I am an artist with a social practice. As an artist, I am drawn to theatre and the performing arts and in particular to the relations and interactions of audience members and artistic performance. In my social practice, I am informed and guided by the Insight approach to peacebuilding and conflict transformation. To integrate them, I am propelled by two questions. First, how can live, theatrical performance pieces help to transform the political and social habits of mind that precipitate conflict behavior in America? And second, how can the experience of a theatrical performance piece foster within us the reflexive self-presence we need to respond more mindfully and openly to people and to situations that threaten us? For the past ten years, I have sought answers to these questions by creating, producing, and performing original works of Insight theatre.
This journey has led me to undertake a series of theatrical experiments: Under the Veil (2009) Cadence: Home (2012) Uniform Justice (2014) There’s Something About America (2013 – 2016) Rocco, Chelsea, Adriana, Sean, Claudia, Gianna, Alex (2017). Given the opportunity in this essay to reflect on my progress in a serious way, I find I can identify three major steps in my work so far. In what follows, I will retrace the discoveries that led to these steps in the hope that this informal history of my insights and oversights may be useful to fellow travelers. I will begin by sketching two key influences that helped me to take my initial bearings.
One influence is academic; the other is theatrical. I studied the Insight approach to conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University, and I trained in Insight mediation with Cheryl Picard at Carleton University. In the process, I learned four key things. First, I learned to pay specific attention to the way people are using their minds when they engage in conflict behavior rather than to speculate on the more abstract causes of such behavior. Second, I learned that at the level of the person, ‘conflict behavior’ is the course of action we decide to carry out when we commit to protecting or defending ourselves from a threat we discern in our current circumstances. Third, I learned that it is difficult to alter or control our conflict behaviors once they get rolling because they are not spontaneously self-correcting. Once we commit to defending ourselves against a felt sense of threat we tend to feel certain that our circumstances warrant a protective response and righteous about our decision to commit to it. Finally, I learned that a good Insight mediator can help people transform their conflicts through the subtle art of helping them to open their minds to their own conflict behaviors: by asking targeted Insight questions that slow down their mutual rush to judgment, foster their curiosity about the decisions and actions of the other, and prompt reflexive awareness of their own certainty and righteousness.
I never wanted to become a mediator. I wanted to create art. Nevertheless, the example of Insight mediation helped guide my first formulation of the artistic journey I wanted to take: If we could bring to the stage the intrinsically dramatic character of conflict behavior – and if we could effectively engage audience members in that performance – couldn’t we potentially slow down their rush to judgment, foster their curiosity about others, and trigger their reflexive awareness of their own certainty and righteousness? I certainly thought so, but my question was: How? What kind of theatrical performance piece should this be, and how would we engage our audience?
Orienting my formulation and pursuit of these answers was my background in theatre. For prior to entering graduate school, I worked for eight years acting, writing, directing, and managing targeted efforts to harness the magic of theatre for social change: five years with the Star Theatre Program in New York City and then three years in my service placement with the Peace Corps in Vanuatu (2000-2003). But since there are a least four well-travelled approaches within the broader world of theatre for social change, it will help to clarify the course of my journey if I broadly sketch their basic focus and orientation. I do so because each of these approaches has influenced my own journey and by distinguishing them – and tracing my own discoveries in relation to them – I can clarify the distinct contribution I believe the Insight approach can make to the theatre for social change.
