Workshop: (Inter)Action! – Amplifying Voices Through Storytelling and Interactive Theater

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.

Rock the Archive/Archive the Rock

I am attending a conversation about new ways of archiving with more community focus, interpretation, performance. John Vallier UW Archivist, raised some fascinating questions about how to leverage university libraries for community archiving, working with existing collections. Tara MacPherson shared great information about the online archives most likely to persist where people can upload digital collections: Internet Archive and Critical Commons. Sheila Jackson told us how she has created an on-line community that connects black women rock musicians and their fans. We talked about ethics of access–lots to think about. John wants to facilitate conversations between community archivists about what is needed and what libraries can promise. After we discussed all these issues, we segued into what John called, “How to bring performance into the archive, how to use archive to create new works.” We played instruments while listening to records–speeches by Angela Davis and Martin Luther King –while a silent film played on the wall. Bringing together the archival materials into jam session felt like a different kind of respect and care. We touched and used the materials not as artifacts or “information,” but for the other uses from their pre-artifact existence, only now in a new moment. They can still be used in creative ways.


Questions to start the day (with a fantastic soundtrack)

Monica Rojas invites us all to think about how we participate in systems of oppression. How can we name those practices and work collectively to change them? These are useful questions for each of us: what do I do each day to challenge oppressive systems? How can I share this work with others? Who can I learn from in these efforts? How can we remember that our struggles are global?

Personally, I am finding the energy and diversity of the Women Who Rock community inspiring and energizing. The music, the dance, the bodies, and the generosity remind me again of how narrow and circumscribed life in the university can be.

Critical mass

Wow, the intersectional/multiple identity unconference session is JAMMED. There must be 40 people here, crowded into a corner of the ballroom, and they’re an amazing mixture of (mostly) youth of color—folks in their teens & twenties; at least half are men; ah, I think they’re high school students brought here by their teacher…

OK, it’s 45 minutes later and they’re all still hard at it! Now there are over 50 participants and they’re really FOCUSED—they’re into it! They’re hearing about Audre Lord, Tupac, the dissonant divas Deb Vargas has so lovingly written about, etc.—this is good stuff.

Welcome Comments

Monica Rojas and dancers take the stage, representing the Seattle Fandango Project. There are three of them, and they move intertwining like braids, their bodies declaring fierce power and speaking out, unabashed with direct address. Two others weave into their line of invitation to the audience. They are clapping, signifying, giving it up with their hands and feet pulsating against the floor, their thighs, turning and dancing, pulsating back to their instruments center stage where they hammer out the welcome. The pounding of the beat boxes on which they sit requires the extension of their bodies: they are the drum, the body transformed into an instrument that powerfully resonates into all of us seated and standing in the hall. You FEEL the rhythms surge into your flesh. You, too — we, too — become the drum. AH HA! They yell, as they close the performance.

Moncia Rojas: “This is a very special day. I feel honored to be hear with all of you. The instrument you just heard, is traditionally played by men and this project is part of introducing women to percussion. I’m the director of the cajon project; I’ve been working to fight racism and discrimination in my country; as a middle class Puruvean I realized that I was part of the culture of oppression and since then I woke up and realized that I need to be part of the solution. That is the work I am doing in Seattle, supporting by educating communities as best I can about the culture of my home country of Peru. We’re going to start with a Puruvan waltz called BROWN WOMAN.”

The group plays a beautiful waltz comprised of cajon (the musical box of a drum played by sitting down on the drum itself), guitars, handheld percussion instruments, and castanets. Monica sings with the kind of fever that begins in childhood, the song surging forth as a snapshot of memory for us to embrace.

Their second song is a song about a woman who wakes up and describes the path she musts traverse as she goes to work in the fields. Her husband, a man she describes as “one who rocks” opens the song with his voice. He throws out the first verse, Monica responds. They are clearly narrating a story about how people survive and keep it together. The beat is one that demands joining in. People are clapping, moving to the beat, joining the call to join the movement. The repetitions of refrain remind of the repeated rhythms of work; the way the music asks us to move in response makes clear this is a story about collective movement.

Their next song works from a Peruvian phrase to explain how we are all mixed and have different cultural roots: African, Japanese, Indigenous. The song begins with the guitar, a line that sounds distinctly Latin but quickly melds into cajon percussive beats that are more African sounding, their tempo dissonant and purposeful, something that to me I hear coming from more Indigenous music practices. But it all blends together quickly and morphs into coherency, a song like nothing I have heard before when listening to Peruvian music.

The three songs have taken us on an incredible musical journey. Monica introduces all members of the band. Their last tune, Oyita, has a chorus of “ha, ha, ha” and she invites the audience to join in the signing of the song. We clap and begin the chorus. At this point Washington Hall is ROCKING! This is my third year blogging for the conference, and I have never seen the hall fill up so quickly and with so many people! Striking is the fact that there are more young people here than in the past and it’s a very multicultural scene. The female dancers are returning to the stage to join the musicians. Ha, ha, ha….and with that, audience members join them! The stage is turning into a dance floor! The music has conjured representatives of the very diverse cultural roots it sang of! What a fabulous beginning to this year’s UnConference!!!

Opening Ceremony & Blessing

The opening blessing starts with music to bring us all together. The drumming begins with a powerful calling forth of ancestors and spirit. No cameras, no recording allowed. In the back of the room I blog and feel protective of the door. A wonderful surge of people quietly streams into the room to take part in the blessing and witness the altar that has been built in tribute to the incredible artistic energy that lives within this building and fuels the creative community it has inspired leading to this annual Un/Conference, Women Who Rock. We are called to remember the people who made this land and the issues of struggle we must face in honor of their sacrifices and the better world we wish to make for their children. We are gathered together to honor everyone’s work and give cultural respect. With that invitation, we commence.

Arriving at Washington Hall

Washington Hall resounds memories… Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, we learned last year, and this year it reverberates memories of Women Who Rock 2012. Walking into the Hall I overhear two conversations about “Alice Bag and Medusa performed… Right there remember.” We greet each other, people who know each other, people who don’t. people who remember each other from last year. Women Who Rock honor the memories and make memories. Everyone seems ready to make more. What will we make this year? There is a sense of déjà vu, but also a sense of readiness and openness for making something together new.