In the usual sense, I have always felt part of the community where I lived or taught. Perhaps the most surprising time I felt part of a community, however, was when I was thousands of miles and oceans away in India where I was doing a tour of my play, To the Death of My Own Family. Although I have lived and taught in Japan and Korea where I had to learn a new language and customs in order to adapt to these new countries and cultures, my visit to India provided a uniquely new understanding of life and community.
As disparate as this experience was on my travels through India, I found a special kinship in the community of theatergoers who were coming to see my play and filling houses large and small. These most memorable times began with sharing a cup of tea or coffee, perhaps a bite to eat, at the theater café before curtain. Many people arrived early in anticipation of what they were about to see and enjoyed conversation with whoever happened to be sitting at the next table. To my delight, I was among those people.
After the show, members of the audience gathered again in the café to discuss the performance and compare our communal experience, and it was a wonderful opportunity to speak to so many people who were eager to express their opinions and share their views. Thus, I confirmed how the power and beauty of words transcends borders and cross cultures to build community because theater goes directly to the heart. People invited me into their conversations and asked how I could touch them so deeply with my play, how I could know and feel what was in their hearts.
What they told me was what I have always believed—that we are who we are because of our stories—that storytelling continues the tradition of reaching out to others to pass on culture from father to son, mother to daughter, neighbor to neighbor, and from teacher to student; for without storytelling there is no culture. Without the community of writers, readers, teachers, students, and audiences, family, history, and identity are lost. Free expression is stifled, punished, and ultimately suffocated. Culture dies.
I returned from India enriched with a sense of universal hope that education, the arts, and culture close the gap between people, and differences can be shared and rewarded with friendship. As dramatists and storytellers, we are an integral part of this community.
I grew up in Indiana, and I couldn’t wait to leave it. After college, I threw my stuff in a van and escaped to Chicago, where I lived for seven years before moving to Minneapolis for graduate school. In both cities I surrounded myself with friends, artists and collaborators who “got” me, an easy solidarity.
Necessity (and a teaching job) brought me back to Indiana. My son was eighteen months old and my nascent household needed stability (and health insurance). I liked living closer to my parents, but I’ll never forget my first drive through this town, dubiously eying strip malls and chain restaurants, wondering what the hell I’d done. “It’s only for a year or two,” I whispered to myself. “I’ll get established as a teacher and move somewhere, anywhere, else.”
That was sixteen years ago. I never expected to fall in love. Ball State University, where I teach, is vibrant and welcoming, and our collective goal in the Department of Theatre and Dance is to nurture students to be genuinely good human beings, people you want to spend time with in a rehearsal room. The level of artistry that goes on here is always surprising to prospective students, and my colleagues are some of the most talented artists I’ve had the privilege to know.
But there is something about Muncie, too, that embodies hope. Sure, we have all the problems of a rustbelt economy trying to reinvent itself, but the bittersweet stories that permeate Muncie’s past and present are shot through with a courage and optimism that’s truly surprising. This place wants to be better, and I’ve witnessed it grow over the last sixteen years. We have a long way to go, but that hope vibrates so close to the surface it practically shimmers; it’s intoxicating, and keeps me here, wondering what’s next.
As a playwright, I try to illuminate complexities in the human condition. It’s so easy to dismiss this place as a red-state backwater, and I scream in frustration through every damn election cycle but living here makes me want to do the work, to make change when and how I can. And when friends and colleagues visit, I think they understand, too.
I love New York, LA, Chicago, Minneapolis. I travel and cultivate my artistic community far and wide. But I live here, and it surprises the hell out of me every day.
I had recently moved to New Orleans for grad school. I was coming from NYC, where I had an abundant sense of community. Not only did it seem like every other person I met in New York was at least tangentially involved in the performing arts, but I was also part of an incredible theatre group, The CRY HAVOC Company, that held a weekly workshop that often focused on the development of new writing.
Grad school was going well, but I was still feeling isolated from the larger New Orleans theatre community.
