April 15, 2015 | Essays

Performing and Complex Social Change


An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

At the beginning of our project, the Complex Social Change (CSC) team asked “What is involved with creating participation and engagement in activist actions in the current social climate?” It was clear to us that art was often deeply embedded in successful activist actions. For our performing arts section of the research, we sought to investigate that involvement, specifically how participation in performing arts and performance could contribute to successful activism.

Add art to issue, mix, and presto – a feast of successful activism. But the recipe is not as simple as it may seem. Artists make, well, art. And a great deal of art and performance over at least the past century emerges out of a social context of self-expression, valuing technical proficiency, and commodification. In contrast, social change thrives in a context of community engagement, collaboration, commitment, and critical social analysis.

Some artists make art about changing things.

Some artists go on to talk about the art they made about changing things.

Some exhibit or perform the art that is about changing things.

Some artists engage with people, who are not artists, who want to change things, and then make art together with them.

The art may be provocative, humorous, beautiful, obscure, entertaining. It might inform, outrage, inspire new perspectives, empower viewers to make changes in their own lives, perhaps.

But how, really, seriously, how does art change the things that really need changing?

Making art about change does not inevitably lead to action for change. And research exploring links between actual change and art’s instigation of it is scarce. The question is: what is actually happening when art is recruited for social change? What – or who – changes?

And: So what?

To understand better the choices we made about participatory performance in our social change research, we will tell the story of the evolution of the UpStart Drama/Dance Workshops part of the CSC project. We’ll describe the workshop process and present some of the findings, and explore the nature of this “answer” to our team question.

Creating and Performing art that seeks change
Doolittle’s involvement with the Complex Social Change (CSC) research group began in 2010 with the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery’s (ULAG) cross-disciplinary initiative focusing on Food. Embedding her contribution to the Food Series inside the Department of Theatre Arts, she first offered a course in dance creation with the Food theme. With design colleagues and student performers, she developed material from that class into a performance, Moveable Feast, for the Department of Theatre Arts’ 2011-12 season. We used Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed1 techniques among other participatory theatrical and choreographic processes, along with other research, to create images and scenes. For example, information about the threatened extinction of the common Cavendish banana combined with food distribution politics became a samba dance scene in which unscrupulous politicians and businessmen strip off character Carmen Miranda’s elaborately dress, constructed with over 100 plastic bananas, and leave her violated and naked. Ancillary to the performance, in a partnership with three community food banks, we invited audiences to contribute food or cash when they attended the show. About $500 of cash and donations was raised and about a thousand people saw the show. Moveable Feast was a lively piece of physical theatre that raised social change issues, but had limited off-campus, participatory community engagement. What, if anything, changed?

The biggest changes occurred in the students – who spent so much time experimenting with, and performing, artistic interpretations around food issues. We believe they think and act differently, more thoughtfully, with more awareness of social context and social justice when it comes to all things “food.” Direct participation in creating and performing the art was key to moving from complacency into action. Evoking the slow food movement that has arisen to critique the ubiquitous presence of “fast food”, let’s call this theatre and dance for social change “slow activism.” Watching a show, drinking wine at an opening, listening to a protest song, is a quick activist ‘fix’ that may bust some complacency. However, when people do things with their bodies, or rather, go beyond watching and listening to participate, to make and do expressive things that connect their bodies, their minds and their hearts, they are rehearsing new realities. They are creating bonds with others, connecting their lives to issues that they hope to change. From this, we believe, changes are more likely to be enacted.

