LEAN IN: Sojourn Theatre, Civic Practice & Catholic Charities USA
This post was originally published by Howlround.com on January 12, 2013.
By Michael Rohd, CPCP Founding Artist
October 2, 2012—3:30pm
I’m standing in the St. Louis airport this Tuesday afternoon, exhausted. I’m trying to decide if I walk straight to my gate or stop for some airport food. Maybe a Five Guys burger. I’m hungry. I see, about thirty yards down the terminal, a man who looks to be in his mid-fifties walking towards me with purpose. Big strides, a smile on his face and a white collar around his neck. Thoughts of food fade. I am deeply interested in hearing what he has to say.
There is an almost bottomless pit of need out there. In our society—it's my personal opinion—more and more people are moving toward a resentment of the person who needs help. This is a problem. Even faithful Catholics ask—why should I give to this person when they are not working as hard as I am? I grew up with parents saying, "There but for the grace of God go I.” Too many people judge the reasons behind the problems of poverty. We are called to advocate for those in need, and we are called to touch the hearts of everyone else, to nurture grace, generosity and love. —From Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
One Year Before
Sojourn Theatre is artist in residence at the Independent Sector National Conference in Chicago. It’s a gathering of not-for-profits (all not-for-profits; arts organizations make up a small percentage of participants) and funders from around the United States who come together each fall to deepen skills, hear policy updates that affect their sector, and connect with old colleagues and friends while making new ones (about 1500 people). Bob Lynch, head of Americans for the Arts, makes certain that the arts are represented at annual conferences like this, conferences from areas of national life that don’t necessarily see the arts as functionally valuable to their particular sphere. Bob saw Sojourn as a useful partner in his effort to help Independent Sector’s attendees understand that the assets artists bring to partnerships outside the arts sector are not limited in their potential impact to decorative and economic outcomes.
At the conference, we work day and night. The work goes well. And we meet a ton of people. One of those people is Candy Hill, Senior Vice President of Social Policy for Catholic Charities USA, one of the nation’s leading anti-poverty organizations. Also there in Chicago was Father Larry Snyder. President of Catholic Charities USA.
Nine Months Before
I am working on an idea related to the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, which I had recently started. I’m trying to articulate for myself the difference between creating and producing art in what I think of as a monological framework versus within what I think of as a dialogical framework. This distinction helps me frame for myself a project’s relationship to audience, engagement and participation. That, in turn, affects process and form. In my mind, a monological framework doesn’t mean the work is uninterested in its audience. It means that the choice of material, process and form of presentation/product are made and delivered by artists to audience, and engagement/participation experiences are created to deepen that material’s impact. In a dialogical framework, the goal of the work isn’t solely the landing of the material; it’s the encounter—between artist and audience, audience and audience, art and community—that is the artistic goal and definition of success. These two frameworks exist on a continuum of intention and of practice.
Sojourn Theater Artists in performance at the Catholic Charities Conference 2012. Photo by Sojourn Theater.
finding that when I have conversations at a place like the Independent Sector Conference about art, and about theatre in particular, people assume the conversation begins and ends with plays. They assume the product they are familiar with is the extent of the form’s potential as a tool in relation to their work. And when I have conversations with theatre artists and organizations about their goals regarding engagement and participation, we also place the play at the center of the conversation. Which is understandable—most theatres exist to produce plays. But theatre work on the dialogical end of the spectrum doesn’t always look like a play. We lack a shared framework for discussing this spectrum partly because engagement is on a spectrum of its own. Is it serving audience development goals? Dramaturgical goals? Is it serving bridge-building goals (which I’d say are when a project seeks to bring people together as artists or audience who may not come together with regularity on their own, and use those instances of togetherness as primary material within the art itself)? These goals aren’t mutually exclusive. But, what happens when artmakers and/or institutions existing primarily on the monological side of things get interested in dialogical approaches? That’s what I’m thinking about, sitting somewhere, I don’t remember where, when I receive an email from Candy Hill. She’s telling me about the 2012 Catholic Charities USA National Convening focusing on poverty reduction. It will be in St Louis this coming fall. And she wants to talk about Sojourn’s potential involvement.
