Archive | Putting it Together RSS feed for this section

What Are You Waiting For?

21 Aug

We set about the work again. We set about the work, again, of building and strengthening our communities and our cities. We set about the work of reclaiming our children and ourselves from lives lived passively, from lives lived watching others, from lives lived on the sidelines.

We set about the work, again, of re-imagining ourselves outside of imposed consumer identities. We imagine ourselves producers, creators, instruments of the gods. We imagine ourselves, extending beyond ourselves, moving toward “the other,” toward all others, claiming what is good and rich not only for our own good but for the common good. The greater good. We allow ourselves to actually see each other, the essential goodness of each other. We resist media-induced fear. We imagine we can build more together.

Who will join us in this work? Can you who bemoan and deride the fleeting brilliance of the so-called Occupy movement now take up its mantle in your own work? Or do you find it easier to point and laugh at what you perceive as “failure”?

Can you see that Occupy could only ever be a wake up call? Now it’s on us.

So here in Syracuse we’ve taken to singing. We’ve taken to playin’ instruments, loudly. We pitch gypsy tents and dress like punk-carnival freaks and say we travel through time fighting for freedom. At least once a week, and sometimes more, we act like fools and jump around like idiots.

What’s your Revival? What’s your work? Where do you shine your light? Don’t know yet?

Well I am the Dr. Reverend Ebenezer Abernathy and I run with The Sound of Freedom. And I invite you to come on and join up with us if you dare to. You’ll be amazed how much fun citizenship can be! I’d wager a bet that you’ll find yourself doing things that’ll amaze your friends and family! I assure you you’ll amaze even yourself! Your children and pets will begin to see you in an entirely new light!

Come on then! What’s holding you back now? It’s not a rhetorical question: I want to know what your excuse is. What does the voice say that keeps you from takin’ a part in this celebratory form of civic life?

Come on now, girls and boys. Come on now. Come for the fun and you might just stay for the freedom! Come for the celebration and I think we might keep you for the contemplation! Come stand up with us and we’ll make sure you get down with us!

If I haven’t said it before let me say it now — The DFR: It’s good for what ails ya! So be in touch. We’re waiting for you!


Archive: Listen to Some Music

19 Feb

(Note February 19, 2012:  I can’t remember why I pulled this off the site after I posted it back in August. But now I want to share this because, along with the post that includes the studio recording of “Change,” it really demonstrates the arc of the creative and collaborative process. The one thing we don’t capture until the studio session is the contribution of Carolina, who adds such a rich layer to the whole thing. We also lost Jeramie, who was the first hip-hop artist to join us. His phone went dead and I never heard from him after meeting twice. An undergraduate at SU, Kenny, wrote the final hip-hop lyrics, and performed in our first show. He then left and then, finally, Earle showed up, who is still with us now. He didn’t change Kenny’s lyrics, but his flow is the right one for the song.)

What I’ve not yet written about at all is the sheer joy I’ve been experiencing through the early, creative collaboration that’s been happening this summer –primarily between myself, Tim Eatman, and Danan Tsan. Tim is a colleague from Imagining America, where I work at Syracuse U. He grew up learning to play piano in the Baptist Church where he worshiped in Harlem. I told him about the DFR and discovered that he had been longing to bring music back into his life — one that is happily filled with family and a professional passion… but filled nonetheless!

Danan is a woman who my wife met through a Holistic Mom’s group in Syracuse. Like Tim and myself, Danan is a spouse and a parent of two kids. And like us, she is elbowing and pushing her way back toward her own artistic and expressive identity. Actually, Danan is much further along than Tim and me. She’s a working actress and singer, albeit part-time. She writes and sings ska and jazz, sings opera and musical theater, plays guitar… A very talented and generous person. When I first got the idea for the DFR,  back in February, I hadn’t yet met Danan but I also didn’t know any other performing artists in Syracuse. She was the very first person I wrote to about the project, and she immediately agreed to jump on board. And even though it would be almost 5 months until we finally met — with Tim — on my back porch, it has been a very fruitful and easy collaboration.

Since that first July 4 weekend meeting, Danan, Tim, and I have only met a total of four times, including yesterday (8/26/11). Our work together actually began with me alone, in my basement after the family was soundly asleep. I took out my Mac, opened Garage Band, and tried to sing what was in my head. (I don’t play an instrument.) The first song I recorded “Move A Little” was recorded over the course of a week and saw me attempting, like, a 6 or 7 part harmonic wall of sound. Anyway, I shyly shared my files with Danan and Tim through an online file sharing program, and the two of them tried to transform my croaking into something resembling music.