Recipe for a nourishing Slow Activism Social change project

Oppressed group/issue
Curious Academic(s)
Money, Space, Time
Publicity/information dissemination/performance/exhibition
Access to and communication with people with power over the oppressed group

First squish out the artist ego and reserve to one side, or discard. Fold artist and issue/oppressed group together, gently, taking plenty of time for the mixture to begin to react. Add academic in small doses if you require evidence-based proof of outcome. Best to squish out that professor-researcher ego and discard it too, making sure differences of class, income and education don’t curdle the mixture. Add funding, space and a lot more time as required. The appropriate use of these volatile ingredients takes some experience, but a rule of thumb is to share them equitably with everyone and give everyone a chance to participate in the cooking. Simmer, stirring, listening, watching and adjusting constantly. This will prevent the mixture from boiling over. When results start to appear (and these will surprise you if you have the recipe right), add the rest of the ingredients and shake things up. Results vary wildly and depend on the quality of the ingredients and the care of the cooks …

Refining the recipe
For Adams and Golbard, U.S. consultants in community arts for the past 30 years, the recipe is called community cultural development, which they define as “a range of initiatives undertaken by artists in collaboration with other community members to express identity, concerns and aspirations through the arts and communications media, while building cultural capacity and contributing to social change.”2 For meaningful and sustainable change, many community-engaged arts practitioners suggest “this work must be set in the context of an ongoing collaboration that synergizes artistic performance, research, teaching, and activism.” (p104) Those are a lot of ingredients.

When performing artists apply their expertise to social change, they can reconnect the deep intrinsic links between concepts of artistic ‘performing’ and social action. Performing arts always involve the live presence of the body. Also, performers and people who create performances must always contend with the social – we need to collaborate with other bodies, other people on so many levels to make any performance happen. Performers and performance creators train to express lived experience in intensified, empathic, perception altering ways. Social change means behavioral change, and behavioral change often comes out of experiences of empathy and altered perception. If these shared experiences connect across cultural, class, racial (etc.) boundaries, the potential for change is even greater. Remove these ingredients of collaboration and synergy, and the power of the arts to cook up real change is diminished.

From talking about art that seeks change, to performing the change we seek
For a Complex Social Change public presentation, Rehearsing Realities, Doolittle applied the “slow activism” and embodiment recipe to the ‘expert professor gives erudite talk’ format. For the talk, she planned to make the point about the activist power of performance and embodiment by having the audience embody something, having the audience do something more than watch and listen, and hoped to connect their bodies and their minds. She used an inciting phrase from Boal’s arsenal “theatre is a weapon,” pinned large sheets of blank newsprint to the wall, and distributed felt markers. Doolittle asked everyone to collectively write down ideas about using theatre as a weapon in social change. Laughter, conversation, friendly argument and movement ensued. The activity, while limited to writing and talking, did animate the subsequent presentation about principles and practices using the volatile theatre weapon.

For Doolittle’s contribution to Dr. Bruce McKay’s Liberal Education activism class, participation replaced presentation. The class moved straight into theatre. Students, in small groups, told personal stories about challenges in student life, then selected one story to animate by sculpting their bodies into images. Finally they sculpted images of how positive change could happen – an embodied method of identifying and analyzing social problems, and imagining solutions – rehearsing new realities. Doolittle also presented, at a downtown community arts centre, an event called Corporations in our Heads, by Vancouver’s Theatre for Living, which was on a massive tour of community venues in Alberta and British Columbia over a two-month period. Master facilitator or ‘joker’ David Diamond led the whole audience in a brief warm-up and explained Boal-based Image Theatre techniques similar to those used with Liberal Education students. The seventy people who made up the audience selected and improvised individual behavioural changes and evoked larger social changes to counteract the coercive omnipresence of corporations in our lives. The desired embodied participation quotient was rising, but the brevity of these experiences, and the limited scope of cross-sector collaboration reduced the potential depth of change they could inspire.

Making art with people who want to change things who are not artists: UpStart workshops for people living with developmental disabilities (PDD)
The UpStart project focused on embodied participation and longer term involvement. It also took place off campus in the City of Lethbridge’s Community Arts Centre. An enthusiastic worker from a local NGO supporting people living with developmental disabilities (PDD), the Lethbridge Association for Community Living (LACL), approached us at a Community University Research Exchange in March 2013. We could sense great potential. The partnership we forged, which now includes the Southern Alberta Individualized Planning Association (SAIPA), and Southern Region Self Advocacy Network (SRSAN), steered us towards the issue of meaningful employment for PDD. We began ten weeks of workshops, recording and transcribing before and after interviews with workshop participants, and focus group meetings with members of the partner organizations.

