to our knowledge, that sets a measurable, observable standard for effective de-escalation in police training.

KS: As the performance-trained scholar at the centre of this interdisciplinary team, how much did you have to bend or flex your scholarly perspective—and maybe even your identity?—to enable the shaping of the project? Has your sense of the work you do as a performance scholar shifted over time to accommodate interdisciplinary methods and perspectives, as per your work with the military?

NA: I’ve had to adapt to new vocabularies and certainly new paradigms of engagement, to be sure. But that remains true for every research project I engage in because, predominantly, the studies I work on require some form of field research and therefore an ‘embedding’ in different worlds of experience, discourses, and fields of inquiry. The question that remains constant for me is this: what does performance have to say within these worlds, and what will performance unveil there?I think of performance as a kind of hermeneutical method through which we can examine a host of cultural phenomena—this is, of course, influenced by and related to the ‘broad spectrum’ approach to performance studies (championed by Richard Schechner, Barabara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, Diana Taylor, Dwight Conquergood, among many others), but it also exceeds it. Performance, for me, is above all a methodology, and as such it is always bending, flexing, and shifting—its site-responsiveness is what is most exciting to me.

What’s become clear to me over the course of this particular project—and I would say that this is a recent development—is the way in which performance can serve as a nexus or meeting point for different disciplinary perspectives that can work in concert toward social justice initiatives. Looking back, I realize now that the seeds of this idea were planted at the ‘conversatorios’ I curated with Aluna Theatre for their 2014 RUTAS/ROUTES festival, which formed research ‘clusters’ that brought scholars from different disciplines together with actors, directors, activists, elders, and students for conversations with the public on the social justice issues raised in the festival performances. But this is the first time I have led a project of this scale that draws on a multidisciplinary team toward a shared set of research aims.

KS: I’m really interested in the place of theatre and performance within this complex interdisciplinary work, given how many science-side stakeholders are involved here. For example, in your description of collaborators above, I get the sense that theatre is both central, yet also somewhat marginalized, in the project, given your (necessarily) heavy focus on assessment and measurement. Can you talk about this tension?

NA: The reality in practice is that roughly 80%-90% of our time is spent developing scenarios—writing them, structuring them, rehearsing them with actors, and testing them over a period of months with our actors, police-in-role, and our multidisciplinary team—and delivering them in the training week, which is comprised almost exclusively of scenarios. Performance is, then, the core methodology and the substance of the project, without which the project would not exist. I would say the qualitative and quantitative methodologies we have developed to build the evidence-base could be described as theatre’s indispensable partner in this project, since they help us answer the question, ‘Does scenario training actually work and, if so, how?’

The tension you describe—performance as ‘both central, yet marginalized’—is something I simply don’t experience in this project. But I wonder if what you’re picking up on is not so much a tension but a movement, the kind of movement that happens when performance is used as a methodology that flexes and bends with the project’s demands, a movement that goes between being ‘central andmarginal’ (rather than ‘central, yet marginal’). This central-marginal movement, in my mind, describes the exigencies of multidisciplinary work, especially in an intensely collaborative and multifaceted project of this kind. As a methodology, performance provides the container for the research, which allows, in turn, points of emphasis from all of the contributing disciplinary perspectives to become centralized as needed, moment to moment, as circumstances and project demands require.

It’s a fascinating question, though, and it makes me wonder whether it’s revealing of certain assumptions about performance studies as a bounded discipline that makes itself visible, central, or ‘less marginal’ on certain terms. Or, to put it differently, and perhaps more importantly for the concerns of this issue: I wonder whether it reveals certain assumptions that performance needsto be positioned as a bounded discipline in order to make itself visible, central, or ‘less marginal’. But what happens to these assumptions, and this sense of boundedness, if we follow, in earnest, the notion that performance studies is an interdiscipline and performance a kind of hermeneutical method? The enormous potential of performance studies in these collaborative research contexts lies, for me, in the fact that it is not a discrete, circumscribed field of study but a mode of investigation that reorients other fields to uncover new pathways of inquiry. For me, it’s less about proceeding with a systematic core that is then applied to other fields, which would only be a form of analogical thinking, and more about flexing performance across fields to reveal otherwise-invisible structures and paradigms within those fields.

