First week at Cornerstone Summer Institute

[[Article by BroadwayWorld on our project here: https://www.broadwayworld.com/los-angeles/article/Cornerstone-Theater-Co-To-Present-The-Premiere-Of-UTOPIA-PARKWAY-20180716)

One week ago I woke up at Letchworth State Park and drove down through Margaretsville and Bloomfield to here, to Queens; and my phone died just as I was getting on some highway or another into NYC but instead of pulling over, I had scrawled out some directions as I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper (took me a few days, but I just realized that these funny-looking things people have on their car bumpers are most assuredly for bumping into other cars!). That feels like a very long time ago in some way; and in another, I know that when this ends, it might feel like I blinked and it happened. That was something I was really thinking about yesterday—the familiarity and sadness of theatre projects not lasting forever, that it’s a community coming together for just a bit of time to make something and then let it go, and that will be sad. (And...we're still at the beginning of this project!)

I’m reminded of this Elizabeth Bishop poem, “One Art,” that I encountered while staying at my aunt’s house and then again when Jose Munoz includes it in Cruising Utopia:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

 

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Maybe the ephemerality of most theatre projects is a kind of practice of attachment and release. Meeting all the folks auditioning in these past three days, and getting to know the ensemble and institute participants over the past week, I feel already so in love with this group, these people, this work—and we haven’t even started rehearsing yet. In fact, the play isn’t written yet! (I don’t envy the playwright’s position in all this…seems like a tough job.)

Well, so to kind of lay it out, there are 13ish of us participating in the Institute—from all over the country—and then there’s a bunch of folks from the Cornerstone Ensemble and staff here, which is based in LA, plus a few family members (Sage’s wife Julia and their daughter Mira, who’s 1 ½ and totally a joy to hang out with), plus a few key collaborators who aren’t ensemble members but have a history of working with the company—including the playwright, Cusi Cram, director Juliette Carrillo, choreographer Edisa Weeks, and composer Emily Gardner Xu Hall. We all came in with assigned roles—I’m going to be a performer/musician; there’s also Institute participants working on stage management, assistant directing, community outreach, etc. And there’s a good degree of flexibility (seems to be one of Cornerstone’s strong points) so that people step up and back with their energy, skills and talents, etc.

We’ve started by holding story circles, where a facilitator leads the group in some step-forward-step-back type exercises and then invites responses to questions on a range of topics (some times more short answer, sometimes longer stories). We’ve organized and held story circles at a number of spots in Flushing, the neighborhood near Queens College—at Flushing Town Hall, at the College, at the Pomonok Community Center across the street, and next week at the Y nearby. (These also serve as a good way to invite community partners to share their space/reach out to people who tend to use a particular space but would be unlikely to come to an unknown/farther space without really connecting to the project first; and to put on an event that is lovely even as a one-time thing for the people present! Of course also it’s about getting input and hearing stories…) Almost parallel with those, we’ve been hosting auditions for community members. The first day, Institute participants all auditioned; and since then we’ve been very actively canvassing for people who are interested in participating in this community play project! Or really any way of getting involved. Kenny, one of the Institute participants, has been great at this kind of canvassing and totally inspiring to me; I’ve been much more reticent about it and prefer to reach out via email/calling/social media to friends and friends of friends and hope that will work out, though often on a short timeline, it’s too short notice. Really reaching out to the people who live right here makes a lot of sense, too; it’s not going to be a long commute!

Well, with that said, there’s been a mix of strategies for getting people engaged so far, including: Nephalie has been visiting for the past 3-5 months and connecting with a few community partner organizations, CERRU (Center for Ethnic, Religious, and Racial Understanding) and the director of the Pomonok Community Center; straight-up street canvassing; reaching out to friends and colleagues in Queens and beyond and asking ‘who should we know?’; connections through Queens College; and then really following through on old and new threads and possible connections—showing up at their events/church services, seeing what might be possible and really thinking through what kinds of barriers to access might be invisibly present.

One kind of highlight in this community engagement work for me was going to the Unitarian Universalist fellowship on Sunday; I started going occasionally to UU services in Grants Pass and found it to be a welcome support during a difficult period; when I’m in Toronto, I’ve joined a fellowship there; and I know UU folks are often into community work and engagement. Two other Cornerstone folks joined me (one of whom had never been to a church—though I assured her that this wasn’t really church, either) and when we arrived we were surprised to find that the service was about 7 people sitting in a circle in the building’s basement! I guess the summer sessions are usually more informal. We joined in, sang a cappella, and read and discussed a story about the difference between helping, fixing, and serving (which felt very a propos to our work here). Anyway, out of the 7ish people there, 5 of them ended up coming to the story circle that evening and 3 came to auditions! Pretty good turnout.

