In the spring of 1990, Kate Magruder from the Ukiah Players Theatre in Ukiah, California, contacted me inquiring about my availability to facilitate a community-based playmaking project. Over the next six months we worked out a broad outline that included objectives, processes, and funding possibilities.
By the fall of 1990 we had agreed that, if our funding plans proved successful, I would come to Ukiah for a week in March, 1991, to set up a process of group work and research gathering. During April and May, the project -- now entitled the Mendocino People's Portrait project -- would conduct interviews, read necessary materials, and begin assembling ideas and even outlines for scenes and the play itself. I would then return the first two weeks of June to help consolidate the script and then perhaps to help with initial staging of the new work. Two weeks later, under Kate Magruder's direction, the play would open in Ukiah for a weekend run and journey to Mendocino and Willits, CA, the next two weekends for Saturday night performances. With support from my university -- the University of Nebraska at Omaha -- I would return to Ukiah for a week that would include the Willits performance and for a week later in the fall of 1991, both trips designed to help evaluate the project and especially the reception of the play.
What follows is a documentation of the work done on the Mendocino People's Portrait (MPP) Project and a report on my evaluation. It describes the playmaking process in some detail, in the hope that communities which are looking to use theatre as a tool for community analysis and action might be able to use the information in developing their own projects.
My work in community-based theatre began with the creation of the Dakota Theatre Caravan in the spring and summer of 1977 (see The Drama Review, Spring, 1985). The objectives of this professional theatre performance troupe were to gather information from the people of the Great Plains in general and from South Dakota in particular by means of extensive interviews and then use this material as the foundation for plays we would make about the people of the region. All productions were designed to be toured in the very smallest towns, and from feedback gained from audience members after productions, we changed our scripts to better represent the lives we were trying to reflect. After several years we developed a cogent process of research, interviews, and collective playmaking and, in various configurations, the Caravan lasted twelve years. From 1981 to 1985, however, I worked only during summers with the company and served primarily as a cheerleader from Nebraska from 1985 until the theatre ceased operations in 1989.
During the 1980's, however, I also worked on five other productions created from the research and interviews conducted with Great Plains people and found that this "Caravan" process was indeed a vital and productive one for making plays for a given population. The spring semester of 1982 found the UNO Department of Dramatic Arts agreeing to sponsor a UNO-produced play about Omaha. The result of that playmaking was Annie Fontenelle's Collections, Recollections, and Historical Emporium, performed at UNO in April of that year and into the summer as well. In 1983 I called together a group of students and faculty from that same department to discuss starting a full-time theatre in Omaha. The company became the Circle Theatre and although most of our eight years of producing has focused on a 'Diner Theatre' approach using a company playwright and scripts that weren't necessarily about the immediate community, we did engage in a Caravan-style project in 1985 called the Western Nebraska project that aimed to create a play about the farm crisis in rural Nebraska during a particularly difficult time for small farmers. Using a similar process, the company created a play entitled Looks Good from the Road, about a small farm about to go bankrupt.
Again in 1987 I had an opportunity to work in yet another project that had an even stronger grassroots base. Nebraskans for Peace had been granted funding to assemble a project in which peace- and farm-activists would create a sketch about the relationship between peace and farm issues. The group which arrived for start-up workshops had no theatre experience to speak of, yet the process, relying more and more on Augusto Boal's description of theatre for community action, was energizing, fun, and enormously educational. The final forty-minute sketch entitled Farmageddon was always followed by discussions with the audience, a formal activity not undertaken by either the Caravan or the Circle Theatre. The discussions were always enjoyable and sometimes produced the kinds of interaction that truly opened up possibilities of communication, analysis, and new understanding.
On two other occasions I was employed by small towns in South Dakota -- Milbank in February, 1980. and Armour in June, 1986 -- to help those communities assemble centennial plays for performance during one-hundredth-year founding celebrations. These two plays -- You'll Like Milbank and A Night in Shining Armour -- also used the Caravan process and, more like the Farmageddon project, used local actors who at most had community theatre experience or no theatre experience at all.
With this background, I took on the task of developing a formal process of playmaking to be used by the people in and around Ukiah, California.