Sometimes it's hard for people to get past the word Catholic. People think we’re trying to evangelize through our charity work. We’re not. We’re trying to help. —From Sojourn’s interview-based performance LEAN IN
Six Months Before
I am sitting in the Alexandria, Virginia headquarters of Catholic Charities USA. Over the past three months, I have learned about the programs that Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) networks support around the country. They serve more people living in poverty or close to poverty than any other single entity in the United States. Their employees are not all Catholic, nor is their social service work based in a mission of converting those they serve. In fact, they describe their mission as a call to cut poverty in half in our country by the year 2020. They also describe within the culture of their organization a recognition that the relationship of the mission of Catholic Charities and the institution of the Catholic Church, though inextricably bound, can at times make for challenging conversations around policy and direct service programs. Which gets me thinking, once again, about engagement. I should insert here—I am no expert on organized religion. Raised Jewish, schooled Quaker, and generally agnostic, I have spent lots of time learning about faiths. But it has mostly been from the outside. Nevertheless, I will hazard to say that the Catholic Church seems to exist, as a system (like many faiths), monologically. Meaning that the word is written, both old (the Bible) and new (Papal Statements), and those within the institution’s hierarchy, based on where they fall in that hierarchy, work to share the word, to advocate for it, or simply (by which I don’t presume to mean easily) live by it.
Church leaders and churchgoers debate spiritual and real world meanings, but they do so with an understanding that there is a framework of shared belief for what is right. Catholic Charities USA works, as a system, dialogically. Meaning that poverty reduction requires the act of listening in a deeply active way. The most successful anti-poverty programs respond to current needs as well as integrate learnings from years of previous experience and apply them to policy and advocacy work. Service providers and people receiving services are in ongoing dialogue. Mapping assets. Building partnerships. Reducing poverty does not follow one agreed upon path—it moves forward, it responds, it evolves and it serves anew.
So here I am in Virginia, listening to the Catholic Charities USA national leadership team and conference planners discuss how to create a national conference that exists within a monological hierarchy while striving to create a set of dialogical opportunities for conference attendees. A young staff member turns to me and says, “That’s why we’re bringing you guys in, right?” He’s smiling, but we all know what he’s saying. What is theatre going to add to the mix? And, how are we going to tread? Lightly? Harshly? Recklessly? Thoughtfully? Will we earn their trust? Not just the trust of the people around this table but also the trust of the conference attendees. People who will come from cities and towns and suburbs, from near and far. People who will spend days with each other hoping to learn something, hoping to recharge, and hoping to believe that what they do not only matters, but is recognized by colleagues they never see, with whom they want to feel a sense of solidarity. What can our assets bring to the needs of this event, and this community?
—The big issue we’re facing right now is whether or not we can serve all people in need in our diocese. —Some bishops will say that if a same sex couple walks into your organization you cannot serve them. —Ours has said that we can continue to serve anyone in need, and we are very pleased about that. —But not every diocese is handling this in the same way. —From Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
Three Months Before
I am on a phone conference call with many of the ten Sojourn artists who will join me at the Catholic Charities USA Conference. I am updating them on the latest planning news. We talk logistics. We talk about our host’s goals. We talk about aiming our curiosity in the right directions. That’s how we approach interview-based work as artists. We used to make documentary performance with regularity. Now, its not so much a part of our larger project work, but it is a tool we use in short term interactions with specific communities that invite us to work around a particular event or issue. Aiming our curiosity is our dramaturgical preparation for interviews. And since one of the things we’ll be doing is interviewing conference attendees to build the text for our final performance, we need to get on the same page. All ten of us will conduct interviews from the moment we arrive on a Thursday night until Monday lunch, the day before our actual presentation. We are not making lists of questions to ask people. We’re organizing our own sensibilities into shared areas of interest that each artist can pursue in every conversation.
Our goal is to build material out of our one-on-one encounters with strangers, and our goals is also to help seed conversations that ripple through the conference in rooms and moments we will never witness. I share with my company the three main issues that have come up in my pre-conference (and pre 2012 election) talks with Catholic Charities USA.