The most venerable tradition – traceable from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to Shaw’s Major Barbara to Guerilla Theatre to Larson’s Rent – is issue-based theatre for social change. These dramas are advocacy oriented and their objective is to influence the thoughts and attitudes (and thereby the actions) of audience members by immersing them in a compelling drama that communicates the artistic creator’s position on a pressing social issue: war, poverty, human dignity. In the second approach, artists and playwrights carry out documentary-style research to create what I call ‘exposure theatre’: performance pieces that expose audience members to the dramatic, typically baleful consequences of major political and economic policies. The one-woman, character portrayals of Sara Jones fit into this category, as do Aftermath, by Blank and Jenson, about the plight of Iraqi refugees after the American invasion in 2003; and Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, about the deleterious impact of factory closings on family structure and race relations in the U.S. A third approach is ‘theatre of the oppressed,’ especially as exemplified by the Forum Theatre of Augusto Boal, in which theatrical enactments and role plays enable audience members (spect-actors) to explore and practice ways of responding to the exercise of repressive power. Finally, there is ‘edutainment,’ which is the approach to theatre for social change I learned in my time with Star Theatre. Like the other approaches, edutainment is concerned with social issues and consequences, but the primary goal is to create entertaining interactive theatrical experiences that set the stage for audience members to have safe, informed, and personally illuminating conversations about key life decisions they are currently confronting. At Star our target audiences were high school and middle school youth and we created edutainment pieces about important matters of personal health and safety: HIV/AIDS exposure, sexual abuse, and gender-related bullying.
Upon finishing my graduate studies, I was keen to bring these two influences together – to bring he Insight approach to bear on my experience of creating theatre for social change. As indicated in my title, this has been a journey of discovery for me. So in what follows, I will focus less on the art I have created and more on what I have discovered about developing an Insight approach to the performing arts.
Step One: Under the Veil
In 2008, I created TÉA, which originally stood for Theatre, Engagement, and Action (www.teacreativeinc.com). In my first project, I partnered with Intersections International, a multi-faith peacebuilding organization in New York City to create a theatrical experience that would address the background state of fear, suspicion and hostility that had settled in as a cultural and political habit in the wake of 9/11. The result was Under the Veil: Being Muslim and non-Muslim in New York (post 9/11).
My aim was to create a performance piece that would spark curiosity among audience members – the curiosity needed to transform the conflict behavior straining the relations of non-Muslim Americans and their Muslim-American counterparts. But first I had to be curious myself. So with the help of my colleagues at Star Theatre, I gathered a company of talented, socially committed artists, trained them in the Insight approach, and formed my first TÉA Company. Together, we arranged and conducted over 50 personalized Insight conversations with Muslims and non-Muslims living in the greater New York area. We spoke with women in hijab and women who chose not to wear a headscarf. We spoke with the Imam for the New York Police Department, a Sikh, a Muslim police officer, a Latina Muslim whose parents converted to Islam when she was a kid, Muslim students attending college in New York, military veterans, non-profit leaders, and many more.
In mediation training I learned about asking Insight questions, a style of inquiry that I then adapted as an approach to the community-based research I called an ‘Insight conversation’. When we ask Insight questions, our goal is not simply to understand what a person is thinking about a particular situation, but also to discern how a person is using their mind as they understand and value that situation and make decisions in response to it. So to understand the impact of 9/11 on a broad range of New Yorkers – especially regarding the conflict behavior it fostered – we sought to deepen our understanding of the decisions these individuals were making and how they were using their minds to do so.
Thus, each Insight conversation opened with the following set of questions: What has been the principal impact of 9/11 for you and your family? What decisions do you find yourself making that you might not have made before? What are you hoping to achieve as a result of these decisions?
On the basis of these conversations we devised a two-act play incorporating music and spoken word. We created 14 independent but thematically linked dramatic scenes that brought to life 27 distinct characters, including Solace, our clairvoyant street poet and master of ceremonies. Settings ranged from subways, to bars, to airports, to park benches, to living rooms, to television studios, to employment offices. Each scene concretized the drama of cares and threats – curiosity and certainty – compassion and righteousness – that divided Muslim and non-Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11: What is behind the decision to wear a headscarf? What is it like to be detained at the airport? What might motivate a commitment to jihad? How does religiously based job discrimination play out? Each performance segued immediately into the Third Act – an Insight conversation with the audience about the characters and themes and issues raised by the play. I will discuss the Third Act more fully below.