The song I’m sharing here, “Change,” is what we’ve been working on most intensely and what we plan to share at our organizational meetings next week. I originally had an idea to write a “Man in the Mirror” type pop-gospel song that would end the performance. Through it, I wanted to inspire the audience by challenging the kind of standard refrain, “change is gonna’ come,” or “if we just have faith, it will all be ok.” These are typically written as messages of hope. I wanted to challenge the idea that we need to keep waiting, that “something better’s just around the bend” and that if we just keep our “hope” and “faith,” it would all work out in the end. I wanted to say, “No. Look around! Look what’s happening. Look at our neighborhoods. Look at the gap between rich and poor. We can’t wait to effect the changes that need to happen in this society and in this world. Change is now! Change has to be now…”

So one day, when Aimee and the kids had left early for a planned weekend out of town, I rushed home from lunch, after having been up until one or two in the morning the night before trying to work on “Move.”  I was feeling rough, and my voice was kaputz, but I was leaving town and felt I needed to get Tim some music before I left. (There are three songs int he show. Danan agreed to work on the opening, “Price of Freedom.” A kind of ska thing. And Tim said he would take “Change.” (“Move,” the most complicated of the three, finally went to a Craigslist respondent, who agreed to arrange and notate it from listening to my Garage Band tracks. I’ve only connected with him by phone and email and hope to meet him one of these days…)

So what follows is, I suppose, a midstream progress report. From my Garage Band “demo,” to one of our early cracks at it, to yesterday’s rehearsal.

1. Here’s is the first stab by yours truly, my mortification mitigated only by the fact that I know that, including me, I think there are exactly… one person reading this:

Change Demo

So that sucked. Whatever. What I knew — and continue to be reminded — that I had to do with this project if was going to succeed was totally swallow my ego. The only thing that matters is the project and the message. If, to keep the process moving I have to throw my shiznit out there, half-baked, at the risk of looking foolish, so be it. If I have to share lyrics that I know aren’t there yet and are going to come off corny, so be it. Everything is in service to the project.

I also learned a long time ago that if in my collaborative work I am willing to throw it out there, if I am willing to laugh at myself and look silly, that it gives permission for others to throw it out there and to feel confident to explore and experiment. It’s the only way to move forward.

2. The next rehearsal was at Danan’s. In the true spirit of community-based workflow, all three of us had our kids with us (minus my infant) so it was a bit chaotic. Danan was out of commission for a good part of the morning dealing with one of her children, who was understandably overwhelmed with two new adults and three new kids in her space. At any rate, you can hear the great musicality Tim brings to the table:

Change 1 at Danans w Kids

3. The next rehearsal was at Tim’s. Besides being about the two maturest and poised young ladies I’ve ever met, Tim’s girls are teens so no need to “deal” as Danan and I often have to do when our kids are in the mix. On the other hand, Tim has a yelpy little ratdog, who likes to sing, too…  Also joining us here is Jeramie, a student at Onondaga Community College, and a Syracuse native introduced to me through one of his professors. Jeramie has experienced more than a fair share of obstacles and hard knocks in his young life, but he finds in music and art a salvation for himself. He joined us on August 5, and we gave him a crash course in what we were trying to accomplish with this democracy project. I was aware that this kind of performance art was probably completely foreign to him, but he gamely stuck through a lot of talk and a lot of me, Danan, and Tim figuring out the song structure. Finally, at about the 4:30 mark on this recording, I finally hear in what Tim’s playing the place where the hip-hop verse comes in. Though you won’t be able to make out the lyrics here, Jeramie just jumps up on cue and starts improvising something. It was really amazing, taking the whole energy in the room up a notch. When Danan and I heard Tim start to transitioning back to the chorus, it was like we were both just licking our chops waiting to nail that first “change” back in. And we did, to the point of overwhelming the poor iPad’s microphone (the only thing we’ve been using to record, which is why everything sounds so blown out). For me, that stretch from where Jeramie enters, through to the end of the song, continues to be the most exciting moment of the project to date. It was just that click click of everything coming together in such a beautiful way that just made me feel humbled to have so many great people coming aboard this thing… Here it is:

Change 2 at Tims w Dog

4. Three days later (August 8), Tim went to South Africa on business and we didn’t get together again to work on “Change” until yesterday, August 26. I spent the intervening weeks just dealing administratively, trying to figure out how to get people to sing with us and play with us so that we’d have performers. On the night of the 25th, I finally sat down, a bit terrified, realizing that I really had to write the actual lyrics for the song before seeing everyone. I had been procrastinating because while I knew what I wanted to say, I didn’t know how to say. But I stayed up all night — much like I’m doing right now — to get the job done. Nothing like a little sleep deprivation to get the old creative juices flowing.

