Owning the Otherness
by Jessica ‘Decky’ Alexander–Eastern Michigan University
& Jenny Anne Koppera–Spinning Dot Theatre
Bonnie Marranca, Performance and Cultural Studies’ Scholar wrote, “We are all others”. And we are. We are an ‘other’ to someone else. Recognizing (and owning) our self, and how we read, speak, and sound to anyone outside of our cultural norms is critical to working and creating in a multicultural /pluralistic world.
For both of us, this exploration of Otherness is key to the work that we do in so many of our projects. The idea of honing in on Otherness is key to the cultural awareness, empathy, and empowerment that we both strive to surface in our students and/or audiences. The questions of how we are approaching Otherness on our stages and whether or not we are communicating these complexities effectively dive to the heart of our current teaching and artistic projects.
Most of my theatre work as a teaching artist is community based. It is co-creating original theatre with community members – whether to give voice to a pressing social issues such as youth homelessness or to foster awareness and shift attitudes regarding relevant issues such as profiling or civility.
In my solo performance work, I collaborate with nonprofits (Alpha House, Student Advocacy Center) to capture the stories of their clients or community to ideally shift attitudes and alter policy. I interview clients, transcribe their interviews, and then create a performance piece based on Otherness, which includes my own voice and self. I’m not solely performing someone else (that might become exploitative) but instead find a way to shape the story into a large narrative. It is in this framework that I most keenly feel the tensions of Otherness.
In my own solo and storytelling performance work – particularly when I am performing someone’s story /narrative, I craft the piece in a way that frames it with my own narrative or experience. I encourage my students to do this as well when working as a teaching artist in my community based theatre projects.
This is not so much about performing the ethnographer but performing self as it (or I) relate to the story or narrative being performed. Why do this? Performing other to give voice provides a platform to someone as a means to social or cultural awareness, fostering attitudinal shifts, and cultivating empathy and is theatre and performance’s power, but it also can be perceived as mockery, entitled or even destructive.
Framing a story of other (a personal narrative) within my own experience or that of my students is performing empathy. It is performing commonality. It is performing humanity. We are all others and better to celebrate this truth aesthetically by creating an artistic product that doesn’t blend self and other but honors each other as both distinctive and complimentary.
Likewise, in my current work with Spinning Dot Theatre, we are delving constantly into Otherness. It is not my own Otherness, per se, as a teaching artist that I am brought clearly face-to-face with on a weekly basis – but rather that of global Otherness and how my students negotiate these cultural divides. It is how I frame or open them to the Otherness that somehow ignites our work.
I see this most clearly with the work that I do with the Spinning Dot Youth Company. The Youth Company is comprised of 12 youth between the ages of 8-14 years old. They remain with the company for a year and work on many global theatre projects.
What is fascinating for me to see is how by embracing this sense of Otherness, the youth come to bridge these international gaps of lived experience and understanding and find, at the same time, their own sense of self.
One of the plays that the Spinning Dot Youth Company worked on last year was a play from Kosovo. It was Jeton Neziraj’s The Bridge. We spoke about the conflict that inspired the piece and then of the bridges or lack of bridges between people and communities in their own worlds. We drew and wrote and talked about these complexities, and somehow they managed to embrace them all, ignited by the spark of this beautiful play from Kosovo, but stretching their arms around wide and diverse meaning.
They dove into the piece with an ownership of the material that I was not expecting, and even when facing issues of translation and language in the script, they found their connections. It remained for them key to honor the play and the cultural context of the piece, but they took ownership. The initial Otherness of the play became theirs. It grew into their story as well.
At the conclusion of their performances, many of the youth company members ran up to me one afternoon with the earnest desire to take our version of the play back to Kovovo – to make an exchange of sorts. Let’s Skype the playwright and see if we could! Their perception of Otherness and the world had become so much closer and yet so much wider at the same time! In the beginning, most had never heard of Kosovo, and now it was not only attainable but fully reasonable to reach for this artistic and global exchange.
They fully understood that our interpretation and understanding would not be at all the same as where the play was birthed from, but they knew that there was a dialogue, ready and willing to be had, around these differences. They were reaching that level of performing humanity that Decky spoke of: They were embracing the Otherness and understanding their own sense of self in it all.
So in many ways, whether performing or working as a teaching artist, if we try to diminish the Otherness it can actually create greater divides. It is most often in the acceptance of self and in dialogue of differences that the true celebration of Otherness is brought together with the celebration of Humanity itself.
This post is part of an ongoing series about The Teaching Artist and The Other: Exploring Perspectives in Community Engagement