Thesis Thankfulness – 16 years after the fact

Mental Health Advocacy, Inclusion, and the Empowerment of a Marginalized Community Through the Utilization of Theatre: A Historical Overview of Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe, Memphis, Tennessee

👆That’s the pretentious clunker of a title I gave my 2003 Master’s thesis…

It’s now been 16 years since I boarded a plane for Memphis to gather oral histories for my thesis research on Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe. Upon re-reading the final document, I am encouraged both that I’m now a much better writer and that my core research concerns have only strengthened in the intervening years. In many ways, OOVTT is responsible for the shape much of my work has taken. They provided me with a devised theatre roadmap for how to work, as well as a shining example of mental health advocacy in action. Karaoke Visiting Hour and There’s An Easy-Bake Oven Where My Heart Should Be would not be possible without them. I am much obliged for our visits, for being able to see them perform at home and on the road, and for their whole-hearted participation in the very first Easy-Bake Workshop. Special thanks to Khyber Daniel for our conversations this week and his prompt to dig my thesis out of cold storage!

Screen capture of University of Memphis Library catalog record for Amber's thesis.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a copy of my thesis is now held by the University of Memphis Libraries!

I am also incredibly grateful to my old friend and librarian, Dorothy Hargett, who allowed me electronic access to the full-text of my thesis this week! (I lost all my floppy disks a few moves ago.) I was fortunate to be one of Dorothy’s co-workers for almost a decade, and she was an actual angel whenever I needed care or a listening ear. Absolutely none of that has changed. When in doubt, ask a librarian! In Dorothy’s honor, I provide this paltry example of how I attempted to repay her kindness over the years (these beauties were taken for a library customer service presentation she created):

That’s some quality overacting right there.

In my car I’m going to Carolina

The Weather Channel forecasts that it will be 30 degrees (F) warmer tomorrow in North Carolina than here in Southern Ontario…

I’m happy to report that I will spend the remainder of winter working on a production of Lauren’s Yee’s In A Word for Bulldog Ensemble Theater in Durham, NC! It’s a beautiful play and I’m excited to be reunited with colleagues I love and trust. Directed by Jules Odendahl-James and featuring Thaddeus Edwards and Matthew Hager, In A Word runs March 21-April 07 at The Fruit.

Four more days until sweet, sweet sunshine…

Easybake Austin

Austin got creative, y’all!

I could not have asked for a more compassionate group of participants for the easybake workshop on October 15. Austin sent us a sudden cold snap and copious amounts of rain, so we opted for a furnace and sock-feet indoors, and relatively laidback activities. As with all easybake workshops, we started and ended by defining “play.” We stretched our bodies to Up, Down, and Other Opposites (Ellsworth Kelly), warmed our emotions to easybake standby In My Heart: A Book of Feelings (Jo Witek), and settled in for a bit of play. 

Sitting with our younger selves

Our eight participants brought two pictures of themselves:

  1. between 2-7 years of age, something either naturally expressive or goofy/playful 
  2. at an age where they could have used some self-compassion or from a time of transition

We sat with the “Child” picture and adopted the posture of the kiddo in the photo. Where did their bodies hold tension; freedom?  I asked some sense memory questions, and we did the who/what/where part of the three-column Adult Meets Child Self-Care exercise. Finally, we interacted as our Child-selves with inanimate objects. Next, we looked to the “In-Need-Of-Love” photo and did the same exercises with that kiddo/person in mind. We then discussed the similarities and differences between the experiences of adopting our Child and In-Need-of-Love postures. 

Compassion Post-Its

Three sheets of poster board, three colors of post-it notes, lots of love. 

  1. How have you shown compassion to others? Write two examples on yellow post-its and put them on the first poster board.
  2. How have others shown compassion to you (whether or not it you received it well in that form)? Write two examples on green post-its and put them on the second poster board. 
  3. How do you prefer to receive compassion? Choose from the existing yellow or green, and/or create new pink ones to add to a third poster board. (I loved that the resulting array was a fairly even mix of how we naturally show compassion to others, how we have received it in the past, and new ideas – something we didn’t have time to talk about is how we could best communicate how we’d like to receive compassion moving forward.)

After we had a spread of compassion answers, we split into pairs. One person adopted their “child” posture and the second took their “in-need-of-love” posture. Child then invited In-need-of-love to play. If they had trouble interacting, In-need-of-love was encouraged to choose a compassion post-it to give Child ideas as how to best invite them into playing. 

The last thing we did before redefining play was to find our resting Adult posture. Where do we usually hold tension; freedom?  We split up into pairs between Child and Adult and invited each other to play, using the compassion post-its when necessary. 

