Making the invisible risible

A (2012) lecture

Regis University

Re-imagining theatre as “a way in which we come together transformatively” is an activity central to performance studies, and reflects a couple of important disciplinary shifts that have happened in the past 40 years. One of these was a shift inward, which turned heirarchical models for the production of popular entertainment towards a more deliberate, collaborative artistic inquiry and experimentation. The other was a shift outward—towards the world—where performance becomes a way of seeing and understanding; a way to critique, resist, rupture and heal.

Those shifts are not what I’m going to focus on today—but, they tell you a little bit about where I’m coming from, and what I believe to be not only possible, but desirable: A situated theatre… critical, conscientious and artistically demanding (as it looks inward)—and curious, courageous, invitational and responsive (as it looks outward, to communities and audiences). To cite British director Peter Brook: a holy, immediate and especially, a lively theatre—one that matters.

* * *

In my Public Speaking class a couple of weeks ago, I heard myself telling my students—they were starting their persuasives— I said, “I want you to keep asking five questions (while you’re busy “inventing”— )

  • Why this particular subject?
  • For this particular audience?
  • On this occasion—why now?
  • In this place—why here?
  • And, who are you, to make this gesture, statement, argument?

It occurred to me that, not only do I need to ask myself the same things, as a reminder to take into account the contexts in which I am appearing but, also: those questions underpin my approach to theatre: “Why this project? For this audience? Why here and now, and why are we the ones to put it on a stage and light it up?”

I just used the word “appearing.” I said, “I need to take into account the contexts in which I am appearing.” In that idea, “appearance,” there is so much about the nature of performance: what it is and what it does, that… let’s linger on it for a minute: to become visible—or to appear—whether accidentally or on purpose—is a consequential act. The range of possible consequences is why we have a corresponding range of human social behavior, from you hide under the covers in your bedroom … to you wear a bright orange and blue Broncos t-shirt or a cross around your neck to signal your affiliation…  to  you raise your hand a lot, sing solos and run for office: you don’t just appear; you hog the spotlight: Good evening, everybody! Welcome to ME.

Our friend Erving Goffman’s interests famously include the presentation of self in everyday life.  His subject is how we manage the impression we make. When we are aware that we have appeared, he says—that is, the moment we imagine or know for sure that we are observed, or “recognized” —we perform.  If nothing else, when we’re alert to being an object of interest, our bodies signal relational status, mostly in spite of ourselves: eyes go down, shoulders go back, stomach in, chin goes up, that kind of thing.  The fact that when we are being watched, we put on an act no doubt has something to do with survival in a group.

Peter Brook has observed that theatre, “makes the invisible visible.”  With that, Goffman would agree, but he reminds us that our performances function strategically not only to reveal some things…but also, to hide others.  In this sense, performance may be more about agency and assertion than survival: we perform in order to promote preferred traits and identities, and to conceal undesirable ones; to establish or reinforce our roles… and to maintain the status quo, or to change it.

Promoting identities, establishing roles, communicating experiences of injustice and challenging the status quo—are what diversity discourses and multicultural initiatives are all about. As I’ve become very interested in these intersections of performance, diversity and dialogue, that’s what I’m going to be on about today.

* * *

As you know, Regis College is a Jesuit institution in Northwest Denver.

The Diversity Office at Regis produces an annual conference, and a variety of dialogue series on topics like sexual orientation, class differences, race, and “The R Word.”  In past years, attendance was obedient when required, and otherwise low—25 was a good turnout, which is less than half a percent of the total undergraduate student body.

There was one big, exciting spike in attendance, though. In 2007, a firestorm developed on campus. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered student organization, the LGBT, invited an openly-gay professional athlete—a motivational speaker—onto campus. The Jesuits insisted on introducing the guest with a pious preamble stating the position of the Catholic Church on the subject of homosexuality. This move alarmed and alienated a lot of students and faculty. But, others stood with the Church, and shook their heads over the Hell to which we the rest of us were surely going in a handbasket.

Alana Shaw was an out lesbian senior and an activist. She was a member of the LGBT—so, she was highly visible in the debate over the religious disclaimer. One day she found anti-gay slurs spray-painted all over her car. A Gay Pride poster was torn from the door of her dorm room. An exhibit of her artwork that was on display in the library was vandalized. Two young male students were identified as the perpetrators and admitted their guilt.