1) The economy, the election and the public conversations about capping tax deductions for charitable donations are forcing social service providers like those in the Catholic Charities USA network to be prepared for serious funding challenges—we’ll be sharing tools for agencies to host staff, board and community conversations in their home communities around developing shared priorities and invested stakeholders;
2) The HHS mandate regarding birth control and anxiety around religious liberty is the cause of heated debate around the country. In local agencies where multiple faiths are represented on staffs and boards, and local Bishops have varying approaches to discourse, leaders of local agencies need tools for difficult dialogues and safe spaces.
3) The story Catholic Charities USA tells about its work serving people in need is often overshadowed and even eclipsed by the more widely perceived narratives about the Catholic Church, its scandals and its stance on certain social issues—we’ll be helping those who work to end poverty tell the story of what they do without distancing themselves from the institution with which they are a part, but by contextualizing their leadership on social justice issues through their specific direct services and advocacy.
We end the call by planning the schedule for our time on the ground in St. Louis. We begin to communicate with cyber regularity leading right up to the Conference.
We’re not just looking to affect funding. We’re looking to affect policy. How do we get people who didn’t know they believed in the need for actual system change to become active advocates for new policies? —From Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
Five Days Before—Thursday
We’re here. All ten of us have arrived at the St Louis Hyatt, site of the Catholic Charities USA National Convening. Performers/creators Kimberley Howard, Jono Eiland, Soneela Nankani, James Hart, Joel Sugerman & Sara Sawicki, composer/sound designer Kevin O’Donnell, director Maureen Towey and project company and production manager Jamie Rea. I’ll be writing and leading the residency. We’re now sitting in a small conference room that will serve as a rehearsal space for us over the next five days. Our interview room is down two floors, closer to the main conference action.
It's around 7pm, we’ve had a big group dinner to check in, and Father Larry Snyder, President of CCUSA, comes in to spend some time talking with us. He’s clearly excited we’re here. He welcomes us warmly, and a company member asks, right off the bat, what he hopes we accomplish as artists in residence. He is thoughtful, clear, and without much hesitation. He believes that the work of CCUSA is to remove barriers between people and opportunity. He also believes that much of the work done by the majority of people attending this convening is responding to the invisible crises that shape the daily lives of those living in poverty. We are there, he says, because he feels the work of removing barriers involves telling the stories of those invisible crises better, and making clearer CCUSA’s role as an innovation leader in communities around the nation. This, he believes, will give the local and national offices more leverage to work on the systemic barriers that trap people in the cycle of poverty. He loves the arts; he’s a musician by training. And he feels that creativity could be a tool for both motivating and empowering his community of colleagues to take new tactics back to the often fractious task of building local movements. He isn’t sure how we’ll do that, but leaves us with a big smile, and says if we want to connect over the weekend, to let his staff know. And then, he’s gone.
We have a very conservative legislature right now. And I’m trying to get them to see the fact that connecting and supporting others really helps them deal with their lives. I want them to have that a-ha moment. And really, sometimes they just need to grow some balls. You don’t have to say balls—you can use cojones. For some reason, people hear that differently. Which, silly as it seems, makes me think about how we communicate our messages in general. —From Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
Two Days Before—Sunday
Conference attendees have been arriving in waves. Friday, national staff and board members. Saturday, there were pre-conference sessions for executive directors and administrators from around the country. Both days we conducted interviews, spent time creating physical vocabulary for our final performance (Maureen can’t stage it yet—I’m building the script hour by hour), and we finished designs for the participatory sessions we’d be leading on Monday—one as a whole group, and one just me. Today, Sunday, sees us meeting the entire conference population for the first time. After opening remarks from several speakers including Father Larry, it’s my turn to take the Ballroom podium and speak to the gathered attendees.
I introduce myself, then the company (who stand one at a time), and I talk about our work over the next few days, inviting them to make time to speak with us. I tell them that the degree to which our work will be interesting and useful to them is in direct proportion to the degree to which they are willing to engage with us. I ask them to share responsibility for the dialogue we hope to be in with them, and help them have with each other. And then, since I have been given the following thirty minutes to help this group of mostly strangers begin to build community, I lead a warm-up for eight hundred. I begin by asking where they’re from. We do geography, we do size of home community. All show of hands, with me asking for the occasional shout out. We do size of home organization. We do their ages, their faiths, their role in their organization. And then, I ask them to turn to their tables of ten, and take five minutes, go around, and swiftly talk about why they’re here. Why did they come? After the five minutes, I ask for a couple people from around the room to call out to me a reason, and then we do show of hands to see who shares their reason. I’m using a microphone, and I’m echoing back what they tell me, so everyone in the ballroom can hear. Next, I ask them to turn to their table again and answer the prompt—what has to happen in the next few days for this trip to have been a success for you? What do you need? And they talk some more. And when the five minutes are up, instead of asking them to share out, I ask each table to talk a few more minutes about the challenges they face at home in doing their work. Then, we share some of those.