Some initial comments might help this discussion. First, I use the words "community-based theatre" with a clear sense of meaning and distinguish it strongly from "community theatre." The latter connotes a theatre that tends to replicate the dominant commercial theatre found in New York and large urban centers, offering for the most part standard commercial fare and opportunities to act, design, and tech to those who are especially interested in theatre production for itself. Very few community theatres seek out or develop scripts that pertain directly to their own social and political context, and in fact tend to avoid dramas that would be controversial. Although I believe there is a true role for community theatres, I believe there is actually more of a role for community-based theatres, and it is this process that is just developing in the US and that needs much more attention.
"Community-based" implies the focus of the project to be the immediate and long-term life of the community in which the theatre resides. It also means that for the most part new dramas will need to be developed, since few if any existing scripts will address the pressing concerns of the nation's many neighborhoods and peoples with directness and specificity. Finally, it means that the focus of the event is the exploration and development of issues that affect the community using people who themselves may or may not have any experience in the theatre whatsoever. The point is to help people empower themselves to deal with immediate concerns regardless of theatre skill. The process of group interaction, of research and interviews, of gaining greater insight to one's people and area, of actual problem-solving, and particularly of having a good time are paramount. It is of course very important that the production be as good as it possibly can be, but it is not important that it be the quality of a professional or highly-experienced community theatre. Strangely enough, community-based plays can achieve remarkable skill and vitality with inexperienced actors and designers, but it must be understood this comparative quality is secondary to the process of community empowerment.
It is also necessary to say that what was developed with the Caravan, and then further through the Circle and through other community-based playmaking projects, is only one among many approaches that have been and are being developed as a way for communities to tell their most urgent and celebratory stories through theatre. Boal's criticism of European theatre forms are very perceptive and, as a monitor for theatre as manipulation and coercion, are invaluable. The approach outlined here does assume, however, that theatre which has performance as one of its features need not be coercive or disempowering because some are "acting" (doing) and others are watching. Nor does the performance aspect ever need to be finished, for involvement by the wider community may well keep the script in a state of permanent change. These issues will be dealt with in more detail in the companion article, but it seems best to at least acknowledge their relevance here.
By the time I arrived in Ukiah on March 21, 1991, the MPP project had already resolved to write its play about the conflict between what was perceived as three conflicted forces in the region that were leading to extreme confrontation and even murderous violence: the timber industry, the logging community, and the environmental movement. The Redwood Summer actions of 1990 had produced a series of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations that were peopled mainly by environmentalists on the one side and working people -- loggers, truck drivers, workers' families -- on the other side. The timber industry itself was not very visible at these points of public contact. One of the ugliest acts of protest occurred when a very effective Earth First! organizer, Judi Bari and her colleague, Darryl Cherney, were bombed in their car in Oakland. Judi suffered very severe injuries to her legs and back, and Darryl was partially deafened by the blast. Even to this date, the FBI has not made any inroads to the perpetrators of this terrorist act and lawsuits have been filed by Ms. Bari for FBI complicity and coverup. These developments might help put in context the People's Portrait project and its immediate community environment.
Kate Magruder had advertised that the project would involve an oral history of Mendocino County and, although this is not quite what occurred in the initial production, it did attract a number of people to the first meetings. Public announcements were placed on the radio and in the local newspaper while posters announcing the project were distributed widely. Anyone who wanted to attend the workshops in playmaking was welcome. In the course of the first-week residency over thirty people came to the various workshops and in that group were eight people who, either as actors, writers, designers, or producers, would be involved in the process through the summer.
I began the first meeting describing what I saw as the evening's agenda and the agenda for the week. For the first meeting, it included introductions, discussions of the project as formally conceived, personal stories of how each of us came to be here, our individual responses to the project and its possibilities, and my outlining some dynamics of group forming and collective work. Since the topic of the project had already been determined, we discussed if this was in fact an appropriate subject -- timber, logging, and ecology. It clearly was the topic of the hour, year, and decade, and all seemed satisfied with this as a beginning focus. There is some irony, perhaps, having to do with faithfulness to early funding proposals, that from this point on we moved further and further away from a true oral history, but the concept of oral history stayed with the project's public descriptions through the last summer performance. And it was in fact at the last performance that we were told, again, that this was not an oral history, that we were misrepresenting the event, and, perhaps for the first time, that it was fine as is and should not be an oral history. The first workshop also involved a discussion of interviews as a primary method for finding out some of a community's thoughts and feeling about the issue. I explained several of the procedures used by the Caravan and suggested that information from these sources were likely be the heart and soul of the play to be created.
