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Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rudyespi82/sets/72157634799224380/ (credit Rudy Espinoza)

I’m always humbled doing theatre work with communities. On Thursday, July 25, over 50 Lorena Terrace residents and friends turned out to watch a performance created by the 6 youth and two adults who attended my Theatre of the Oppressed workshops at Lorena Terrace. The youth had built an entire set on their own before I even got there, complete with a too-small paper house, a cardboard cop car, and a jail made of streamers. The ‘thug kids’ even went and got temporary tattoos. The 10-minute scene, created by the youth themselves in our last two workshops, dealt with bullying in schools, overcrowding and lack of attention at home, and peer pressure as factors leading to petty crime with serious consequences.

imageBut this wasn’t just a show, it was a Theatre of the Oppressed project, and so we used the short piece as a springboard into discussion of the issues the youth wanted to talk about. Family and friends gave some real insight into how a lack of affordable housing, overwork, and financial strains affected their young people. The audience talked about solutions and went from spectators to spect-actors, as a few members of the audience came onstage and tried to solve problems in the scenes. The least effective solutions were shouting and trying to enforce adult authority—what worked better was channeling the youth’s energy into constructive means, talking to them about potential programs they could get involved in and how those programs could give them the skills for real-world jobs where they would get *paid*. Most of the proposed solutions involved more talking and more communication, and many of the interventions were about talking to the youth from different positionalities (peer, neighbor, parent) to try to influence their behavior.

Part way through the Forum of audience interventions, one of the youth actors came up to me and said, “can we make them all do scenes?” I thought for a split second, but the answer seemed obvious: yes. With 50 people, we would never have time to allow everyone to intervene and the narrow confines of the scene we created might marginalize certain issues that others thought were important. So I asked the audience to split up into groups of five, choose an issue related to what we had presented and a solution that they thought would work, and create a short scene to show everyone what that would look like.

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The results were spectacular—the adults and teenagers stayed and played (and argued!) openly in front of one another until well after it got dark and their children went back inside. Many of the scenes dealt with bullying and pressure, but with a multitude of new perspectives, from scenes of all women to a discussion of discrimination based on skin color within the Latino community. The theme of technology as a new third party in relationships between children and parents emerged. The parents argued—and disagreed—about acceptable ways to discipline their children in the US as compared to Mexico. The scenes ranged from 2-minute demonstration pieces to entire novellas with a love interest and death at the end. Parents played children, children played authority figures, women played men, and a group of teenagers encouraged a friend with Down syndrome to take part and he became the star of their piece not as a helpless victim but as ‘part of the crew’.

Partly because I had begun with young actors, the focus on the problems and solutions presented remained small, at the family scale. We discussed systemic problems of poverty to some extent, but mostly we talked about communication and relationships. In the future I would push to make interventions more ‘activist’ and really get at how to take action to solve the root problems of many of the scenes. But as always with this kind of work, as far as I’m concerned the main benefit is creating a space for serious dialogue through play. By incorporating play, participants who would not normally be active in this kind of dialogue have a chance to be heard and to develop a set of skills for critical engagement.

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I’m working as a volunteer starting this Thursday running a two-month workshop series in my nonprofit’s affordable housing. I’ll use Theater of the Oppressed techniques to talk about money with low-income immigrant folks in East LA. We will meet weekly on Thursday nights from May 2-June 20, culminating in a workshop performance on Friday June 21. We are going to exploring family and community conflicts (and solutions!) with an eye to the human side of finances.
I’m trying to really explicitly theme each session and make sure I understand going in how each facet can be related to conflict, and at what scale, so I know thematically exactly what I want to explore. Our financial coaching people are going to come to the classes as well to learn how to do popular education more, so it will be an interesting mix of residents and experts and hopefully will be fruitful. This should, combined with an older target audience, get us around some of the barriers we had talking to indigenous folks about money in Ecuador.
Bellow is the breakdown of the project, as it exists in my head before starting out:

Schedule:


May 2-June 20, Thursday evenings 6:30-8:30: 8 total workshops, 2 hours each, plus a culminating performance with public outreach and an audience (50-100 people) on Friday June 21.


Workshop Flow:


  1. 15-30m of group warm-up that works on voice, body, and team-building.

  2. Presentation of the topic

  3. 15-30m Topic discussion. Sometimes it will just be sitting in a circle discussing it, sometimes it will be public speaking training where everyone has to come up with an argument around it to present, and some days it will be reading a few paragraphs and working on reading comprehension and analysis.

