Collective Dramaturgy: An Exercise in Patience

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By: Coya Paz

It is a Thursday night, mid-September, warm outside. Our rehearsal space isn’t air-conditioned, so we’ve opened the windows to let air in. Outside, I hear sirens, traffic, the sound of people calling to each other from across the street. My head hurts. It’s been a long day, and we’ve just finished a two-hour open rehearsal where almost fifty people from the local community joined us to share in theatre exercises designed to spark conversation about environmental issues, and to offer ideas and feedback about select scenes in our show. At 9 pm, they leave, and the exhilaration of having so many new people in the room leaves with them. We are all tired, but our show techs in just two weeks, so I make a decision to push through the last hour of rehearsal, to finish the scene we’ve been working on:

THREE: No, see… What they need to do is

TWO: What they NEED to do is…

ONE: See…

FOUR: Uh huh.

TWO: They need to…

THREE: What they need to do is feed their kids sumpin healthy (chorus agrees). What the fuck is wrong with them, giving they kids cheetos at 8am?

ONE: My mama raised me on apples and greens.

Not five minutes into working the scene, one of my actors, the only white person in the play, raises his hand. I thought we changed that line? he asks. I don’t think so, I say. Does anyone have a line change in their script? We all pause to consult our scripts. One of my actors offers: We changed “you need to stop cooking with all that grease” to “you need to stop cooking with all that oil.” And “they need to stop being so loud to need to stop being so loud on the bus. My actor looks genuinely upset. I just don’t feel comfortable saying the cheetos line, he insists. I feel a tightening in my chest, the looming pressure of time. Okay, I say, let’s talk about it. Unsaid: Again…

This piece, one of about 20 short pieces that make up our play Unnatural Spaces, is about the many ways we judge one another. It is based on a poem written by the very performer who is challenging the line. Unnatural Spaces, an ensemble created piece about environmental issues and urban toxicity, is a project of the Poetry Performance Incubator (PPI) at the Guild Literary Complex. The PPI is designed to bring together poets from across the city to create theatrical performance. This particular incarnation of the PPI is a collaboration with Voice of the City, a local arts organization based at the edge of Logan Square and Avondale. It is funded by a Community Collaborations Grant from the Chicago Community Trust. Beyond our desire to create an exciting piece of theatre, the project exists under pressure from a complicated web of stakeholders: the poets who are writing and performing the piece, the arts organizations who are accountable to their respective missions, the funders who believe that this piece about urban environmentalism should primarily serve to build and strengthen arts audiences in “underserved” communities. Working on this project is, so often, an exercise in negotiation, figuring out how to meet everyone’s needs in a way that doesn’t dilute the quality of the work.

Our current debate is whether the “they” in the piece implies African-Americans, and whether it is racist to say, particularly if the only white man in the cast says it. Some of the cast says no, and wonders why anyone would assume the people feeding their kids Cheetos at 8am are necessarily Black. But others, including me, agree that “they” does seem to interpolate Black people, but wonder if it does so in a way that suggests that we, as a collective share this judgment, or just in a way that makes the character seem racist? Because a racist character is not the same as a racist play, and all of the characters in this scene are, well, jerks. The conversation is circular, we go around and around, increasingly frustrated but with no clear exit. We are all hot. We are all tired. I decide I need to think about this. We go home, without having done the ritual that usually marks the end of rehearsal: a circle of hugs and booty shakes.

The next day, I meet with my AD and my movement director to talk about blocking. It’s (mostly) fun, but things take a turn a few minutes before our meeting wraps up. Our movement director is concerned that the last scene of the play, a lyrical rumination on future generations, has a “forced birth” kind of vibe – putting pressure on women to procreate in case their child grows up to be a savior. At the very least, it abdicates our generation’s responsibility for making environmental change, passing it on to the next. I try not to roll my eyes. I think that’s a stretch, I tell her, and the lines of our conversation grow taut, our voices edge into forced calm. Somehow, I find myself arguing about whether or not having babies is environmentally responsible. I feel a little bit like I have been teleported into a Portlandia sketch. What is going on?!

I don’t agree that the Cheetos line is racist, and I definitely don’t think the final piece of the play advocates birthing as the solution to environmental problems. Beyond that, I’m frustrated that these concerns are coming so late in the process. We have been workshopping this play since January! Further, changing each of these pieces affects the larger structure of the play – this isn’t the case for all line changes, but the Cheetos line opens up a whole section of the scene that is about “good food” vs “bad food.” And the final scene of the play is THE FINAL SCENE OF THE PLAY. I am in an all-caps kind of mood.

But I promised I’d think about it, and I do. At our next rehearsal, I give the cast line changes in the Cheetos scene. “They” becomes a more specific “he,” and I reassign the line to a different actor. I also cut the line that caps this section: ain’t they got no apples where they from? This is actually one of my favourite lines, but I decide it contributes to the sense of judging someone outside of your community, rather than someone in it, and we don’t need it. Then, I ask the cast to turn to the last scene. Our movement director is not scheduled to be at this rehearsal, so I try to do a fair job of summarizing her concerns about the piece, and ask the group to simply read the scene with them in mind. After we read it, one of our actors says, you know what? I can kind of see it. I ask if anyone has a solution that doesn’t involve cutting the scene. The poet who wrote the piece is upset. This is unfair, she says. Nobody even thought about that before ONE PERSON got that idea. I know, I say, but everyone’s opinion matters. We have a long, and I mean LONG, group conversation during which I do not allow myself to think about how desperately I would like to be rehearsing. Eventually, we make some line changes everyone seems to feel good about, including the original author of the piece. Are we ready to move forward? I ask. Yes. Good. Phew.

Creating work as a collective has many joys, but its own set of headaches as well, particularly when the work explicitly engages political critique. Because there is no individual author attribution in the PPI, no way for the audience to know who wrote what lines, it is important that everyone involved in the project feel that they can “co-sign” everything that makes it to the stage. After ten months of working together, I know that this particular group of writer/performers trusts me, that if I made the decision to move on with no changes, they would (perhaps reluctantly) agree. But I have found that when the process allows space to pause, to debate, to come to consensus, we always find a solution that makes the final product more inclusive. This isn’t about finding safe or neutral ground, and it isn’t about watering down the politics of the play. It is about the way that passionate opinion and collective brainstorming pushes the work, expands the possibilities. In the PPI, our collective process models the kind of civic engagement we believe in, where we are willing to truly listen and honor each others’ point of view, even when it feels inconvenient. It isn’t easy. It requires a patience and a willingness to be wrong that I do not come by naturally. I am constantly reminding myself to breathe, constantly performing patience. Some days, I dream of directing plays written by people who have literary agents who will not allow you to change a single word. Some days, I dream of directing plays where I do not have to compromise my blocking because we were busy talking about Cheetos. But most days, I am grateful to be able to spend my time rehearsing the kind of world I want to live in, headaches and all.

A rehearsal video from Unnatural Spaces:

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