Jeramie’s phone had been disconnected and I lost him for a few days. He called Friday afternoon but too late to rehearse. So while this version is structurally much closer to where  think we’re headed, for me it lacks the punch of the previous just because I think that hip-hop chorus is so powerful and, lyrically, is the flat-out refusal to accept the “change is gonna come” message. Rather, it says, we’re going out to go make that change (yes,  I know, Man in the Mirror).  The lyrics are below the link — although some of them are different from what you’ll hear. I realized in the rehearsal a few things I didn’t like so much. What I loved was finally getting Danan a space for a (too short) solo. The register is probably a tad low for her, but she has a sweet voice that sounds great here. And both she and Tim are great at ripping off terrific harmonies — something for which I always have tremendous awe and jealousy!

The next time we’ll sing it is in public for the people I hope will show up next week for the information/recruitment meetings…

Change 3 at Tims no rapper

Change Lyrics

August 26 2011

1:56 a.m.


Change. Change is gonna come.

It will soon be here. But it’s a long road.

Change. Chase away your fear.

Change is oh so near. Keep your hope and faith.

Verse 1


I seem to keep on rambling on but they took my self direction


Where will you go?


The messages they’re beamin’ at me feed my disaffection.




Frustration is killin’ me. I need to be free.


Then the people stop (full stop). And they cool my brow while they say….

Repeat Chorus

Verse 2


This feeling we’ve got to be free is in need of no correction 


No no no


And you reveal your truth in your strenuous objections

So you need to stop right there. You need to become aware.


I said you need to stop (full rest), ‘cause it’s time that we had our say…

(piano) Change–ooh–ooh-ooh

(Dance Interlude)


(Spoken Bridge?)

(Hip-Hop Soloists)

Chorus B


Change is gonna come…

Change is now!


Change will soon be here…

Change is here!


Chase away your fear…

Fear of fear!


Keep your hope and faith…

…We will keep hope and faith

For today

We will keep our hope and faith

Won’t delay….

We will keep our hope and faith

Cannot wait for….


Only waits for us

Though it may sound fatuous

Be the change you want


Flip the script you’ve honed

Trip to the unknown

See what you make


Dream the world you wish to see.

Be the citizens you seek.

You are free.



Keep your hope and faith!

Closing Stomp (Exit Procession):

I’m walking with my hope and faith

I’m moving with my hope and faith

Uplifting with my hope and faith

Make a difference with my hope and faith

Connecting with my hope and faith

Loving people with my hope and faith

Step up with your hope and faith

Participate with my hope and faith

Nurture with my hope and faith

Etc. etc. etc.


Central Tensions I

7 Feb

We're friendly. Really.

Theatricality for the People? What became clear after our first round of performances was that, aesthetically and conceptually, the DFR was a hot mess. There was simply no obvious coherence to the group and we hadn’t created any kind of a backstory that might have served as a reference point for the world we were purporting to inhabit. A primary quibble for me in a lot of community based theater (with quite a few notable exceptions) is the aesthetic flatness — and frankly, sameness — of it. It has been rare that I have been surprised or delighted on purely theatrical terms while watching work created “with, by, and for” non-professional performers. Many times, I feel I am seeing the same thing: stories of ‘real people’ woven together into a kind of collage, voices overlapping to suggest the complexity of a town, or an issue… or our times. Or original plays are performed. And that tends to be bad, too. They tend to be written and acted in a realistic style, which can be boring even when trained actors take the stage. When amateurs do it, it usually feels wooden and strained, especially if its meant to be performed more than one time. When actors perform a memorized script once, adrenaline and enthusiasm can help them pull it off. When they have to do it more than once, and the adrenaline has faded, well, it just looks like what it is: non-trained actors trying to reproduce something that happened before. It usually doesn’t work well.

On the other hand, when I have witnessed exciting theater that has been based on the stories and concerns of a community, it has usually been performed by a professional troupe of actors. And while the aesthetic value is high, the raw and real quality once gets from non-trained people is lost. It becomes another play — a good one, but a play nonetheless.

But something really wonderful happens when a group of trained performers work closely with people are don’t consider themselves performers (“community members” for lack of a better phrase), especially if realism is eschewed and theatricality is allowed free reign.

I want any work I do on the stage — traditional, political, popular, or what have you — to be theatrical, by which I mean bigger than life, different from life, more colorful and symbolic than life. I want this both for the sustenance of my own interest in the project, and also because I am certain that a very important kind of impact comes not through the overt content of the piece but by way of the aesthetic experience the piece provides. I can’t remember much of Kushner’s dialogue from when I saw “Angels in America” on Broadway 20 years ago. But I can remember that angel crashing through the ceiling, and with her all the gravity and hope she carried.

So after I wrote the backstory, DFR members, Mary-Jean Byrne-Maisto and Aimee Brill, started conceptualizing with me about “the look” and we started developing ideas for achieving it. In short, we want to shift Ebenezer from the working class, itinerant preacher to more of a medicine man/magician; and we want the rest of the cast to be somewhat eccentric time travelers from the 19th century. Without getting into the whole thought process, the look combines some of what you can see in the photo above (called “Steampunk,” a kind of parallel universe, sci-fi version of the Victorian era) with punk and goth and the various cultural influences with which people in the DFR identify. It has a coherence and it is also very theatrical. (photo above is a “Steampunk” look that serves as a starting template.)

