BUILDING A Directing & Ensemble Creation INSTITUTE
Minneapolis, December 1-8, 2012
By Nobuko Miyamoto, Artistic Director, Great Leap
When Andrea Assaf sent me an invitation to participate in the development of a “National Directing and Ensemble Creation Institute,” I was a bit surprised and honored. I thought it a great opportunity to learn and share with others and see what I could bring back to my organization. At Great Leap, we started our mentorship program, Collaboratory, to share our values and methodology around our 30th year. I thought this could help us. It was a challenge taking off full week from Great Leap, but it was worth it. Every day and every hour was packed full and there was no way to imagine how profoundly the deep exchange and thoughtful discourse with these incredible, artists/thinkers/directors would affect me.
Organizing the Week
On December 1, Saturday evening, our first gathering was a dinner at the home of Dipankar Mukerjee and Meena Natarajan. This warm welcoming of old friends and strangers with tasty Indian food set the tone for the days to come. We were in the well-organized hands and loving hearts of the Pangea World Theater and Art2Action.
We worked daily from 9am to 9pm, with breaks for lunch (often provided on site) and dinner, which were also filled with meetings discussions, and evening sessions. The main facility was Intermedia arts, which was nice because it allowed us to have stage space, plus meeting and lunch spaces. The hip artistic atmosphere and their branding phrase, “ART CHANGES EVERYTHING” was so fitting. A valuable part of our experience was working in Pangea’s studio in the evenings. It was filled with the vibration of their history, creative and spiritual energy.
I liked the balance between working on our feet and sit-down discussions. Most of the week was devoted to sharing of creative methodologies and discussions of values, history and curriculum development. There was also some Open Space time for us to share, collaborate or rehearse. On Thursday and Friday, a few hours were used to prepare a presentation. Ordinarily this could be chaos and pressure, but the expertise of the organizers and the artists in the room made it flow quite easily. We had much more material to share than we imagined. I think we filled 2 ½ hours, and the audience, which was mostly local artists, easily slipped into many of the exercises we shared.
The planning by Meena Natarajan, Dipankar Mukherjee and Andrea Assaf was excellent. Andrea did an amazing job facilitating and managing the agenda, plus herding us “mountain lions” (as Sharon Bridgforth lovingly called us). I believe we benefited from her experience researching other training institutes such as the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute and LaMama Umbria’s International Directors Symposium. She was firm, timely, but able to creatively accommodate, like my volunteering to lead the morning warm-ups so I could at least get in a little of my morning practice. This led to others sharing their warm-ups, giving us another opportunity to experience each other’s techniques. Pangea’s on-the-ground staff, starring Katie Herron-Robb handled logistics and details with amazing efficiency, enthusiasm and loving care. Their work was a reflection of the spirit, work ethic and principles that guide Pangea on a daily basis. You could feel this through Meena’s and Dipankar’s caring presence. Throughout the week, Dipankar’s humor, humility and brilliance, was our gentle anchor.
No time or space was wasted. I only wish that there had been an opportunity to see a little of what is going on in the Twin Cities. But the seven days of twelve hours was barely ample time to cover what we needed and wanted to share. This was compounded by the desire to get know each of the incredible artists/directors. Linda Parris-Bailey added an extra event with her Thursday evening potluck party, filled with food, spirits and videos of those who wanted to show their work. All of it was a rich and rare bonding experience for us.
On Sunday Morning, 9am, we jumped into our first working day. Openings are important. We started in a circle with an offering of song, sage and prayer by Sharon Day, of the Indigenous People’s Task Force. She is part of the Ojibwe nation from Minnesota. The ritual of asking for a blessing from those who came before gave us a sense of ‘place.’ It created the sacred space for the circle we were part of.
Who’s in the Room
Our circle included a diverse group of artist/leaders, mostly women and people of color, who came from theater towns like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manhattan and Minneapolis, but also from Anchorage, Vancouver, New Orleans, Knoxville, San Antonio, Tijuana, the Bronx and more. There were about 30 of us, including Pangea’s local artists and special guests. This number allowed us to sit in a circle and see and hear each other intimately. The wise choice of artists gave a taste of the breadth and depth of ethnic, cultural and regional distinctions that represented the Americas, as well as world cultures. We also came from different generations and genres, from roots in Civil Rights struggles to today’s Hip Hop generation. Each of us briefly told our story in the large story circle on that first day. I was touched by everyone’s personal journey and how their life profoundly changed when they found their voice as an artist. It was not just the story of a complex and changing America we were hearing. I felt the whole world was in this circle.