That first night was also telling as to how involved and intimate the subject of logging was to the people who came. I asked for responses which said, literally in a word, what the subject involved and was inundated with over a hundred spontaneous words that in a sense anticipated much of the subject matter the project would encounter. The exercise generated no small amount of tension in the group as well since people from not only each of the "sides" but from a wide range of political perspectives were represented in some way. Trees and timber managed to touch people on many levels, not the least of which were by race, gender, and class.
As we moved on to the interview process, it was clear that here as well there would be no lack of subjects. I suggested we draw up a list of people who would be specifically useful as experts or representatives of various groups or people known to have strong opinions. This resulted in an immediate list of over fifty names. I cautioned the group to realize that, if, as I suggested, we conclude each interview with the question, "Who else should be we speaking with?", the list would be enormous in very little time. To conclude the meeting I outlined what I thought we might be doing the next night, including assigning interviews, and we adjourned after a brief moment of quiet.
To begin the second night, after introductions of new and re-introductions of repeat participants, I asked those who had returned to evaluate the first workshop. The most salient responses included being heartened by the turnout and people's passionate desire to do something about this matter and some concerns that the group was leaned strongly in environmental directions, had but a few representatives of the logging community, and lacked the presence of old-time loggers.
One of the most helpful discussions the original Caravan had in its various configurations were those that focussed on "What are our hopes, fears, and expectations?" for this immediate project or for the larger future of the work. The Ukiah group managed to have a very stimulating exchange on our hopes and expectations for the project this second night, but for reasons that I now forget we left the discussion of fears for later. This was not necessarily inappropriate, but since that time I've thought it a bit odd that we were perhaps a bit afraid to express our fears. As it turned out, from my perspective, many of the concerns we expressed turned out to be very real and perceptive. There were bears in the woods and we were going to meet them.
After a brief discussion about the likely audience who would see the play, we assembled the questions we thought should be asked in the interviews. After much discussion, we boiled the list to about fifteen key questions with three formal questions at the end directed toward "Is there anything else?" "who else should we talk to?" and "would you be interested in working with the project?" Several of the questions were ones I suggested as standard from the Caravan process such as "If you were to make a play or have something to say about this play, what needs to be in it?" and "How did you and your family get here to the Mendocino area?" Other questions such as "What was your first experience with the forest?" and "What would like the valley to be like in twenty years?" and "If you were to characterize the current conflict, how would you describe it and how would you resolve it?" turned out to be very effective in drawing people into imaginative discussions and personal revelations. These were particularly unique to the topic and I thought them, along with the other dozen or so, to be excellent ways of discovering what lay below the surface of this very restless northern California water.
The questions took a considerable period of time to develop and when we were done we had just enough time to choose up interview assignments, have a moment of quiet, and adjourn.
Once we were into the interview stage, much of our time would be spent in sharing information gathered from the interviews. Essentially in two days I had outlined an approach to research gathering that included getting to essential books and magazines and had sent us all out into the field to see what we could find. We were very close to the time when we would have to begin to make some tentative choices about what the play would involve specifically.
The next two days -- a Saturday and Sunday -- were filled with interviews and, when we met as a group briefly, interview sharing. All of the interviews I did were engaging and helpful, and I particularly enjoyed my discussion with Judi Bari, the Earth First! organizer who had been injured badly in the car bombing. It was my discussion with her that led me to understand just how high the stakes were on the topic of trees. Clearly what was happening in northern California had impact state- and nation-wide, even world-wide. The forces engaged were fundamental and said much if not everything about the future of the human being.
