Archives For learning

A scene from late summer 2016:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I enter a Metro train at the rear and take a seat. I can see the entire car. It’s partially full, populated with the typical diversity of people that ride that line in the middle of the day–a mix of ages and races, suits and casual wear, obvious tourists and those who seem more like locals.

There are two female teenagers talking and laughing in the bank of seats directly in front of me. For two station stops they remain in their own world, focused on cracking each other up. But then their attention turns to a couple, an early-20s woman and man, sitting in the bank of seats immediately to their left.

“Hey. Hey!  HEY!”

One of the teens repeatedly tries to get the young woman’s attention.

After numerous “heys,” she switches to: “Is that your boyfriend? Hey! Is that your boyfriend? Hey, HEY! Are you two together? Are you dating? Is that your boyfriend?”

The male in the couple appears to realize the teen is addressing them. He nudges his female companion, they confer, and she looks at the teen. “Is that your boyfriend?” The woman shakes her head and he says “No.”

“Oh, you’re just friends,” says the teen.

“Yes. Just friends.”

The teens burst into laughter.

They start again: “Hey. Hey. Hey, do you speak English?” The young woman and man attempt to ignore, but it’s difficult. Impossible. The teens’ volume increases and they were already loud enough to draw all of us in at the start. Most everyone on the train was listening, watching. After repeating “do you speak English” five or so more times, the woman responds “no.”

The teens crack up again.

Then they start in a new direction: postulating how the couple must talk.  It’s basically unintelligible except for phrases like “ching-chong-china.” A middle-aged woman a few rows away whips her head around and stares coldly at the backs of two teens’ heads; she rises and moves further away on the train.

Finally, a woman in her mid-50s who had been sitting to my immediate right the entire time approaches the teens and says something in a low voice just before exiting the train. The two are quiet for a moment, but then laugh and continue with their mockery of the way people of Asian heritage speak.

I exit the train two stops later having said nothing.

The teens were African American. The young couple was of Asian heritage; possibly Southeast Asia. The older woman, who spoke to the teens, was African American. I am White.

While I want to analyze the other racial dynamics at play, the only one that matters is the big one, the one I recognized immediately and then ignored: White Fragility.

I witnessed this entire scene play out some four months ago and did nothing. I recognized immediately my inaction was the result of White Fragility and I tampered the urge to overcome it. In the moment, I actually assumed that no one on the train was expecting me to do anything because I am White and everyone else involved were People of Color. I feared becoming the object of the teens’ focus; I didn’t want to be teased and harassed. I just wanted it all to go away or for my stop to arrive as soon as possible so I could get off the train. So I burrowed into myself and took no action.

This was a Huge Fail.

Let me say that again.

A. Huge. Fail.

But what it doesn’t mean is I am a Failure or a Bad Person.

I learned a lesson that day about how vigilant I needed to be, to hold myself accountable in the moment. I cannot allow me to talk myself out of taking a just course of action. Interrupting behavior(s) can be done gently, with strangers. If I end up in an uncomfortable/undesirable position as a result, I will survive it. It will be nothing compared to what People of Color encounter and endure on a daily basis. But I know if the White person on the train doesn’t say something next time, she won’t the next time, or the next time, or the next time, or ever.

And I also know if I didn’t share this story, it would allow me to hide it instead of learn from it.

Melanie here. Welcome to the fourth go at this blog post.

In the previous three tries, words all sort of fell out of my brain – a big jumbled mess of ideas and self-admonishments and details about what happened that were suddenly coming back to me. All in all, it was a little overwhelming. To think back on a time when I was doing the best I could, and then ask, what could I have done better? was a daunting concept.

At NAMPC this year, I heard a low grumbling from several attendees about the kinds of projects that come up over and over – major success stories. These are awesome, and everyone loves to hear a good success story… but what about the big hairy mess-up stories? What about the stories where you trip and scrape your knee a little? How do you get up, recover from those pitfalls? While this post isn’t about a big hairy mess-up ™, it is about a project that was a little off-base, that didn’t quite achieve what it set out to do: bring the art, artist, and audience closer together. Instead of picking it apart like a turkey carcass, I’m going to pull out three important things I learned from this one particular project.

To set the scene: in their 32nd season, Woolly Mammoth produced Jason Grote’s play Civilization (all you can eat). At the time, I was flying solo in Woolly’s connectivity department, so a lot of the formulation and execution of the engagement activities fell to me. The show presents a constellation of characters, all loosely connected to each other, who are all trying to wade through life in the wake of a recession. There is also a character named Big Hog, an anthropomorphic pig, who escapes the slaughter house in order to “make something” of himself.

Now: for what I learned.

ONE. In new play development-land, it is really difficult to try to craft a plan to deepen the audience’s investment in the work when the work keeps changing. And you need to forgive yourself and stay flexible, focusing on the entry point as much as you can (or whatever theme remains true that will serve as a filter for your ideas.)

TWO. It is more helpful to take a step back from your work than it is to keep shoving your nose into the grindstone. The most fruitful moments of discovery for myself, as well as the dramaturg and director of Civilization, was during an open read of the show with a bunch of community members, friends of Woolly (read: audience) over some pizza and beer. Their feedback and reflections on the performance was drastically different from what the team assumed the audience would get out of the play. While this was just one sampling of folks, it was still a great indicator that the engagement plan we had was being built on our own assumptions of what the audience would want to engage with before and after the production, instead of what they actually needed.

THREE. Simplicity in design is so important. I sunk a lot of money into an activity that I wanted to do in order to illustrate the concept of “selling out” by getting folks to do ridiculous things for consumable prizes (free drinks at the bar, snacks, etc.) A few people engaged with it, not for lack of interest but I really think for lack of understanding. There were too many ways to engage with the activity (there were three different activities you could do within this ONE activity, ::facepalm:: ) and the directions were not super clear. Most importantly, the core of the activity did not have enough meaning in it: so what if people wear a pig nose to get a free drink? What is that really saying about the nature of “selling out”? How is that really even “selling out” at all? It was easy to get caught up in the little details and the gimmick of the activity without making sure it fit through my entry point lens.

And, as I promised myself, I’m going to stop there.

Since this project I have continued to fill my connectivity toolbox and sharpen my skills. I still have not figured out time travel, so while I can’t go back and change the past (and why would I? wouldn’t that mess up my future?!) I can carry these lessons with me into the future and identify similar pitfalls as they come up.

Here’s hoping we’ll all keep talking about our mistakes so that we can all learn from them.