There were many subjects that we discussed in our seven days: Aesthetics, Rigor, Elements of Directing, Lineage, “Collaborator vs. Dictator” in the role of the director, to name a few. We also had wonderful directors/guests that brought different experiences of their work to us, including Laurie Carlos, Rick Shiomi, Marty Pottenger, Harry Waters and Sharon Bridgforth. We looked at different models of Institutes, comparing Urban Bush Woman, LaMama, Cornerstone and more. And of course, we discussed Curriculum Development. The emphasis in my report, is on the following areas: the exchange methodology process, where this work came from…and where it can go.
What is my work? What do I do? How can I serve your purpose too?
One of the exercises Linda Parris-Bailey of The Carpetbag Theatre brought into the circle was this repetitive chorus, chanted by the group, over which we each gave our responses to the questions. This simple form, which came through the Civil Rights Movement, illustrates so well how the art of song can lift the spirit and set the intention of serving the community in the midst of their struggle. It still rings in my head, not only because that’s what a catchy melody and rhyme can do, but because it captures the spirit of the kind of art making we are engaged in.
“What is our work?” Our work creates theater to give voice to stories and struggles that are often omitted, ignored, self-silenced and detoured by America’s mainstream culture-makers. As artists, writers, directors, actors, we facilitate the creative process in non-traditional, non-hierarchal ways. For instance, without a script, material for a play can emerge directly from workshops with communities like Somali or Cambodian immigrants, Native American or transgender youth, who might also end up on-stage as performers. The power one feels in telling a story that needs to be told, and told well, is electric–not only from the point of view of the storyteller, but for the audience, who may be fellow community members. It dissolves the mystique and division between artist and audience: we become two halves of the same circle.
“What do we do?” and how we do it was a major focus of our days together. It was a rare opportunity and great fun to participate, exchange, play and observe the techniques of other artists.
Each day, an hour of Morning Movement was shared by different artist/leaders. My warm-up, which uses breath to unite body/mind/spirit, led into a slow motion group dance that physically connected individuals with others in the group, like a moving mobile. This developed into a movement improvisation, with intermittent freezes to allow each individual to express his/her name in creative ways. I thought it a good way to introduce ourselves to each other. I was amazed, when later in the week, Kathy Randels’ warm-up felt almost like an extension of mine. She guided us in groups of 7 or 8 to move silently through the space without a leader, yet each could be a leader, deciding when to move or stop, to walk slowly or quickly. We were learning to move and think as one, as a unit. We were making instant and instinctive decisions to change rhythms, directions and interact with other groups. It was so simple, so basic, almost like the movement of cells…yet becoming more complex. Other warmups given by Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz went even deeper into personal cellular sensitivity; Suzy Messerole emphasized flow yoga; Charlotte Braithwaite’s warm up led to an exercise that had us swing our body, twisting right and left with strong rhythmical music (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) for a lengthy period of time, almost leading us into trance. It reminded me of Sufi circular spinning, except we were repeating half circles.
Throughout the week there were several sessions to share approaches to mining stories, sharing our feelings…whether in a word, a sentence, a poem, a movement.
Steven Sapp of UNIVERSES, had each of us list of 20 significant life events, then chose one and create a Haiku about it. He put us into groups of 3 or 4 and we collaborated to create a piece connecting our individual Haiku. Some pieces were connected through movement, some transformed more musically. It was a wonderful way to compress and connect with other stories, which grew new meanings.
S.T. Shimi, of Jump Start Performance Company, gave us text to inspire a simple gesture, then develop it into a series of movements. She then had us collaborate in small groups to juxtapose our movements with others, growing the meanings of our assigned text.
Dipankar, early in the week, introduced Pangea’s practice of 2 minutes of silence with deep breathing. They do this in their office as well as in rehearsals. We adopted it and wove it through our days, and it was a valuable addition. Each time we came together for a new session, it brought us away from our chatter and into the present moment, to zero mind, to empty page, to empty stage…where we began anew.