Monday night was the second to last night of the evening workshops, now become work sessions. It was on this night that we finally got to the topic of fears. I asked each of the people who attended to write down two or three things that they feared about the project -- what would happen, what wouldn't happen, limitations, etc. This is an enormously useful exercise and it turned out to be somewhat prophetic. Many of the fears actually were realized -- we offended some people ("afraid of offending people"), we didn't represent all major elements equally well ("some viewpoints will be treated superficially", "want it to be representative of all aspects"), and we didn't necessarily find, or at least include, a fresh point of view ("afraid there will be no fresh perspective.") . On the other hand, several of the fears expressed turned out to be the opposite of what happened. We made a very public and controversial impact ("afraid it will be mainly irrelevant", "we're taught to be nice and we will avoid the real differences, stifle real controversy", "it won't be great because it will be evenhanded"). All in all the fears session helped clear the air and tended, in follow-up interviews, to alleviate much talk about "I never thought x or y would happen." (It is interesting in such sessions to realize how one person's fears remind people of a half-dozen other fears, but that after everything is said and done, it doesn't seem to be so bad because at least it is possible to say what the anxieties are, and that seems to alleviate them somewhat.
The remainder of this and the following evening was spent sharing information on interviews with loggers, small timber owners, and local activists. This took a great deal of time. The final objective I had as facilitator for this series of days was to have the group brainstorm on how a play might begin using this material. The purpose was not so much to say this is what we will create, but rather that creating a play is not difficult. Creating a good play requires lots of energy and a fair amount of vision and inspiration, but the raw material of playmaking, especially given the process in which we were engaged, was at our very fingertips. But discussions of the issues and possibilities kept cropping up and it was not until the last half-hour that I suggested we suspend the immediate substantive issues and look at how the play might be assembled.
I asked for people to throw out situations or scenes that occurred to them, scenes they felt would appropriately come in the beginning stages of a story or scenes that truly had to be in a play about timber, logging, and ecology. Needless to say, we had fifteen detailed suggestions in less than ten minutes. I then suggested we brainstorm, given these various ideas, how a play might begin, what would come next, what next, and what next. Within another ten minutes people had given a kind of rough order to what could be a play. Then to demonstrate what had been achieved, I asked if I could summarize what they had said to show that, in fact, we had twenty minutes of a one hour play already outlined. I described the scenes they suggested while adding a few transitional suggestions, and there it was -- the start of a play. Dialogue and detail were certainly yet to come, but a skeleton stood before us waiting for muscle and skin, a heart and a brain. Participants seemed truly amazed that their work was producing a very concrete result. They also seemed very relieved that this mountainous thing that had to be assembled by the end of May had a hypothetical version about a third-outlined by the end of March. As it turned out, the writing group used several of the ideas generated that night but not all of them. The purpose of the exercise was mainly to demonstrate that the task ahead was within all available abilities and that the process could result in very rapid results if we just stayed true to our vision of serving the community through responsible storytelling in the theatre.
Once my first residency had passed, the process moved onto a stage whereby, under Kate Magruder's very competent leadership, the group would gather more interviews, read more essential material, and share this background with each other. As I understand it, this activity continued well into the first part of May with participants meeting about twice a week. The quantity of material, as I had warned early on, was becoming overwhelming and in that month the Project gathered enough specific material for a dozen plays and knew it. But then came the time for play invention.
This part of the process is best documented by Kate, since she was intimately involved with all stages of the play's early drafting. There was a strong feeling that, since the company itself had a strong bias toward ecology and environmental concerns, there had to be principled effort made to include the sympathetic feelings generated in research toward the loggers, logging families, and generally the difficult spot in which workers found themselves. There was also occasional tension about how sympathetically timber owners and companies should be depicted. That is, on the one hand no one is necessarily evil, believes themselves to be evil, and sets out to do evil, or at least in this case what the group considered unconscionable acts of ecological genocide. On the other hand, the group did have an analysis that indicted the corporate timber industry for practices that were based only on the profit motive and were resulting in irreparable damage to the forests and inevitable unemployment and economic hardship for the entire Mendocino county. Once the production went up, it became clear to me that our visualization of the forces at work as three -- environmentalists, loggers, and corporations -- was erroneous, and that what we needed to reveal was two corporate forces -- large, multi-national corporations and small, locally-based businesses. This helps explain both the conflicted feelings about representation of the business sector during playmaking and rehearsal as well as the very strong negative response the play received from local timber representatives.
