Post image for Witness and Responsibility

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Innovation is not so much about making something brand new or finding new ways of making things as it is about changing ourselves and our audiences through the creation of an experiential transaction amongst us: opening up our sense of what is possible.

Innovate, from the Latin innovates, the noun form of innovare: “to renew or change.” In—”into” + novus—”new”.

Into the new.

I’m a second-generation Ukranian-Jewish person from a family where something terrible happened in the coming-into-the-New-Country, at the turn of the twentieth century. There was lots of shame, which meant there were no stories, which meant by the time I got to be about six, I was voracious for something — anything — that might explain the vague sense I had that something was terribly wrong. I was voracious for story, aka meaning.

We spent most of my childhood years moving from one place to another, mostly for my dad’s work (defense research). Moving into new cities, new schools gave me the opportunity to create new narratives about who I was and where I came from, which I’m sure served a purpose developmentally, but is also known as lying.

Narrative is what happened (or what we think happened). And for me, it’s raw material for the creation of what I call story, which I define as intent, which is active and dramatic. Yes, all these things may have happened, but the events themselves are not the story; it’s our job to select from the raw material of what we recollect (or what is shared with us as recollection), with the intention of transforming the perception of an audience or reader —  innovating — in a way that is specific and deeply personal.

I maintain an open relationship with the so-called “facts”: Fuck ‘em, I say: We’re talking about the truth here.

Much of my own work is based on personal and/or autobiographical experience, where there’s always way too much information to be of any interest or use, so the process of selection is essential. When our narrative is fictional, we intuitively create only the information we need to tell the story we want to tell.

Trauma is the central impetus for theatrical expression, both in terms of content, and in terms of the very present-ness of our meeting with an audience, and the intended effect (innovation) of that meeting.

When I set out to uncover the terrible thing that happened when my family first emigrated to the States, I pushed and pushed my 96-year-old grandfather to come clean. He eventually divulged the details of his father’s abandonment of the family — wife and four children — just a year after he brought them to the States. My grandfather was seven years old, the eldest son; his mother had just given birth to his sister.

That event defined not only the course of my grandfather’s life and his  perception of identity (“We could have been a respectable family”), but my own sense of emptiness and lack of meaning, two generations hence. Looking for Louie (2000) was my musing on if and how that injury might be healed.

In 2009, I was commissioned by Wolf Gruner, who holds a chair in Jewish History at the University of Southern California, where I was at the time on the faculty of the School of Theatre, to create a theatrical response to  materials in a new Holocaust and Genocide Research Collection, which lives deep in the bowels of Doheny Library at USC.

Amazingly, USC — ruled for decades by suspected Nazi sympathizer Rufus B. von KleinSmid (president from 1921 – 1946; chancellor from 1946 – 1964) — has become the home of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and Gruner’s multi-disciplinary 20/20 Resisting Genocide research cluster. And Shoah, under executive director Stephen Smith (he founded Aegis in the UK) has expanded its purview to include testimonies from Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, Sudan, and other sites of mass atrocity.

At the time I received Gruner’s invitation to dive into the Holocaust and Genocide Collection, I’d been working for quite a while on a solo play I was  commissioned to write in Israel (the project formerly known as The Dig) and had gotten involved with a loose cohort of artists writing “Genocide Drama,” who met under the auspices of NoPassport. I believe I was invited to join that cohort because I’m Jewish and should therefore be interested in the Holocaust, which I was not. However I had already defined the dynamic I experienced during the time I spent in Israel-Palestine during the second intifada as “post-genocidal,” and that is how I justified my membership in the cohort. I also deeply respected and admired the work of my fellow panelists, and was honored to be in their midst. [Tangentially, there are people I trust who know a lot more than I do who describe the dynamic in Israel as "pre-genocidal." I pray they are wrong and/or that projection will be thwarted.]

Gruner invited me to engage with the materials in that basement Holocaust/Genocide archive, and to make a performance piece based on what I discovered there, which was to be performed at the inauguration of the archive. It was excruciating and took forever, but it’s a powerful piece.

In the wake of that exercise, I became fascinated with how we, as artists, interact with testimony relating to catastrophe or trauma. We stand in witness to testimony (sometimes, self-testimony) and metabolize the narratives contained therein. What we produce gives form to events and experiences that are — in the raw telling — chaotic, horrific, with which most sane people must refuse to engage: we simply cannot breathe in their presence. But our utterly understandable and human refusal to engage is not benign: it begets denial, which begets perpetuation of perpetration of the atrocity or injury.

Think genocide (targeted mass murder); think domestic violence; think bigotry.

When we invite engagement by giving form to the formless — the senseless — we innovate. We make possible real change, on the level of the  individual, the community and the globe.

Think about the artistry — the mastery — that goes into creating an experience that invites audience engagement with and illumination of those dark, dark places.

And on another level, it has been shown that traumatic experience has real, measurable and detrimental physiological-psychological impact on the human body-mind-spirit. For instance, childhood abuse has been found to destroy empathic synapses in the human brain; they can actually measure that, in scans.

Is it possible, then, that the experience of an artistic creation might effect healing of that traumatic injury, again in a real and measurable way?

Is it possible that the very process of sorting through traumatic testimony — whether our own or that of others — in order to create form or order, which is story or intent … Is it possible that the honest inquiry of the creative process is itself essentially innovative?

I make my own work, guide others doing the same, and provoke creative process in communities where I believe that to be useful.

I have many friends and colleagues who are masterly practitioners of Theatre of the Oppressed, and I love that work for it’s ability to poke through the surface of what we assume and get to the possibility that something else might be, which is innovation.

I’ll often use TOC exercises with students and groups as tools for unearthing raw material.  Yet I am very much a producer; I am aiming always to create product designed for encounter/transaction with an audience. It may take fucking forever to create it — to discover something useful in all that muck — but that’s the road we’re on, and the inevitable collateral innovation for the artist, personally, is ultimately icing on the cake.

Headshot2STACIECHAIKENLos Angeles-based writer-performer Stacie Chaiken’s solo plays include Looking for Louie, What She Left, and The Dig (working title). She has appeared in her own plays and the plays of others on and off-Broadway and in theatres in the US and abroad. She’s the founder of What’s the Story? workshop, a Fulbright scholar in the field of Story and Performance, and has taught Master Classes in performance and autobiographical story at NYU, Hebrew Union College, Bar Ilan, and Tel Aviv Universities. Stacie is on the faculty of the USC Dornsife College of Letters and Sciences, where she is in the process of creating an ongoing multi-disciplinary initiative called Witness and Responsibility.

  • Sandie Richards

    Thank you, Stacie. I was so honored to witness the pieces that were recently presented at USC last April 9. I took my 13 year-old son, with the idea that this very kind of engagement with the stories of atrocities would introduce him to both history and responsibility in a way that could engage him without overwhelming him. It was a very fruitful evening for us both.

    For others who missed the performances, here’s a link to the website and information: