An Ethical Dilemma

For the last two weeks I have worked with a group of young people who are very dear to my heart. I don’t know most of these young people yet, only a few, but the organization through which I am working with them is WONDERFUL and I adore all of the kids that come through there. As of late, I have been having a huge ethical dilemma about the work that I am doing there…and truthfully…have since we first began planning the series of workshops for this fall.

Every year there is a Benefit Dinner held to help raise money for this organization and every year the kids are forced to sing in front of all the people who attend…which makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable. So…and I loved this, this year, it was decided that they wouldn’t have to sing, but instead an alternative performance piece would be created. This is where myself and my co-facilitator were brought in. I came in with ideas…tons…but mostly expressed the need for TIME with these young people…and this was even when I was thinking that a majority were the same from last year and they’d have a years worth of experience with me….not the case, but I digress. We were told we had 9 weeks of 1.5 hour sessions to work with the young people, boys and girls seperately to create a piece that they could perform. When it was further divided, we would have 3 weeks with the boys, 3 with the girls, and 3 weeks to put everything together…my doubts are creeping in…but I’m going along…

…now, 2 weeks in, I find myself pondering the good that these workshops are bringing to these boys. I walked into a situation where I thought I would be working with 8 young men I had worked with last year, to 26 young men, only 3 of whom I knew…and in 4.5 hours total, I’m supposed to get them to share stories about their pasts (which, for the most part…are rough…there is a reason why they are living where they are…) and their hopes for the future. They don’t know me. Yet. They don’t trust me. Yet. Most of them don’t know each other! They are new to each other…and herein is where I find myself at an ethical dilemma…I feel like I’m asking WAY too much of them in such a short amount of time…I’m asking them to risk SOOOO much in such a short time without really giving them time to get comfortable and adjusted to their new surrounding, to working with me in this new way…everything. I walked away yesterday feeling almost as if I had used them…I sucked out the information that was needed for this Benefit performance and…that was it. Is that how they felt? How do they feel about this process? it benefiting them the way it should?…and I ask myself all these things…and I wonder if I should be doing it…but then, what if the assignment is given to a facilitator who doesn’t care about these things…who doesn’t care about THEM?

Needless to say, I’m going to continue through…but, I wonder about this way of working…that its not really beneficial…that we are using the techniques and using the students as a means to an end for US….instead of an outlet for creativity and expression and socialization for them…I fear that the focus isn’t in the right place…and it bothers me.

Practical Theory…

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a colleague and friend of mine about what it takes to be a good facilitator and or teacher. We all know it when we see it…and often times we write it off as being some innate talent or ability that the person possesses, dismissing the possibility that it could be something that is learned. At the same time we discussed how we have been in room with very well educated people who have large amounts of academic theory backing them up, and yet they are unable to connect with participants/students. So, there is a gap. How much of great facilitation/teaching is instinctual and how much can be learned?

Personally, I find myself drawn to the work. I feel it in my bones and my breath and my  heartbeat. Suffice to say, I would count myself as an instinctual facilitator/teacher, however, because I do have such a desire to honor the people I work with, I have made a point to educate myself in order to be the best that I can. Even so, I sometimes feel the disconnect between theory and practice. Perhaps because sometimes the people writing about the work aren’t the people DOING the work.

I suppose this blog is a call to artists and practitioners to begin writing about their work, journaling about their process, and sharing. It is so easy to get wrapped up in a bubble of the work that you are doing and forget to check in with what other artists are up to. Also, there are a great many artists and facilitators and teacher who don’t think to chronicle their work because they don’t even realize how revolutionary it is…they do it because they love the communities they are working with, not to gain fame or notoriety by publishing, etc. However, I believe that it is important that these people start writing, start sharing…because  in doing so it will enrich the quality of the theoretical academic learning that current students, like myself are receiving. It will help create a new generation of facilitators and teachers who are informed by theory rooted in practice.

Ablevision Ireland Workshops

Getting ready to warm up and start the day.