The crimes against Shaw were bad enough, but it was the administration’s tepid response that got people riled up. The President’s Office almost seemed to back the perpetrators, along the lines of “Oh, well—boys will be boys.”

One afternoon, a vocal crowd gathered on the library steps for a Speak Out. That same week, after a heated exchange, a physical altercation broke out between “gay-friendly” and “hard-core Catholic” faculty members. It wasn’t a fight, but there was chest-poking involved.

Capitalizing on this surge in feeling, the Diversity Office produced some very lively, standing-room-only dialogues. But then, it all blew over—and without another scandal to bring people together into the room, the dialogue events petered out again. Whatever had emerged was, once again, submerged. It was as if nothing had happened. And now, you couldn’t even get 15 people to show up.

Why? Surely, diversity is a topic of great importance to all of us, and telling our stories together towards mutual understanding is devoutly to be wished. Right?

The truth is: institutional diversity dialogues can misfire in many ways to lose the buy-in of community members. For one thing, scheduled campus dialogues—when they play out in an orderly way in the absence of open conflict—tend to be predictable. Unless we have a personal reason, we go not because we feel an overwhelming need to communicate or listen, but because attendance is expected or required.

Predictability is a way to create an illusion of safety and to control things, but it can impart a feeling of reverent ritual—which is the opposite of spontaneity—and contrary to the intention, tends to prevent upsetting things from appearing.

Trepidation prevails: I might say something wrong. I might appear to be racist, sexist, classist, homophobic… or I might out myself as poor, or rich, or ignorant, or gender-dysphoric or conservative—and have to live with whatever stigma redounds from that regrettable loss of face. Also, diversity dialogues often categorically incriminate and disqualify straight, white men who, understandably, find that experience aversive.

Where the purpose of hosting diversity dialogues is to publicly demonstrate that an organization is doing its due diligence with regard to social issues in the community, then maybe simply having them on the calendar is enough, and it doesn’t matter how they go or who attends.

But where the purpose is to reveal privilege and to recognize prejudice and discrimination in a community—then to succeed, you’ve got to have a critical mass of community members who feel invested. How do you get that? What do we like? What stirs us to participate and moves us to feel and to act? I mean, besides free pizza? Well, as suggested by the story of the LGBT, Alana Shaw and the Regis administration—even more than pizza: social drama does.

 * * *

Social drama—just as a quick review, Victor Turner, anthropology, Performance Studies 101—is a ritual social process that functions to ultimately strengthen communities by reinforcing norms and values.

It is a lived, narrative framework that makes the social order visible, and organizes our understanding of membership, or belonging around “what happens if you ignore or challenge that social order.”

Here’s what it looks like. Somebody—an individual or a group makes a status move to a higher position. Turner calls this a breach. The move is blocked. A crisis comes about as people react. Some proceed under the banner of emotion, and others stand upon reason and the law.

Immediate stakeholders and observers alike want to have a say and to affect the outcome.

We see this as the LGBT (at Regis) breaches Catholic values—and again as the administration breaches community norms of inclusion by insisting on their disclaimer, and later, by failing to denounce the bullies. We know a breach has occurred by observing what happens afterwards. If you see two sides forming and characterizing each other as ignorant or immoral, you may be looking at a social drama.

In the third stage, which Turner calls “redressive action” (this makes it all sound like it progresses neatly from point A to point B to point C, but it’s actually a lot messier) –anyway, there are some prescribed actions available for people to take to try and rectify the situation. Here’s where excuses and apologies and trials and punishments, or forgiveness, occur. And then—everybody comes back together, shares a meal and has a common story to tell—reintegration—or else, the social fabric is rent in two. Sides remain irrevocably opposed across what Turner calls a “permanent schism.”

* * *

Before I continue with my Regis story–I need to go back in time, to the year 2000, to look at a social drama that was provoked by theatre. It was springtime in Poughkeepsie. LaughingStock, a student sketch comedy group at Vassar College, had—for a decade—been fighting the imposition of politically-correct speech. While their M.O. was to poke fun at hypocrisy and posturing, no one was safe, and nothing was sacred.