To illustrate what I mean here: at the risk of severely over-simplifying, Judith Butler’s notion of the ‘performative’, for example, is not a metaphor; it does not say we operate ‘as if’ we are in a performance. It highlights something configured into our everyday behaviours that would have otherwise gone unnoticed had we not deployed performance as a means of thinking it through, allowing us the opportunity to reconfigure what is otherwise taken for granted.

I guess I’d like to hear more about how this project would unfold—or what it would sound like—if performance was more ‘central’?

KS: That’s an incredibly useful response. One of the reasons I posed the question is because we theatre workers often risk, in interdisciplinary projects where performance is not the core method or framing paradigm, feeling marginalized or undervalued; it’s one of the concerns of this issue to unpack when and how much theatre and performance scholars and makers need to bend and flex on others’ terms in order to survive the STEM (or even the STEAM) turn. But you’ve created a project that implies something very different: you’ve centred performance as method, as paradigm, and then grouped others’ needs and concerns around it, allowing the hermeneutic power of performance to become evident for a wide range of collaborators and to a wide range of practices. That’s exciting!

Given the wide multidisciplinary range of labour at work here, I’m curious to know if the project looks today more or less like you conceived it to start. How have your collaborators helped to shape its development, through the process of grant applications and beyond into training proper?

NA: In terms of the general structure of the training program—with respect to a spectrum of scenarios moving from Forum to circuit—it remains more or less as I had envisioned it at the outset. But it crystallized into its current form over many conversations with Yasmine. On the ground, the program has continued to develop to include additional types of scenarios: what we’ve called ‘What If’ scenarios, where study participants (or officer-trainees) develop their own scenarios in collaboration with our actors that re-enact a mental crisis call trainees themselves have already encountered in the real world as an opportunity to ‘replay’ it and get feedback from our multidisciplinary training team. Further, the exact structure and management of the high-intensity scenarios (this is the point in the program’s training week where officers’ de-escalation skills are assessed) took shape over many conversations with Yasmine and one of our trainers and scenario-writers, LJ Nelles, both of whom have extensive former experience running OSCEs or exam circuits with actors/Simulated Patients in medical training contexts.

What developed most from my initial vision, and over the course of many discussions, was the method to build an evidence-base for the study. Jennifer designed a sophisticated plan of data collection to ensure we were getting reliable data that would allow us to measure intra-officer changes pre- and post-training. She also designed a consumer satisfaction survey to measure whether there are changes in the region of our partnering police service in terms of people’s perceptions of and satisfaction with police response to mental crisis. We plan to track these consumer responses as officers move through the training over the four years of our study.

With Yasmine’s guidance, we’ve continued to fine-tune the structure of what we’re calling the ‘Forum Scenarios’—the stop-and-playback method that allows officer-trainees to step in and try a host of de-escalation tactics and communication skills while receiving feedback from a multidisciplinary team of instructors: a mental health clinician, a person with lived experience of mental illness, a police trainer, and an intercultural communications expert. Yasmine is very skilled at facilitating Forum Theatre, drawing on her years of experience using Applied Theatre methods with vulnerable populations, and she’s very attuned to how delicately these Forum Theatre experiences need to be structured. Trainees can easily feel overwhelmed and vulnerable, with all eyes on them, scrutinized by their peers and a team of instructors, so Yasmine developed a nuanced facilitation structure that addresses the power imbalances in the room and ensures that the multiple perspectives at play have sufficient room to be heard.

KS: What lessons about interdisciplinary, cross-platform collaboration have you learned that would be worth sharing with other T&P academics?

NA: I think in this political moment, we have an opportunity to harness performance’s potential to foster genuine interdisciplinary, cross-platform collaboration, especially if we take in earnest Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett’s claim that performance is an ‘organizing concept’.[1]Think about the potential in that. What if we work seriously to understand performance studies as an inter-discipline, one that at its best becomes a means of organizing and bringing together multiple perspectives around the core principles we as researchers value in performance—the doing, the behaving, the embodying; attempting to inhabit different vantage points and constructing hypothetical visions of the world to imagine what’s possible. These principles are integral and foundational to allinvestigative research, but theatre and performance researchers are the ones with the expert insight to support their broad-spectrum application. I think T&P academics have much to offer when we think of performance as a kind of methodological container for interdisciplinary research—a container that holds the research but whose shape is plastic and responsive to those working within it.