Dora Arreola, of Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro, beautifully expressed her philosophy and method of using objects to help people ‘see’ ways into story and build a movement vocabulary. This process has grown from her work with women in Tijuana, México.
Dan Kwong of Great Leap shared his very fun and physical approach to exploring gender identity. He used the Asian game of Jan Ken Po (paper/scissors/rock) and an aggressive race to the finish line to get us out of our heads. We then sat back to back in dyads with eyes closed for a few minutes and thought about the first time we realized we were a girl, boy or whatever our gender identification. We shared our stories with our partners and some with the whole group. (He usually has a writing exercise after.)
Kathy Randels, of ArtSpot Productions, led us in a couples dancing exercise, to the accompaniment of a song we sang. This was a dip into New Orleans culture, and a fun lesson in following and leading. Breaking tradition in male and female roles was both provocative and hilarious.
Ed Bourgeois, of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, showed his Native style of theater/storytelling with a scripted story that still makes me laugh. Donning the voice and attire of an elder Native woman, he engaged volunteers that he then appointed as characters in his short play–a trickster bird, a tree, etc. It was clever and comical while sharing aspects of Native Alaskan people’s cultures…with the addition Ed’s humorous and sarcastic personality, which we enjoyed throughout the gathering.
These are some of the exercises and practices that we shared, and probably some I can’t remember (sorry, senior moments). As I reflect on the week in general, I was moved by so many things. First, working in the room with these artists made me realize this is a powerful and distinctive field of work. Though we have many different approaches and cultural uniqueness, there are great similarities in ‘what we do.’
Commonalities in our work
– The Circle: Starting work in a circle is both symbolic and practical. It creates a sense of oneness, sacredness. Everyone has equal access. The circle is inclusive and can open to include more. For our purposes, as a practical learning circle, 30 was a good size.
– Creating Safe Space: The process of arriving at Agreements is an important part of creating a safe space. Some of ours were: be on time, active listening, no assumptions, speak honestly, all feelings are valid, step up/step back, respect yourself and others, it’s okay to have fun, take care of self, be generous, honor the process, share aspirations, it’s okay to disagree, mistakes are okay, oneness does not mean sameness, democracy is messy, acknowledge peoples of the land, and all ancestors are here. Non-judgment is one of the most important agreements.
– Inclusiveness: The beauty of these exercises is that they can engage and work with anyone. I’ve used similar techniques with youth and elders, with actors and community members. A few years ago, I was doing interfaith workshops at my Buddhist Temple using many similar techniques with people of different faiths. An older Japanese man, a temple member, wandered in and began watching. Somehow he was drawn into the group, began moving with us and shared his story with the others. After a while his wife came looking for him, and he slipped out of the group as easily as he slipped in. Amazing! These kinds of exercises allow a rare place for people to ‘play’ and explore their creativity while enjoying themselves.
– Encouraging Equal Voice: It’s easy for people who are more verbal to dominate conversations. Here is an opportunity to practice restraint. Methodologies that are more physical allow people who are less verbal, or don’t speak English or the dominant language well, to participate more equally. Sharing among peers can bring ghosts into the room or be a deeply revealing and healing process. Sharing across cultures can be bonding and grow respect, helping us see ourselves and the world differently.
– Developing Leadership: Built into many of the exercises is stepping into leadership. Movement with others, such as Kathy’s exercise, is a great way of practicing leadership in a physical, yet non-threatening way. We also learned to follow, or yield leadership–making choices that are artistically interesting or necessary to make things work for the group. This also demonstrates the relationship between individual and group. Our Western upbringing emphasizes the power and importance of the individual. Eastern culture emphasizes doing what’s best for one’s family, the group, the society. Both are necessary depending on the situation. Perhaps these practices expand the meaning of leadership into a non-dualistic way of being.
– Valuing Each Story: These techniques provide a safe place to tell our stories, share our feelings…whether in a word, a sentence, a poem, in movement or dialogue. To let our stories be heard, witnessed in a circle of compassion and non-judgment is powerful medicine. But hearing our stories in relation with others helps us see the bigger story we are part of.
– Everyone is Creative: Our work creates frames to tell our stories in creative ways. We are born of creativity, yet for most of us, conformity (not creativity) is encouraged. To be given a space to explore and experience our creativity changes how we walk, how we see, how we act in the world. Creativity is a practice that can be developed, no matter what our age.
