The Verbatim Performance Lab, youth, and aesthetic distance

My interest in verbatim theatre didn’t start with verbatim theatre, per se. It began with Anna Deavere Smith. I read her Letters to a Young Poet when I was a lonely exchange student in the National University of Singapore, fell in love with her, and proceeded to watch all her videos on YouTube. I started with her “Four American Characters” and became fascinated with what she was doing. As an actor myself, working from the “outside-in,” the precision of it, excited me. However, because there weren’t other people around me who could mentor me, or were interested in experimenting, I tucked verbatim theatre in the corner of my performance treasure chest.

Imagine my excitement when I entered New York University and learned there were courses on verbatim theatre. Hence, during the Spring semester of 2018, I let myself deviate from what I thought was going to be my sole focus in graduate school, drama education, and take courses in ethnoacting and ethnodrama. Doing so opened up ways of performing and ways of knowing that I hadn’t seriously considered before. An even more pleasing development was that the professor who taught these courses, Joe Salvatore, encouraged us to reflect on how ethnodrama can be a way to connect with communities. In the courses I took, I had drafted a workshop session for high school girls using my ethnoacting piece “Nobody but (no)body” as a pre-text and a large-scale, community-building project proposal involving ethnodrama, alternate reality games, and creative placemaking in Jackson Heights.

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Ethnoactor Educational Outreach Plan
You can download the PDF here.

Apart from appreciating the form itself, exploring the different ways ethnodrama can be a means to connect with the community became a passion of mine. I expressed this to Joe and he gave me the opportunity to be part of VPL. I served as the Outreach Coordinator of New York University’s Verbatim Performance Lab during the Fall semester of 2018. Given this was a new role for the lab, Joe Salvatore, VPL’s director, and I were defining the role as we went along. My responsibilities primarily revolved around developing curriculum for the lab’s school partners using the lab’s artifacts, including participating in meetings with faculty, co-designing and co-facilitating curriculum, and helping train the lab’s teaching artists. That semester, I was involved in two such projects, namely with The Chapin School (CS) in the Upper East Side and with The Academy for Software Engineering (AfSE) in Union Square.

The two schools used two different artifacts, specifically CS used the Lauer/Conway Flip and AfSE used “A hint, a whiff” from The Kavanaugh Files as well as the text from Christine Blasey Ford’s opening statement during the Kavanaugh hearing. The two schools were also different in terms of length and, thus, curriculum structure. VPL had two sessions of roughly 45 minutes each with three of CS’s senior classes, while with AfSE, VPL had four 55-minute sessions all in all with four of its junior classes. As a result, the depth of engagement with verbatim theatre was different. While the CS workshop was mostly discussion-based, the students from AfSE were able to create verbatim artifacts of their own based on Blasey Ford’s testimony. A student from CS pointed out in her feedback, “I wish we had more time; 2 classes seem short.”

What tied these two schools together however was the academic purpose of the use of the artifacts, which was to understand and reflect on the difference between objective and subjective observations.

Below are the two curriculum plans I have co-designed with Joe Salvatore and the respective teachers of each school.

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The Chapin School Curriculum
You can download the PDF here.

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The Academy for Software Engineering Curriculum
You can download the PDF here.

The following year, on the 4th of March 2019, I facilitated a process drama based on Nobody, but (no)body, a VPL verbatim piece I performed based on the current Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte. I implemented it in Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA), a Catholic, Chinese-Filipino, all-girls school in Metro Manila, Philippines. All the participants were members of the Dramatic Guild, the school’s theatre club.

This was a very different session from those that occurred in New York City because of the following reasons: (1) the session was not academic in the sense that the students had to learn concepts like objective and subjective observations; (2) this happened within a school club setting and after school hours; (3) participation was voluntary; (4) since this was a process drama, everyone was immersed in a fiction; (5) I incorporated technology on a whim, more on this later; and (5) I framed the process drama as a collaborative work-in-progress that they were now a part of, so they were both participants and co-creators throughout.

Below is the plan I implemented:

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Immaculate Conception Academy – Session Plan
You can download the PDF here.

For the purposes of this “Research Framework” section, I want to expound on one notable commonality I found among the three school implementations. (A more comprehensive write-up of all three would be incredibly lengthy and is, perhaps, a piece of text waiting to be written/videoed/audio recorded.)

In our post-workshop surveys in CS and AfSE, many students wrote about how, through the workshop, they became more aware of how body language and gender bias affect how they interpret the media. One student writes, “I learned how important small changes in body behavior can effect a media consumer’s impression of a person and what s/he is saying. I also learned how the effect of the same gestures/body language can be so different depending on gender.” As a student from CS eloquently expresses:

I discovered the I have a lot of implicit biases when I watch media. Seeing a man play Kellyanne Conway made me realize that when the same gestures were made by a man I found it much more condescending, and when Matt Lauer was being played by a woman I found it much less aggressive. I was surprised with the implicit biases I had and because of the workshop I will watch for my implicit biases when watching the media.