KS: Our issue is about the role that theatre and performance already plays—but also could better play—in the neoliberal university, and it’s dedicated to strategizing around impact on our own terms (or, perhaps, on terms framed by performance, to pick up on the spirit of your comments above). When you talk to administrators, industry partners, or others outside our field, how do you describe this project? Is ‘theatre’ as a mobile learning platform part of your description?

NA: I describe it as ‘scenario-based, de-escalation training’ and the scenario-based approach instantly makes the connection for people between theatre/performance and this project. I talk about theatre in terms of the methodology it offers of scenario-based thinking, planning, and learning, which lies at the core of this study. I think that approach best—and most readily, for non-specialists—conveys what performance has to offer across disciplines.

Scenario planning is, I think, one of the most viable ways in which we can transmit what performance has to offer to other areas of public life—and areas that sorely need our support! Scenario planning has, since the 1990s, acquired much traction (and scrutiny) across a host of industries as a way of anticipating and imagining all possible futures—a core theme that ran through my 2018 book, which this current project extends. Scenario planning immediately conveys the centrality of performance as integral to these kinds of ‘logic modelling’ exercises that require environments to be created and ideas to be tested in hypothetical, high-fidelity contexts. I think this is what theatre does best. Scenario planning is actually a kind of neo-naturalist approach to the idea of theatre-as-laboratory, one taken beyond the stage proper to address social justice issues with all of the necessary community stakeholders at the table.

KS: How has the work on this project shaped the way you think about the role of T&P in your individual institution? Are you thinking differently at all? Have you caught the eye of administrators or other change-agents who are now beginning to think differently about the work we do as ‘theatre’ scholars?

NA: Since moving to Ryerson University (in Toronto) in 2018, I was very pleased to hear my Dean, Charles Falzon, in one of our very first meetings, key in to what this project suggests about the potential of performance in ways he hadn’t considered before. He acknowledged that ‘theatre’ for most people tends to invoke this idea of actors on a stage performing for an audience in a discrete/contained environment. And while he was careful not to diminish the power that theatre proper has in these contexts, he also expressed his excitement about what, for him, was this new and comparatively under-explored idea of performance’s potential in the public sphere—as a paradigm for thinking and a nexus for cross-disciplinary collaboration. For my Dean, it allowed him to understand how performance fits within his broader vision for the Faculty of Communication and Design, which is heavily invested in the idea of creative innovation. I left that meeting with the distinct impression that the project had already changed preconceived notions of what performance does and can do for someone in a senior position at a university that is at the forefront of thinking about new ways university students and researchers can contribute to important community and industry conversations in Canada. And I get the distinct sense that it’s opened up the scope in administrators’ minds here of the reach of performance-based research, particularly in terms of its social impact.

[1]See Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s allusion to the idea of performance ‘as an organizing concept for a wide range of behaviour’ (2002, 25) in her essay, ‘Performance studies’ in The Performance Studies Reader.

 

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 3

It’s Saturday 10 December, a bit dreary and rainy but the holiday trimmings keep things light. My ticket says 11am, so at 10:45 I emerge from the Regent’s Canal exit at King’s Cross underground station and turn right. There’s a queue forming outside the makeshift theatre space, but I head straight for the ramp, flash my ticket, and am ushered through into a warm, tight lobby. Then, huddled together in the buzz and the heat, we wait: me and several dozen other lucky folks who have ponied up £120 for the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy, created and directed by Phyllida Lloyd and her incredible cast in association with Clean Break.

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As you can imagine, we are mostly the expected demographic: in early 30s and 20s (notably, thanks in part to the Donmar’s “Front Row” access scheme), plus a few middle aged and older; not exclusively but by far majority white. We look like a night at the Almeida or the Young Vic across town; we look, mostly, like London’s privileged theatre-going class.

But today, for this one time only, I just don’t care.