In May the company and writers decided that they wanted to use one of their favorite discoveries. In involved Paul Bunyan. It turns out that Paul Bunyan, the legendary giant logger, was not the invention of workers in the logging camps, but rather was a public relations image generated by a corporate person named Laughed (pronounced "Law-fed") in the Red River Lumber Company in Minnesota in 1914. He had found the Bunyan myth in a short reference to a big logger in a poem in a trade journal. What the Mendocino project group had discovered was in fact fakelore, the contrived insinuation of false folklore into a people's lives to promote a special interest. Yet there was apparently concern in the group that this would give the loggers primary representation in the play, even give ownership a presence through Laughed, but leave the ecological perspective out entirely. In a conversation over the phone with Kate I suggested that maybe we manipulate the fakelore and discover that Paul was in fact a companion of a woman woodsperson or logger. This was discussed and replaced with the idea that Paul's real fakelore companion Babe, also invented by Laughed, might be given human form and, being from the natural world, turned into the play's environmental voice. With this choice, the play took on it's primary metaphor and story direction. Subsequent strengths and weakness would stem mainly from these character choices.
Our plan was for me to return to Ukiah for two weeks in the beginning of June 1991, to help in consolidating research, helping finalize the script, and perhaps assisting or even doing the first round of staging. This was an enormously productive period that followed an already enormously productive two months for the group as a whole. One of my fears as I left Ukiah in March was that I would return and be given a single sheet of paper that had ideas on it, all accompanied by the phrase, "Here's what we have so far." As it turned out, Kate sent me drafts of up to a dozen scenes that various people had already written, which allowed me to look over the work prior to my return. I therefore had a good idea of where the group wanted to go and even how to get there.
Our first night we took some time to reintroduce and even introduce ourselves. The company now numbered twelve who were designated as performers and a half dozen who were from the research/writing group. And of the performers about six were themselves in the original workshops or later writing group. But several were new as of that meeting and were joining as persons interested in performing the play. Therefore introductions were essential. Fortunately the group included several young people from Ukiah High School as well as a Pomo Indian who became a strong advocate for the production. The inclusions were selected by Kate Magruder and, along with the half-dozen or so who had been involved all along, help comprise a solid core of experience and skill on which to draw.
After introductions, I outlined the agenda I had for that evening's work, which included approval of the agenda, discussions of space for rehearsals, playmaking/rehearsal schedule, process for re-writing, participants responsibilities as they saw them, access to all decisions through collective process, some of my initial responses to the material I had been sent, and then on to the read through. We would conclude with some assessment of what would need to be done the following night.
Perhaps the most significant element to come from the process discussions before the read-through was that, to my mind, the individuals there each had a strong sense of self, were able to lay out fairly sophisticated points of view, and yet seemed very willing to be part of a group process, to give and take as much as possible. It was also clear that at least half of the group had experience with formal group discussion processes of some kind and to this day I consider this a credit to the groundbreaking developments of the sixties and seventies when America learned something about democracy in a pluralistic society. Northern California, in particular, seems to be home to many people who have learned hard yet important lessons about speaking and listening, whether it be one on one or in a group. Though I have myself had considerable exposure to intentional group processes, it was a joy to be among these people who had vigorous opinions but respected others and the process enough to make collective decisions not only productive but at times a real joy.
But also apparent at this first gathering, though not apparent enough for me to grasp its significance, was the alignment of the group toward positions that favored ecological analysis and criticized at least timber business if not even implying criticism of loggers who did the concrete work. As the workshops proceeded over this week and into the following months, the core group was decidedly one that disagreed not on whether or not to put forward an ecological point of view, but rather how liberal or radical that point of view should be rendered. Although this matter needs to be deferred until a later evaluation, as far as creating a play that fairly portrayed the wide range of opinion in Mendocino county was concerned, those early meetings would have demonstrated to a sharper eye that the seeds of future turmoil to come when the play hit the stage were planted in who we were as a group as much as what material we gathered.
We conducted a first read-through of what had been written thus far using a random reading system, going around the circle without regard to any specific character requirements. This gave us a strong sense of the role of Babe, Paul, and Laughed, and the effort made to complement the folk characters with local representatives of the three points of view. Several of the scenes were still in bare outline stage, but when the reading was done we had plenty to discuss. And it was in that discussion that the company began to hammer out the final points of view of the production.