In contrast, however, one student from AfSE says “Discoveries such as bias between the perception of different genders may be present in my line of thought when interpreting certain events or media. While I don’t believe it actually affects my mindset, it may down the line subconciously (sic). [emphasis mine]” Looking through both surveys, it’s also worth taking into account that while majority emphasize the significance of “body language” and “movement,” only a minority point out “gender” (which was what was significantly changed in the VPL artifacts). In fact, there even appears to be some resistance to analyzing the artifacts from that frame, from the lukewarm comment of “Sometimes, gender swapped versions can result in having different feelings for the person,” to the matter-of-fact, “I realized that my judgement is not changed when it comes to gender and that I constantly try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and don’t take a side without evidence,” to the rather blunt suggestion of, “You can try to do more fun videos instead of switching genders and politics.”

The impression I got in my in-class experiences as a facilitator in all three schools was, while the students were amused and engaged by the novelty of the gender-flipping, it didn’t necessarily change how they wanted to tackle the issues contained within the very politically-charged artifacts we presented. For example, sfter watching Suzy Hunt perform Brett Kavanaugh, a student from AfSE exclaimed, “I still don’t believe him!” The students from Immaculate Conception Academy paid very little attention to the fact that the Duterte in their alternate reality was now a woman, but instead, mainly commented about the policies and practices they found problematic, such as his so-called war on drugs.

If the Verbatim Performance Lab were to improve how we used our artifacts, it would be helpful to investigate the different roles aesthetic distance plays in our efforts.

Aesthetic distance plays a key role in verbatim performance. Dramatist Bertolt Brecht calls it the “verfremdungseffekt,” otherwise known as the “distancing effect.” A Brechtian performance, which deliberately makes the show’s artificiality obvious to its viewers, is “[stripped of]…its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and [what is created instead is] a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them” (Brecht as qtd. in Actor Hub, n.d.). Experiencing that gap between what the viewer expects and what they encounter encourages critical reflection.

This is clearly manifested in the comments of some of the students mentioned above; the gender-flip made them more aware of body language as well as implicit biases they may carry because of gender. But as I’ve pointed out, this doesn’t account for all the students. In fact, for ICA, perhaps because it’s an all-girls school, the switch in gender didn’t have any implications on leadership (or on anything else) at all because in the students’ lived experiences, gender isn’t a major factor in leadership positions (because they are in an all-female environment).

Context matters and plays an important role in aesthetic distance. In Theatre, Education, and The Making of Meanings, Anthony Jackson (2007) writes about aesthetic over- and under-distancing: “When a drama is too vicarious it means that it is ‘over-distanced’ and therefore does not lead to catharsis. When a drama is ‘under-distanced’ then the reawakening does not occur in a context which is sufficiently safe, and therefore the distress is experienced as overwhelming” (p. 144). It would be useful to look at whether the “drama” stimulated by the VPL artifact is over- or under-distanced.

In the case of over-distancing, in AfSE, there were students who were unfamiliar with the Kavanaugh case (or did not care about it), so as a result, were disengaged, i.e., not joining in conversations or even small group discussions. In the post-workshop survey, one of them requested, “Maybe working with topics that might interest high school students or are relate able (sic) in a sense to them.” While not indicative of over-distancing, some students mentioned looking at race, pop culture icons, and historical figures. An interesting suggestion from a student in CS was, “I think Verbatim Performance Lab could work on projects involving local media issues in New York, not just national issues [,] to help citizens learn more about their local governments.” It would be interesting for VPL, since we already work so closely with faculty, to also work closely with the students before introducing any artifacts. By doing so, VPL would be able to determine which artifact might resonate best with the class and avoid over-distancing.

In terms of under-distancing, I would like to pose instances in CS and ICA as examples. Because the issues surrounding Kellyanne Conway and Rodrigo Duterte were too close to some of the students, in spite of the artifacts’ purpose to analyze things from the frame of gender, those students concentrated on other things. In the Conway/Lauer Flip, for instance, while they recognized there were issues surrounding Kellyanne Conway as a woman, they felt it was insignificant to the fact that she was “not telling the truth” in that instance. For the students in ICA, it didn’t matter if Rodrigo Duterte was a man or a woman, a person should speak professionally if they were in a professional arena. In both cases, while their analyses are valid, it was a challenge for some students to look at the issue from a different critical distance.

I thought that by using the artifact in a process drama in ICA, I’d be able to address this particular challenge, but it appears that even setting things inside a fiction wasn’t enough. I mentioned this to the participants in ICA when we were debriefing and one solution we came up with was to set the fiction even further away from reality: the name shouldn’t even evoke the idea of Rodrigo Duterte; the setting shouldn’t be the Philippines, etc. But I wonder if that’s even possible given how obvious where the artifact originated from is. What does this imply then about the limitations of using VPL artifacts for educational purposes? This is a difficult question for me to raise, but without cultivating a balance in aesthetic distance, is the VPL artifact superfluous? Meaning, could the same analyses have been reached just by looking closely at the original media clip?

I still haven’t landed on any answers, but I would like to continue doing this work to glean more insight on this.

Below is the Verbatim Performance Lab director’s evaluation of the work I’ve done as outreach coordinator.

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Joe Salvatore’s Evaluation
You can download the PDF here.

 

Works Cited

Actorhub. (n.d.). Brecht’s “Epic Theatre” and “Verfremdungseffekt” techniques. Retrieved
March 18, 2018, from http://www.actorhub.co.uk/259/brechts-epic-theatre-and-verfremdungseffekt-techniques

Jackson, A. (2007). Theatre, education and the making of meanings: Art or instrument?.
Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press.