Because we are here to see a monumental, game-changing piece of work. We are here to see an astonishingly talented group of women – women ONLY, and largely women of colour – perform three Shakespeare plays not associated, typically, with women’s roles: Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest. These women will play all the parts, and they will play them so well that at the end of the day I will declare on social media, with all the force of twenty years of Shakespeare-going around the world behind me, that this is some of the finest, if not THE finest, Shakespeare I’ve ever witnessed.

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Sheila Atim and Jade Anouka in Henry IV.

What follows is a post about mobility, accessibility, and the public stage. About what it takes to put women’s stories on view for a public audience, and why it shouldn’t have to take so very much at all – because women’s stories are, in fact, for everyone.

Women’s stories are STORY, full stop.

But this is also a post about mobility, accessibility, and those who live on our margins, because the Shakespeare Trilogy doesn’t just put women’s stories, through the words of William Shakespeare, on the stage.

It puts incarcerated women’s stories on stage, and it has given incarcerated women the freedom to explore their stories in kind.

It was early 2012 (a full year before Orange is the New Black made prison women hip, y’all) when Phyllida Lloyd joined forces with Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, and Executive Producer Kate Pakenham to conceive an all-female Julius Caesar.

(Let’s stop for a minute and mark this, because it will be important: Josie [below right] and Kate run one of London’s premier West-End venues. Phyllida [below left] is one of the UK’s leading directors. GIRLS TO THE FRONT, as my friend the film critic Sophie Mayer says.)

Why just girls on stage? Lloyd notes in an interview reprinted in the ST program that “Women have not been well served by [Britain’s] devotion to the Bard,” for two reasons. First, as she, Charlotte Higgins, Elizabeth Freestone, and other researchers (including me, in a forthcoming article) have argued recently, Shakespeare’s plays were written for a company of men, to be played primarily for male audiences (as well as for a Queen who styled herself a virgin). Of course most of the good roles were going to be male!

What does this mean for us, now? Simple: when we universalise Shakespeare’s power, authority, and aesthetic prowess, we also universalise what was in fact an entirely context- and history-dependent accident: an imbalance of male versus female (or gender-neutral) roles.

And because we lionise Shakespeare as the original poet-genius, we also call that shit not just normal, but ideal.

Second, and related, is this reason: with the canonisation of William “The Bard” Shakespeare – and the attendant cultural and economic power enjoyed by the Shaks industry worldwide – has come a firm, entrenched tradition of male “ownership” over this figure. Shakespeare’s roles are largely for men; the best ones (Lear, Hamlet, Prospero, Hal) are rite-of-passage work for male actors; tradition holds that men more typically direct His work. (And direct it better, somehow. How do we know? Well, we just… do. Don’t believe me? Tonic Theatre’s Advance project will open your eyes. Read more here.)

All this means that a situation like the Shakespeare Trilogy – in which Josie and Kate ask Phyllida to direct a major play, then another, then a third, with women in all the roles – is an utter, stunning rarity. Much more common, even in these post-feminist days, is a situation like the one in place at the Royal Shakespeare Company: powerful A.D. Greg Doran welcomed Erica Whyman as “deputy” A.D. in 2013; she took over responsibility for new work, equality and diversity files, and the redevelopment of the RSC’s famed small venue, The Other Place. Wonderful stuff, to be sure – Whyman is an incredibly talented visionary! – but again, let’s stop and mark the distinction, because it’s important. Doran is the current “owner” of the RSC’s brand; nobody questions that. Whyman’s role is one of helpmeet: she makes the RSC a safe place to play if you are not white and male.

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This is the context in which – and these are the reasons why – the partnership among Lloyd, Rourke, and Pakenham was so ground-breaking in 2012, and why it continued enthusiastically with 2014’s Henry IV and 2016’s The Tempest. And the need for women’s voices and experiences in all aspects of making Shakespeare now on stage felt obvious to me the moment I stepped into the Donmar’s King’s Cross space and witnessed the energy, the fire, the athleticism, and the power of the women-identified actors making this work.

Whole, amazing, brave new worlds emerge when women’s contemporary bodies inhabit the characters written originally for men 400 years ago.