I finish by asking a bit more about what in the larger public sphere is on their minds as they arrive for this multi-day conversation. Then, after once again explaining Sojourn’s role at the Convening, I excuse myself and go back to rehearsal. Hopefully, they know a bit more about each other. I certainly have a better sense of our audience/collaborating participants. This was, in the first day of the conference proper, the only time they are invited as a group into a dialogue rather than being the receivers of a presentation. And this makes an impact that helps us in the days to come.
There is no ceiling of opportunity in this country. But there should be a floor that everyone can stand on. We need to work together to build that foundation. —From Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
The Day Earlier—Monday 9:00 AM
Our first session is part of the Public Policy Institute. The half-day session is split between a portion led by Sojourn, and a portion led by a lawyer from D.C. with policy experience. We go first. The need communicated to us is to help the sixty people in the room imagine specific policy platforms they’d like to see their representatives adopt to combat poverty on the local and national level, and beyond that, wrestle with the complex political and popular opinion factors that they negotiate when doing their advocacy work. We are not policy experts, nor are we experts on the process legislation goes through on its way to passage. The assets we bring as artists to the morning are skills of collectively building story and forming coalitions out of disparate perspectives. In addition, we are able to create charged yet playful performative encounters that can, in short periods of time, bring issues and relationships into sharp relief. We break them into eight tables. Each table has a Sojourn artist among them. From the front of the room, I explain how the next ninety minutes will go.
First, each table will have a few minutes to meet each other, talk about challenges they face back home, and begin a conversation about policies they’d like to see receive serious legislative consideration. Then, each table will have twelve minutes with their Sojourn artist to build a poverty reduction platform as a candidate for a national Congressional seat. Their goal is to build a platform that feels strong and specific. They also have to prepare their candidate to withstand ideologically oppositional interrogation—CCUSA staffers and that D.C. lawyer will be performing the role of a press corps. Each candidate will get two minutes to make his/her (improvised and informed) stump speech. This will be followed by a Q & A with the press corps. An additional twist—each group sends a non performer up front with their candidate to act as consultant, so that when the press questions require a level of knowledge and/or nuance beyond the actor’s expertise, they are swiftly coached and aided. In the end, the press and the crowd do not choose a winner—they return to their original groups, debrief the “performance” with attention paid to recurring policy ideas across candidates and effective responses to press questions. As a whole group, we discuss the experience. People are excited and energized. The lawyer from D.C. takes the ball and moves the policy ideas we’ve helped generate into a nuts and bolts session on legislative process. And we head back to rehearsal.
I am sitting in a circle with around thirty people. Most of them are executive directors from local agencies in the Catholic Charities USA network. The session is called Theater as Civic Practice. I’m leading this one on my own. After some introductions, they describe experiences back home. Working in ideologically polarized communities. Encountering dwindling resources and rising need. Creating visionary programs that face external and internal fear of change. An executive director from Texas asks me if he is going to have to act during this session. Nervous laughter from around the circle follows. And the conversation that is just under the surface starts to flow: “I’m afraid to act, but, it sounded different, so…” followed by “I need help getting the people I work with to listen to each other, but, we’re not going to put on a play at the office, so…” eventually landing at “So, if we’re not acting, what’s the theatre part of this?” And there it is—a perfectly reasonable question. I take that as my cue. I ask if we can share stories. Not just a single sentence or observation, which we have been doing up until now, but stories. They say yes. I offer a prompt— “Turn to a partner and tell the story of a successful day at work that you would love to have. Not one you’ve already had, but one you’d like to have. Each of you has ninety seconds. And you have to use the whole ninety seconds. I’ll time you. When you’re not the teller, listen. Listen well. Because next, you’ll have to do something with what you hear.” Three minutes go by. I say to them—“OK. That, in my mind, was an imaginative act. You had to create, internally, a vision of something that isn’t real. Then you spoke first person present tense words of the story you’d made up to someone else. You pretended. To me, that’s one half of what makes a time-based experience between people, theatre.
