The Volt (of resistance)

by Jay Ruby

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for The Volt (of resistance)

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

The word ministry awakens a sense of revolt in me. There is a cellular reaction of disgust to the general hypocrisy and failures of the “church”. Such a reaction seems far away from the intention of audience engagement and community development for the (R)Evolution salon but the sensation of revolt requires an inquiry. Beyond ideology what is the action of ministry? When religious connotation is removed from its given definitions, one is left with being a servant of place and caring for its residents. A Latin synonym is the word curate, from which curator derives, and at the root of which is the word to cure. To cure and to care. These words transform the revolting flavor of ministry that my personal bias associates with imposed dogmas and rigid belief systems. When you are curing and caring collectively for an audience you are providing a rejuvenation and/or a catharsis. Just because we are living in the digital age does not mean we have lost our need for care or to be cured by catharsis. The start of encouraging audience to attend live events may be located in recognizing the barriers to collective rejuvenation, rebuilding the accessibility of the commons and deconstructing the commodification of catharsis.  Unconscious identification with the hero narrative drives much of our present day rituals of catharsis through media to sports and entertainment. Can live theater match the win or go home drama of March Madness or American Idol? How can a center of artistic expression, be it a body, community, building or movement extend a quality of care and cure to reframe our focus and address the wounds and issues intimately living inside of us? How can a web of relationships overcome resistances to minister to needs that are not easily recognized?

What if we started by checking our assumptions of importance against the quality of our interactions and let’s pretend theater has no right to exist. NO building to exist in. NO subvention to guarantee existence. NO conference to affirm the condition of one’s existence. What is left to start with if NO body cares?  What is possible when starting at ground zero?

Street Theater is the most honest contract in the business….no waiting to see if the show gets better, no guilt about leaving the sermon or the box seats early, no remorse about having paid, no jockeying for position on center stage to promote an agenda. If you like it, you stay and enjoy the show. If you don’t like it, you leave… no social protocol is broken and no false pretense of appreciation is enacted. The contract is upheld by the traction of the attraction.

When Peter Brook was touring Africa in the 1970′s with his theater company presenting “The Conference of the Birds” they found that driving into the villages in their vehicles insulated them from the encounter with the culture of the village they were visiting; whereas walking into the villages and carrying their theatrical wares with them allowed the village to develop a response and to welcome their entrance. They chose to park their cars outside the villages and approach the village as the village was accustomed to people approaching.

Perhaps the size of the audience is secondary to what is the context and what is the intention. What if capacity is not seen as volume to fill, a quantitative relationship; but seen as activity, a qualitative relationship.

Context, Intention and Quality open the theatrical experience up to encountering intimacy, cultivating inclusion and integrating the unknown. These are the strengths of theater. They expand the periphery of the commons. They are the result of succesful catharses. They subvert the winner take all drama of entertainment sports media.

Perceive shifts in context to encounter intimacy.

For a few years when I was young I gainfully self-employed myself as a subway busker sing/acting songs for donations. It was outside the law, it was clandestine, and if done right provided joy and refuge from the anonymous and disconnected moments of mass transit travel within a city. In one session I would sing the same song 30 to 40 times in different subway cars. My audience was enclosed with me. It was a gamble.  Each time I walked into a subway car to share the truth of my song effectively I had to build alliances, determine needs and maintain vigilance. The subway police were possibly nearby and the passengers could “rat” me out. The quality of the song changed each time it was sung to enchant who was there. Catching the glance of a mother with a sleeping child in the late morning turned it into a lullaby; seeing a pack of rowdy young men on a friday night prowl turned it into a howler. Context carried the clues to connection. If I lost sight of the context I lost my audience….and my payoff. The insight of this practice was to continually perceive shifts in context.

Cultivating inclusion with intention.

Prescott, Arizona is a small mostly conservative and very republican town in Northern Arizona. In 1999 I founded an all ages contemporary performance art festival, entitled Tsunami on the Square, to present free performances for the public and pay the performers. We used the public steps of the county courthouse as a natural amphitheater.  When the festival started we did not have the money to print a quality program and I was not interested in a piece of paper that everyone would throw away. At the time I was listening to a mixed tape that had Flatt & Scruggs singing a short song called “Martha White’s One All-Purpose Flour”. It was a jingle for a sponsor. I realized the early tours of bluegrass musicians were supported by businesses to sell products. Advertising could be live performance. To raise money for the festival I walked door to door to the downtown businesses promoting our festival and offering to do a short skit about their business between larger acts. The Skitmercial was born. For two weeks before the festival my colleagues and I brainstormed funny, poetic, outrageous and clever two minute acts to highlight the local businesses through our performance work.