Here is a description, from a focus group participant, of the social problems faced by PDD that arts activism could potentially address:

Employment currently, in our community, for people with developmental disabilities is rather bleak. There are an awful lot of unnecessary barriers in place. It’s really difficult. There are pockets of wonderful amazing things happening within our community where people with disabilities are able to find meaningful employment. But they are only pockets …It’s hard to find the match of the right employer who shares the right understanding and believes that people with disabilities have just as much to offer their business as people without disabilities. … It just leaves an overall situation that seems rather bleak for a lot of people when they graduate high school … that’s just kind of a dead end, unless you want to deliver flyers. I feel bleak about it because this is my world. This is my community and I feel that my community is failing. (Focus Group participant).

The UpStart workshops research project, we proposed, would investigate the role of embodied, expressive arts-based participation in building self-advocacy towards finding and keeping meaningful employment for PDD and as a practical teaching/learning tool for activism.

In ten weekly workshops, a group consisting of people with developmental disabilities, undergraduate and graduate theatre and sociology students, agency workers and care givers, came together to use theatre and dance to explore the theme of employment. Doolittle called it Drama/Dance 101 – participants learned all the basic elements she would teach in an introductory class in theatre or dance: Body awareness, Movement, Voice, Imagination, Stories, Individual and Group Expression. We shared life stories, we made giant lists of words around themes the stories suggested – Work, Discrimination, Self Advocacy. With Image Theatre we created many scenes of current problems and possible better futures. Here is a description of one image theatre scene:

Story/image theatre scene 1: A person with a disability enters a room. Two people, perpetrators of discrimination, take positions that exclude and shame this victim. In an intervention to positively transform the image – and the outcome, a fourth person enters, stopping the abuse by caring for the victim and, in a further image, getting the perpetrators to shake hands with the victim.

Story image theatre scene 2: This time we see an image of a victim of stigma trying to accomplish a work task. A co-worker is harassing, intimidating. The boss enters to support the co-worker telling the victim to get out – is the victim being fired? In the first intervention, a bystander puts himself between the boss and the victim and then becomes aggressive to the co-worker, taking sides with, and connecting to, the victim. Discussion about whether this is the best way to help ensues. In another intervention the boss, instead of being an aggressor, touches the aggressive worker’s arm and looks questioningly at him. Discussion about what it takes for the boss to change behaviour ensues.

In both of these group image scenes, strikingly, the problem of discrimination was partly solved and represented by a physical connection between bystander/colleague and victim, an embodiment of inclusion through connection and collaboration. Also striking was the high level of emotional investment the scene created in the participants. These experiential elements of emotion and enactment are key ingredients where participatory performing arts can make a difference, where arts-based methods catch aspects of issues that other methods (such as discussion) might miss. One participant described the value of making artistic images with bodies like this:

I really enjoyed image theatre with this group because we have a lot of able bodies and I feel it is a great way for everyone to be able to participate, without having to put an emphasis on text. (student researcher)

Because when you role-play something they can see how to deal with it and can see it physically and that’s, some people learn that way and I think it’s a component that we need to add. (workshop participant)

One student researcher was concerned about exploring traumatic experiences, especially when the results were to be openly shared with the whole group. She also highlighted the need for a balance between process and performance product:

I didn’t know how much intervention to do in terms of my group not understanding the task, and how much to just let it happen, because one of the participant’s stories was quite emotional and shared something that was pretty crazy (physical abuse in a work place), so I didn’t want to down play the emotions that were being expressed but at the same time I wanted to expedite the process so that we could develop a product to show to the rest of the group. (student researcher)

Counteracting the risk of trauma was the sense of trust created:

I’d say number one is trust … First it felt a little weird. … But after that I was like yeah this rocks, let’s go. (workshop participant)

They were accepted, totally accepted, I believe in that space of time with each other. All those (PDD) folks are processing the rest of reality in the world however they process it, but there they were listening to your instructions and you know, it was a trustful place. (parent of workshop participant)