And, to make matters even more electric: in this case, the worlds that emerged were driven by the powerful imaginations of women who are, literally, bounded in a nutshell.

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Anouka and the cast of The Tempest. I have a little crush on Jade; hence all the photos!

***

While I’m waiting in the lobby for the first show to begin, I read all the materials on the cast wall adjacent to the seating area. Here, I grab a handful of postcards with photos of the actors, in-role as their prison characters, and turn them over. The cards tell me this:

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The Shakespeare Trilogy is meta-theatre at its finest. It is theatre about the process of putting Shakespeare on stage. It is about what making theatre can help us to understand about ourselves, about our relationship to the cultures that shape us, and about our potential future worlds.

In conjunction with Lloyd, each other, and the women prisoners with whom they worked throughout their creative process, each of the professional actors in the ST cast created a female prison character through which to shape her interpretation of the Shakespearean characters she portrays in each of the plays in the trilogy.

(Got that? It goes: actor -> prison character -> multiple Shaks characters. Actors play the prison characters, which are then layered onto the Shaks characters. It’s tricky to do and tricky to watch. It’s an utterly marvellous challenge for audiences, though.)

We in the audience spy those prison characters briefly at the top and bottom of each show, as well as in moments through the middles when the Shakespeare gets interrupted by guards, when momentary violence between the prison characters breaks out, or when moments of tenderness, fear, and love amongst the imprisoned women bubble to the surface, driven by the emotions the verse brings.

These shows, in other words, aren’t just Shakespeare; they are a representation of Shakespeare played by and for women on the inside, for their own pleasure, learning, sustenance, and strength. We are visitors at their drama club, watching them do something important for themselves. We are asked to bear witness to them as they shape their stories through Shakespeare’s language, and as they give their own bodies, hearts, and minds fresh life thereby.

The ST was created in partnership with two organisations (Clean Break, linked above, and the York St John University Prison Partnership Project) that bring a form of drama therapy to incarcerated women in an effort to help them access their power and potential and build new worlds to walk into when they get out of jail. But ST itself is not drama therapy; it is, rather, a kind of immersive event that invites those of us privileged – with money, time, cultural capital and bodily freedom – to see for once properly inside the privilege that has accrued to the works of William Shakespeare, and to recognise one way in which that privilege might be more equitably distributed.

Who owns this legendary – no, this mythical – guy’s stuff? Who really benefits from its continual re-hashing, from our world-without-end need to see YET ANOTHER Romeo and Juliet? Who else might benefit? What would it take to make that actually happen?

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Harriet Walter, in a promotional shot for Henry IV.

I don’t have room here to review these amazing three shows in full, but I do want to offer three small snapshots of my experience over the course of the 12 hours I gave over to Lloyd, her creative partners, her actors, and the imprisoned women whose spirits they held throughout the day. These are simply recordings of three moments that made meaning for me as a woman invested in theatre equality, as a scholar invested in women making Shakespeare for the public stage, and as a human being trying to be hopeful in a moment of bleak uncertainty. They are three moments that especially moved me.

Moment number one happened at the end of Julius Caesar. With but lines to go, the performers playing ushers/guards brought the prison characters’ show to a close: lights up, everyone back to their bunks. Harriet Walter, as Brutus, was positioned on the stairs behind me and to the left. (The ST played in an arena-style, in-the-round space that called up the spirit of a chilly institutional gymnasium.)

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“IT ISN’T FAIR!” she called out, visibly upset. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was speaking: Brutus, her prison character Hannah (pictured above), or Harriet herself. “YOU NEVER LET US FINISH,” she continued, through tears. This world, she cried out, has gone all to shit. Everything is a mess. So there, then: you finish it. YOU FINISH IT.

She ran down the steps and off stage; her departure left me with the strong sense of a call to arms. This wasn’t work made for me, for us in the hard plastic chairs banked around the room; this wasn’t even just work made for the women who inspired it. It was work made in the hope of a fresh future for all who need one, and if it could not be permitted to end – if it was always, cruelly, brutally stopped before its promised ending by those who either didn’t appreciate its value, or (worse) saw the value and aimed to withhold it – then that future might not ever begin.

I left for lunch feeling gutted.