Since this is intended to be a documentation of the process of play making and especially an examination of the play's reception, and since it is not a detailed retrospective of the making of the play, I will review only the most significant features of this consolidation process. Because we had talked of monologues in March and of starting the play with three monologues from the three points of view, we somehow got a fairly heavy dose of monologues throughout the first draft, and these we realized had to be broken down into scenes with drama. It also seemed to me that if part of the intention was to incorporate the entire community and create some common ground for dialogue, we were simply not being fair with the timber industry. Regardless of how our analysis disagreed with theirs, we would have credibility only if we depicted corporate people as three-dimensional and having ideas that were as compellingly-expressed as those with which we agreed.
We also lacked in several of the scenes a sense of genuine drama, something that created urgency and made characters take action to move the play forward. As we talked in the group, these concerns were reinforced and a larger critique of the first draft ensued. This was a vigorous exploration of the script and included observations ranging from Paul and Babe having to be more involved in the action to an awareness that some of the scenes were just way too long.
We agreed that some rewriting had to start right away. Assignments were given with suggestions made as to what needed to occur. We also agreed that, with the rewriting under way, the task was to start with the first scenes of the play, read through them, and discuss them inch by inch, all to help those who were rewriting have a better sense of the group's needs. The evening concluded again with a moment of quiet and a sense of great optimism for the future.
The next three days were spent bringing rewrites to the evening sessions, discussing them, and determining what other changes might need to be made. Certainly this process was new to most of the company and to some it seemed an unnecessary overlay of "committee approval" over individual writing and invention. Suffice it to say that a company can arrange whatever kind of process they desire in terms of writing a script, directing it, revising it, etc. My experience tells me that, although this group process is fairly new to most and may seem, especially at the time, like a lot of unnecessary input, the review of all written material gives a company more of a sense of ownership and control. One of the principles which I asked the company to adopt was that each participant assume s/he had access to all decisions regardless of area. Although this did not mean that everyone's point of view would always be incorporated, it did mean that each participant had the right to express reservations, concerns, and/or support about any aspect of the production, and that the point of view would be considered. In one sense it might be said this takes too much time. On the other hand it should be remembered this company assembled a workable, producible script from sketches and outlines, staged and rehearsed that script, and opened it in less than a month's time. Again it is my sense that if all are included, a great deal can be done very quickly.
By the first weekend the script was coming into view as a whole work. A brief summary follows. Company members felt strongly that direct address to the audience would be a good way to begin the play, to set out the three points of view we had identified. Therefore, three monologues were developed for the "logger", the "activist", and the "timber business representative." With these completed the action jumped back in time to Laughed's office in Minnesota where he invents Babe and Paul. The rest of the play involved a journey forward in time from Laughed's invention of the characters to find what happened to Babe and Paul and the timber business in the future. First stop was in California where the move to major logging had occurred during the last quarter of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The three central characters enter a forest, are taken by the size of the trees, and imagine great possibilities. The trees begin talking among themselves and introduce a native prophecy scene written by Keith James/White Wolf, the Native American in the company. This and two later scenes were intended to break the narrative to include native points of view but not to subjugate them to a traditional plot line. The prophecy scenes had a ritual quality and were relatively independent of the beginning-middle-end requirements of more traditional dramas.
In the next scene, Paul approaches a tree to begin his task of logging and a tree cries out "no not that one." Paul scoffs at the notion and then finds that he can in fact talk to the trees. They in turn present a series of short scenes that dramatize the recent and radical deforestation of California. But life in the forest also leads to celebration of the foods available and to a vigorous rap song and dance about logging.
But the story is now getting away from Laughed. It isn't turning out as he'd imagined. Indians, trees, towns, lifestyles have disappeared. And a rapid information scene describes the developments up to the fifties. Scenes set in a 60's diner and a 90's supermarket chronicle the further decline of logging. The play's final scene shows a face-to-face confrontation between radical ecologists and loggers in the woods as another stand of timber is targeted for cutting. The scene concludes with a tree being felled and it's spirit escaping in a wild dance of release/death. The play finishes with monologues by Paul, Babe, and Laughed, now substantially changed or at least individualized from the monologues which began the play.