Using our theme word lists, we also made a power-packed self advocacy dance choreographed by one of the student researchers, with movements invented by the participants, to the song “The Eye of the Tiger”. The physical expression of toughness and ‘attitude’ seemed to resonate with everyone in the group as they each interpreted the choreography in their own way, yet also enjoyed dancing together. We all worked hard to mesh our very different worlds. We all had fun. Comments from an agency worker who participated in a workshop session reveal deeper consequences of the work:

To fully participate – and do all the things and challenge even my own preconceived notions and barriers – it was really a fantastic experience to see that group in their abilities and what they (could) do … Some of those people I’ve known for a really long time and I’ve never seen them express themselves to that capacity before. And that was really, really cool. And so, yes I very much believe there is a place for theatre, art, dance in the community to help break those barriers (to employment). (focus group participant)

About a dozen participants and one parent did pre- and post-workshop interviews about their experiences. Additional parents and agency workers held a focus group session around meaningful employment for PDD. We are in the process of doing qualitative analysis of this data and the embodied workshop experiences, but even before this formalized analysis we have observed outcomes that are as uncontainable as youth activists at a G20 protest march, as subversive as occupying a town square. We’ve learned things that are at once heartbreaking and uplifting.

We heard about many part-time jobs, many paid at minimum wage or less, many for very short periods of time. Dishwashing, house cleaning, day care, babysitting, catering service, bagging groceries, ice skating rink marshal, wiping tables at the university food court, recycling at a bottle depot – these did not seem especially meaningful. Yet we came to understand that while the kind of work and pay mattered, the context of work – where most of us invest a great deal of intellectual, social and physical energy – mattered too. People with developmental disabilities, if lucky enough to get a job, are too often denied that self-actualizing and socializing aspect of the workplace. Too often even simple inclusion is unobtainable.

While the stated purposes of the research were to use art for social change methods to investigate building self-advocacy skills, and to enhance community partnerships with families, decision-making agencies and employers serving, and potentially employing, PDD in this community, our participants told us about many unforeseen effects; personal therapeutic benefits coincided with consciousness raising.

I learned new stuff, stuff I wouldn’t have thought that would be connected to self advocacy like all those dances we did and stuff. I didn’t know that was connected at the time. (workshop participant)

It’s a simple thing but a lot of people with disabilities lack confidence and this is definitely a confidence builder for them. (workshop participant)

The workshop actually helped me to handle the amount of stress that I’ll get under. (workshop participant)

We were focused on the process of the workshops, remembering from our Food Series performances how the demands of performance production can work against community involvement. Also, we did not want to overburden participants with stressful and unfamiliar performance demands. But the participants persuaded us to organize a final performance. On the final workshop day, we held a showing in the studio of about fifteen minutes of demonstrations of drama/dance creative exercises and performance ‘work in progress’ to family, friends and agency workers – and over fifty people attended. Sharing our work turned out to be a key element towards creating activism around inclusion. The invited audience’s response was along the lines of “wow, I didn’t know those people could do that,” or “wow, did I ever feel strongly when they performed issues from their own lives.” Again the activism embedded here is the slow type, the changing of minds and hearts through artistic expression:

We’re touching on something really important here. When you see people in a different context. We used to run into that years and years ago when people (with disabilities) were institutionalized. When you would see people in stark, empty environments, monotonous environments, strange behaviour going on in all corners of the ward, you would see no potential. …Great, well where on earth could, were would we go from here? But when you see people in more natural human settings, and diverse settings, that is when you see people in different ways. (agency worker)

In the UpStart project we all grappled with the multiple challenges of making effective social change, maintaining good community partnerships, doing good research, and making good art. Doing arts with people with disabilities is often imagined as some kind of helpful therapy, not ‘real art’, a lower quality activity that ends up instead as a make-work, a time occupier. Speaking to the employability of PDD and against society’s tendency to infantilize the disabled, a focus group participant declared “There are many things in our society that are better than gluing macaroni on cardboard.” Their comment also challenges the paradigm of community-based art creation as simply therapy. All of these misperceptions need to be upended, or UpStarted…