For the past 2 days I have had the amazing opportunity to lead workshops with a group from Ablevision Ireland. This is a program that works solely with adults with learning disabilities. They have set up 2-week long summer camps to culminate in the production of a film created by the participants. I was brought in on the first day to lead a session that would help the participants get to know each other better – and aid in communication and collaboration amongst the participants and staff. I wasn’t given the specifics of how many people I would be working with or specifics about the various disabilities that would be represented. I was unsure about how quickly the workshop would progress or how much I could fit into such a short amount of time. We ended up having time for 5 activities, the most successful of which I feel was “The thing you don’t know about me is…” Surprisingly, it was enough excitement trying to find a new place and not be left in the middle to keep everyone excited and involved. I also felt like it allowed for the most amount of learning about the others in the room. We also played peas in a pod, but this required mingling and socializing one on one in a large group and I observed that many participants were not engaging with each other, unwilling to step out on their own amidst the crowd. Oddly enough, most of them were okay being the complete center of attention in the other activities!
Today’s workshop was centered on expression and storytelling. Tableaux work was a little difficult due to a great amount of mimicking when they were a “statue garden”…however, when they were divided into groups and given topics themes like love/hate/home/etc. the images began to have much more depth. Most of the time when I use this activity groups are very concerned with “getting it right/wrong”…and for the first time, that wasn’t the case. Each group’s tableaux was a little different, some abstract some more real…but there was a general appreciation, as well as an understanding of the feeling of the pieces – if the theme/word wasn’t guessed outright. For the last half of the workshop we focused on storytelling. I began by having the participants draw a self-portrait with their eyes closed. Afterwards they had to guess which one was theirs (there WAS some peeking going on). However, I was able to get most participants to talk about distinguishing features in their pictures that set them apart from others. The next step was for each participant to tell a story about their picture, it could be true or fictional, but all of them were required to share….it was the last 30 minutes that completely blew my mind! Not only did each one of them get up without complaining or trying to hide, but they shared such HUGE parts of themselves! On participant, who was talking about his love of singing and telling the story of singing in a pub began singing for the room! It was amazing to see this group, that had been so shy only yesterday become so expressive and trusting with each other. I was floored. I will never, ever forget their stories. …luckily there was a documentary crew filming the whole thing and the gentleman promised to send me the footage of their presentations!
I’m not going to lie…even this morning I was pondering over the possible success of this workshop and how I would measure the success of it…and I am not sitting here completely floored at just how successful it was. I was trying so hard in my planning not to underestimate the group I was working with that I was a bit afraid that I may have gone too far in the opposite direction. Fortunately, each participant rose to the challenges that were put in front of them.
The one thing that I am struggling with and I feel was a bit of a setback both days was the level of involvement by the caretakers…some were very involved in a productive way (allowing and aiding participants to answer for themselves and make their own choices), some were involved and telling participants exactly what to do, and some were there, but made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with what was happening. Clearly, the first type of caretaker was my favorite. It just makes me think that in the future, I should speak to the caretakers separately prior to the workshops to let them know what they are in for and how they can best help. That said, all of the participants were engaged and appeared to enjoy the workshops. Some were very obvious because they were laughing, smiling, and told me as much…but others, who often appeared to be more detached made it clear that they understood through the sharing of their ideas and stories.
I’m supposed to be done with this group today…but as always I get so very attached…I’m headed back through Drogheda next week and I imagine I’ll be popping in to say hello! Meanwhile, my rainbow is blazing!