But I am sensing (and hearing) a hesitancy about it from some in the group and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

“Fear” is probably not the right word but there’s is a “concern,” I think, about being too theatrical.  I hear comments about being “too much.” Standing out too much. Being seen too much. Being too different from those with whom we want to connect most and, in our difference, alienating. “We don’t want to turn people off by being so ‘out there’ that people don’t listen to what we have to say.”

I appreciate that perspective. In my daily life I’m someone who hates making people feel uncomfortable.  But based on my experience, I reject the idea that theater is going to alienate people by being different from them. To me, what people love about theater is the chance to be transported to places and to people who are different from them — and just plain different. And in being given a way to reflect on themselves, on their condition, and on the condition of their society by looking at creatures in situations that are at least superficially different from themselves. This is the whole premise of sci-fi.

Perhaps the DFR is just musical sci-fi — intended to model, theatrically, a different way of living and being. A way of living and being that takes meaningful human risks, a way that is exuberant, and joyful, and colorful. By being superficially different — magically different — theater can open a new kind of space in people, and invite them into a different realm of experience. It is through a different ordering of aesthetic components that art reorders perception of what is and also of what might be. This, I believe, is what’s going to close the gap between “us” and “them.” It is exactly by not being “like” the audience that we can create a safe space for them to participate differently with us than they otherwise might. If out of our concern we keep them too protected in the presumably safe cocoon of what is real, then we cannot hope to transport them into a fantastic vision of the ideal. If we allow the audience to remain too close to who they are, then they are kept — unconsciously — within themselves. Unmoved and untroubled. Kept within their normal patterns of thinking and relating. By being eccentric and free, colorful and exuberant, performance can invite people to themselves be eccentric and free, colorful and exuberant. By singing, we invite people to sing. By dancing, we invite them dance. I think our whole culture has become so depressed and conservative that we convince ourselves that experiences of joy and wild abandon and difference will be off-putting when, in fact, I believe they are what we all wish to have, what we hope life should provide.

And on a very basic, reality-of-theatre level, we have now dressed Ebenezer and his primary partner on stage (played by Danan) in very theatrical, over the top couture. So the question I have to ask as artistic director is: what would the people look like who would follow them?! My feeling is that they would all have some level of eccentricity and theatricality. And if they are immortal time travelers, then my guess is that they’ve seen enough not to give a damn anymore. Not to be afraid. Or they’ve been around long enough to know that the invitation to freedom isn’t made timidly. It is made boldly and by those who are already free.

Gallery 20 Jan

This was never meant to be “a show.” I never intended us to be rehearsing the way we’re rehearsing now — week after week of repetitive attempts to “get better.” This was supposed to be a church for freedom, one that regularly invited a politically hungry and typically fragmented community to celebrate and realign itself for the hard and ongoing work of democratic citizenship. It was to be a stompin’, shoutin’, arm wavin’, secular revival for freedom.

Instead, we’ve got a show. Ok, that’s fine. It’s a pleasant little show. It’s a show that has thus far been nicely received by our audiences in the way that nice theater audiences receive nicely packaged entertainment. What we don’t have is what we set out to build.

Church services aren’t overly rehearsed. Church services don’t need to reach out to the Post Standard to make sure they’ve got the right press coverage. Churches don’t delay the service if the choir hasn’t perfected the harmonies in the Hallelujah! Churches don’t keep their doors shut to sinners and seekers because they need more time to practice! No! churches preach! Churches teach! Churches do what they do! Churches don’t care about the flaws in the singing or in the music, because men and women of the cloth want their congregations walking out the doors reflecting on the sermon, feeling the good feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood, thinking about how they need to be living their lives.

And that’s what we — the DFR — say we want, too — people reflecting on the message; feeling community; aligning themselves politically. Coming together to revive their civic spirit! But we’re not focusing on that. We keep rehearsing the darn songs, again and again until they’re right. So if we’re focused on the superficialities, what can we expect of our audiences? How can we seek to catalyze action when we keep the doors shut? Right now, we’re just another commodity in the entertainment market — something we hope people will choose off the shelf from among a whole bunch of other commodities. But really, we’re not even that because we won’t even put ourselves out on the shelf! So we’re just a fantasy of a commodity, which is entirely more depressing and embarrassing than just going all in on being a commodity!