LaughingStock’s sketches were over-the top-rude. The letters OMG did not exist yet, and so lacking adequate expression, people’s heads would just explode.

Not everyone was equally amused, of course—and LaughingStock was no stranger to controversy. The ‘99-2000 year had already brought about angry letters to the editor written by officers of the Multicultural Student Alliance and campus feminist groups.

Let me just describe a couple of LaughingStock’s sketches that I remember. One of them featured a foul-mouthed, enraged, disabled 7-year old boy named William, who has no arms or legs. William insists on joining the school marching band as a Glockenspiel player.  He demands to be treated just like everybody else, even as he verbally demolishes the other kids in the band to the point that they’re all sobbing. William is a despicable character—but against that, his disability and his right to participate make it really hard, as an audience member, to be comfortable with the scene—which is the point.

And then, there’s the unfortunate, pregnant character, Lisa, who agrees to let a pushy male guest at a dinner party feel her unborn baby kicking—he’s like, “Oh, please??” until she just gives in and says “Okay,”—but, instead of putting his hand on her belly, which is what she expects, the guy lies on the floor between her legs and reaches his whole arm up her skirt.  Because she doesn’t want to come across as overly sensitive, she just stands there with a polite smile on her face while the guy gropes around, commenting on the baby’s position, its gender and how cute it’s going to be.

LaughingStock’s work was like that. It was about social awkwardness, political correctness, stigma and micro-aggression… and all of the hard truths that policed discourse can become complicit in hiding. They put sex, conflict and injustice onstage all the time, and they might have effectively adopted the goal of raising issues into view for dialogue.

But, they weren’t in the social change business—they were college juniors and seniors who wanted to make people laugh. And, as long as they kept packing their houses for every performance—which they did—there was no upside for them in over-explaining or defending their work.

In early March, they produced the first of two Spring shows. One of the sketches was Lenny Bruce-like, in that it deployed a racial epithet in a way that was meant to subvert its meaning and its potency. The  Multicultural Student Alliance and the Campus Feminists said LaughingStock had crossed a line. A crisis ensued.

Now, it’s no secret that comedy is capable of stirring vehement responses. It can generate an urgent desire, in audience members, to reciprocate, even to contest.  The classic heckler is one obvious example of this impulse—someone so moved to retort that they subvert the frame of public (or, one-way) communication, and attempt to take control of the show.

What heckling exchanges generally make visible is status play: I tell a joke. You call out a put-down from your seat. I try to shut you up with an amplified insult. You save face by telling me I’m not funny.

And so it goes, until I deliver a blow so hilarious that it establishes my comic superiority. Or, not. In any case, what I shouldn’t do is  allow the heckler define the kind of exchange we are having or to make it personal—because then, I forget that I’m performing; that I need to control the frame!

I can’t lose sight of the fact that—by standing on a stage with a microphone saying things most people don’t dare to say—I am inviting a reaction.

In 2006, when a heckler in Michael Richards’ audience commented on his act, Richards called him the “N” word. What appeared, then—visible to everybody—was Richards’ racism.  Protesters at Vassar thought something like that had happened at LaughingStock’s March show—where the racial epithet in question was also the “N” word.

The MSA and the feminists imagined that their past criticisms of the group had— like heckling— provoked a pissing match: that LaughingStock had lost control of it’s message, gone too far and exposed their true colors. The Offended now meant to put LaughingStock in its place once and for all. Editorials appeared in the campus paper. Rallys were held. And, guess what?

Attendance at the protests—and also, at the next LaughingStock show—was moblike.  Please remember that—it’s going to be on the test. What brings people out? Social drama.

As a former improv comedian myself, and a graduate student at Umass Amherst at the time, I was fascinated by what was playing out over in Poughkeepsie. In my opinion, LaughingStock missed a great chance to harness the power of public sentiment, and to help channel it productively.

To be clear—I’m not saying theatre has to explain itself, or that we need to provide space and time for emotional processing: that’s what the local pub is for.  I mean that Vassar was a context…in which more context—not less—was indicated.

