When I saw call for proposals for Dramatic Change, the pre-conference at AATE in Lexington, KY (Aug. 8, 2012), it was with great enthusiasm that I sent a quick e-mail to my collaborators, Gabriella Cavallero, Jason Bisping and Kimber Kirwin: “We need to do this!” An opportunity to learn what other playwrights, producers and ensembles are doing to address intimidation and violence among adolescents and young adults in school and social settings, using theatre. A chance to share our own work (in development since early 2011) and to have valuable conversations with fellow artist-practitioners. And, importantly, a deadline for being able to articulate our project clearly, to talk about its purposes, methods and unconventional structure, and its challenges. G, J and K responded that yes, we ought to participate, and we were delighted, a few weeks later, to have our proposal accepted.
Face emerged from a conversation between Gabriella (Artistic Director of Denver’s Modern Muse Theatre) and the mother of a teenager at a private, Denver high school, who reported that teen suicide was an issue at their institution. Modern Muse’s outreach arm, Muse on the Move, wanted to do theatre in the community that addressed real concerns and needs, and for a time, the topic was of interest to us. We didn’t want to create a moralistic piece, a finger-wagging or simplistic depiction of teens’ complicated psychologies, relationships and often difficult experiences, and in the time it took us to reflect on what we did want to do, our focus shifted– not, really, to another “issue” so much as to the quality and character of the kinds of relationships and systemic influences that can and do produce social problems.
I teach performance courses at a Jesuit institution, where my students are often excited to learn about face, status, stigma, and social drama (all practical concepts proposed by social scientists and theatre artists from Erving Goffman and Victor Turner to Keith Johnstone) which undergraduates tend to easily comprehend and to find useful. Through theatre and dialogue, Modern Muse hoped to introduce these simple, helpful frames by foregrounding them in the lives of a set of engaging characters whose lives and fates intertwine; by engaging our audiences in interesting characters confronting realistic choices and dilemmas… and by then talking about it together. Identity, relationships and social systems, we are convinced, is a different, but legitimate, way to “get at” bullying, self-harming behaviors, identity and the public aspects of sexual orientation, marginalization, depression and suicide, without stating the obvious, without preaching and (ideally, of course) without producing widespread (there will always be that one kid) eye-rolling or apathy, signs that a production has failed to connect.
Face began online. The characters (seven high-school seniors) all had Facebook pages. One tweeted her thoughts; another blogged. Over time, I wrote the backstory, then a complete scene, in “10 minute play” form, that could be performed easily in a classroom to prompt dialogue. As we performed these scenes– we call them “episodes”– as “flash theatre,” for unsuspecting teen audiences at youth-oriented hangouts (think malls and theatre complexes) around Denver, I continued to write, and we now have a full-length play suitable for full production, one that also breaks down into “episodes,” complete in themselves. We plan to make the script available along with notes for directors and dialogue facilitators. A presentation of the play (or an episode) can be supplemented with “Face cards”: provocative prompts designed on playing cards. Face asks, How do you manage your feelings about yourself?; How do you manage the impression you make on others?; How do you manage your feelings about other people? and What expressive and creative resources are yours to draw upon? Our aim is to shift the conversation about bullying, away from blame, shame and rules for behavior, towards understanding and agency. We hold that– along with loved ones, mentors, teachers, and community– artistic expressiveness and creativity are potent sources of health and happiness.
We have talked to several “test audiences,” both in classrooms and in public locations– adolescents, young adults and more mature “bystanders”– following each presentation. We have also included our actors, throughout several different iterations, in developmental dialogues. Most recently, graduating high school seniors at the Porter-Billups summer academy in Denver watched our entire Season I and contributed to a lively and engaging discussion afterwards about bullying and its related behaviors and experiences, making insightful observations and telling their own stories.
In Lexington, I’ll be presenting/talking about Face on my own. There’s no reason to pretend that small, local theatre companies are able to provide funds for their passionate, dedicated professionals to travel (most don’t), whereas I happen to be employed, full-time, with some assistance provided, as part of my university job, to go to conferences. However: Gabriella, Kimber, Jason, and the 20+ actors, whose generous contributions of talent, time and energy over the past year have made Face a piece we can all be proud of, will all be there in spirit when I describe the work, show a bit of the website, share parts of the script, bring out the Face cards, and invite new friends and colleagues to share their responses, thoughts and ideas. I– and by proxy, we– are so happy to be part of Dramatic Change.
For more information on this project go to their own project blog: at http://thefaceproject.wordpress.com