So I see now that all this has to change. We’re going to start doing the revival — regularly. At least once a month. Maybe we’ll get to once a week eventually. And we’re not going to be calling the Post Standard. And we’re not going to be printing programs. And we’re not making sure things are just so. We’re going to sing and we’re going to preach and we’re going to make what we do so alive and so connected to the life of Syracuse that the right community will start showing up. And whether it’s four people or forty people — and even if no one shows up at all — we are going to have our freedom revival, and it’s going to be real.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to be clear: I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I’m proud to be working with the great people who make the DFR. It’s amazing that an original, aesthetically unique “musical” was built in about 5 weeks by non-professional artists. It’s an incredible foundation, and it’s an incredible community of people who have contributed to that foundation. But now it needs to be built upon.

Since I dropped out of my second (and last) conservatory program in 1997, I have simply not known how to make the kind of theater that I want to be part of. I couldn’t see it.  So just starting this project was a big step in the direction of making theater that Peter Brook might call both “rough” and “holy.” But now that we’ve made that one important step, it has become clear that in some very central ways this project as it currently exists is only a temporarily enlivened version of what Brook would call a “deadly” theatre. We need to take the next step and put the political and social ideals of this project before all else. The other concerns — rehearsal time, perfection, full houses, memorized lines, etc. etc. etc.  — had been unconscious capitulations to the trappings of a polite, commercial, bourgeois theater that I thought I lost interest in 20 years ago. But apparently old habits die hard and until we made it I couldn’t see that we were just making, more or less, the same old thing — albeit with a little twist. It’s a vehicle that looks pretty and it’s fun to drive, but it has little under the hood that’s going to get us where we want to go.

As the new song says, The Time is Now.


After Stage Fright: The Revival

29 Sep

“Act! The command rings out with passion and urgency in a tumultuous world. At home we watch while the world screams. We sit and soak while the earth aches… Action is possible. But how? The news warns against it. The Right claims no more is necessary. The Left is skeptical. The drama continues. What keeps us from becoming part of it?

“Stage fright.”

Randy Martin, Performance as Political Act (Bergin & Garvey, 1990).

A lot of people have stage fright. Intelligent, creative people. Hardworking, responsible people. Good people. Thoughtful parents. Kind spouses. Generous. People who feel they have something more to contribute… but who don’t.

The depths of winter 2011 brought me clarity — as depths tend to do. I wasn’t happy with my contribution. I wasn’t happy walking around with all of my ideas, all of the ways I would respond or act… if only I was in a position to do so. And then I realized that I actually was in a position to do so.  By virtue of my job, and of my spouse’s support, of my education and my training — I was in a place where I could contribute. Or more accurately, perhaps, I was in a position in which I could no longer tell myself I couldn’t.

I don’t know what animates it in me — my upbringing, or my Franciscan education, or my hardwiring, or some other thing — but I feel this tremendous responsibility. I know that I literally am “responsible” —  able to respond.  With so much to respond to in this world, I found myself confronted yet again with Tolstoy’s question: “In a world marked by tension between individual and community, how then shall we live?” 

I realize how trite this sounds, but I care deeply about freedom. I care about the idea that democracy is intended to allow people to have a measure of power and control over their own lives. And I believe that democracy is driven by those who participate — a practice which much of the media-driven cultural pedagogy encourages us not to do.

The form of my participation — my contribution, for now — is The DFR of CNY.

The D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival of Greater Central New York.

I’m scared. Maybe more scared than I was when I decided last winter/spring to actually put flesh on the bones of this somewhat outsized vision. Everything about this project has been slightly insane. I didn’t initially try to get people together over the summer because I was told that no one was around in the summer. Then, our first organizational meeting on September 1 (which turned out to be really too late given the fact that the performance was a mere 5 weeks later) revealed that those who turned out couldn’t agree on a night to rehearse. So half the group now meets on Tuesdays, the other half on Wednesdays and never the twain have met…. It’s the wrong Jewish holiday to invoke it, but let me just say, “it would have been enough” if I was only writing and re-writing the music and lyrics; it would have been enough if I was only writing the script; enough if I only had to coordinate schedules of the musicians to record vocal parts for each vocal section and then editing on GarageBand and then uploading and posting on this blog and Dropbox; enough if I only had to email the musicians a couple of times a week to remind them of rehearsal times; enough if I only had to deal with catering and chair rentals and lighting and sound equipment and conceptualizing the costumes; enough if I only had to think about getting people to the performance; of publicizing (in English and Spanish), of thinking about how to attract funders, of keeping my Facebook page fresh(ish), of continuing to try to get more musicians on board.

And somehow, the good and positive energy keeps flowing around the project. The people who keep showing up are really incredible and incredibly generous individuals. And talented. And when the fear manages to rise in me about “is this going to be everything I imagined? Am I going to be embarrassed? Will people show up? Do I want them to show up?” When these thoughts come up, I remind myself that this whole idea grew naturally and almost spontaneously out of something very simple: my desire to respond to, and to truly take responsibility for, the crisis of democracy I was seeing in the United States. I took that responsibility because I was not participating except as an sideline critic and underground worrier.