Here are some questions/thoughts that came out of our class on community engagement yesterday:

  • Early Cornerstone method for finding community to work with involved cold-calling with phonebook! Calling a town’s police dept and city hall to see if they were interested in hosting artists for a 3 month residency/play-making process.
  • Cornerstone works in cycles and series exploring a theme/question for several years and making many shows with multiple communities (ex. The Hunger Cycle, The Justice Cycle, The Watts Cycle, The Change Series (current))
  • Who’s your audience?
  • “Not hitting it right on the nose”—in identifying a community (ex. pot growers in California), might be useful or getting more to what’s true to get more specific (ex. families that are pot growers, veterans who are pot growers, etc.)…this is also about checking assumptions.
  • What if people/a community doesn’t want to talk?
  • How is a project useful to a collaborator/partner/co-sponsor organization? What’s in it for them?
  • Possible reasons to partner might include sharing resources (mailing list, space), resources/advice/insider knowledge
  • Is it possible to have too many partnerships? (This is really about capacity and managing/being realistic about expectations. It’s nice to be transparent along the way about what’s known and unknown.)
  • ‘Neutral’ vs. ‘not-neutral’ spaces (most spaces, if not all, aren’t neutral—or, a space may be neutral for one person or group but not another…ex. Queens College is not a neutral space)
  • Having expectation of partner organization is important! – why we want to do this, what we can bring to your work, what you could offer to this work
  • What’s our responsibility to partner organizations?
  • What happens after the show?
    • Cornerstone does a ‘cast reunion’ potluck 3 months after the show to watch a video of the show…I love this idea.
    • For a few shows they’ve also done an ‘audience reunion’ to kind of hand the audience’s interest in the show back to community partners—lots of activity, dialogue, opportunity to get people signed up…
    • Often it’s really individual relationships that continue and there’s been varying experiences/skills with how to ‘pass along’ those individual relationships to a relationship with the ensemble/work as a whole. Generally if folks from past projects come to a future show in another community it’s so so important that they’re recognized, that you make time to see and connect with them.
    • A few residency projects seeded theatre companies that exist in those communities now!
    • And also Cornerstone does these ‘bridge shows’ where at the end of a cycle they do a show that invites in participants from all the past shows of that cycle and tours to each of the communities they worked in over that cycle—so that’s another way that people get looped back in.

One story from this that I find totally lovely is from Cornerstone’s early rural residency travelling days—one community they worked in/with was Eastport, Maine and at that time, Cornerstone would leave $500 of box office money in that place to seed a theatre company’s forming. Well, that took off in Eastport and at that theatre company’s 10-year anniversary, they sent a $500 check back to Cornerstone with a note that said “Thanks for the loan.”

Also, an exercise that we did that I found really helpful was choosing one of the "communities I'd like to work with"--LGBTQ+ people in Queens/NYC--and then brainstorming more specific organizations/groups that one might consider working with or connecting with for a project--such as [former] ACT UP members and activists/artists from the AIDS epidemic movements, LGBTQ+ youth, LGBTQ+ POC, two-spirit folks, folks from ball culture, people who sought asylum because of LGBTQ status, sex workers, people who live in public housing, people who were at the Stonewall Riot in NYC, LGBTQ law enforcement, founders of Queens Pride, LGBTQ people in Rykers, etc. (This list is included in the photo gallery below.)

Also it feels important to say a bit about where I am--we're all living in the on-campus housing at Queens College, which is in the Flushing neighborhood. To the west and south seem like Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods--lots of yarmulkes and babies--and up Main/Kissena into 'downtown' Flushing is a mix of Korean and Chinese communities. I walked up there the other day and saw so many new foods that I'd never seen or heard of before. The 7 train, which is now legendary from these story circles though I haven't ridden it yet, runs up to that downtown Flushing area. Queens is the most diverse borough, in the most diverse city in the US--so that's really coming through strongly in peoples' stories and discussions about what they're proud about--this area between QC and the Flushing Main subway station is sometimes called "the world" because of the really dense concentration of different languages and cultures. For me, as someone who grew up in a predominantly white community and went to a predominantly white public school and then lived in predominantly white rural farming communities, I'm just really noticing and soaking up and trying to imagine what it would have been like to grow up here--the kind of education, curiosity, familiarity, and relationships that emerge from this place.