Moment number two appeared two thirds of the way through Henry IV, by far my favourite performance of a Shakespeare play of all time. (OF. ALL. TIME.) Anchored by the bewitchingly mischievous Clare Dunne as Hal (below left), Sophie Stanton’s rough-but-ready, working class Falstaff (below right), and the svelt, gorgeous, forthrightly confident Jade Anouka as Hotspur, this piece exuded athleticism, confidence, and harsh masculinity – all this with no biological males in site. (Apart from being stunning ensemble theatre and simply outstanding, clear-as-a-bell verse speaking, Lloyd’s Henry IV is a textbook example of gender as social performance rather than biological “fact”.)

But it was when Anouka and Dunne faced off – the prized fight of this play, between the balsy princes-in-arms – that the sheer power and beauty of these strong, able, talented women’s bodies shone through their characters, through the text, and landed on stage before us. This was the moment I recognized that I’d been so engrossed in watching and listening I’d not noticed the time pass, and that I really, really did not want this performance to end. I’ve honestly never before felt that at the theatre – and certainly not at a performance of Shakespeare’s work. (Usually by the end of Act Four I’m ready for it to be over, already. Not this time.)

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Dunne and Anouka take each other down. Electrifying.

Moment number three marked Lloyd’s ending. The Tempest is done, and only Walter as Hannah – who is based on the life of Judith Clark, an American serving 75 years for a crime committed during a political action – is left on stage. She’s in her bunk. She’s reading. She gets a visit from one of the other prison women: someone who’s been inside but is now free, and has come back to make sure Hannah is loved, seen, cared for (and has fresh reading material!). That’s when lights come gently up on all of the staircases around the space; the women’s prison characters appear in every nook and cranny. They are out now; Hannah, with a lifetime on the clock, will only ever see friends come in order to go. But they are here now, maybe in person or maybe in Prospero’s dream, to send their love and memories and best wishes. To say they are doing fine, haven’t forgotten the lessons they shared making theatre together.

I know for sure this sounds cheesy – and I know colleagues who thought the entire prison frame unnecessary to the work of making amazing feminist Shakespeare. But I was beyond moved by this final action, and by the power of community – women’s community, brave and strong – that it called into the otherwise barren space.

I remembered Hannah’s words at the end of Julius Caesar: YOU FINISH IT, THEN. Or maybe – hey, maybe – you could join us, support us, honour what we’re building rather than strike it down before its ending. Help us get to a new beginning. Together, I bet we could do it.

No community is perfect – that’s obvious multiple times throughout the ST plays, as the prison characters fight or risk unraveling. But together is the only way we make things better, the only way we move forward, move safely on – and this theatre is stark, gorgeous evidence of just that. Lloyd, Rourke, Anouka, Dunne, Walter… and the many, many, many women on and off stage who made these three incredible shows reveal what power Shakespeare holds for women able to seize it – and for the women to whom they are able to grant access to that power in turn.

Thus, for me, is the Shakespeare Trilogy finally work about access – access to cultural power, political power, the power of learning, the power of creative making, the power of public performance. This access is grabbed hard and with fire by those whose mobility had been limited by Patriarchy’s Shakespeare, but who won’t stand for barriers anymore.

Long may they hold open the doors.

Kim

PS: I know this has been a very long post. Thank you for reading!

 

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part 2

It’s a two-hour drive to Detroit from where I live. It’s as easy as getting to Toronto, really; sure, there’s an international border, but the queues aren’t huge (and Toronto traffic is worse by far). So I go more and more often that way – usually to the airport in Wayne County, but increasingly to the city, where incredible new creative worlds are blooming amid the ruin porn.

Detroit offers an amazing case study for thinking about spatial privilege and its lack: it’s today a largely African-American city, with an incredible history that spans both Indigenous cultivation and Fordist exploitation, as well as black and mixed race experiences of all kinds. Post-Fordism, Detroit famously went bankrupt: huge swaths of the old industrial city fell to decay and the hulks and shells of former factories make the skyline seem apocalyptic to me as I shoot across the I94, through its scarred belly. It’s both harsh and beautiful.