Maybe I’ll get to blog here again before next Sunday. Probably not. But whether we have a packed house or a small group of friends in attendance doesn’t matter now. And I can see now that what we’ll perform is a scaled back version of what I hoped it would be… and continue hoping it someday will be. I know it’s not what it would have been had we all been working on it since June when I first brought people together around the idea in my backyard. But even that doesn’t matter now.

The DFR is something very interesting and something special. It is definitely unique. Everyone in the DFR feels the same responsibility to speak up, to act out, to celebrate, and to bring our fellow citizens together, in word and deed, to restore and reanimate the promise of democracy and freedom in this country.

I do believe that those who show up next Sunday, October 9th, will want to join this movement. I believe the DFR will grow. I believe that we will continue to add talent and energy to talent and energy and that we will find ways to fuse, through our music and our message, the many voices, the many hopes, and the many aspirations of the good people of Syracuse and Greater Central New York. I believe, finally, that nothing bad can come from such just and good intentions.

I believe this is just the start.


Redistributing the Coordinates of the Sensible

18 Aug

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière talks about politics in terms of the “distribution of the sensible” by which he means the ways that the things we perceive with our senses as common to all – specifically time and space and activities – are distributed. Ranciere points out that any discussion of politics has to be contextualized within the reality of people’s lives in which the distribution of  time and space and activity makes meaningful political participation possible, or unlikely, or impossible.

I’m hardly stating anything new or radical when I point out that the great concentration of wealth and power, the obsessive drive toward privatization of all things that were once considered (or at least said to be considered) common to all of us living in a democratic society, as well as the porousness between the government and corporate sectors, are profound threats to the great democratic experiment with which this nation has been engaged for almost 250 years.  Nationally, the departure of jobs that once provided living wages is accompanied by an instrumental public education system that trains young people for the low-wage service sector. Or, if I can mention a public arena with which I’m familiar through my own art and research: young people are being “taught” to ready themselves for incarceration — the prison-industrial complex being one of the few publicly financed growth industries left. The once common exposure to art, to culture, to critical thinking, and to the latest scientific and technological innovation – the kind of exposure, I would argue, that bring wonder and delight into human lives –  are distributed in direct proportion to what one can pay for them. Moreover, working people are reduced to survival living, many working second jobs in order to pay for the childcare they hire while they’re working at their first. The technologies that were supposed to liberate have become fetters, chaining us 24/7 to the hamster wheel of progress.

I spoke this week to faculty and staff at Alcorn State University, situated against a rural backdrop between Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi. One of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the nation, a land-grant institution, and a rural public school trying to survive in an increasingly bleak higher ed lanscape. As I drove for almost 2 hours along quiet county roads from the Jackson airport to the Alcorn campus, there were long stretches when I imagined myself in Central America again: the thick, green, almost tropical forests; the miles of rusted, unadorned trailers that people called home; the horses grazing by the side of the road; the groups of men hanging about in store fronts; the women walking along sides of roads, going somewhere, slowly. I thought about the distribution of the sensible and wondered how the coordinates of time, space, and activity in the lives of those individuals facilitated, or impeded, their ability to participate in culture, in politics, or even in some leisure time given over to rest and reflection.

And I thought about Syracuse, New York. Who among us living here has the time and space to take part in the conversations that affect our lives? Whose activities facilitate a sense of voice and agency in society? And whose time, space, and activity keep them silent, either by force or distraction, and/or within a mindset that echoes the refrain: it is what it is?

Who has the right to be heard and seen?

Of course, my stance is that “all men [sic] are created equal” as regards being heard and seen, although we know too well that in American politics there is often a wide chasm between rhetoric and reality.  In practice, some have a greater right to give voice on behalf of their desires, and more social capital to leverage in service of attaining them.


Speaking of redistributing time, space, and activity…

At least in my life, the larger activity of cultural and artistic intervention that I’m speaking about — the intervention intended to help pry open democratic and egalitarian spaces — requires an enormous shifting of time and space. It requires me to stay up late, to work late, to be really tired. And cranky. And nervous a lot of the day. It requires me to think about a million logistics. The tent, a costume, microphones, choir recruiting, a script, a song, choreography, a turntable, city permits, food vendors, recording booths, fliers, posters, the press and publicity… I have to reach out to a million people — to explain, inspire, sell them on the idea. To coordinate and organize them. To schedule them and keep them adhering to the timeline toward performance. And to do it all with patience and gratitude and joy because it’s truly the only payment I can offer. And to do it while still putting in 40 hours  at the office. To do it all while continuing to be emotionally and mentally responsible to my wife and boys…