That’s all for now. Today we have a class on story circles; our first rehearsal is Saturday so I anticipate these next few days will be a lot of work for Cusi on the play and more classes for us. I’ll attach a few photos of worksheets and some photos of our process and feel free to get in touch if you have particular questions!

Another thought is that if you are a community-engaged artist or are interested in working more in these ways or if you just are interested in Cornerstone/being here and have some questions, I'd be happy to bring your questions to this crew of interested and experienced minds that have gathered! Feel free to be in touch.

Notes from the summer solstice

I'm sitting on the porch of the Prattsville Art Center looking out through a maple tree at a bright day in Prattsville, New York. Today is the last day, the departure day, of a residency organized by the School of Making Thinking which explored 'performing playwriting.' It's been a whirlwind and a delight to gather with these 12 other artists/makers/thinkers and delve into our work while living together at the Prattsville Art Center, an awesome DIY art space in this one-block-long town.

The residency began with a 24-hour play festival, which is a form that many of you might be familiar with as I've been organizing 24-hour play festivals in Chicago and southern OR and Portland for the past 10 years. (As a sidenote, I was introduced to that form by Cory Tamler as a high schooler in Pittsburgh, and Cory, who's now a badass playwright/theatre-maker/PhD student in NYC, was one of the facilitators for this residency.) From there, the structure was looser and people held workshops to get feedback on their work as well as morning devising sessions. Of course lots of learning comes from the in-between conversations in the kitchen, over coffee, at dinner, etc. At one dinner, we all spoke about our art practices as our mothers explaining what our children (us) were up to. Totally absurd delight to meet each other that way. 

I worked on a few projects that have been in various stages of development this year. One is a solo piece about inheritance, amnesia/memory, whiteness, and masculinity that I've developed through a class with Erika Batdorf at York this year. Since our school went on strike in March, the final assignment/performance of the piece that had been developed over the course of the year didn't happen (the adjunct/TA union is still on strike, making it the longest strike in York history.) Anyway, the piece is a series of short scenes in which I ask my grandmother, who lived with dementia for the last several years of her life, about whether our ancestors were slaveowners; explore my own relationship/complicitness in the rise of white supremacist violence by writing a letter to the mother of Elliott Rodgers, who gunned down 6 people in Santa Barbara last year; reckoning with my ancestors; and exploring what it might mean to refuse an inheritance. I got some good feedback about the piece and then worked with a few people to develop some movement scores that feel related to the concepts, or to exploring these concepts in visceral, literal/poetic ways--such as tracing an impulse in the body and attempting to remove it/cut it out, and "practicing forgetting"--how might you practice forgetting something? I got a lot of insight from this process and while I'm not clear yet how it's fitting into the solo piece, or if it's going more towards a workshop or another piece, it was really interesting and a new way of working for me. 

I'm looking forward to continuing to share and workshop this piece and also to incorporating some new materials and material I'm excited about (like white flour). Broadly I see this project as part of a bigger vision of finding ways to reckon with history and unjust systems we've inherited and to find new ways to think, feel, and create discursive space that might invite more people into the conversation or open up new ways of approaching the topics of racism, inheritance, some of what "whiteness" means, and white supremacy in our culture--feelings beyond and through guilt and paralysis, embracing and building complex narratives and complex personhood all around, and trying to move through my own fears about doing it wrong.

I'm excited to talk with people about these topics and themes and particularly to think about how making work like this could fit into the bigger picture of working for reparations and social justice. I'm also really interested in connecting with other white folks who are doing genealogy research and reckoning with violent histories and might want to talk about that or stay in touch through the slow unfolding of that long project. Please do get in touch if you're interested in that. I'm also still figuring out/exploring this connection between memory/amnesia/dementia and whiteness (how is forgetting a crucial mechanism in the coming-into-being of a white identity and how might that be persisting?) so if you have thoughts on that, or reading recommendations, etc., I'd love that. Also, while the piece isn't 'done,' it's currently about 20 minutes long and I'm interested in finding opportunities to share it as it is and to continue working on it.