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But Detroit isn’t a ruin any more; today it’s a blossom. Artists have flocked from Brooklyn. Urban farms are popping up all over. Middle-class people are returning to the core. I know this thanks to smart writers like Rebecca Solnit, whose “Detroit Arcadia” (published in Harper’s in 2007; read it here) investigates the city’s history as well as its potential through an eco-critical lens. I first felt it watching Jim Jarmusch’s glorious Only Lovers Left Alive (watch for the sequence in which Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton [as vampires!] drive through the night-washed city). And then I got to feel it again, most powerfully, when I took my graduate seminar, 10 students studying performance and the global city, to Detroit for a day of cultural encounters on 4 November 2016 (three days before the US Presidential election. Yup).

We went to Culture Source, a new networking organisation that links a variety of arts groups across Detroit and its adjacent counties (and that is run by smart, arts-forward women with business experience. Good combo that). We went to MOCAD, and played with stunning metal creatures built by Juan Martinez and Gizmo for Dave Eggers’s The Spirit of the Animal is in the Wheels – an exhibit that offered young people an opportunity to think about urban transportation as fun, creative, and kid-friendly.

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And we went to the Lightbox.

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Lightbox is located in the part of Detroit, north of the I94 and the Piquette corridor, that still lies in part in ruin. Corey Gearhart and Stefanie Cohen bought the building from the Baptist church that had converted it from the bank it used to be. Its main space is a wide-open room with a lovely new sprung floor; there are chairs, toilets, and living space on site for Steph and Corey, and others as needed. It’s an artist-run community space now: that means that it’s available for those in the local community as well as those in the artistic community to use as a place to come together, try out new ways of being together, explore shared interests, and share imaginings about a stronger and more inclusive future.

I learned about Lightbox from my colleague Petra Kuppers, a disability artist, scholar and activist from the University of Michigan. I contacted Stef and Corey and they welcomed the class on our field trip day with the warmth of longtime neighbours. We settled on the floor in the main space, on cushions as desired, drank tea and learned about the evolution of the room, as well as the vision Stef and Corey hold for it. Unlike so many of the spaces we’d been studying – or had visited during our day in Detroit – Lightbox read as entirely up-for-grabs: a space where individual or group stakeholders might determine, day to day, week to week, or month to month, what it could be. And it could be multiple things.

Basically, Lightbox is the spirit of Detroit in bloom. Detroit as space-in-the-making.

Stef and Corey inspired the hell out of us; students’ reflection papers demonstrated how completely they had encouraged us to recognise, and believe in, alternative models to the “creative city” – urban theorist Richard Florida’s popular, neoliberal paradigm for hipster-driven new city-worlds. So when I got an email from Lightbox a few weeks on, telling of a workshop in early December on “the politics of space” with noted dance artist Barak adé Soleil, I shared it with the whole class and offered space in my car to all comers.

Two students (and one partner) jumped on the chance, and off we went on 3 December. The event started at 6pm and was potluck, so we all brought some food to share (yummy salad; tortilla crisps with cinnamon; fruit; celebration bread: we did not share this information at the border, OF COURSE). Things started gently: Barak was our host, but we didn’t start talking until everyone had eaten. (All good hosts need to learn this trick!) All we needed to do to prepare for the “workshop” portion of the event was to write a different thing on three pieces of card stock: how we saw ourselves in terms of “race”, in terms of “queerness”, and in terms of “disability”. We also had to make dinner conversation with our neighbours. The prompt: how did we get here tonight?

The slow start made me skeptical. As a teacher, my first urge is always to over-program EVERYTHING. That way everyone knows I’m prepared, right? But Barak’s a trickster and his plan was cunning. He knew that if he honoured our slow opening up, let our pieces of paper do the talking, we’d get there. We’d get someplace nobody expected.

After the food, and a bit more food, and a bit of talking, we moved dinner things out of the way and left just a small table in the middle of the space. Participants were sat in a huge circle around the room; Barak was at the central table. He then shifted the mood of the space and the tenor of the conversation by getting a table cloth out of his bag, moving his bits and pieces out of the way, heaving himself out of his wheelchair and onto the table, and arranging it just so. This was the first time I saw the extent of his disability – and I’m going to say here (even though I am ashamed of this) – that I was glad to bear witness to it. He is so entirely able in his body that I had perceived him as not really disabled (not disabled “enough”?…) up to this point. I wonder how many of us do this every day when we encounter those who live in differently abled bodies.