Then I got a Facebook message late at night. A choreographer who had acted in one of my plays, ten years prior, when we were both undergrads, was working on a show that was going into rehearsals in one month. There was one big problem: the show wasn’t yet scripted. They needed a playwright.
I hadn’t spoken with this person in a decade but working together back then, we had become equal members of a permanent micro-community.
My career has had boom and bust periods, but one reason I have never despaired, never considered abandoning the art and craft of playwriting is because of one steadfast belief. Many people preach persistence, but I trust that if I persist while doing the work to be someone others want to be around, that the big success will come. For me it’s about intentional persistence. And that intention creates community.
That surprise opportunity led to a long-term relationship with the National WWII Museum, where they produced two of my scripts, the second one they also asked me to direct. This never would have happened without the personal connections that came from reaching beyond the laptop, beyond the desk, beyond the office, to connect with the people who take the time to inhabit my plays.
Cedar Rapids, IA
The first time I ever asked permission to enter a community for the purposes of writing a community-based play was at a Wahiawa neighborhood board meeting. After presenting my proposal, a man sitting across the room, stood up and accused me of being a “white missionary woman with good intentions” but in the end I would only hurt the community I wanted to work with. After 40 years of living in Hawai‘i, I was hurt by his comment, but not surprised.
Soon after that debacle, I held a community story circle and met a woman of Hawaiian/Russian descent named Jo-Lin Kalimapau. She came from a family that is entrusted to care for a sacred place near Wahiawa that I am not even allowed to name. She listened to me talk about my plans for the play, and firmly said, “This is not pono (righteous)!” And I asked her what she meant. She proceeded to give me a lesson in cultural appropriation that I will never forget and then she told me what I could do, “You may collect stories like beautiful flowers in a lei, and then you can carefully string them in an order, picking the best flowers and making sure they fit together in a beautiful way. You may edit, but you may not change.”
By working with Jo-Lin and others, I have learned that when a person of another race and culture gets upset with me, it is often because I am not being “pono,” not because I am white. They are not striking out against me personally. If I listen, keep my mouth shut, and change my behavior accordingly, I gain their trust and respect. As I learn those lessons, I never suffer the same problems again.
Last Friday, a writer of Filipino descent approached me about a book she has written. It is a collection of stories submitted by local Filipina women and we talked about the possibility of taking a selection of those stories and shaping it into a play. I told her I would see if I could find someone of Filipino descent to help. Her mouth opened in surprise, “Oh no. I want you to do it.” And I asked, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have someone of your culture?” She said, “Oh no. You have the sensitivity we need.”
These days, I often find myself being the only white person in the rehearsal room. I am called when a friend from another play I have written years ago is in the hospital, and I often get invited to a community meeting because I am considered part of that community even though I live on the other side of the island. As a community-based playwright, I have become part of the fabric of the communities I work with, and that is a very unexpected privilege and responsibility.
When I lived in Duluth, Minnesota in the 90s, I had decided to put together a small creative writing group. For me, I wanted to be able to hear new scenes read out loud and I was looking for artists who I really looked up to. I invited a physician assistant who did a lot of acting on the side in community theatre, a college professor who wrote poetry, a college professor who taught playwriting, and an oil painter artist who also did costuming on the side. In our first gathering, we all felt a bit hesitant and awkward due to the fact that we all worked from such different mediums and different professions. In essence, we really didn’t know each other that well at all. So after talking a little about ourselves and our experiences, we delved into our first writing topic. I suggested we all creatively write about something under the theme of Death and Relationships. We would come back in a month and read what we would have.
The next month arrived, and everyone had something in hand. One writer wrote in poetry about the fears of death. Another wrote a scene about the death of someone close. Another yet, wrote in story form. This writer touched on a personal brotherly conflict that was now buried by years of neglect and surface relationship. What blew us all away that night was how personal all of these pieces were. We all were so moved by what we were experiencing that we began to forget that we all barely knew each other. Magically, our life work, titles, and accomplishments seemed irrelevant. We were learning about each other in ways that broke down all those barriers and walls of social protocol, scholarliness, and one-uppedness. Suddenly, we were people, simply people who realized that we all have suffered pain, loss, and loneliness in our lives. The simple act of this writing exercise brought us closer together than ever imagined.