As the Insight approach makes clear, the only way conflict behavior can truly be transformed is if the person engaged in it is able somehow to rethink their situation, reconsider their felt sense of threat, and reassess their decision to defend against it. As I indicated above, the certainty and righteousness that mark our conflict behaviors is the major obstacle to its reversal. Thus, in creating Under the Veil, my aim was to give audience members a compelling and entertaining opportunity to reexamine a felt sense of threat they might be experiencing in the wake of 9/11 and to reassess any righteousness and certainty that might be driving their decisions and actions.
In doing so, I aligned myself with the issue-based, advocacy oriented strand of theatre for social change that seeks to influence attitudes and perspectives on a pressing social issue, but as in the documentary style approach of exposure theatre, we devised the content for our piece – characters, themes, dramatic incidents – from our Insight conversations in the community. Finally, in the tradition of edutainment, we created a dramatic pastiche of political, cultural, and interpersonal relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in New York, post 9/11. The artistic result was a diverse, rich, nuanced, and entertaining performance piece that I hoped and anticipated would trigger insights and raise questions for audience members not readily available to them otherwise.
I also made the decision not to attempt to dramatically resolve this post 9/11 conflict situation on stage. I knew from my study of the Insight approach that if any conflict transformation were to happen, it would have to happen in the minds and hearts and actions of the audience members. To foster this possibility, I created the Third Act. Drawing on my training as an Insight mediator and my experience in facilitating post-production discussions with Star Theatre, I anticipated that I would be able to work with the openness and curiosity generated in the audience by the first two acts of the play. I anticipated that by posing targeted Insight questions to various audience members I would be able to shift the focus of their curiosity from the actions and responses of the characters in the play to a focus on their own actions and responses to Muslim/non-Muslim relations post 9/11. My hope was to redirect the spontaneous focus of their curiosity from, ‘what are these characters thinking, feeling, and doing in the wake of 9/11?” to ‘what is the significance of this for me?’ And ‘What could I do, or even commit to doing as a result?’ In particular, I hoped I might be able to heighten the reflexive awareness of the audience members regarding any certainty and righteousness they might be feeling. To my consternation, this didn’t work out as well as I had anticipated.
In hindsight, it seems that I committed two oversights. First, I underestimated the strength and influence of post-performance “talkbacks” on audiences in New York and American theatre more broadly. I was hoping to establish a salon-type post-performance atmosphere and to facilitate a focused, interactive conversation sparked by the audience’s engagement with the cares, threats, and decisions of the characters developed on the stage. What happened was that many of the people who spoke asked questions of the kind that I regularly hear at talkbacks: What inspired you to develop the play? How long did it take? How many of the actors are Muslim? What challenges did you and the actors face in devising the play? Most of these questions and comments were appreciative of course, but they demonstrated that most audience members had left the world engendered by their experience of the play and entered the very different world of the post-performance talkback. Once the lights came up, the dramatic space was redefined, and the actors appeared in a row seated on stage, it was difficult for most audience members to sustain their immediate connection to a theatrical experience that invited them to imagine new possibilities for Muslim/non-Muslim relations, post 9/11. I tried everything I could think of to sustain the ambience of the play in the transition to the Third Act, but it was clear that most audience members still found themselves invited into different roles in a different space for a seemingly different theatrical purpose, and they drew upon their experience of traditional talkbacks to engage.
Ultimately, I had to rethink what I was doing, and this brought home to me my second oversight. Whereas the characters and themes of the scenarios unfolding in Under the Veil addressed the Knowing and valuing of the audience members – What is this? Is it so? What is the significance of this? – a post-performance theatrical experience like the Third Act is best suited to exploring the realm of revised decision and action – What could I do differently? What should I do? Will I commit to this? I had introduced a performative disconnect into the audience members’ experience of the piece.