The second thing I found myself excited about in the residency was a project I've been thinking about for the past year about precarity and anxiety. Last summer at Ponderosa, an arts-oriented land project in eastern Germany, I read an essay by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness called "Anxiety, affective struggle, and precarity consciousness-raising" and I was really excited by the invitation to use this model of feminist consciousness-raising groups to 'make theory'/to develop a greater understanding of why anxiety is so widespread and how it might be not just a personal/private issue but really a symptom/manifestation of structural/economic issues, and how beginning with personal experience, feelings, and stories might generate ideas and actions for how to face the unique challenges of this era. There's a lot more context/background of this idea in the article (here's the link) and a condensed version put out by We Are Plan C titled "We Are All Very Anxious."

So, after a year of thinking about, doubting, and re-validating the relevance of the idea, I finally held a precarity consciousness-raising circle with other resident artists where we told stories about anxiety and noticed themes and patterns in our stories and experience. It was a real highlight of my time here and I got real positive responses from participants. Inspired by that experience, I wrote a zine/score for hosting these circles. I'm hoping to do an 8-week series of circles in Toronto this fall and am interested in syncing with other people in other places who would like to host circles and share results. The idea would be that each group produces some kind of documentation/writing of the experience and the ideas that resulted--basically, that we're contributing to growing a pool of knowledge about how anxiety isn't just a personal struggle but is also a "public secret"--"an affective state...induced by the dominant force of power...that tends to be personalized and reinforced by a culture of silence or submersion" (Institute for Precarious Consciousness, 273). 

I've posted the first draft of this zine on my website (link here) and if you'd like to host a consciousness-raising group and/or are interested in staying in touch about that project, get in touch! There will be a mailing list for groups to share reflections/ideas/documentation of their process and you're welcome to join even if you're not hosting a group.

The residency has also been great and expansive in lots of other ways--a fake wedding, midnight swimming in the river, the delight of being in a small town that has an art space (something I'm still dreaming of for Cave Junction), living in community with my sweetheart, Sophie (who's also one of the facilitators/organizers for this residency...and an amazing person), singing romance novels, morning writing prompts, new friends, really good food, getting to meet people through their work and creative processes, and a mix of thundering rain and bright sunny days which is ongoingly surprising and delightful to me after becoming accustomed to the rainy season/fire season rhythm I've come to know in Oregon. 

Let's see, what else--well, I'm headed back to Toronto in the next few days to run a place-based virtual reality film-making workshop with Ian Garrett and Sophie. Then I'm headed to Queens to participate in the Cornerstone Theatre Summer Institute. Cornerstone is one of the oldest community-based theatre ensembles/organizations in the US and they in the 70s' started by doing residencies in rural communities all over the US in which they hosted story circles and made shows with combined casts of professional and non-professional, local and nonlocal artists. I've been really interested in their story circle methodology for many years, since reading about them in Jan Cohen Cruz's book "Local Acts," so I'm super excited to get a chance to dive into that work. We'll be living and working at Queens College and I'm anticipating it'll be a pretty intensive/immersive experience but also hoping to do some swimming, see friends in NYC, ride my bike, and enjoy summer. If you're interested in that project we'll be developing in Queens, you can check out the blog here.

I'll be back in Toronto in the fall for my last term of my Masters program at York (if the strike is done by then) and then--not sure. Connecting with rural communities and arts-based organizing work on this side of the continent? Pittsburgh? Toronto? One thing at a time. But I've been singing this song with Sophie--"I don't know, I don't know what lies behind or before me / the way is dark but I can see / I can see / Open the door, open the door / I go in." (link here)

Happy summer solstice!

i can feel spring coming...(upcoming)

Through March and April, I'll be continuing to co-host with Sophie Traub the Dinner Project, bi/weekly open potluck dinners to discuss where we're at in our thinking and learning and see how we can support each other. If you're in Toronto, get in touch and join us for dinner!

I've been in a solo performance class this year, working with Erika Batdorf and a whole cohort of incredible creators, and we'll be performing our emergent works in progress at York University at the end of March--date TBA.

In April, I'm hosting a workshop at the library near my house in Toronto where we'll write poems to/for specific places in the neighborhood and then make a book of hyper-local poetry! It's a project I've been wanting to do for a while. The workshop is called Listening to Places: The Neighborhood Poetry Project and will take place April 11 & 18 with a poetry walk/tour on April 28. More details here.