  4. 50-80m Break-out into pairs or groups to develop short scenes (10-20m), present scenes back to the group (10m), and work through solutions using role-playing and discussion (30-60m).

  5. 10m Discussion and closing.

  6. Optional: 10m Guest presentation (on days with guest ie CW folks on related ELACC programs)



Workshop Topics:


    1. Money

  1. Conflict: Lacks and surpluses, what are the dangers of having too little and too much money? Who has money in families and how does that affect their relationships?

  2. Questions: How does money affect the family? What is money? Where does it come from? Who has it and why? How does it come into communities and how does it leak out?

    1. Savings

  1. Conflict: Needs now vs later, using institutions, who saves in the family vs who doesn’t and what conflicts does this cause?

  2. Questions: What and where do you save? Who saves? What are the different kinds of things you can save (ie you can save favors, save time) and save for? How do you save (CW tie-in)

    1. Debt

  1. Conflict: Owing vs having, future repercussions of present needs, who you borrow from, who owes and who borrows what in the family (similar conflicts to savings)?

  2. Questions: What do we owe? $$$, debt to our parents, debt to the environment. How can you mitigate debt? (possible CW tie-in)

    1. Credit

  1. Conflict: Do you trust someone to give them a loan? Are you trusted, and by who? How does this extend money relationships beyond families and what conflicts do you get there?

  2. Questions: Do you take/make loans? Why and why not? What is trust, for individuals and institutions, and how is it developed? How do you get good credit and what do you do with that? (CW/LURN possible tie-in)

    1. Entrepreneurship

  1. Conflict: Who do you work for? How do you hustle? Now we are really outside families and in the communities, what conflicts does this bring?

  2. Questions: What is work? What is a business? How would you start one? How would you formalize it? Who would you go to? (possible LURN tie-in)

    1. Homeownership/Foreclosure

  1. Conflict: What can stop you from buying/keeping a house? We’re back to families and their conflicts.

  2. Questions: What does having a home mean for a family? What types of home are there? What does it mean for something to be ‘home’?

    1. Bringing it together

  1. How do all of these things relate? What do we want to present and how can we tie it together?

  1. Creating the Performance

  2. Performance: A mix of skits from different days, 2-3 skits total (5-10 minutes each, 15-30m total) with conflicts that touch on multiple topics. These should be ‘hard answer’ skits with no obvious or glaring solution. We will invite the audience to choose one skit to work on, and role play different solutions (30m-1hr total).

     

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I am spending August to November 2012 in the Ecuadorian Amazon on the invitation of an anthropologist friend of mine who asked me to come down and do theatre with young people from the Shuar Nation. It’s an incredible opportunity to do theatre with people who have no prior conception of what that means. I am mostly using Agosto Boal as a conceptual framework to try to create political theatre with a project of participation and empowerment. We have two month-long workshop sessions, with the first culminating in a performance at a political assembly with Alberto Acostar and Marcelino Chumpi (a presidential candidate and main author of the Ecuadorian constitution and the prefect of this province of the country) and the second session culminating in a short performance tour of Amazonian cities.

I am keeping a detailed blog of the project here:

http://ecolture.tumblr.com/

An excerpt about our first performance:

How is it I haven’t written up Saturday’s performance!? It went very well, people were super receptive, remembered loads of little details and connections afterward, and the presidential candidate shook my hand and said, ‘gracias, era muy lindo’. The real test was on the bus later that night, drinking some form of hard-grain jungle liquor with people from the assembly and showing them the video, listening to them making connections to historical events and even remembering some of the lines word-for-word. People found it very funny laughed a lot whenever anyone died, when the police officer did her ominous/evil laugh, and when the oil miners sang the national anthem while Shuar women begged and died of thirst and hunger. So death is comedy. But they also applauded at some things said in the mock-political speeches. Also the federation president had me come up and introduce myself and assured everyone that even though I looked like a dirty miner I wasn’t, so there was no need to kill me. Which continues to be nice.
The story was divided into roughly three parts, representing the past, present, and future. At the beginning, the state starts to make incursions into indigenous territory to mine oil until the indigenous people gather and have a march, during which one is killed, the leaders jailed, the radio cut off, and the entire people called ´terrorists´. Which is what actually happened. The next segment was the consultation, which was mostly an excuse to have each actor get up and give a short speech in front of everyone highlighting why oil mining will be damaging. Given the fear of public speaking and its importance in political life here, this was the bit the actors were most keen on. In the final part, representing the future, miners entered in spite of the consultation and the local people were killed, imprisioned, or coerced into joining the mining effort. The play ended with the miners singing the Ecuadorian national anthem as Shuar women begged for food and water (one of the actresses went right up to the presidential candidate to plead—gutsy!) and finally died.
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Following a successful Fringe run I was invited to perform/write at the Rogue Artists Ensemble’s Fool Fest in Downtown LA. My first night gig, I bashed out around 15 poems in weak light, with a break in the middle to play a satyr at the Rogue’s awards ceremony. At the festival I learned that there is in fact a Fool’s Guild, and met its king and queen. I wrote them a poem, which they have, foolishly, no doubt, included in their quarterly publication. You can find the whole thing online here: http://foolsguild.org/TwoNeezaparteFinal.pdf.