Musings on my Upstate experience so far…

Since coming to work at Upstate Theatre Project I have had the opportunity to come into contact with several brilliant community-engaged artists and practitioners, and I have been able to work very closely with Delcan Mallon, co-founder and Artistic Director of Upstate. I have been immensely inspired by these people. What is more is that I have been able to dialogue about the work that is happening; the inspirational stories, the setbacks, the planning, archiving. I’ve also been able to see the differences in how projects are funded in Ireland, as well as how individual artists support themselves.
The most significant thing that has stuck out to me is just how integrated with the community Upstate is. This is not only a company that invites participants from the community to take part in creating work. The company doesn’t work one way. Since being here I have observed Declan taking an active part in the community. He (and I) attend meetings with a group called Culture Connect, who are dedicated to bridging connections between immigrants and the Irish people. In the three weeks I’ve been here we have also supported launching events for other arts organizations, as well as community centers, and fundraisers for local youth centers. This experience has just fully made me realize that working in community-engaged theatre is not about just engaging with the community for the purposes of making art, but about engaging with the community in every way – this is especially true for a company that is based in one place. However, the artists from Dublin that come down to facilitate/direct for Upstate have also become intertwined in this community, despite the fact that they do not live here. It makes me think about just how strong the bonds and connections that are made during the process of creating art are. I feel like it isn’t really such a bad thing that I become so fond of the people I work with and grow to care about them so much. Looking at the examples I have seen in the past three weeks, I feel like it can only lead me to be a stronger practitioner in this field.
Last week we had a meeting with Louise Lowe. She has been highly recognized for her work, and luckily, she works with Upstate quite a bit. The meeting was concerning the project she is going to work on for the upcoming season. The theme is going to be “home” and the initial concept was that it would be a piece for females only. What was interesting during this meeting was all of the considerations that were coming into play. Declan is very excited about site-specific projects and has been wanting to do a piece in the “ghost properties” that were built during the Celtic Tiger and now stand empty because the economy just dropped. He was in talks about getting access to an apartment building, however, Louise was concerned that there may be people in the community that would be highly disturbed, and was that something the company wanted to contend with? Apparently there were many people who had paid deposits on that building of 25,000 euro who lost all their money and were never able to move into their homes. How would they feel if suddenly a theatre company had access to the apartment they paid for and never got to move into? How would that change/shape the piece? Additionally, due to the economy and men being out of work in the construction industry, more men are staying at home and fulfilling the traditional “female” role in the family. How does that change the piece? This meeting lasted for several hours and it was conversation like this going around. Such exciting ideas, considerations. It really brought to light the delicacy of this work; that you really must take care because peoples’ lives are impacted and their feelings must be considered. It also brings to light questions of just how “political” you want to be with a project.
In the past 2-3 days I have spent time viewing and editing footage from precious Upstate productions, interviews with the participants from various productions, and footage of the rehearsals. Time and again, the participants state the significance this experience has had on their lives. Many state their shared ownership of the pieces with their fellow participants and speak to the power of finding their creativity and how important it is that they are heard. Its inspiring beyond words. A great, and amazing side-effect of this kind of work are the bonds and the communities that are built during the process. This is done over a long period of time through a series of workshops. Something that keeps sticking out to me though is participants acknowledging and being grateful for this newfound community, but then saying that they thought too much time was spent in workshopping, “playing games to get to know each other better.” Isn’t that interesting? However, if you take that away, you are taking away the community-building…which is a side-effect appreciated and valued by all. Despite going through an amazing process with a group of people, it seems that the end-product is what becomes the most important…atleast during the time of the interviews (which have all been right after the production). I wonder if perhaps these people were interviewed years later, they might speak more about the importance of the process…certainly they would have more memories of it. …just a thought…of course, I am biased. I have ALWAYS loved the process of making art more than the actual performance. Even as a child it was the process I loved most and now, remember most…growing in an art with others, others who became friends….some of the dearest I have…playing and experimenting with the art form…it makes me sad that somehow this beautiful process has simply become a race to get to an end-product – as if that is all that matters…just as in life…people seem to be rushing through everything, and while doing so, life is passing them by.