I attribute this second oversight to my familiarity with edutainment theatre and the practice of Insight mediation. When we devised dramatic scenarios for Star Theatre, we always focused on high-stakes moments of deciding and acting. Whether the performance piece addressed bullying, or sexual abuse, or exposure to HIV/AIDS, the dramatic questions were always, ‘Given these circumstances, what is the best thing to do?’ and ‘Will I commit to it?’ These scenarios brought to life on stage the dramas of decision and action experienced on a daily basis by the young people who comprised our audiences. Thus, when we made the shift from dramatic performance to facilitated dialog, it was not difficult for our young audience to sustain their immediate connection to the world engendered by the play, to move to a consideration of the dramas of their lives, and to contemplate new options for decision and action.
But Under the Veil was different. Despite similarities in theatrical style, I now recognize that we devised a play that addressed the presumptions of threat that audience members might be bringing to the question of Muslim/non-Muslim relations, not their patterns of deciding and acting in response to it. In other words, I had created a play that invited audience members to engage in a new world of valuing, but linked it to a post-performance experience more suited to reflection on deciding and acting. It proved too far a reach.
In making this assessment, I am neither discounting the artistry of Under the Veil nor to minimizing the creativity and commitment of the wonderful artists who worked with me to devise it. Under the Veil was uniformly well received. We had a nice performance run at La Mama Theatre in New York City, and over a two year period, we mounted the play at numerous universities and performance venues in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC. But my struggle to integrate the Third Act with the experience of the play revealed to me that my quest to create Insight theatre was far from complete, and that I had a decision to make.
Step Two: Cadence: Home
My experience with Under the Veil convinced me of three things: I should stop experimenting with post-performance formats; I should create a dramatic experience that would on its own heighten curiosity and reflexive awareness; I should target either the valuing or the deciding of my audience members, but not both. I had come to recognize that just as Insight practitioners employ different sets of questions to understand the constrained deciding and reactive valuing that give rise to conflict behavior, so the theatrical approach to each of these operations would be different too. Acts of deciding launch us into action, and the related Insight questions reveal the drama intrinsic to the performance: What am I hoping to achieve? Do I commit or let it go? Do I succeed or do I fail? Am I being constrained or am I free? Likewise, acts of valuing register our felt sense of our circumstances, and the related Insight questions reveal the drama intrinsic to this performance: What is the significance of this? What is at stake for me? Is this a threat or is it welcome? Am I being reactive or mindful?
So which theatrical path should I take? On the one hand, I could create a theatrical experience that would enable audience members to explore alternatives to the particular patterns of conflict behavior dividing and oppressing their community – gang violence or community-police relations, for instance. I could gather a company of artists, make sure they were trained in Insight and improvisational theatre, and create an Insight Improv experience that would interactively engage audience members in the clash of deciding and acting driving conflict behavior in their community. On the other hand, I could create a theatrical experience that would enable audience members to become more mindful and open in valuing individuals and groups currently viewed with suspicion, caricature, and hostility. I could gather a company of artists, carry out extensive Insight conversations with the range of individuals caught up in a conflict situation, and devise an Insight performance piece that would present an unflinching, true-to-life portrayal of the relationships, threats, and behaviors of the individuals caught up in the situation. I could do this while also infusing the characters and their encounters with others with the curiosity, emotional rigor, and reflexive awareness they (and the audience members) need to confront and transcend the misunderstanding, hostility, and fear that drives the way they treat each other.
Both paths offer interesting artistic challenges, and while I remain tantalized by the possibility of Insight Improv, the decision was not difficult for me. This professional fork in the road revealed to me that I feel called to create theatrical experiences that help to dissipate threat rather than transform concrete patterns of conflict behavior. It thus became clear to me that in addition to my academic and theatre backgrounds, a third influence was informing my quest to create Insight theatre: I am more drawn to building peace than I am to resolving conflicts. This influence guided my commitment to serve in the Peace Corps as well as my choice of Insight theatre projects.
