Directors Lab Chicago: structures and systems

The last four days have been so intense. We’ve been having deep discussions about race, gender, sexuality, and representation. There are twenty directors in the Lab, several of us with international backgrounds, and everyone approaching the topic with a different set of personal experiences and familiarity with systems of oppression in the USA. The conversations have sometimes been very painful. I’m grateful to the group for being brave and staying with those conversations, and grateful for yesterday’s sensitively-moderated session that seemed to clear the air of the tension that was building.

I’ve learned so much about how to be a better ally, alongside many kindred artists. It was such a gift to be part of a discussion in which many others were voicing the thoughts in my head. Collaborative allyship is the most powerful; curiosity, empathy, sensitivity, and compassion are our most important tools.

Throughout the lab, I’ve deepened my understanding of the systems that govern our lives – whether we like them or not, whether we see them or not. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, in relation to Open Space and breaking down the traditional theatre hierarchy that most western artists take as given: playwright at the top, served by the director, who tells the actors and designers what to do. It’s hard work to establish an alternative system: first we have to imagine a new system, dismantle the old one, and then constantly check the assumptions we’re making.

So hierarchy is one thing. Patriarchy is another. Capitalism is yet another, and I have been noticing so much capitalist language in theatre: the idea that audiences ‘consume’ our work as a ‘product’, or that making art ‘is a business,’ or that we need to get ‘buy-in’ from various ‘stakeholders’ in the organisation or in the community. What would our art be like if we spoke about it differently? Language shapes the way we think – what could theatre be like if it were shaped differently? If the performance space were a circle? If we didn’t divide artists and audiences with a fourth wall? If the structure of collaboration were not top-down but level? We can choose.

Caution: worldview under construction.

I’m realising that Open Space is doing some of this work to restructure the way that I work with other artists, and for a while now, I have been much more interested in interactive performance than proscenium theatre… these structures better serve the values at the heart of my work. Throughout this week, I am feeling my understanding deepen and expand, and I am excited to spend some time after the Lab researching other structures, finding out more about how other cultures and societies organise themselves around their values.

My new friend Daniella has suggested that I write a book on this topic of structure/culture/language/theatre… what a terrifying and exhilarating idea!

Step one: declare intention. Done.

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