Kindur: The Adventurous Life of Icelandic Sheep

Still from Kindur

I had the wonderful opportunity today to attend a performance of Kindur: The Adventurous Life of Icelandic Sheep by TPO Company of Italy. It was encouraged that I go to see it because it was an example of TYA…and seeing as my degree emphasis is TYA….the logic goes to follow…the show was recommended for ages 5 and up.
When I walked into the theatre space, it was a conventional proscenium stage space. The stage was bare except for a white mat taking up most of the floor space and a curved, white freestanding backdrop. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the performance, but had heard and read good things about it. After experiencing a performance, I am definitely a fan and am amazed by the artistry that is being presented to and for the youth here.
All in all there were about 3 lines of narrative text in the very beginning of the performance. After that, there was no dialogue. Everything was relayed through dance, movement, music, and visuals. Upon entering the space, each child was given a small heart that resembled sheeps wool to pin to their shirts. When the actors entered the space, they were wearing these same hearts. As each actor/sheep entered the space, they began to interact with beautiful projections that were displayed on the floor and the backdrop behind them. At one point, everything went dark and their hearts began to glow…I then realized that ALL the hearts that had been given out to the audience were glowing too! Throughout the piece there was a large amount of engagement with the audience. The actors came out into the audience, welcomed children onto the stage with them to interact and explore the world, the audience was asked to respond physically and verbally to the piece…it was incredible. Each movement and image, each moment was so inherently interesting…I could see and feel the children around me leaning forward, eager to find out what would happen next. Interestingly, there were several moments of frozen silence…and even then, I would venture to say that the performers didn’t lose anyone’s interest.
What was interesting about the performance also was watching how the children engaged with the performers and projections on stage – and how the show seemed to adapt and react to what the children were bringing to it. The show itself was extremely responsive to the group, leading me to believe that although these sheep go to the same places in every show, each journey is very different and unique to the audience that is experiencing it.
A very cool technical aspect of the production was that there was some sort of sensory camera that detected the actors and audience’s movement and would create images on the screens correspondingly…I know that I am not describing this accurately enough, but it was incredible to watch – and another way of engaging the audience, especially those who didn’t feel comfortable heading up to the stage.
As I think back on this experience…and I have truly not had another like it, I wonder why it is that I HAVEN’T seen anything like this in the US yet? What is it that we are scared of? There are a lot of theories running around in my mind…but…I will save that for a later discussion and simply revel in the delight that was this performance! I found a clip on youtube that I will share in this post that will hopefully show some of what I have been describing:

what was knocking around in my head last night…

When I was asked two years ago what my thoughts on devised theatre were, my eyes widened and my head began to shake from side to side to indicate my complete lack of knowledge in this field – or so I thought. As I have learned more about this illusive term I now understand that I instinctively understood what it was and how it worked, in fact, I had been doing it for a long time…only, no one told me that it had a fancy title. With that said, how do we define it? It is an idea, it is a way of working that allows for so much freedom that no two processes are the same. Process. That is one thing that all devised performances have in common; there is an equal (if not greater) emphasis on process as there is on the product. What else then helps to define and shape what devised theatre is? Another common factor is that it is always a group of people coming together to share ideas. Collaboration is a key factor in devised performance; the idea of a collective genius as opposed to the individual artist savant that is often seen in more tradition forms of theatre in the roles of the playwright and director. Devised performance also usually draws from multiple art forms for inspiration, although this is not a hard and fast rule. Utilizing these nontraditional means of creating, another common factor that all devised pieces share is that the end-product is unknown. Until the group arrives at the “end” together, the final product is in flux and is open to change, which is an exciting and scary aspect to devised performance. At the current moment I am racking my brain for more, but am just about to head off to sleep. Tomorrow I start my first day of internship at Upstate Theatre Project…this summer promises to be very enlightening and I can’t wait to take in all that this amazing company and group of people have to offer!

