Warning: this is long. No pictures.
Tuesday, I went to Walden House in the Mission to watch a staged reading of Cracking the Safe, a Soapstone Theater production. Soapstone (a project of Community Works) creates theater in and outside of prisons, bringing together ex-offenders and survivors of violent crimes.
It wasn’t that I came with low expectations, but I was pretty sure what to expect. Community-based theater, especially that uses personal or oral history, tends towards first person storytelling, generally spoken directly to the audience. One speaker will come forward. Then another. Over the course of the play, the multiplicity of voices and stories will build to some gestalt, revealing a collective set of truths about its community.
Think Laramie Project, or The Exonerated, or any of Jo Carson’s oral history plays. Cracking the Safe didn’t stray from that from that model (which, in the past 10 years, has become its own genre with its own apparatus, on which more later). It’s rooted in the basic democratic premise that everyone has a story worth sharing about triumph or loss or love or pain.
Is everyone’s story interesting? Perhaps. A few weeks ago, I saw a one-man show, Confessions of a Mormon Boy, which, as you might guess, is the story of a gay Mormon man as he grows up, gets married, has children, suffers in the closet, comes out, gets ex-communicated, gets divorced, moves to New York, becomes a gay escort, sex sex drugs drugs, hits bottom and turns his life around.
He’s covering a pretty action packed stretch of life here, yeah? You’d think the show would have been, I dunno, interesting or something. But it wasn’t. The entire affair was pretty self-indulgent, in that “let me tell you my entire life story in chronological order so it feels like you’re experiencing it in real-time” way. He was a man acting out his therapy, not a performer engaged in art-making.
Catharsis is one thing, and of course art, at its best, will be emotionally transformative, but I don’t like therapy in my art. (I guess art used in therapy can be ok, though I’ve never really done that.)
Cracking the Safe certainly was influenced by a therapeutic model. Of course it was–the performers were all Walden House counselors, recovering addicts, and, by their own self-identification, survivors. One man shared childhood memories of his abusive father; another told the tale of a 1969 race riot in the Tracy, California prison. A woman traced rejection by her father to later addiction and abusive relationships; another woman talked about her infant son’s death while she was a crack addict. All the artists acknowledged, in their stories, learning to recognize and analyze the causal links between their diverse traumas and resulting patterns of self-destructive behaviors in order to create healthier lives.
Despite this, the play didn’t feel like public therapy. The stories were strong and beautifully written–well-structured vignettes of startling specificity, which didn’t need any explanation beyond the bare, heartbreaking details. The performers were all present and vulnerable, but told their stories without self-pity or the need for our approval (unlike our Gay Mormon friend; very like the new the Mountain Goats album The Sunset Tree, written in the wake of the death of John Darnielle’s abusive step-father).
Of course, a big part of the experience was the context. If a community is a set of people with shared given circumstances, this was genuine community-based theater. The audience was made up almost entirely of the Walden House members, meaning other people in recovery, survivors.
People tend to organize the narratives of their own lives in different ways: by geography, by major events, by relationships. At Walden House, the organizing principal narrative was that of recovery: first trauma (always, first trauma). Then reaction to the trauma through self-destructive behavior, leading to more trauma, hitting a bottom, then the process of recovery and recognizing the relationship between the trauma and negative behaviors.
When director John Warren (mad props, ladies and gents, please) asked the actors to discuss the process of play-making, they did not talk about theater games or automatic writing or talking circles or rehearsal or any of the things that surely happened as they generated and shaped material and came to perform it. They instead discussed the events of their recovery and how it felt to share such information.
The talk-back afterwards was a trip. A comment invariably started with “Hi, my name is [Joe],” and everyone automatically shouted out, “Hi, [Joe]!”, and Joe would share the ways he related to certain stories and experiences in the play, in terms of similar traumas and obstacles he had faced or was facing. A lot of naked, honest pain in that room. I kept thinking about the long passages about AA in Infinite Jest.
One of the actors, in response, discussed recovery, describing the point at which, in desperation, he agreed to just do what they told him in AA, without even believing in it, without even believing in sobriety. Do it first, believe it later. Fake it till you make it.
Which brings me back to Brecht, and a Brechtian contradiction. Brecht, in his High Marxist period post-Threepenny, wrote Lehrstücke, or “learning plays,” instructional and didactic fables performed by socialist workers choruses and schools in the early 1930s.
A major theme running throughout the Lehrstücke (like “The Measures Taken,” “He Who Says Yes/He Who Says No,” “The Exception and the Rule,” etc.) is that of the Decision (itself the title of Lehrstücke). You have to make the Decision, and the Decision is always: to accept Marxism, communism, the righteous political path–at the expense of individual happiness or expression or weakness.
Brecht’s formal innovation of having community participation in these pieces reflected this didactic purpose: first the audience would say the words, (those violent, Marxist, anti-capitalist words)–THEN they could agree. But first you say the words! Make the decision first, then you can believe in it.
But Brecht was doing it in stark opposition to what therapy does. His work was explicitly against the individual: for the greater good of society at the expense, in fact, of individual needs or personalities (a petit bourgeois invention, frivolous in the face of the needs of the revolution). When Boal began doing Theater of the Oppressed, he similarly had an anti-therapy (and anti-soap opera, melodrama) bent. He was interested in community expression as the means of political action, a rehearsal for the revolution. (In his older years, he’s married a psychologist and mellowed out about it, but still.) There was no therapy in the art.
Cracking the Safe had a lot of therapy in its art. And this type of community-based theater is often considered to have potential community-healing properties, community therapy on a larger scale, therapy for people engaged. Even though I liked Cracking the Safe, and was moved by the experience, and found it to be without the indulgences of therapy, it left me uncomfortable; I was uneasy on that border between therapy and theater.
After hammering at it, I figured out why. Many practitioners of the art would disagree that’s what they’re doing, and make the distinct efforts to not be therapy (Michael Rohd, Jo Carson, Anna Deveare Smith, the folks at Cornerstone). But that’s how this type of theater is often read, and practiced; it’s how community-based theater proliferates. That’s how it is understood, that’s how people relate to it.
Community-based, educational and therapeutic theater increasingly gets what little arts funding there is in America. It’s not funding for theater qua theater; what’s being paid for is not the temporal, disappearing play–but the educational tool, that which leaves an artifact of healing, the greater good in the community. We’re funding that shadowy end result, not the art.
I find it insidious, another phase of the bourgeois capitalist corruption of art: that there needs to be a product, or commodity on the other side. In this case, community healing becomes the commodity.