I speak of “prying” open spaces within the social realm through art, because it really feels like that. Prying, hacking, wrestling, pushing, birthing open this space. The modern world is not set up for artists. It is not set up for intervention. Dominant paradigms and status quos don’t encourage change. Nor does nature. “A body at rest…” Birth is not easy. It would be much easier not to give birth. Still I am trying to birth this big beautiful thing that’s inside me. And (because the metaphor is apt and because I feel I’ve got the street cred of birth experience to extend it) I realize with profound gratitude that a core of good people are supporting me, and encouraging me, and hooking me up with other good people who are going to make the whole thing easier, maybe even joyful. And I realize that when it happens, there will be many more good people there to support me and to support the creation. Many people wanting to know how they can help. But first there’s labor. And the labors I’ve been witness to in my life — my wife’s —  are long. And hard. And sometimes frightening. And — and I apologize; I just can’t help myself now — there’s also a little something in birth called the “ring of fire.”  And there’s no birthing a baby before it — and you — pass through that ring of fire. But the ring of fire comes later…

I’m in labor now. And as many times as I wonder how I got myself into this mess, as many times as I wish my birth support team could take more of my load, as much as I wish I could quit because some days are too hard and the prospect of something going very wrong terrifies the hell out of me…. I can’t. There’s a baby being born and it has to come out. And besides I really want to see what it’s going to look like!

When artist-activists undertake to be uncomfortable, to put themselves in painful, difficult places, to go into the unknown, and when they share their insights and their efforts with others, it is a gift and an invitation. It is an invitation for others. It presents a model of the world as it might be and at the same time presents a vision of that very model in real time….. So what else to do?

Push, Push, PUSH…..


The Art of Organizing (Part I)

29 Jul

Come for the Fun! Stay for the Freedom!

The D.R.E.A.(M.)Freedom Revival is both performance art and political organizing strategy. In my first post I promised to discuss the “best part” of the DFR, which to me is not the performance but rather the “after-party for democracy.” I now realize that, lo these many weeks later, I never got around to that discussion. So here goes:

There are a lot of moving parts to the DFR, especially now as we approach (gulp!) October 9th and the first performance at La Casita. But for simplicity’s sake, we can just divide into two parts: the performance and the organizing.

For those who don’t know my work or my field, I’m an “applied theatre” artist.   Applied theatre is a pretty terrible term, I think, and really hard to describe accurately. But basically it’s non-commercially based theatre that addresses social & political issues. It is also participatory, either in that the theatrical piece itself is created with people who have a stake in the issue at hand, and/or in that it invites the audience to actively participate in order to better understand the issue, come up with solutions, etc.*

Part of the promise — and problem — of applied theater, or any performance work that aspires to “make a difference” in social and political arenas, is very much the same problem of political action: sustainability. How do we harness our own and others’ energy around particular issues when so much activity is focused around one-off events? In my own work, months of preparation go into preparing for a performance. The process is invigorating. Community is nurtured, affirmed, and in some instances created. The performance arrives and the audience is invited to participate, to share, and to brainstorm solutions to collective concerns. There is a sense of empowerment and, in the best instances, even post-performance dialogue where people discuss concrete next steps to advance the conversation and plan actions.

On the other hand, there’s the performance of participatory politics. Planners organize a rally, let’s say, at the statehouse, or in the auditorium of a local high school. Logistics are pinned down, speakers are booked, fliers are made, Facebook pages created, list-serves put to work. People come together to make signs and rehearse chants. The day arrives, people come together, community, empowerment, blah blah blah.

And then what happens, inevitably, is that most people go home. Yes, some remain involved, maybe a few more than the ones who organized the event. Many will back for the next rally. But most of us go home. We had a good experience. We “participated.” And now we have to get back to the day-to-day responsibilities that keep our lives afloat. Or we become distracted by all the things — the phones, the internet, Facebook, tweets, t.v., our hobbies, and on and on and on — that serve in effect to keep us very much detached from participation in the public realm.

In my own field, there are a number of people and groups who have seen the necessity of connecting robust organizing strategies to their theatrical projects and initiatives as they’ve worked to move toward action — meaning policy action, the kind of action that substantively changes people’s lives. Historically, the work of El Teatro Campesino is notable for the way it served as an educational and political organizing medium for the human rights and labor struggles of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union in the late 1960s. Most recently I’ve been impressed with the Thousand Kites project, which is utilizing theater and other media to educate and organize around the US prison-industrial complex.

But my frustration with the field is the same frustration I have with what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call The Left: everyone is working on their issue. We have a lot of really talented, really intelligent, really passionate people — who are all working on one, maybe two issues. They’re all trying to generate interest and energy, trying to make their issue the most compelling, seeing their issue(s) as the most important. (I can think of at least three issues whose champions call them, ponderously, “the human rights issue of our time.”) Most likely, everyone is vying for the attention of the same pool of passionate, concerned citizens. And to me it often feels like the ocean: wave after discrete wave of interest and energy, each one peaking and crashing against the hard shore of the reality that in the individualized, hyper-information age we live in, interest and energy exist only until the next wave comes along.