The moment was right for dialogues that could have encouraged personal narratives: What everyday experiences, unacknowledged privileges and injustices—formed the basis for both the outrageousness of the humor and the passion of the protests?

We will never know. All that remains are newspaper accounts… and, those describe what happened in terms of whose feelings were hurt and what positions and actions were taken by various groups in opposition.

The accounts don’t illuminate people or their stories. That’s partly because nobody ever helped it to become about people or their stories; it was just “whose discourse will prevail?” and who’s gonna win?

In the end, the Vassar Student Association de-recognized LaughingStock as an official student club, which effectively shut ‘em down completely, forever. Apparently, the VSA felt that LaughingStock’s humor was no laughing matter.

Let’s move now from social drama to comedy.

The word “laughingstock” has a number of meanings (e.g. “You are the butt of the joke;” or “We are the butt of the joke” or in the case of the Vassar group, “We are of a stock—or of a lineage, or ancestry—that laughs”). The undecidability of that title reflects a slipperiness of meaning that characterizes comedy and laughter, in general.

What’s funny, and to whom, and under what circumstances is complicated. Laugh at the wrong thing and you embarrass yourself. Fail to laugh when others do, and you lack a sense of humor. Sometimes, the joke threatens our face or cuts too close to a situation in our own lives that hurts.

In general, we tend to laugh when something strikes us as unexpected. We even laugh at what’s shocking or unspeakable—especially when there’s some recognizeable truth to be perceived.

* * *

When she most needed to make visible a disease that terrified, stigmatized and potentially isolated her—BJ Goodwin used comedy to tell her story and to invite others to tell theirs.  She helped audiences to laugh with her at our shared human condition. Through performance, she made it possible for audience members to openly acknowledge the unspeakable.

BJ was an immensely appealing and talented physical theatre artist—a dancer, a trained clown and a good writer—who, in 1999, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not wanting to undergo invasive treatment, and mistrustful of what she called “Western Medicine,” BJ explored a number of alternative approaches. After a year of bee stings, tar poultices, chanting and visualization, the cancer was gone. She was cured.

She wanted to share her experience, so she wrote a very funny, one-person piece, Keeping a Breast, about her journey back to health—all the weird stuff she’d tried and the strange practitioners she’d met.

I directed the show. We booked it at Women’s Health centers and Breast Cancer Awareness events around Western Massachusetts, where we both lived, and it was really popular. Nobody ever left when the performance was over. People stayed and told their own stories, sometimes standing around for hours.

After a few months of feeling lucky if not triumphant, BJ learned that the cancer had come back, with a vengeance. So, she created second act to acknowledge this awful truth: that she was standing before us, filled with hope and gusto and humor, quite, quite riddled with Stage IV cancer. But, even the startling, new ending did not change the fact that Keeping a Breast remained fundamentally and importantly comedic.

Attentive to the reciprocity her story invited, BJ and I decided to build in a facilitated postshow dialogue as a kind of third act.

When the full-length show premiered at the Ko Festival of Performance, Keeping A Breast and the postshow conversation were met with such enthusiasm and acclaim that she was booked solid into venues from Boston to New York.

Why this story? Why for this audience? Why now, why here, and why BJ? Because she was a writer and a consummate performer. Because she felt an urgency to tell her story, and because she knew audience members did, too. Because breast cancer was on the rise, and making such narratives visible felt like a deeply meaningful social act.

Why comedy? BJ was a clown. Not only by nature; not just metaphorically but literally: in addition to being a dancer, a writer and choreographer, she was trained as an actual clown.

She loved to laugh, and to make others laugh. She knew what research has repeatedly shown: that laughter can powerfully reinforce social bonds… and that there is a correlation between social bonds and health. BJ was contributing not only to her own health, but to the health of others in the community. And, I don’t have time now, but I could offer many instances of how (and for whom) this was true.

Why a facilitated dialogue? Because audiences had amply demonstrated the desire to tell their own stories after hearing hers—and while still together in that liminal space. They wouldn’t leave the theatre! So, we’d decided to encourage and channel that desire to communicate.

Why a clear format for the dialogue? Well, because people weren’t hanging out to discuss a fictional character and her fictional fight to stay alive. Inviting audiences to respond to an intimate, personal narrative performance— especially one like this—required some attention to purpose and methods.