The poem is bellow. Beware, contains Harry Potter joke. Hey, I never said it was great art.

THE KING OF FOOLS

       had a chuckle stuffed up his boot

  and a runny nose

          when he went

       to court

                   he dribbled

plastic dog poop all over

             the carpet

His queen loved him

      more than all the world

      she often said,

               ”Nitwit_6

                          flobber$

    SQUEAK”

When the jokes grew tired

       they put them to bed

            with satin sheets

And tumbled in after.

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A great write-up in Bitter Lemons on June 22: http://losangeles.bitter-lemons.com/2012/06/22/hollywood-fringe-profile-the-poetry-store/

Hollywood Fringe Profile: The Poetry Store

By Amy Tofte

Need to kill some time between shows at the Fringe? You can always order up some thoughtful imagery from the Poetry Store located at a TV tray and folding chair in the ArtWorks parking lot.

I met the store’s proprietor, Brian Sonia-Wallace, last night as I waited for the start of a 10:30pm show. He helped me place my order by requesting a theme. Since my brother arrives tomorrow from NYC and he’s staying with me, I offered the theme of “a really messy house.”

And then I stood there and watched the artist work as he hammered out my poem on a 1940s Smith-Corona manual type-writer. People gathering for shows smiled as they walked by, watching us.

“Yes,” I said to them. “This handsome, young man is writing a poem. For me.”

Of course, I intended to pay him. His sign reads, “Pay me what you think it’s worth.” It’s not like I’m anyone’s muse here. This is what it’s come to. Please don’t tell my mom.

A seasoned Poetry Store manager, Sonia-Wallace describes himself as a writer, director, poet, activist…he’s an artist. He creates his poems on demand through a combination of the suggested theme, the person requesting it and his own artistic wheels bridging the gaps.

“I’d love to put together an anthology/ethnography of the people of LA through poems,” he describes the body of work he’s accumulated. “Because what I really do is become a bit of a fortune teller. People are always amazed at what comes out of the poem and relates to them.”

The Poetry Store will be open in the ArtWorks parking lot for the rest of the Fringe. You might catch him (or other Poetry Store guerrillas) throughout LA in unexpected places. He also plans on setting up shop at the upcoming uber-hip annual arts party Fool Fest for the Rogue Artists Ensemble on July 20th.

As I waited for my poem to be written, I listened to that now rare sound of a manual typewriter clicking away and pausing for thought. Watching an artist work. How do I put a price tag on that?

When the poem was done, he read it to me. I was slightly blown away. I was expecting maybe three lines of silliness. But that is not what I got. And it was perfectly laid out on a small rectangle of paper. It was beautiful.

I gave him all the cash I had left. $10. And I love my new poem. Money well spent. Check it out…

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My piece ‘Heirloom’ will be featured in the Healthy Environments Across Generations Conference held by the New York Academy of Medicine this June. Information here: http://www.healthandenvironment.org/uploads/docs/UnpavingflyerFIN.pdf).

Heirloom

Dad always grew tomatoes

They were his pride and joy

So when the lady outside Home Depot

Offered me the box and said,

‘Do you have a garden?’

I didn’t say no, though I should have

I said, ‘We have a theatre…’

And somehow that was just as good.

It grows like a weed in Hollywood

In the cracks between Film and Industry

It was a grease monkey’s garage, then a shooting range

But only now

Can we call the people who run it clowns.

We put the tomatoes out

On the air conditioning supply unit

To try to add some poetry to that phrase.

Today is tomatoes in the parking lot

Tomorrow is white roof, filtered water, solar

panels, cycle racks, urban garden, green

building, public plaza, artist’s village

To build a cultural heritage for the city

I once heard described as ‘Hell’s parking lot’

Tomato by tomato

Because nobody dreams as hard as poets

And nobody works as hard as clowns.