working towards definition…

Anyone who has ever met me and held a conversation with me for more than 5 minutes knows of my passion for theatre, my love of the art. Anyone who has held a conversation with me in the last 2.5 years knows of my passion for sharing the art of theatre and creating theatre with as many varied communities/participants as I can. I come from a place in which I want to share my craft in a way that offers a new approach to personal expression through storytelling and theatre. I come from a place of deep reverence for the individual voice, as well as the collective. Perhaps, notably…I feel this way because I come from a place where many times I was told that my voice wasn’t valid. My choices and forms of expression were not good enough; where I was made to feel stupid for expressing my opinions in my own manner/style. It never occurred to me until this moment that this is precisely why I feel so strongly about encouraging others to have confidence in their voice and their choices. Mine have always been questioned: Are you sure you could work with at-risk teens, you just seem too happy? Seriously. As if being happy and casual in my demeanor and being serious about my work are mutually exclusive. I can’t possibly be serious if I have a smile on my face. I can’t possibly have anything important to say if I’m not expressing it in a scholarly and heady format. My energy, or effervescence (as I have been told) must obviously make me less able to be taken seriously.
As human beings we are constantly fighting against stereotypes….atleast the ones that we are placed into. It seems that we are perhaps less careful about those stereotypes that don’t directly affect us in some manner. Its so easy to look at the “other” that we are not and begin making assumptions and accusations about their person.
In my work and in my life I am going to make every attempt to be open-minded and accepting of others. I will make conscious choices to not act on the stereotypes I see played before me everyday, because underneath whatever quick assumptions I may make about someone (which are completely steeped in MY history and MY baggage), there lies a person. A person who deserves to be heard. A person, that if another person gave them the opportunity, the time of day, the genuine thought and care…would share what is truly inside of them. And who knows…I may or may not like what it is that I hear or witness…regardless…it has validity. It comes from a place that is real.
Bringing the conversation back around to my demeanor and presentation as an artist/facilitator in relation to these thoughts:
…if I so earnestly believe in being yourself, following your heart, believing in YOUR voice, and expressing yourself…wouldn’t I be a hypocrite to not do so in my work? Because, essentially, I feel like I am often being asked to mask who I am and my personality in order to be taken more “seriously” in this line of work…dress this way, don’t smile so much…I WILL not. I will be me. I will be me that loves what I do, passionately fights for the things I believe in, and puts serious thought into every aspect of my work. I will be all of that, in this package. I AM all of that in this package.

…meanwhile back at the Ranch :)

Last night a thing of great beauty occurred at Edgewood Children’s Ranch. A large audience filled the venue and witnessed the product of the combined efforts of about 40 young people. Last night was opening and (sadly) closing night for the Ranch’s production of Everyman II. For the last two and a half months these students have pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones and invested their time and energy so that they could be a part of something greater than themselves.  They came to us (the REP) last fall with a desire to put up their own production when only months before many of them had not been exposed to the theatre and were very hesitant about the thought of getting up and performing! And yet, they were amazingly brave and confident in requesting to put on a show. They had something to say.  Luckily for me, my boss and mentor came to me with the project and asked me to direct.  After spending the fall facilitating workshops with these kids, I had already fallen in love with them and was absolutely ecstatic at being asked to take a role in this project…and we hit the ground running. The students that showed up to the staged reading of the play to kick things off were shy, nervous, and a little intimidated…yet they showed up the next week ready to audition. They impressed both myself and my assistant director with their preparedness at the auditions. Despite being reserved and scared of looking ridiculous in front of their peers, they trusted in myself and my creative team and got silly with us as we played with and explored this piece. Throughout the rehearsal process their characters became more defined, their ability to “take direction” increased, and their confidence grew. Meanwhile, several other amazing teachings artists were working with two other groups of students from the Ranch to build and paint our set! My greatest desire in taking on this project was that this work be a true reflection of the students…and that is exactly what was revealed to the audience last night – their hard work turned into a moving and inspiring work of art. A shining example of why I love what I do. I am so grateful to these students for allowing me to guide them in this process, for trusting me, befriending me, and inspiring me.

In Between

The past few days I’ve been driving…a lot…and out in the country…I’ve seen many cows, goats, and horses (no sheep, though…alas) Monday however, I found myself driving through the little town of Between…yes, I found myself in Between…and it struck me how apt that was….being in Between. I began thinking about my life and how I feel all at sorts…trying to figure things out…I chuckled because this town was, well, in between the where I started and where I was heading that morning…I wondered if I would always be/feel in Between…and within 5 minutes, I was no  longer there…

Where the name came from…

So, it occurred to me that some of you may be wondering…why Rainbow on Fire?! Well, here is the answer…during a class one morning in which I was speaking passionately about my teaching philosophy, my colleague Brandon said to me, “Courtney, you remind me of that commercial…you’re not just a rainbow, you’re a rainbow on fire” Hahaha, he was referring to the impression of puppy dogs, rainbows, etc. that I sometimes radiate, but making that point that I was more than that. I was more than “happy”/”whistle a tune”…that there was substance…FIRE! Clearly, I took to this idea…and after seeing the video clip that inspired his comment, I kinda fell in love with it a little…