As understood by Insight practitioners, “peacebuilding” is what we are doing when we work to create social, cultural, and interpersonal conditions that mitigate the emergence of threat and foster a more open, curious, and mindful approach to others. The opening line of the legislation that authorized the Peace Corps in 1961 makes the connection clear: “to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps.” Moreover, as I learned from Aristotle’s classic analysis of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, the ‘friendship factor’ in any given relationship – be it based on pleasure, bloodline, usefulness, or virtue – lies in the act of valuing the other person in their own terms and for their own sake. It seems to me that friendship in this sense should be far more widespread than it is, for who doesn’t welcome being understood on their own terms, for their own sake? As the Insight approach makes clear, we are spontaneously curious about our world and about each other, unless of course some combination of bias and threat subverts our desire to know and we become constrained by our certainty and righteousness. I determined I would try to build peace by creating a theatrical performance piece that released the spontaneous capacity of friendship within its audience members – in the case of Cadence: Home, between non-military civilians and American veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As before, I recruited a talented and diverse company of TÉA artists, and we engaged in Insight conversations with more than 40 veterans who had recently returned to New York City from Iraq and Afghanistan. We spoke with vets from all branches of the military, including female vets and gay vets. We also spoke with their mothers, girlfriends, friends, schoolmates and fiancées. We were aided immensely by our partnership with Intersections International, for through their veterans outreach program, Service Together, we were able to arrange Insight conversations with veterans we would not otherwise have been able to reach.
Each Insight conversation opened with the following set of questions: If you could have the conversation about your military service that you would like to have, who would you like to speak to? What would you like to speak about? What would you hope might be better as a result of this conversation? In the process, we learned that whether the vet was doing well or struggling in their transition to civilian life, they spoke of feeling misunderstood, patronized, and misrepresented in their encounters with friends, family members, and the general, non-military public – not always, of course, but far too often. They spoke to us about the disturbing and alienating gap that opened up for them between their felt sense of themselves as individuals, as military, as comrades in arms – and their felt sense of themselves when mirrored by these encounters.
Conflict behavior does not automatically follow upon a felt sense of threat. It requires a decision to defend oneself against that threat, and numerous vets we spoke to had pointedly and sincerely determined not to respond defensively to their experience of being caricatured and misunderstood. Donovan, a central character in the play, came to represent these vets. Others, of course, decided to defend: some were aggressive, some withdrew, and some sought simply to mask or medicate their pain. Austin, Ethan, and Lisette came to represent these vets. But to the degree they were defending themselves from an experience of threat to their sense of role and self, they found themselves pitted against a blithely oblivious non-military public – often including their friends and family members – who in their own incurious and limited ways quite earnestly proclaimed their willingness to “support the troops” and to “thank them for their service” if ever they got the chance.
Company members brought these and other insights back to the rehearsal room, where we developed a strategy for sharing the content of our Insight conversations and identifying characters and themes for the show. The company member who had carried out an Insight conversation would take on the role and story of that particular vet, and the rest of the company would in turn carry out a group insight conversation with that person. In this way, we deepened our own friendship with the vets and non-military civilians we encountered.
The creative result was Cadence: Home, a one-act play with an original score for piano, drums, guitar, and trumpet that opens and closes on a memorial service for the character, Scott Matthews, a U.S. Marine who died heroically in a roadside ambush while serving in Afghanistan. We described Cadence: Home in our publicity material as a play about the inner and outer journeys of eight men and women – four of them veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan – linked by their relations to each other, to their fallen friend, and by their struggles with the futures they fear, the ghosts that haunt them, and the decisions they make as they strive to reconnect with their lives, their loves, and their former selves.