I like performance. I enjoy art and culture. But I care about politics. I care — maybe more than anything beyond my family — about the ways people are included or excluded from having a meaningful voice in the decisions and policies that affect their everyday existences. I care about the suffering and the struggles of others. I care about the democratic experiment and I believe that politics are driven by those who participate in it.

I never want to reduce art or performance to being a tool or an instrument — a mean to another end. I know from experience what gifts art offers just in existing for “its own sake.” And while I know how completely the DFR will exist as an aesthetic celebration unto itself, my intention is that it become a hub around which all of the issues — meaning all of the people who care about the various issues — can connect and aggregate their power. I’m not trying to be a doomsdayer when I say that I sincerely believe that we’re at a moment in history when it’s too late to be working on single issues. It’s too late to atomize our energies like people plugging fingers in the bursting dike. Power and resources are rapidly being concentrated away from ordinary people and toward those whose interests seem to be primarily about… well, concentrating power and resources.

Listen, all the single issues are important.  I know that. I recognize that each one of them — jobs and labor, immigration, the environment (!), incarceration, housing, equal rights, etc., etc., etc. — needs to be worked on, by focused and passionate groups of people who know their particular issues inside and out. But we also need to be working together, making connections, figuring out a cohesive and cooperative strategy. We need to share intellectual, creative, and human resources. We need to use our intellectual and creative advantages for the common good.

The DFR is an organizing strategy. Week after week, the DFR aims to bring people together to discuss the big topic — democratic renewal — as well as the individual issues that the community identifies as needing to be addressed. Week after week we will congregate to reestablish the commons, to re-form a sense of solidarity, and to find in one another the inspiration to do the hard work of participatory democracy.

But the point of the performance is to invite people, quite literally, to stay. The point is to be a live wire that can power and sustain the energy needed to get things done, locally, in Syracuse and Central New York. The point is to use performance to identify, connect, & build the community who will actually enjoy coming together, and staying together. Staying for the after-party for democracy, where, hopefully over a meal, or drinks, or snacks (or something), we will roll up our sleeves and get to work.

I envision many Syracuse groups, and leaders — from the Syracuse Peace Council, The Workers’ Center of CNY, 40 Below, local colleges and universities, the Solidarity Committee of CNY, Healthcare NOW, The Alchemical Nursery, churches, synagogues, mosques, interfaith groups, and others — participating in and using the DFR as a place to meet others, to recruit members and volunteers, to announce events and activities. And of course to be reinvigorated and re-energized. I can imagine that sometimes there will be large, group discussions and activities at the after-party. I can also imagine there being times when theses groups use separate rooms or spaces for their own meetings. I can imagine both happening simultaneously.

Let’s let the performance do the work for us. Let’s not ignore, but rather capitalize on, the fact that entertainment, media, and spectacle drive much of what many, many people talk about, and care about. Let’s acknowledge that people want to participate but are typically offered scant avenues to do so: politically, we are reduced to voters and protesters; creatively, we are plugged in and alone. Let’s create something that will attract high school and college students and all people not drawn to traditional politics — not out of a sense of duty or even for the politics itself, but because what we’re doing is fun and funny and ironic and smart and because we have a kick-ass choir and house band!

Let’s make the DFR do what performance does: distill to the essence. Let’s use the DFR to demonstrate the essence of democracy — the energy, the life, the expansive celebratory humanity of democracy.  Then with that energy in us, let’s take a deep breath and figure out how to effect the changes that we want to see in our neighborhoods and in our city. Let’s develop powerful, citizen-driven alliances and networks that attains leverage in the arena of local politics. Let’s bring everyone to the party. Let’s acknowledge difference, recognize sameness, and figure out how to live together in a world where what’s worked isn’t working anymore, and won’t work again.

Let’s get people to come for the fun. My guess is that they’ll stay for the freedom.

*Just in case my first definition wasn’t clunky or annoying enough, here’s a fuller description of applied theatre: “theatrical practices (performance-based) and/or dramatic practices (not performance-based but using the conventions of dramatic art) that exist outside of the traditional commercial theater, and that serve as the organizing medium through which a group of people (usually non-actors) come together as active and engaged participants (whether as performers or audience members) to explore, express, perform, discuss, or in some way engage with an issue or topic of shared concern. Applied theater is most commonly associated with theatrical and dramatic practices that seek to expand democratic participation and/or benefit traditionally marginalized, underserved, or under-represented individuals or groups” (from A Ritual for Return — aka my dissertation).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,167 other followers