Finding voice in the verb.

Some times, things just don’t turn out like you want them to, even though intentions were solid, and well, nothing bad had happened before.  Er, that we noticed, anyway.

I’ve had more than one conversation over the years with different artists, educators, and advocates about when a performance tanks, and the result is unpleasant at best, unsafe at worst.

(I am not referring to the times a fire alarm goes off during the show, announcements come over the loud speaker, or someone steps behind a partition to take a cell phone call with the mistaken belief that because they can’t see you, you can’t hear them.)

Somehow an audience became hostile, or things just got out of control, or the facilitators have panicked in front of the crowd, or a post-show panelist gets inappropriately personal, dismissive, or self-righteous.  I’ve heard principals talk about the emotional clean up (my term) that has to happen after a particular performance was brought in for an assembly.  I’ve had actors tell me about experiences with other production companies similar to Add Verb that they had to manage insults and jeers from the audience, while on stage and in role.  I’ve heard about performances where the audience participation–which was encouraged and a structural element of the program–devolved to obnoxious and disrespectful one-upmanship which left actors high and dry…I’ve seen audience members be poised and ready to know what they can do to help, but no one in the production or any of the organizers thought of having any resources available.

More than once I’ve been deeply uncomfortable watching a performance when someone has worked hard to spill their story on a stage, but have not tapped into the magic of theatre and it’s ability to transform, distill, and reframe truth; instead, their work (and heart) are trapped by And Then This Happened.

Hell.  That’s enough to make one (okay, enough to make ME) not want to see any more theatre at all, you know, ever. But when theatre works, it really really works and no film, brochure, story, etc., can come close to touching its power.

In all of those true-to-life horror stories above, it was inconvenient and/or unpleasant for the actors, educators and advocates.  But I wonder two things.

1.  What impact did it have on the survivors in the room?

2. What impact did it have on the rest of the audience?

We don’t know, if we don’t ask.  And even if we ask, we might not be able or willing to hear the truth: An academic theatre artist engaging in devising theatre based on a current oral history of a Southern Atlantic seaboard town presented a paper at a conference about his students performing as the local community members.  It came out that the Mayor (who was the first African American mayor in this community) wound up being portrayed by a white male from the professor’s private college.  When asked what the community thought about that he replied, “Yeah, I had wondered about that, too, but no one said anything. I asked.  It was fine.”


Finding voice is one thing.  It does imply that someone qualified  (able, willing) to really listen would be helpful.

I had a chance to be interviewed by Dr. Lisa Belisle and we spent some time on the topic of “Finding Voice”, and exploring what it means to give voice to important, volatile issues while considering how to do so in a way that minimizes harm, trauma, or the replication of victimization.  Scroll to Podcast #98, and look for the play button.  And please let both of us know what you think.






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