We premiered on Veterans Day, November 20, 2012, as a site-specific performance piece in the sanctuary of Metro Baptist Church on West 40th Street in New York City. We filled the space with candles and lilies and memorial pictures of Scott Matthews. Ushers greeted audience members, thanking them for coming to Scott’s memorial, and distributing theatre programs printed to look like church service bulletins. Audience members took seats arranged in two rows on three sides of the playing space, making it possible to see the characters, the scenes, and each other up close through out the show. By immersing them in the narrative and action of the play, we sought to the focus their attention, direct the flow of their curiosity, and orient their relationships to the characters. Music came up, the lights went down, and Donovan – an officer in the U.S. Air Force – opened the performance by welcoming everyone to the memorial.
Donovan, Nate, Mattie, and Scotty were boyhood friends. Donovan and Scotty enlisted. Mattie lionizes Donovan’s role in the military and minimizes his own courage and commitment. Nate blames Donovan for Scotty’s death and refuses to have anything to do with the memorial. Donovan struggles with the transition from his role and responsibilities in the military to a new job in the radically different organizational culture of New York’s financial sector. Lisette is Mattie’s housemate and friend. She is a veteran trying to be a writer who self-medicates to deal with her experiences as a woman in a combat unit in Iraq. Austin survived the ambush that killed Scotty and blames himself for Scotty’s death. His shame and agony at being alive make it impossible for him to that talk to Angela, his fiancée, about any of it. At a certain point, she finds the situation insupportable. Ethan, also a veteran, can’t leave his apartment. He lost Naima, the love of his life, in the ambush that killed Scotty. She was an Afghani working as a translator for the U.S. military, and Scotty died trying to save her. In his delirium and grief, Ethan conjures a female form of Mahatma Gandhi that bears a striking resemblance to Naima.
Cadence: Home was a thoroughgoing attempt to create Insight theatre. We drew upon the Insight approach in researching, devising, and writing the piece. We brought a concentrated, reflexive awareness to our development of the characters, their motives, and their dialog. We created a theatrical experience of the valuing and deciding of veterans and non-military civilians negotiating the difficult, conflict-precipitating transitions in roles, relationships, and personal identities that mark the cadence home from war. We made it possible for audience members to understand these characters in their own terms and to value them for their own sakes.
I have no hard data on the impact of the play on audience members or how the friendship we generated bore fruit. I can report that the play was well received by the veterans and non-military civilians who attended. Word of mouth was good, and we played to standing room only houses at the end of the run. Validation of the model emerged a year later with a commission from the Mayor’s Innovation Team in Memphis, Tennessee, to develop an Insight theatre piece addressing the enmity and distortion in the relationships of community members and police officers in South Memphis. I served as the Artistic Director on the creation of Uniform Justice, which was produced by Intersections International, and written and directed by Chuk Obasi, my creative partner on Cadence: Home. Uniform Justice was performed in collaboration with Hattieloo Theatre in Memphis, at the New West Theatre in Cleveland, and the Fringe Theatre Festival in New York City and as a staged reading at various community venues in New York and New Jersey.
For me, however, the most formative assessment of the play came in a conversation with my friend, John Gould Rubin, following one of the final performances of Cadence: Home. John is a widely respected theatre director, and he said to me, “Vieve, this is a very good play – but I think your Insight methodology is much more interesting and revolutionary than the play you have produced. Why don’t you put Insight on stage?” “I’m trying, John,” I replied. “How about helping me to figure it out?” He said yes.
Step Three: Rocco, Chelsea, Adriana, Sean, Claudia, Gianna, Alex
In talking with John, I realized that I needed to focus more explicitly on the dramatic experience I was trying to create for my audience members. Beyond simply asking, ‘How can I use the Insight approach to facilitate a post performance conversation? (Under the Veil) or ‘How can I effectively bring the discoveries of our Insight conversations to the stage?’ (Cadence: Home) I now found myself wondering: How can I create an experience of Insight theatre that explicitly heightens the awareness of my audience members to the inner dramas of their own performances of building peace and engaging in conflict behavior? I found myself taking a step beyond Under the Veil and another step beyond Cadence: Home and wanting to develop Insight theatre in a new key. I will try to explain.
