Post image for Do No Harm

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.) 

I am writing my first play for Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles. For those who don’t know (they do exist) Cornerstone literally wrote the book on community engagement in theatre. Their plays are developed though a story circle/interview process and are ultimately performed in, by and for that community as well as a large audience of theatre supporters.  The key difference for me as the playwright is that although the entire development process is done with community members, this is not docu-drama.  I am given the freedom to write the fictional play I want to write, informed and inspired by the real stories I have collected.  It sounds great, right?  The best of what theatre can do.  However, as I face my first draft, it has already proven to be a process full of new issues.

I am a playwright who does a lot of research when I write. I forge personal connections with real people from the world I am writing about.  I believe that actual connection to the voices I want to represent is essential, but I have discovered that once you organize that connection into a specifically engaged community, everything changes.  What used to be fun interviews with new people becomes a relationship linked by marketing and grant applications and a two-year process under the umbrella of “the theatre company”. In some ways the umbrella draws people in, but it is also intimidating and official and full of expectations. For me it provides a safety net of people who can organize details and help me through the unique way they make theatre, but it also takes away some of the intimacy and fear of being out there by myself. I worry that knowing we need these relationships to last and grow over the next two years causes me to stay a little farther from the edge than I may go on my own.

I have come to realize that the number one rule for community engaged theatre should be “Do no harm.”  That sounds easy on paper, but it is much harder when you are dealing with real, complicated lives.  My words carry potential consequences.  Real life consequences.  The community I am writing about is not my own.  I am constantly asking myself, am I listening to reply or understand?  Both are legitimate views from which to write a play, but which one (or blend of the two) will benefit the community the most?  Which will benefit me and my employer?  Which will cause the least damage?  The umbrella of Cornerstone is large.  Art does have power.  I have never been more aware of it than I am now.

What am I going to do?  I don’t know yet.  (You’ll have to come see the show next summer to find out.)  Right now I have more questions than answers, but I do know that I am grateful to have so many people with experience in these issues by my side.  Cornerstone provides training in their process that I highly recommend before embarking on community engagement like this for the first time.  I am standing under their umbrella and ultimately grateful for the protection I hope it will provide us all.

Larissa FastHorse is a playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation.  Her produced plays include Average Family, Teaching Disco Squaredancing to Our Elders: a Class Presentation, and Cherokee Family Reunion.  She has written commissions for Cornerstone Theatre Company, Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis, AlterTheater, Kennedy Center TYA, Native Voices at the Autry and Mountainside Theatre.  She developed plays with Arizona Theater Company, the Center Theatre Group Writer’s Workshop and Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor.