Tikka Sears and Theresa Ronquillo are the workshop leaders. Both are community artivists and theater artists trained in Theater of the Oppressed and interested in other theater for social change methodologies, such as those practiced by companies such as Cornerstone.
A woman arrives and says she was attracted to the workshop because of her experience with a Theater of the Oppressed based performance. For her, it broke down barriers between performers and the audience through a piece focused on political violence. This most transformed her thinking about the work theater can do by spotlighting how theater can be more than just a form of entertainment; it can participate in activist work.
The leaders begin the workshop by orchestrating the playing of some theater games and engaging in what Augosto Boal terms “image theater” based on the workshop participants’ own stories. The first exercises are sound and movement games. This is a beginning place that asks people to deliver a movement and sound that illustrates how they are feeling. Each person shares a gesture and vocalization; this then graduates to people choosing actions that speak to the group — sounds and gestures that read as metaphors for where the group is presently at as a collective. These sounds and movements are then embraced and enacted by each person in the group. The theory is that these “games” help develop a mind/body connection and enable us to rehearse working together as a collective.
They play “catch a clap”: one person turns to another and claps at the same time they do and then turns to share the clap with another. The goal is to “catch” the clap on cue and keep the rhythm as the thrower decides which direction to send the clap. It’s an exercise that demands total presence and focus; it’s also a powerful exercise in the contagion of emotions. One witnesses the immediate ways the workshop participants take on the facial expressions of the actor throwing the clap their way.
The next exercise is based on counting out loud. Workshop participants break down into groups of two. One person counts off numbers 1-3 and the partner must pick up with the next number that follows where the partner left off in the sequence of 1, 2, 3. It goes like this:
Person A: “1, 2”
Person B: “3, 1”
Person A: “2, 3”
Person B: “1, 2” and so on.
Then next part of the exercise is to add into the mix a sound following after “1, 2, 3.” So, the new sequence is: “I, 2, 3, [yell] or [screech] or [yawn].”
The next step is to replace the number with three sounds: [yell], [screech], [sound]. Person A and Person B alternate between the performance of the three sounds they have together selected throughout the exercise.
The ultimate step is that all groups in the workshop get up to share the “dialogue” of sound and movement that each group has created.
Through the activity, everyone’s mood has transformed from when they first entered the space. The workshop leaders ask for comment about the experience: “What a great way to begin an Un/Conference! It made me get over my anxiety about participating”; “It helped me relieve the stress I was carrying.”
The leaders comment how each group seemed to have their own story, some conveying lightheartedness, others seriousness.
They then turn to individual introductions: Tikka asks everyone to introduce themselves by name, state the gender pronoun they prefer used to refer to them, and to share something about the meaning of their name. Through the exercise, we have another layer of information and meaning added to the growing creation and sharing of story that is taking place through the elements of collective theater making. What a gift to learn that someone’s name means “one trusted by God”; how powerful to hear the many stories of the affective force embedded within our names. For example, someone in the group talked about first coming to the states and feeling compelled to introduce herself with the American pronunciation of her name; she described the moment of enlightenment when she realized she could actually model for others how she would like to be addressed by sharing her name and pronouncing it with the accent of her original home language, the origins for her sense of self.
The next exercise is for members of the group to go around in a circle and make a gesture that convey how their sense of responsibility. The leaders ask participants to think of 3-4 key words and come up with a gesture to illustrate a selected word. Then they break into groups of 5 with one person becoming the lead storyteller and the others acting as the “back up dancers” to the storytelling, enacting the gestures of the key words.
I observe the groups compose their stories. In the short time of the workshop, unities have been formed. One group arrives at their vocabulary almost immediately. They come up with this very elegant and economical gesture: the rising of hands clasped together in prayer and reaching forward (a more active and invitational version of namaste, I think). They are beginning to choreograph their story. I hear someone say, “I remember when you spoke about when you were little, and the power of your name for your family…” A workshop leader comes by and offers, “We might end up performing this for the larger conference group, so choose something that you feel comfortable about.” The group consults together: they like the suggested story about the name. They want to foster the telling of what they agree is a very powerful story that speaks to the group. The lead storyteller begins. When the “back up storytellers” lean in to her and deliver their gestures of support for her telling, she becomes overwhelmed, shyly laughing about how surprised she is by their active moving forward, their enthusiastic support. They begin again. It is so beautiful the story they have composed in such a short time and the choreography the group has orchestrated to punctuate the lead tellers speaking of story! I hope they actually do perform it for the conference.
At the end of the workshop, the two groups shared the words they used as the anchors for the stories they created: “determination” and “choice.” The two composed stories came together around the theme of the power of story to affirm identity and come into voice. Workshop participants spoke about how the stories connected one person to another. Words and gestures show change and reclamation. For the lead storytellers, having back up storytellers made them realize how they were changing with each rehearsal of the story, each pass making them more conscientious about how it speaks to others. The workshop leaders spoke about how within our culture women are often not ushered into the spotlight as storytellers; they noted the power of the work that was done in the workshop today. They closed with one last gesture and image, a sound and movement that captures where each person is at the end of the workshop journey. I noted operatic exaltations, fists raised in power salute, release of air in complete peace, opening arms.
The entire workshop is a testament to the powerful work that unfurls when we gather together to listen and bear witness by giving each other the gift of active presence.