The Skitmercials became a defining feature of the event, eventually requiring a pre-festival dress up ticketed event where sponsors could see the premiers of the skitmercials.  Sponsors became involved in crafting and even starring in their own skitmercials. As performers our process and creativity served the immediate business community of the square around the county courthouse plaza. The skitmercials directed festival goers to the restaurants and stores that supported the festival. The skitmercials built face to face alliances with the downtown business community that advocated and supported the festival’s existence. Real support grew out of those face to face encounters; which included lobbying the city council to finance the festival, showing up at county meetings to prevent the festival from being moved and countering right wing radio attacks against the festival with narratives about the festival’s positive financial impact. The transformation of an economic relationship with a sponsor into advocate and partner enabled us to be both a cutting edge arts festival whose curation challenged and expanded the town’s perception of art and a family friendly all-day inclusive event.

The skitmercials of Tsunami on the Square amplified the presence of beneficial relationships in our context by sharing our capacity to place local businesses front and center in our event and more importantly in our creative process. We were not just asking for money and a program ad, we were asking business owners how our creative process could represent them in front of living, breathing people. The intention to share our process with the activity the businesses defined themselves by     cultivated a deep inclusion in which we cared for each other’s existence and mutual survival as part of the fabric of the town’s culture.

Quality integrates the unknown.

For the last decade I have toured globally with my company, the Carpetbag Brigade. Our performance work transcends the barriers of language by utilizing acrobatic stiltwalking to create dynamic open air spectacle-based drama performances. Our developed and refined artistic vocabulary approaches cultural divides and crosses them to encounter and integrate. We have found that clear perception and good intentions, while crucial are not enough. The pursuit of quality and its ability to integrate the unknown requires training and technique; not as an end in itself but as a means of creating fresh ground. When we pedagogically share our acrobatic stilt vocabulary it is to allow a new space of engagement to occur. The technique becomes the bridge because it grounds us in a common activity that allows the encounter to be one of mutual growth.

The pursuit of quality in our theatrical craft allows our work to find actions that transcend local differences and affirm the universal.  A strong quality driven technique births an aesthetic with appeal beyond the demographics of language, culture, age and class. Audiences respond to expressions that reflect their personal experience of the universal. For me, a successful show is one in which the members of the audience feel empathy with one another. The quality of the performance integrates its spectators into a temporal community where people begin to know each other.

Nurturing quality in your community is not just importing quality through curation, it is an act of creating the context for your community to develop quality. If you are a space how are you assisting in the development of training? If you are a programmer paying to bring in a company from abroad…are you having that company share their skills? Are you nurturing a process at the margins of your community to develop and present professionally within the center?

The practice of addressing context, intention and quality creates a true center. If a true geometric center is defined by equal distance to its margins – a true cultural center should parallel this dynamic by allowing equal access to the narratives that emerge from the center’s margins. The migration from the margin to the center is the birthplace of frictional truth; a truth both subjective and objective where the encounter between different narratives becomes the function of the center. Concentrating on context, intention and quality prepare us to receive essential encounters and develop a charge in our web of relations.

The charge inside Evolution and Revolution is the volt, defined electrically as the difference of potential that drives current against resistance. Putting that in the context of to care and to cure; let the cultural voltage that builds audience and develops community be defined as the difference of potential that drives the capacity to care against the resistance not to.

Jay Ruby choreographs action to animate social space and invigorate collective reflection. He cultivates spectacle-based drama using principles of precarity practice. Engaging in festal culture as an aspect of contemporary ritual he applies modalities of theatre, circus, and dance to address the inequities and wounds of our times. As founder and executive director of The Carpetbag Brigade, Jay stewarded the company’s innovative use of acrobatic stilting. With his colleagues he has pioneered its application in site-responsive, site-flexible, and site-specific works to function as a means of developing ensemble craft, propagate community empowerment, and activate cross cultural exchange.

Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.