So, what I designed was not a typical talkback. I wanted to create conditions under which the talk in the room would tend towards storytelling, and not be about complimenting (or trying to comfort) BJ—which she really, really hated.

I also hoped to (gently but firmly) curtail the extent to which eager over-sharing (and the occasional extra-extra long speech act) could dominate. Which meant I had to think of ways to intervene in—and redirect—conversation, to establish a kind of conversational ethos that might help us all talk together about really hard stuff.

* * *

BJ’s postshow became a model that I ended up developing and using again and again over the years—not only in theatre, but in my classrooms and—now, to bring us back to Regisin service to difficult dialogues about differences. I was collaborating with the  Diversity Office and contemplating low attendance. It had been a couple of years since the LGBT/Alana Shaw saga. Nothing had erupted lately. Nobody seemed to want to come to the dialogues.

I recalled LaughingStock—and how their work stimulated powerful feelings and a desire to communicate. I remembered Keeping A Breast— and how the warmth, laughter and the courage of BJs performance had made it possible for people to talk openly about what we are all least inclined to consider: our fear, and our own mortality.

And, I had an idea.


The whole mission of Diversity Offices (and programs and initiatives and trainings—in higher education) is to make differences more, not less, apparent . They work to bring attention to privilege and injustice. Given this commitment—to make the invisible visible, one might think theatre—perhaps most of all, irreverent comedy—has a place in discourses involving difference and diversity.

Along with five undergraduates, I wrote a bunch of sketches dealing with how race and racism are experienced in classrooms and in the dorms on campus. Our script was grounded in real experiences and observations—but we blew them way out of proportion for maximum comic effect. Since most of us we were female, white and straight, we collaborated with affinity groups. We named the ensemble OutRegis! (get it?—because we were outrageous, at Regis?) and the students titled the show, I Can’t Believe They Said That! to bring in the desired throngs of curious onlookers.

We planned a postshow dialogue that, we hoped, would be as engaging as the show was provocative, and structured the whole event to ensure that everyone present felt invited and included. Around 75 students, faculty and staff came—there was no place left to sit or stand—and pretty much everybody stayed after the performance for the hour-long dialogue. When people finally left, they left in groups, still talking animatedly.

Today (2013) OutRegis! has more than 18 members. Last year was the first time students devised, wrote and directed every sketch without me. The show was called You’re Gay—and was created with members of the campus Gay Straight Alliance. The GSA is an evolved version of that same LGBT that brought the speaker to campus a few years back. On this occasion—maybe because student performances don’t garnar much attention from Main Hall, or maybe things have changed—there was no preamble imposed on the production.  You’re Gay brought together an audience of 80 or more—not to engage in fistfights or protests, but to laugh together and to stay to talk about the show.

Disagreement was allowed and given plenty of space. The dialogue was even… not contentious, but tense… at one point. But—nobody left the room, and the tension was resolved as people asked questions of one another, told about personal experiences, listened and responded.

Comedy—at its best—shows us human behavior without blinking. While jokes and laughter can operate to sanction hegemony and conceal truth—to amuse the privileged majority at the expense of the marginal and stigmatized—comedy also has the capacity to trouble and to change us… dragging into the light, confronting and mocking power structures, social strata, assumptions and attitudes.

* * *

I don’t want to leave you with the impression I think Hamlet, or The Chairs, or My Fair Lady or The Book of Mormon can’t be lively, immediate and relevant. I’ve been fortunate to see all four in brilliant productions. I don’t think all theatre must be derived from participants’ experiences…touch on local concerns… make me laugh—and, I don’t propose that a facilitated audience postshow ought to follow everything I perform, direct or attend.

I am suggesting that—just as there is an important place for the traditional drama and for new, devised and community-based work—so are there excellent reasons, audiences, times and places for comedy—especially transgressive comedy—together with dialogue.

Why this topic, why here, why today? Given our occasion, I thought it made sense to bring some ideas I’m really interested in— that have fed my curiosity and imagination for many years—to make something of myself visible, and hopefully to inspire a good conversation. Thank you.

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