When we created Cadence: Home, we dramatized a dimension of veteran and civilian conflict behavior that is rarely noticed or explored: the conscious operations of valuing and deciding that drive and transform the behavior of the individuals involved. This in turn enabled audience members to deepen their insight into the interiority of the characters and their relationships: the agony of Austin’s self-estrangement in his struggle to reconnect with Angela, for instance; or the personal cost of Donovan’s decision to carry and absorb the anxiety, anger, and conflict behavior his return has triggered in Mattie and Nate. As a result, I am confident that a fair portion of our audience members expanded or even reoriented their valuing of veterans recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. By so doing, Cadence: Home fulfilled the basic aim of issue-based theatre for social change, but without slipping into partisan advocacy or the didactic tone that characterizes much of the genre.
I remain pleased with this result, but I now recognize that the theatrical experience we provided with Cadence: Home was really quite traditional. We mounted a play in a site-specific location that focused the attention of the audience members on the drama on the stage: the characters, their relationships, their interactions, the way they were using their minds. We allowed the play to do its work on the valuing of the audience members, but beyond that we devoted little explicit attention to the audience members’ inner experience of the play. My next step was to expand that focus. In addition to dramatically engaging audience members in the action on the stage, I wanted to create a live theatrical experience that would simultaneously heighten the awareness of audience members to the way they were using their own minds – a theatrical experience that would simultaneously put audience members in touch with their own inner dramas of valuing and deciding, of conflict behavior and peacemaking.
As it turns out, this is more easily said than done. Rocco, Chelsea, Adriana, Sean, Claudia, Gianna, Alex is the fruit of more than three years of community research, aesthetic development, and artistic creation. John and I gathered a diverse and talented TÉA Company of artists, which included a composer, choreographer, set designer, lighting designer, and videographer in addition to actors and an Insight specialist. As before, I trained the company in the Insight approach and the art of the Insight conversation. This time, however, our focus was less traditional. We were not interested in discovering the interiority of a particular conflict issue. We set ourselves the theatrical challenge of exploring the drama of the polarized thinking that lies at the root of all conflicted issues in America today. We wanted to capture the inner drama – the struggles, the tensions, the successes, the failures – of Americans using their minds to make decisions and foster personal relationships in an explicitly polarized cultural milieu. We were much less concerned with discovering what Americans think about polarization, or in dramatizing which polarized positions they might adopt or espouse than we were in discovering what Americans were doing with their minds when they were polarized.
Company members carried out Insight conversations with people from many walks of life and regions of the country. We opened each Insight conversation with a set of Insight questions that triggered the valuing of our conversation partners: When you think about the social and political polarization of people in America today, what strikes you the most? What do you feel certain about? What constraints do you feel? What is at stake for you – personally and practically? Individual responses varied, of course, and we engaged in conversations ranging in subject matter from gun control, to assisted suicide, to gay rights, to police violence, to domestic violence, to the tiny house phenomenon, to the legitimacy of using of a belly putter in a golf tournament. In each case, however, company members focused on discovering the significance of the incidents to the individual, the decisions they made, the gaps they were trying to address, the goals they were hoping to reach, how it worked out, and how they experienced themselves in the process.
Our second step involved developing the theatrical aesthetic we needed for the piece. We formulated our aesthetic challenge in the form of a question: How do we put the drama of polarized consciousness on stage in such a way that audience members experience themselves mirrored and revealed to themselves in the dramatic performance – moments of self-recognition that are dramatic and entertaining precisely because in these moments, audience members experience a momentary release from the contracted certainty and righteousness of their own polarized habits of mind.