Imaginative Acts. To get at the other half—“Listener, I need you to think about the story you were just told. I want you to think about the challenges, the obstacles, that prevent your teller from actually having the day they just described. We’re going to go around the circle, and I want you each to name one of those challenges. We are going to keep a list as we go, and see what obstacles recur. The one we hear the most times is the one we move to the next step.” What we hear, in one form or another, is getting people with different opinions to collaborate. We spend the rest of the session creating and performing ways to improve the possibility for productive collaboration in their work and community settings. These (sometimes emotional, often playful) moments happen through improvisation, through groups creating new stories and sharing them in the form of images or monologues. One group creates a flipchart-based PowerPoint with graphics and bullet points aimed at rules for disagreeing but still moving forward. At the end of the session, I say— “So, we spent a majority of our time this session, especially after we identified collaboration as our topic of exploration, on what I call expressive actions. We made stuff for each other. We didn’t make stuff as a culminating moment of sharing “skits’”—everything you shared was part of an intentional process moving us through a conversation aimed at addressing your needs, which we discovered through the process itself.
A time-based series of Imaginative Acts and Expressive Actions purposely constructed as an experience for a group of people to engage in together. That’s one definition of theatre. It’s the definition I use for Civic Practice work.” At the heart, I'm not an activist. You're not going to see me carrying a sign. You're not going to see me marching in a protest. I'm interested in the intellectual intersections—ethics, education, policy. How the moral traditions make sense of modern day issues of importance. That’s what innovation means— right? —From Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
The Day of—Tuesday 7:30 AM: Technical Rehearsal
We completed work on our final performance late last night. It’s a thirty-two minute scripts-on-music-stand piece based on almost one-hundred interviews and our observations over the last four days. It’s a combination of song, monologue, chorale, scene, and movement. Its not verbatim—I take the interviews and ideas everyone collects and I write off them. Some portions are close to what a single conference attendee actually said, and some are composites of multiple voices. Some, like a scene about the Cadre Study, are wholly imagined, used as a fictional access point to an ongoing dialogue within the Catholic Church about social justice issues. The Cadre Study is a historic CCUSA document written in 1972 that advocated a progressive, liberatory approach to poverty reduction in the United States. As a character in our piece says:
I mean, if the Catholic Church I saw looked like what I read about Catholic Charities in the Cadre Study tonight, I would go to church more. I’d lead study groups at the house. I’m not used to being encouraged to think about God and questions at the same time.
As we work on spacing and sound cues, I am in constant conversation with our hosts. They are in the giant ballroom for other reasons, but are also, at my request, taking a final listen to our text. In the last forty-eight hours, we have been in several conversations with CCUSA staff about our material. We relish this part. These collaborators are members of the community from whom, for whom, and to whom we speak. There can always be issues of power and agency when one is invited into conversation with a hierarchical organization, even when its main goal is to create opportunities for its constituency to hear themselves reflected back. But we have been in dialogue with CCUSA for a while now, and there are no surprises in the way our partnership functions in these final hours. They listen thoughtfully, they help us consider how various sections of the script might be received, and they offer feedback on some of the nuances we are attempting to convey.
The Cadre Study scene is, in a way, one of the more challenging sections of the piece. Regarding this, our partners have given us a gift—through them, it has been our great fortune to spend time here in St Louis with one of the giants in the Catholic Social Justice Movement, Bishop Joseph Sullivan from Brooklyn. He helped write the Cadre Study. Now in his 80s, he sat with me yesterday, Monday afternoon, and read the scene. We then spent twenty minutes talking about its content and finer points. For me, a highlight of the Conference. We’ve not been asked to make a change to any material. We have, however, made some moments stronger due to smart, incisive feedback. Technical rehearsal is done. It is 8:30 in the morning. Our final keynote is at the end of lunch. We wait.