About

Brian Sonia-Wallace is an artist living and working in Los Angeles after a lengthy sojourn studying sustainability in Scotland. This creative expression, the poem Heirloom, is about a project he is currently involved in that works toward the ‘green’ refurbishment and growth of Art/Works Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Heirloom is defined as a valued possession passed down through future generations, or a plant cultivar that is open-pollinated (non-commercial) and so has exhibits superior flavour and unusual coloration. The theatre may be considered an heirloom, in both senses.

This poem touches nearly all of the environments discussed in Unpaving Our Future, as the built environment of a green theatre is also a reflection of the environmental, cultural and economic realities of a city built on cars and film. The gift of tomatoes that sparked this poem was a gesture that had significance not only on the levels urban gardening and food, but also in a broader personal and cultural context as an expression of community and caring. This poem is about first steps toward a better world.

You can find more information on the artist and his projects at briansoniawallace.tumblr.com.

And more information about the projects at Art/Works Theatre at www.artworkstheatre.com.

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Anyone who has let me talk at them in the last month knows that I think Trade City’s Popwagon (http://www.trade-city.org/the-popwagon/) is about the coolest thing in LA right now. It’s a mobile stage for LA on the taco truck model. So I was thrilled to be able to perform at the grand opening of the Popwagon for the LA Metro Line Opening Festival in Downtown LA this Saturday.

But what to do? I thought about performance poetry, but it didn’t seem quite right for the festival booth atmosphere. Then, at just the right moment, I was listening to NPR and they happened to do a story about a guy in San Francisco who was able to quit his job and make a living writing poetry on his typewriter in a park. It epitomized so much of what I think is good in art–getting out and talking to people, figuring out what they want, and creating personalized interactive experiences that add value to everyday life. All the guy had was a typewriter and a sign. And I thought, “I can steal that!”

So I borrowed the Trade City founders’ typewriter (which required some heavy cleaning to get the left hand side of the keyboard to work), got a little folding table and chair, and made a sign that said:

POETRY SHOP

(Tienda de Poemas)

You give me a theme

I’ll write you a poem

Pay me what it’s worth to you.

(Se vende suenos, sombras, y poemas)

And the  result?

Made almost $100, a piece of chewing gum from a Kenyan woman and some nori seaweed after 5 hours of writing poems, from about 11.30am to 4.30pm. Set up shop next to the awesome Popwagon, and immediately started off writing poetry for a couple kids who walked up. They wanted poems about a festival and the movie ‘A Bug’s Life’. Their mother was quite impressed that I used the name of the film’s main character in the poem–she must not have seen me ask the little girl!

Next came one of my favorite interactions, a skeptical girl who said she didn’t have any money but wanted a poem about father-daughter relationships. I asked her to tell me more and she started spilling her relationship with her dad, who she said was the best dad in the world and worked hard to give them all a good life growing up and was a trucker, so they didn’t see him very much. So I wrote a poem about waiting for someone to come home and honking at semis on the freeway. When I read her the poem and handed it over, the girl got very serious and said, “Let me run to the bank. I want to give you something.”

The rest is a blur. I spoke to a homeless guy, a couple young performance poets who’d done an inner city poetry program for troubled youth, and an old man who gave me detailed instructions on typewriter maintenance after I told him that what I had was in fact not a typewriter but the new Macbook Pro from Apple. A woman ran across the street to give me her card, get my information, and invite me to a book festival she was organizing. More notable poems were for a guy’s friend who was about to get married in the Natural History Museum (about the embrace of fossilized T-rex’s), for a guy who regretted not getting a loft flat (about the way places roost in our hearts), and for a woman who just didn’t know how to say, “Let’s just be fuck buddies” (‘you can have my body, just leave what’s in my ribcage out of it’).

What did I learn?

Busking poems is like being a fortune teller or a therapist–it’s about reading people and talking to them to get just enough information to reflect them back at themselves. But people LOVED opening up, and I got the most amazing stories from complete strangers, but I don’t think it’s just that they wanted to be listened to. I think the key wasn’t just listening but re-interpreting. Everyone wants their story told, even if it’s just to them. I tried to make every poem funny but also give it heart and meaning.

The typewriter was essential. It lured people in and got them curious and hungry. Lots of people had heard the NPR story and so recognized what I was doing. I had some good conversations about what it meant to be a store and the value of art, and the act of writing in public for cash is an interesting interrogation of both public space and our idea of what writing is.

I’m planning on hitting the Hollywood Fringe and this book festival in June. I’m looking forward to doing it again!