Near the end of the workshops, a student researcher confessed:

I’m worried that we just didn’t have enough time to really go in depth with the theatre though… I mean everyone has done a great job and are getting better and better everyday. They are really honing their skills to express themselves through image and through actions. I feel like now is the time to be digging in to jobs and how to make them a better place for people with disabilities or how to find jobs that suit different individuals needs using theatre to analyze and explore. But we can’t. We have two weeks left and that is not enough time! I really feel like we’ve scratched the surface and its just too bad we couldn’t do more. (student researcher)

As the CSC research grant funding came to an end, we are looking for ways to continue, to build self-advocacy capacity, to sustain the work and continue to support our community partners’ goals. We have begun to bring this work out of the community arts centre into our university and thus into the academic context. For the end of the first phase of the CSC project, all the core members presented together on campus. Doolittle brought the UpStarts to perform and she gave contextual information to the diverse and enthusiastic audience at the University of Lethbridge. As well, Doolittle will be offering a topics class in the Theatre Arts department in making performances with people of mixed abilities in Fall 2014, and will be producing a mixed abilities show in the department’s main season of plays in March 2015. We are accessing our community partners’ expertise, and the services for people with disabilities on campus to enable the UpStarts and other PDD to become students, to become performers in these two settings alongside university students.

So to return to the Complex Social Change team’s question, “What is involved with creating participation…” we answer that participation can be forged using drama and dance to analyze life experiences, creating a performance, using the tools of performing arts to build community, to generate new perspectives, to shift power. Many of us have been transformed in some way by making art with the UpStarts.

This has been an amazing experience. I’ve learned so much everyday and the
bonds I’m building with all these remarkable people who have never given
up. Who everyday give their best. (student researcher)

Perhaps we can begin to perform the change the UpStarts imagined with their art, taking to heart this comment by a focus group participant:

I find it kind of offensive that people are out there making their living talking about welcoming inclusive communities, yet don’t live welcoming, inclusive lives. It doesn’t make any sense. You’re talking the talk but you’re not walking the walk. You’re not including people with disabilities in your own life. What are you doing to encourage (inclusion)?

To address this question, how to move from understanding to action, we moved from a fairly conventional university-based performance creation, through discussion and hands-on experiences on and off campus. Finally we are making moves to keep the community connection alive as we bring the UpStart work back on campus. We offer activist, artist and academic Deborah Barndt’s “recipe” for helping “groups move from collective analysis to collective action to become active participants in shaping a more democratic and just society”3:

Community arts involves a questioning of the status quo and a commitment to social change. More than a purely ideological stance, this commitment must be deeply identified with the aspirations of the community, while recognizing the many contradictions within. On the part of the artist or research facilitator, then, it is not a rigid adherence to some predetermined vision or outcome, but rather a deep commitment to accompany people in a process of exploring their own histories, identities, struggles, and hopes – not knowing where it will lead. Such a commitment is based on respect and humility, an openness to learn and to be transformed in the process. (355)

The final word goes to the UpStarts themselves:

The sky’s the limit, there’s no set way to do things, and I think I’ve always known that but taking this class made me realize that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to regardless of what other people say because it doesn’t matter what other people say; it’s how you feel about yourself. (workshop participant)

All I can say is, the only thing that we can do with this is to go forward. Go forward with a new group of self-advocates or a new group of people and chalk this one up as a success. Chalk it up as a success and go forward. Plan on the next workshop, plan the next one. (workshop participant)

1) Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, C. A. M.-O. L. McBride., Trans. (New York: Theater Communications Group, 1985).
2) H. N. Wilcox, Embodied Ways of Knowing, Pedagogies, and Social Justice: Inclusive Science and Beyond. NWSA Journal, 21(2), 2009. 104-120.
3) Deborah Barndt, Touching Minds and Hearts: Community Arts as Collaborative Research. In J. G. Knowles, Cole, A. L. (Ed.), Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research; Perspectives, Methodologies, Examples, and Issues. (Thousand Oaks California: Sage Publications, 2008), 351-362.

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