Magic happened in that room that night. Community happened in the most basic and instinctual way. We were stripped down to the bare essentials of our own humanness. We became one in our emotional nakedness. We were family for the rest of our writing days. God, the power of the pen…
The sense of community that utterly blew me away came when my day job was “theatrical publicist.” In 2011, I was working on WORD.VOICE, the spring showcase of PlayWrite, Inc. PlayWrite produces workshops where theatre professionals coach at-risk youth to create and direct their own plays. In order to write about the performance, I wanted to see the process, so I sat in on the workshop.
The students, the kids, come from a variety of programs and situations. Abuse and abandonment are common. The first day, a handful of kids (ranging from sullen to uncertain) take in instruction from three teachers, who happen to be well-known and respected local theatre artists. Each kid is to write a play, then learn how to direct that play, then do it. Most have never even seen a play before. Disbelief, distrust, curiosity and hope mingle on young faces.
Very succinctly, the hippocampus plays a key role in the human ability to turn experienced events and their associated emotions into memories. The PlayWrite workshop is crafted to stir the ineffable bits, providing an opportunity for young people to “unscramble complex emotional experiences into narrative form.” It is a professional, rigorous process.
Each young writer’s short play usually has two characters, neither of which can be human. I saw kids struggle, get angry, work through it, make decisions, and gain confidence. As the kids begin learning how to direct their plays, again they are supported by caring pros, but the choices are theirs. The workshops culminate in an evening performance open to the ticket-buying public.
As a writer, I know the thrill of watching actors walk the stage and say lines I created. As a human being, I know few thrills greater than watching an at-risk kid (who three weeks ago was alienated and angry) discover that he fits in an artistic community—and experience the potent healing power of creativity. As one young graduate, who had spent most of her life in foster care, said: “When I first saw my play performed, it was so intense. . . The experience has been a really good way to release all that is inside me, to write about it, and have it presented.”
“Art is a revolt against fate.”—Andre Malraux
I was guest artist brought in by Central Michigan University located in small town Mount Pleasant, Michigan. If you don’t know where this is, take your hand and use it as a map. Make it the state of Michigan. Directly in the center of your palm is where I was. You travel eight miles in any direction and you will come to a river. Mount Pleasant is located one mile from the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Nation. On this reservation there is a place called Andahwoh, [which] means “Honoring Our Elders” in the Anishinaabe language.
I went to Andahwod, better known to many of us as an elder center, [and those] who live there are survivors of passed down historic trauma from boarding schools, from assimilation, even gambling (but they still like to play a little bingo). As you can image, the atmosphere is heavy. Elder’s faces are wrinkled like raisins, jaws held tight from decades of holding feelings and expression inside. The days I was there was a door-decorating contest. Some had construction paper cut outs of Native children and floral patterns taped to the door. I was going to do research for a play because I missed my mean grandmother. I missed when she took me to Nokomis Club with her and I had to wait on people.
As I approached a table of a bingo game, I asked if I could sit down. An elder pointed with her lips for me to take a spot. Another frowned at me for talking. B32! B-3-2. BINGO! Someone shouted and won. The prize? A dragon stuffed animal. It was neon green. It was funny. The game was done. We sat and looked at one another. To myself, I’m thinking, “I should take out my computer or notebook, I need to take notes. I need to get some writing done.” But I didn’t do that. I said, “I like your dragon.” The women giggled. When [their] laughter died down, I asked, “What does water mean to you?” They started talking about everything from water to the last scene on Game of Thrones and why Khaleesi had two dragons. What was surprising was the generosity and trust the elders had in talking to me. I believe it was because all I had to do was listen. Maybe the dragons helped a little too.