Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 3

Day 3 at Degage, the homeless shelter where I've started teaching a weekly theatre class.

Day 1: 2 participants.
Day 2: 6 participants.
Day 3: 1.

When there's decent weather, folks mill about on the corner outside the building. I saw Don there on my way in and asked if he'd join me again this week. "10:30?" "Yep." "Alright."

Inside I saw DeShonte, also a participant last week.

"You coming?"
"I'm too lazy."
"You had fun last week!"
"I did, I did, but it takes energy. I'm lazy. I'm hyper, too, but I run around here all day and let off steam."

Josh, how about you? "No thanks." Don? Where'd he go?

All these guys had a great time last week. Sometimes, though, its hard to force yourself to do what you know is a good thing if it takes a little work. Good thing this blog is about both theatre and exercise, because there are some parallels here.

A few new people expressed interest, forcing me to again face the question I've yet to figure out a quick answer for: What are these theatre games?

Of course I know what I'm doing and why. Theatre is a language through which human beings can engage in active dialogue on what is important to them.--Augusto Boal. I know that once I get you in the room, you'll enjoy yourself, even during the serious bits. But getting you there? Convincing you it will be worth it? And then convincing you to do it again? I'm no salesman. I second-guess what my audience wants to hear; I fear that if I use words like "acting" and "express yourself," I'll scare people off. One guy today told me he took acting in college, so I switched gears: "These are acting games, but many of them will get us talking about important things."

More than once I heard "You don't want these people expressing themselves"--from the mouths of the people themselves.

So why am I showing up week after week? Why do I think that the woman with the tiny new baby and a toddler with a black eye needs me and my theatre? Why do I think I should play games with men who look like they could knife me in a dark alley?

Sometimes I'm like DeShonte: I'd just rather not. I'm an introvert at heart, and I always come back to the question of why I'm in this field and why I have skills that should exclusively belong to extroverts.

I can't completely answer those questions today, except to say that I can't quite get certain pictures out of my mind.

Last week’s glorious airband, for one.

And the young woman in a Philadelphia shelter for at-risk girls who told me on the first day of our workshop that she'd never be released because she was "too bad." On our final day together, after many exercises, many workings-through of big topics like racism, I told her, "You're not bad, Gina. You're not."

"I know that now," she said.

I can't overlook that the one person who did want to play today showed up specifically for theatre, and had been with me on Day 1. “Sorry I didn’t make it last week,” she said.

And that the shelter got calls yesterday asking if there would be games today. That people were starting to feel comfortable with me, introducing themselves, telling me about their lives. I was walking the streets of downtown and calling people by name.

There's something in the air, and I need to stick around, linger on the corner. Wait for what happens next.

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Later this evening, I met with the director of The Open Door, the overnight women’s shelter on the third floor of Degage. Back when I had proposed this class to Degage, I always had these women in mind, but we thought we’d try it first during the day, when there are less activities going on.

“I told the women you were coming, that you wouldn’t be leading them tonight, but that you’d tell them a little about what these theatre games are.”

I protested just a little, pretty much word for word what I had written earlier in this blog post. And before I knew it, it was 9:45pm and I was standing in front of 15 women wearing pajamas.

Right away there were some yawns—it was late, after all—so I snapped my synapses to attention. I told them various things we’d try, the ideas behind them, and they were with me, nodding their heads in agreement.

I finished by telling them how I like to end a session.

“You have Bible studies here, right? There’s always that prayer request time where people talk about what’s been bothering them lately, what’s on their minds. Sometimes people talk and talk, and that’s fine; words are good. But I like to ask people to think about a concern they have and find a way to express it without words. Right here”—I gestured to the space behind me, where we do our games in the mornings—“a woman did this.” I cradled my arms and looked down to where a baby’s eyes would be.

“That’s all she needed to do. We could go ask her later, if we wanted, to tell us more about what she’s dealing with. But right then, that’s all she needed to do.” I paused. “Any questions?”

I looked up to find that a fair number of red eyes are looking back at me. And then one woman says, “My only question is…when do we start?”

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