What Barak did next was remarkable. He put on a scarf that covered his entire face, heavy black gloves, and rendered himself essentially lumpen, not-quite-human. He gently, with grace and control, fell to the floor. Then he began to move around our circle, pushing and pulling and rolling his body from chair to chair, person to person. He groaned and gasped as needed. He laboured his body. He touched almost everyone.

This performance of struggling mobility, of limited access in a world of “ability”, changed everything about the night. After Barak returned to his chair, took off the hood and gloves, and resumed his place as host, our conversation could begin, really begin. We explored everyone’s writing. We talked about the many ways that “race” signifies for each of us in the room, how it shapes our daily encounters, interactions, and even basic imaginings about what and who we are. We talked about who (and how) we imagine ourselves to be, over and against how others perceive us to be – and about how that changes what we say, how we move, what we assume about each other, each day. We talked about the assumptions we had made about each other before the performance, and about how the performance, and our listening to our pieces of paper afterward, revealed complexities we couldn’t on our own imagine about who was in the room.

(These images are from Barak’s blog, linked above. I do not have photos of his stunning performance, alas.)

We talked about how many of us feared identifying as “just white”. We talked about how hard it is for so many of us to see ourselves reflected in normative sexual labels. We talked about how many, varied, experiences of colour, desire, and ability adhered in our bodies in the room. We recognised how complex identity in the body is, in practice, day-to-day.

In all these ways this evening of powerful, strange encounters coalesced into a politics of space. It marked my first trip to the US since the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the elevation of Donald Trump, and it reminded me that all movement in space, always, is political – that is to say, it is always about relations of power among bodies moving together.

We have been thinking in terms of embodied hierarchies an awful lot recently: you’re either in or out (Brexit); you’re either with us or against us (Bush, Isis, Trump, Syria…); you’re either in the “right” body, possess the “right” sexuality, live in the “right” sexual body… or you risk losing access to marriage rights, abortion rights, the freedom to travel. Barak’s black, queer, disabled body operated as a crucible of all of these stakes in our shared space. Coming into the workshop I thought his disability principally would shape our conversation: what barriers to physical and mental access do humans face, in Detroit and beyond? But we ventured far afield, and I realised by night’s end that “disability” is a term we need to embrace as powerful as we plan our activism in the face of current exclusions.

What if we recognized disability as a basic human condition, not an exceptional one? As something that affects far more human beings than we at first glance might recognise? That is not lodged necessarily in body or brain, but also in community, in identification, in nation? What if disability – the challenge of mobility, of safety and security of person both in place and in movement – could be understood as a condition we all share, to varying degrees, and therefore all must take seriously for everybody?

The two students who came with me to Lightbox were in the process of preparing their final project for my class; they were planning a festival of creative women for our city that would be driven by an interest in inclusion and accessibility. At one point in the evening Barak noted that, as strong and genuine as many peoples’ intentions toward accessibility are these days, “accessibility” meets reality when he turns up at a space and can, or cannot, actually get into it, actually participate in the thing on offer. Accessibility is about his body, forcefully, in a space, asking questions about who that space is for. It can be planned for… but it also needs to be understood as an ongoing conversation.

Mobility is moment to moment; access is context-dependent. Some days the US border guards really want me to explain what I do for a living, ask a lot of probing questions, and some days they don’t care and wave me through. Some days Barak finds himself in a welcoming space with no physical and few other barriers to discovery, and other days there’s a step nobody noticed. That’s frustrating. But it’s also when things get interesting.

This might sound a bit utopic, but I think I learned at Lightbox that contingent access and precarious mobility are actually conditions full of potential – if we harness them fairly and honestly. Because it means we can all do stuff, little things, all the time, to support each other’s mobility, strengthen our rootedness in place, and that can just be normal. It might be as hard as crossing an international border, or as simple as writing a few words on a piece of paper. But either way, it’s actually totally doable.

That’s what I learned, three weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, from the once ruined, now blossoming, city of Detroit.

Kim