7 of the 8 generous souls who joined Easybake Austin and the only-occasionally-creepy mannequin who watched over us.

A way forward

I’ve been home from Austin for over a month and have been stewing about process and participation. I’ve also been putting off writing about it because I’m a tad stuck as to what happens next. Easybake-as-workshop and easybake-as-project have started taking up separate living quarters in my brain. While the workshops are still incredibly valuable to me in terms of the project, they also feel as if they could have a continuous life after the project ends. That said, I need to bring other people into the planning and execution process. Sitting with one’s childhood experiences can be both meaningful and fraught with the possibility of  retriggering traumas. Certainly, there are areas I will explore in easybake-as-project where I need someone trained in dealing with personal and interpersonal violence just to keep me sane while I explore and write and perform. Why would I want to lead a group of others over similarly treacherous ground without a trained professional in the room to help us all through? 

I’m not sure what all of this means just yet in terms of a way forward. In the meantime, I continue to be thankful to all of my easybake workshop participants for their generosity of time and spirit, and for being endlessly kind with me and others in the room. It gives us all compassion and permission to play. 

Redefinition of “play” from an Austin participant

Special thanks to Tamara Kissane over at Artist Soapbox – her podcast episode What I learned from 40 years of not being famous: PART TWO Respect the Work was the direct inspiration for the compassion post-it exercises. The impetus for the child and in-need-of-love exercise stems from an art journaling exercise created by BrenĂ© Brown.

Standing Invitation

I met Stacey Isom Campbell and Lisa Neely sometime in the Spring of 2000. It is a curious and gorgeous thing to be in a room with these women. We have a short-hand made possible by 18 years of intentional relationship and a standing invitation for hospitality, creativity, and vulnerability.  Stacey and I are currently with Lisa in Austin for a 3rd Course: Theatre workshop and presentation of Stacey’s newest play, Buffalo Creek. We gathered for a read-through this afternoon. The play is already so good and I’m excited to see how it grows this week!

Y’all, it’s hot here in Austin. I stepped out of the airport last night and my plane-chilled skin calmed just as my I’ve-been-in-Canada-a-long-time heat headache set in. I only lived in Texas for about 11 years, and never this far east, but it still feels like home. I ran across a packet of dried spices with an H-E-B grocery label on it in the pantry this morning and nearly cried from nostalgia-overload.

I took advantage of the early setting sun and made my way over to Brentwood Neighborhood Park. I counted six families on the playground proper, and there was still a spare swing for me. My hands now smell of sweat and rust, which is the very best way to smell.

In addition to rehearsals this week, I have plans to check out the UT Austin playgrounds (thank you, play researcher/pioneer Joe Frost) and the deeply cool exhibits currently on at the Blanton Museum (Wangechi Mutu’s “The End of eating Everything” – don’t mind if I do). Next week? Another easybake workshop!

Attention Campers:

Kelly Wolf, ladies and germs. She’s the best.

If you have never played Human Rock Paper Scissors, you are missing out. Trust me.

When I agreed to meet Kelly Wolf for “crafts” before a dusk viewing of Moonrise Kingdom on Wednesday, I had very little idea of what to expect. Well, EMERGE Camp AGH was a treasure trove of easybakeheart goodness and I was game for all of it.  There were craft tables for making felt merit badges, animal hats, and masks; camp games (I died a glorious slo-mo death on the wet lawn); very high-end s’mores courtesy of the always delightful Sweet and Simple Co.; a tour of the gorgeous Vivian Maier photography exhibit; and campfire singing.

I knew three people. Three. I consider myself an introvert and large groups can be intimidating. But, it was marvelous to be in rooms with a bunch of like-minded weirdos I’d never met and to feel right at home.

img_1065Of course the merit badges I made were random – a dead goldfish in honor of the fish funeral scene from Draft 1 of There’s an Easy-Bake Oven Where My Heart Should Be, and Oscar the Grouch for soooo many reasons. Merit badges are going straight into the easybakeheart workshop idea vault. I found during the Memphis workshop that semi-silently crafting kid things is one of the quickest ways to unlock larger conversations about why we stop playing and what we need in order to start again.

The morning of EMERGE Camp began with an unprompted conversation about how to create spaces for adults to just play – silent or impromptu dance parties, craft stations, reading circles, etc. I went to a Laughter Yoga session later that afternoon that feels like it belongs in the same realm. I’m thinking more and more this is just something our world needs. The Living Arts Collective in Durham, NC hosts The After Wave (adult dance and art party) every Friday night and AGH will have another EMERGE event on December 7.  Go Out and Play!

How are you playing these days? Would it help to have a common space where the materials were already laid out for you? If you’re an introvert, what would make something like this feel less threatening?