– Process-oriented: Creating a ‘devised theater’ piece with each member part of its creation puts the emphasis on process, and may utilize multiple facilitators with different skills. This community-based practice, like democracy, is often a messy and chaotic. The roles of script writer and director are also being redefined by this kind of theater making. Devised process especially requires special skills, sensitivities and non-traditional approaches.
“How does it serve your purpose too?” The activist/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs often talks about the need to “grow our souls.” I believe that’s what we are doing in this work. Through our artistic practices, we are changing ourselves and building a sense of community in a way that Broadway and Hollywood cannot. This work grows despite meager funding because of the caring and dedication of its practitioners, and because we see its effectiveness. It is time to recognize this distinctive and democratic way of art creation as a ‘field’ just as important and maybe more essential than Broadway or Hollywood. We do it not only through content of our stories and the creativity of our presentation, but as a process, a practice, a way of working with people. We are creating a space for artists and communities to ‘be what we believe.’
Making the Road by Walking
When I came into the Asian American movement in 1969, I stopped working in films and on Broadway as a ‘professional artist’ to become a ‘community artist.’ I was learning everything from scratch. When I sang with Chris Iijima as a troubadour for the Asian American Movement, he pushed me to write songs. In Los Angeles, when community members asked me to teach a dance class, I figured out how to teach and create dances with folks who weren’t necessarily dancers. When the Vietnamese students of Club O’Noodles asked me to do theater workshops, I stumbled my way into techniques to help these non-actors tell their stories on stage. Eventually my arts organization, GREAT LEAP, grew from these stumblings. We’ve been around now for 34 years. Being a community artist has made my life richer, and it has taken me many places…
At the Institute, I wondered how this way of art-making popped up in so many places, in culturally unique yet similar ways. Somehow we’ve all been ‘making the road by walking.’ Our paths have been crossing, converging and merging and the road is getting wider, more substantial, yet elastic and alive, as artists are always dynamic and changing.
This art has roots. Whether old enough to be part of ‘the movement’ or not, these artists have been touched by the ideas of Civil Rights, Black Liberation, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native, Asian American, and women’s LGBT movements. We’ve been influenced by Theater of the Oppressed, Grotowski and Athol Fugard; absorbed the sounds and cadences of Imamu Baraka, Sekou Sundiata and Tupac Shakur; breathed in the melodies and improvisations Miles Davis and Ravi Shankar; experienced the movements of Urban Bush Women, Butoh and Bharatanatyam. The philosophies and practices of yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and indigenous rituals using drum, fire, chanting and smoke are healing the colonized mind/body/spirit, returning us to the circle. We are dissolving the wall between artist and audience, exploring new ways of telling our stories…together. We have the ability to create community, villages within cities.
We are also part of a theater legacy that has helped birth theater of color in America. To name a few: In the mid-sixties in Los Angeles, C. Bernard Jackson’s Inner City Cultural Center, and in New York, Ellen Stewart’s LaMama, both created spaces that nurtured the work of Black artists as well as artists of color. In 1963 John O’Neal established The Free Southern Theater, as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement, later founding Junebug Productions. Roberta Uno, in 1979, inspired as a teenager by Inner City Cultural Center, created New World Theater at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, to present and become an intersection for artists of color, as well as international artists. Since New World’s closure, perhaps the intersection has been shifted with Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, the almost-center of North America, shouldering that role.
Why We Need an Institute
The idea of an Institute comes at a timely moment to share the values, philosophy and an expanding toolbox of methodologies with peers and younger artists. I hope it will inspire and train an army of artists to walk, dance, and find their way into more communities. An Institute will help our work be recognized as a distinctive ‘field’ vital to our changing society. As people of color become the majority in our country, we need to share our stories beyond our cultural boundaries to help overcome ignorance and fear of ‘the other.’ We need a way to go beyond ‘us and them,’ ‘win or lose’ dualistic thinking. We need to help instill new values and practice new ways of being within ourselves and with each other. As temperatures rise and the earth’s resources shrink, we need to engage communities in creative processes so we can experience our connectedness with each other and the Earth. And we need to dream…dream the kind of world we want to live in, realizing we are all part of the same circle.