What does the school to prison pipeline have to do with iSWOOP?

This past week I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s new performance piece called Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education. The piece as a whole holds up for comment and consideration multiple perspectives on the violence and incarceration that are just all too normal for young people of color. If you haven’t heard of Anna Deavere Smith before, she is said to have created a new form of theatre. Following her interviews with scores of individuals, usually on a charged topic, she creates theater works in which she plays all of the characters. So in each scene in Notes from the Field, Deavere Smith embodies an adult or youth speaking their minds. The lines are based on verbatim quotes from their interviews with her. By the end of Act 1, the audience has heard eyewitness accounts of stand-offs with police, school officials, an analysis of investment priorities, some angry voices, some desperate, some resigned.

The night I went, Deavere Smith took a curtain call at the end of Act 1 and told us that she comes from a tradition of call and response. It was now our turn. Each audience member had a small group assignment. Hundreds of us moved around the theater to find our groups where a facilitator encouraged pair sharing in response to a quote from the play. With partners we imagined how we might elicit more if we could have taken over the interview Deavere Smith conducted. Then we talked about how our question related to our own lives and perspectives. The facilitator didn’t stop there. Mine posed more questions to get us talking about our roles, our position in relation to the policies and cultural moment that have gotten us to this place where schools funnel so many youth from classrooms to prisons.

Do you see any connections to iSWOOP? I see a few.

Deavere Smith doesn’t want to assume audience members walk away with new personal or intellectual connections, inspired to do something. She makes a space for people to express and explore some of these new connections. The time in pairs signaled to me that voicing personal responses, giving our personal connections light and air maybe causes them to take shape and take hold even more powerfully than they would otherwise.

The idea of creating a new Act 2 every night, expecting audience members accustomed to sitting silently in the dark to walk to a new seat, to talk openly about their reactions, refining the questions facilitators ask of the audience over the course of the four-week play run, all of this is bold, very different from the standard formats theater-goers are familiar with. It takes courage to ask hundreds of people to move, literally and figuratively, from passive to active, from comfy, assigned seat in the dark to a circle with eye contact and provocative questions.

After about 30 minutes, the audience reconvened. Deavere Smith delivered a coda. The end was in her control. Whatever clichés or words of ignorance or insight that had been uttered were sandwiched between the planned and delivered lines Deavere Smith had arranged for impact.

Summarizing …

  • The actor/producer/director letting go of control for some portion of the evening
  • Creating time and space for audience member to audience member interaction
  • Experimenting with new formats for a performance
  • Controlling the last word

I left thinking about my iSWOOP interpreter friends who are sometimes hesitant to put visitors on the spot, who wonder if it’s a good use of time to get visitors talking to each other rather than hearing from the ranger. I left thinking about provocative questions and how quickly one can get to something personally meaningful in a conversation with a stranger. I wondered about how important Deveare Smith’s ending was and how conversations after the play were similar or different because of the group time for “Act 2.” On top of that, I left thinking about how we as a country can take advantage of this moment to change our investments and policies to decrease incarceration rates, but that’s another blog post for another time.

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