Our discovery process was long, difficult, and delightful. Over the course of a year, John and I designed and led 12 Insight Design Labs. Working collaboratively with the Company, we experimented with various techniques, styles, technologies, and scenarios in our effort to dramatize the movement of polarized consciousness in a way that would spark self-recognition in the audience. Our driving question was: How does the drama without become the drama within? We discovered a number of theatrically effective ways to differentiate what characters were concerned about from the way they were using their minds to care about those things. We also discovered that while it was easy for our actors to dramatize a character taking a polarized stance on particular issue – gun control, medically assisted suicide, abortion – it was impossible for actors to remain in character and retain the certainty and righteousness of their performance once a second actor began to ask Insight questions about the way their character was using their mind: What are you worried will happen if … ? What are you thinking would be better if … ? What makes you so sure that … ? For as Insight mediators know well, once we become reflexively aware of the way we are using our minds, we tend spontaneously to correct our performance: to be curious when we become aware of being incurious, to be more critical when we catch ourselves in the rush to judgment, and to be more conscientious when we become aware of being rash.
Our third step involved pulling the dramatic pieces together and workshopping the play at a variety of venues. From the outset, we wrestled with the problem of identifying the dramatic carrier for our piece. How would we bring dramatic unity and coherence to a piece that was by design untraditional? We anticipated that the needed framework would emerge organically from our process of devising the play, but as we approached the workshopping phase, it was not clear to us what the requisite framework might be. We toyed with setting the piece within a radio talk show or framing it with a dramatized graphic of the Insight loop or anchoring the geography and relationships in the piece to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Our choreographer also developed an elaborate, quite beautiful iconography of Insight movement to bridge the inner and outer experience of a polarized mindset.
In the end, however, our breakthrough discovery came at a workshop performance at The Actor’s Studio in New York. Audience response revealed to us that we didn’t need an overarching narrative or explicit framing device for the piece. The drama without became the drama within through the audience members’ experience of a set of characters, all of them seeking to find themselves and to work out their relationships in the context of a political and social culture laced with polarizing positions and habits of mind. Entering into the drama of how these characters were using their minds provided a reflexive carrier – a mirror for how audience members were using their own minds.
This discovery led to the idiosyncratic title for the play, which names the seven main characters in the piece. Rocco – a popular shock jock confronted with accusations of his radio partner’s scandalous behavior – vies to stay focused on learning and speaking the truth in a political culture that expects a rush to judgment, and in a professional role that resists his efforts. Chelsea – a young professional engaged in a lively and promising online relationship with Dan – wrestles with the existential threat of deciding to put her offline self into play, in real space and real time. Claudia – a playwright – is forced to confront and to reevaluate the decision she made, thirteen years ago, to give her infant daughter up for adoption. By dramatically looping together the conscious struggles of the seven title characters of the piece, they became for the audience members reflexive mirrors of their own experience of polarization – not in their particular dilemmas or concrete situations – but in how they use their minds to deal with the polarizing situations they confront.
In my view, Rocco, Chelsea, Adriana, Sean, Claudia, Gianna, Alex is a fresh contribution to the venerable tradition of theatre of social change – a piece that is profoundly moral without being moralizing, political without being doctrinaire, and personal without being idiosyncratic or voyeuristic. For what is to be done about the runaway polarization of the world today? Physical coercion can’t turn it around. Neither can legislation, the moralizing efforts of partisan logic, or simple good will. It is art – especially theatrical performance grounded by the Insight approach – that can provide the creative vehicles we need to activate the powers of curiosity, self-reflection, compassion, and collective imagination required to break the spell of polarization on contemporary life.
My journey of discovery into Insight theatre leaves me convinced that the Insight approach is a viable method for clarifying and developing the emancipatory capacity of theatre for social change. My journey had taken me from (1) dramatizing the results of issue-based community research in order to set up a post-performance Insight conversation about being Muslim and non-Muslim in post 9/11, to (2) creating a full length, through-line play that brings to the stage the valuing and deciding of American veterans returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to (3) creating a multi-genre performance piece designed to reflectively immerse audience members in the conscious drama of their own inner struggles to connect with others and become their best selves in a political culture dominated by polarizing issues and habits of mind.