As well, I'm performing in Configurations of a Divine Bitch, a devised theatre piece using bouffon and mystère to explore menstruation, menarche, pregnancy and birth--we'll be performing in residency at Cleveland Public Theatre as part of Test Flight on April 5-7! Tickets are available now. Also, if you're in Toronto, many of our Friday night rehearsals are open Grotowski/LaCoq trainings if you're into that kind of thing. Get in touch for details.

Also in April I'll be hosting a walking workshop on disorientation as part of the Society for Cultural Anthropology digital conference/biennial meeting, which is focused on the theme of "Displacements" (April 19-21).

In May I'll be part of the walking research working group at the Canadian Association for Theatre Researchers conference in Kingston, Ontario (May 29-31).

work in progress - "i admire your bookshelf"

When I was a kid I set out to read all of the books at my local library, Lauri Ann West. At some point I realized (still on "A") that there were more books than I could ever read, which was a disappointing and exciting lesson about the size of the world.

I always look at peoples' bookshelves--in their offices, houses, the curated sections in bookstores and libraries. Someone I was dating once told me we'd have to organize a bookshelf together before we considered working on bigger [community] organizing projects together--I'm not sure if we ever did that, but books and how they lie together, what their spines reveal and conceal, is definitely exciting to me.


I've started taking photos of some of these small archives - check it out.

(If you read all of the books that someone else did, do you think you would become more like them?)

A working bibliography...

I'm working on writing up a 'major research proposal' as part of my MA research, which would be an 'imaginative ethnographic' approach to the work of several rural, land-based performance ensembles in the US and Canada. Particularly I'm curious about how their practices and process create 'imaginative lifeworlds' (Irving) and phenomenologically reflect proposals of intersubjective relationships between the body and nature/the world. I've been very inspired on this front by reading A Different Kind of Ethnography, a series of essays that came out this year edited by Dara Culhane and Denielle Elliott (University of Toronto Press, 2017).

As I work on this, thought I'd share my annotated bibliography that I'm developing as I do my research...and a much larger working bibliography, which is here. Just in case you're also working at the intersection of cultural geography, performance studies, and ecotheatre/ecodramaturgy and are interested...one of the kind of meta-questions I'm thinking a lot about is what the utility of writing papers is and how academic work translates in and out of academia.

Still experimenting with what this blog might become as a record of work in and outside of academia...

on academia

In October, as I was starting grad school, I put out a call via Facebook to my friends working inside and outside academia asking--to/for whom are you writing?

My undergrad mentor was Lauren Berlant, whose work (broadly around affect, public intimacy, and citizenship) I really respect. She responded, "So the question is how to make your own vernacular, your own ethics of exemplification and explanation. But the other thing is that we write so other people can find our way of being in knowledge and use it. Which other people? is it possible for you to think a longer term arc? Now I'm learning this register of x question, now I'm accessing other people's great minds, and their disappointing minds, and later I'll find ways to take this stuff and make a different communicative context for it."

I've been thinking a lot since about what it means to "make [one's] own vernacular"--and in there, the work of translating in and between different friends, fields, groups of people which make up a life. In my undergrad studies in linguistics I learned about this as 'codeswitching.'

More to say about this but that's good for now.

all the places i've been are here with me

Thought I would start this to record some of what I'm thinking about and working on, as I value process...I have been inspired recently by working with Michael Palumbo, a PhD student in the Theatre & Performance Studies program I'm in, who shares his work in some mysterious fantastic open-source way.

So....a blog seems like the least I could do.

Currently I am working on a website about Black Creek park (work in progress here), inspired by a walking ethnography assignment for a Performance Ethnography class....in brief, thinking creatively about how we represent our experience and the knowledge we gain from experience in ways that might be less dry than typical academic writing/talking work. The idea of 'scores for experiencing places' is also really informed for me by my work with RiverStars, by the "In Kinship" project which my old friend Cory Tamler is involved with in Maine, and the work of Leslie Castellano and many of my classmates at PSU's Art & Social Practice program.

I've also tackled making a solo performance work this term alongside other MFA and PhD and under Erika Batdorf's mentorship. I could say much more about this but my research process has focused on whiteness, memory/forgetting, and relationship to place.

I'm also planning a workshop on writing poems to places--an idea I've had for a while and continuing to think through what it is that leads us to love a place, how we form attachment to places, and how we share places with others.

I'm getting ready to be done with the term and also to dive into some winter dreamwork, an exploratory rural interviewing roadtrip with Sara Tamler, and starting to work through the Artist's Way book with a group of faraway dear friends.