We are about to walk out in front of five hundred and fifty people. It is customary for some people to leave a conference early. These folks have stayed until the end. Which is us. We have listened to them, worked with them, made art with them and are about to represent them. We have heard stories of meaningful poverty reduction programs in Texas, in Nebraska, in Vermont, in California…the list goes on. We have explored with them the dynamics of tense community meetings, of staffs struggling with clashing values around offered services, of the debilitating and almost unavoidable burnout that can rob organizations of experienced leaders just when they need them the most. Their daily work is a series of encounters with people living in extreme need, and they have to be responsive and adaptable. At the same time, they work in relation to a larger system that some consider not entirely flexible. That tension can be challenging, and it can be a source of great creativity. As an artist, I don’t have to see my practice as strictly monological or dialogical. It’s not an either/or for anyone’s body of work, artist or institution. But I have to be responsible for paying attention to my “why” and my “what.” I have to frame for myself a project’s intention, which will guide me to its encounter with audience, which will lead me to strategies of engagement and participation. Decisions about process and form will follow, made either by myself with artistic collaborators, or made in partnership with non-arts partners, or potentially through a combination of these voices.
Throughout this trajectory of moments, of choices, noting whether the project’s frame is monological or dialogical will help me ground relationships and actions. We set out nine months ago on this Civic Practice project (which, for me, exists alongside Social Practice as a way to talk about the dialogical end of the theatre spectrum) to learn what this non-arts partner needed, and to then use our assets as artists to collaboratively design and then deliver experiences of theatre activity that would serve those needs. These past five days, that’s meant: an immersive participatory theatre event for sixty focused on policy; a workshop for thirty focused on collaboration; one hundred one-on-one interviews focused on teasing out conversations that benefit from quiet encounters and then helping to usher those into the larger conference community; facilitating an opening community building process for eight hundred; and now, we are about to put on a “show.” We are introduced.
1:44 PM Our lives in this work are filled with dichotomies. How we deal with Catholic doctrine and our mission to serve; how we deal with providing direct services and the daily needs of those who suffer while we advocate for programs that nurture long term self-sustainability and dignity. There are dichotomies and paradoxes… and that’s where prayer lives— real prayer. It’s taking the tension, the hardship, the conflict, and turning that, through love, into forward motion. A prayer is not a question; a prayer is not an answer; a prayer is a declaration of presence, of commitment, of belief. Prayer is both action and a signal towards the action promised. It is of us and outside us and about us and about everyone else. Prayer is you, in and of the world. In and of God. Declaring what you will and will not stand for. Prayer is being here, today. —The final lines of text from Sojourn’s interview based performance LEAN IN
October 2, 2012—3:30pm
The St. Louis Airport. I see, about thirty yards down the terminal, a man walking towards me with purpose. Father Larry Snyder takes my hand and says: That was wonderful- thank you. Everyone is talking about how well you got who we are—the challenges, the accomplishments. People feel heard. They’re saying that the performance is sending them home with a sense of closure, and full of energy. I know we’ll talk again soon. And we do.
Forty-Eight Hours Later
I get a call from Candy Hill telling me again how pleased they were with our work at the Conference. How the feedback is not just about the performance, but about the tools we shared and our general engagement over the days in St Louis. That our work as artists made a strong impression on attendees. She tells me that Father Larry wants to talk with us about a longer-term partnership.
After ongoing conversations and proposals, we’ve arrived at a plan. Sojourn Theatre will be Artists in Residence for Catholic Charities USA through Fall 2014. Between now and then, teams of Sojourn artists will conduct residencies as part of ten poverty reduction regional gatherings all over the U.S. in places that include Texas, Idaho, Maine, Kentucky and Louisiana. In addition, we will help CCUSA design the 2013 and 2014 National Conferences in San Francisco and Charlotte, N.C., respectively. We’ll be acting as dramaturgical consultants, in a way, for the structure of these events. We will also create performance, public forums and capacity building workshops along the way for every site. We have planning committees to partner with, locations to learn about and hopefully, theatre activity we have yet to conceive that will help us bring our assets to bear on challenges our partners face in their work to end poverty. As Sojourn pursues these sorts of partnerships (as well as continues its other non Civic Practice projects), and as the Center for Performance and Civic Practice supports this work across the field, I believe that in these non-traditional collaborations, in these encounters often far from buildings made to house performance, lives the potential for as yet unimagined opportunities of new work development. Opportunities in process, in form and in content. We just have to lean in, and listen.