Out of the Weeds with TÉA and Insight Theatre

You know when you are really engaged in a project that is important to you – be it fly fishing, or a theatre project—and you are totally in the weeds, totally focused on the finer points and problems of your project? And then you meet up with someone who asks, “Hey, how’s the fishing going?” and you respond by launching into a detailed report from the weeds? You tell them about the new fly you have learned to tie, and the way you will have to cast it, and the trout stream you plan to try it out on as soon as the snow melts … and with a bemused expression they ask, if they ask you anything at all, “But what is fly fishing?” And its tough to slow down and pull back far enough to really meet that question in its own terms …


Well, I am in the weeds for TÉA, and I have been asked by more than one person to come out of the weeds long enough to answer their basic question about the project that engages me so intensely: “What is TÉA?” “What is Insight theatre?” I am very happy to do so, but I have found that to answer to these questions, I need to address some even more basic ones.


First, “What problems am I trying to tackle?” To be honest, what concerns me is the broader problem of conflict, and in particular, the way conflict divides us from each other and cripples our relationships, our communities, and our nation. Of course, conflicts are concrete, not abstract, and so over the last five years I have been concerned with four concrete areas of conflict in particular: the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in New York City post-9/11, the personal and interpersonal conflicts that confront American veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflicts at the root of retaliatory violence and police-community relations in Memphis, TN, and the culture of conflict and polarization that now divides Americans from each other.


Second, “What is the solution to these problems?” Obviously, I think TÉA can play an important part in the solution to these conflicts, and I am dedicated to making this happen. Every TÉA project creates a theatrical performance piece that is designed to make a positive difference in the way audience members think about a particular conflict, and in the way they regard and respond to the people caught up in those conflicts (including themselves). To date, TÉA has created three theatrical performance pieces and a fourth on the way: Under the Veil (2010), Cadence: Home (2012), Uniform Justice (2014), and The America Project (projected for 2015).


Third, “What approach – what problem-solving framework – does TÉA use to create these performance pieces?” I call this approach Insight Theatre, and I do so because I draw upon the Insight approach to conflict analysis and resolution to develop the aesthetics for the TÉA performance pieces. I confess that as Artistic Director of TÉA, most of my time and energy is devoted to understanding, developing, and refining the aesthetic that informs Insight theatre. This is where I tend to get lost in the weeds. So as I said earlier, when people ask me about TÉA, I am likely to launch into a technical discussion of the Insight approach to conflict analysis, or my latest reflections about how to put the Insight process on stage. 


Here I sketch in broad strokes the three basic components of what I take to be the truly revolutionary premise of the TÉA approach to conflict transformation.


  • We use our minds to enter into conflict with each other. By this I mean that we use our minds to understand our circumstances, to assess what is at stake for us in those circumstances, and when those circumstances feel threatening in some way, we use our minds to evaluate and decide how to respond.

  • We tend not to use our minds in optimal ways when we engage in conflict with each other. By this I mean that we are typically so focused on what feels threatening to us, so certain about the need for action to minimize that threat, and so convinced about the righteousness of our responses, that we don’t pay careful attention to the way we are using our minds to make these decisions. Experiences of threat tend to suppress our curiosity – our ability to ask questions – with the result that we are likely to miss some insights that could change how we understand the situation, assess the threat, and how we decide to act. The irony here – and this is part of what makes conflict intrinsically dramatic – is that we tend to do some pretty hasty and rash things at precisely those times we think the stakes are highest for us.

  • Insight theatre can release the curiosity that conflict behavior tends to suppress. By this I mean that when audience members experience the drama of a conflict on stage – and in particular when the performance piece is crafted in ways that enable the audience to pay explicit attention to the way the characters are using their minds when they engage in conflict behavior – missing insights inevitably follow and audiences rethink their views of the conflict and the people caught up in them.


“What is TÉA?”  “What is Insight theatre?” I hope the answers to these questions are clearer now, and that these answers have raised further questions that make you want to come more deeply with me into the weeds.