While the script was at this time not quite ready for duplication and distribution, it was close enough to make casting choices. I asked the company if anyone had a preference for certain roles, preferred scenes, or had skills of which we had not yet taken advantage. These discussions tend to produce a few important preferences that, while not always able to be delivered, do help give a sense of people's personal needs in regard to the project. The casting choices Kate Magruder and I made were on the whole well-received, and although in feedback discussions after the summer work I learned that not all were satisfied with the choices, we had asked the company if the two facilitators might have the authority to make casting choices and the group had consented.
At this time we also discussed the title of the production. This is always an important choice and needs to have sufficient time dedicated to it so that the final decision feels right to most everyone. We had been working with the title of "Rooted," which had many merits, especially concerning the relationship to trees, to opinions, and to people's feelings about living in the Ukiah valley. On the other hand, it was my sense that the play we were making did not say much about people being rooted, but people being adrift, even uprooted. Names that came forward were both perceptive (Trees for the Forest, Old Growth - New Growth, Taproot, Knots) and positively delightful (Paradise Logged, Stumped, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Timber!, Out on a Limb, Clear-Cut Solution, Another Fart of the Forest, Log Doubt). In fact, I encourage a lot of time on titles in part because it can be a great deal of fun merely arriving at purely humorous impulses that could rarely be the title. Some of my fondest memories of collaborative playmaking are sessions where play titles are considered at some length.
Several days later the company decided to settle on a version of my suggestion on uprootedness. Since posters had already been designed with Rooted as the title, someone suggested we insert a carat before the "R" and put "Up" just above the line -- UpROOTED. Visually it was an exciting image and suggested the very process we and the theme were experiencing. But in retrospect, especially with the renaming of a major rewrite of the play to ReROOTED, the title of UpROOTED! said as much about the whirlwind to come as it did about the theme of the emerging script.
By the weekend, then, the play was in a working draft form and it was time to begin staging. Kate asked if I would be willing to do this work and I agreed to do it, although it would probably be best for an outside facilitator to have this activity clearly assigned before the project begins. We tended to leave this decision literally to the moment when staging had to start, and I should have known better. But staging went well as we worked through all the problems inherent in twelve people acting upwards of forty characters. The major concern was would we have enough time to get a sense of the play's movement and shape and leave a few sessions for me to work in the scenes in more detail. As it happened, we got the play's basic spacial and logistical dynamics completed in five days but just two days before I left town. That left me one day to review all the choices we had made, to give some actor coaching as to how scenes could be more compelling, and to see if we had addressed essential technical matters. The final meeting, then, was a bit harried as everyone knew we needed to get through all our work in order for me to leave with everyone feeling that the base was in place.
What with a final circle, a moment of silence, and some exquisite t-shirts given to me as parting gifts, the two-week residency came to a close and the project landed fully in the laps of the project participants, and particularly in the lap of Project Director Kate Magruder.
Under Kate's direction, the company rehearsed UpROOTED for two weeks and opened on June 28th, 1991. Publicity had gathered upwards of 150 people for the opening night, the first of a two-performance weekend run in Ukiah. The company would also play in Mendocino the weekend of July 4th, and again in Willits on Friday, July 13th. I had faxed a copy of a questionnaire I wanted distributed to the audience to record responses and there was also a discussion planned immediately after the performance. Amidst hope, uncertainty, and normal performance anxieties, the Mendocino People's Portrait project opened its long-awaited production.
The response was concussive. Although I was fifteen hundred miles away and only heard about the reception the next day, it was clear talking to Kate that the discussion was heated, polarized, and even accusatory. While the audience was for the most part satisfied with the performance work, the tensions which marked the topic of ecology and forestry broke into the open. Some people left before the play was over, some pointedly did not stay for the discussion, and several who stayed voiced strong personal and professional criticisms.
Taking information from the forms and blending it with interviews I did with Kate, other company members, and some audience people in later weeks, it seems fair to characterize the discussion, and thus the critical reception, as follows:
Most of the audience thought the play was well done or very well done. Surprisingly, over 70% thought that it was "mainly fair" to "fair" in its treatment of the issues. But a very strong 15% thought the play failed miserably in its representation of loggers and of the timber industry. It is not surprising perhaps that these points of view tended to fall along interest lines, with people having a strong interest in ecology liking the play's points-of-view while logging people and timber interests voicing strong or even vehement reservations. It is also revealing that individuals' preferences (logging, timber, ecology) were not asked for on the form, but was information that was volunteered on many of the forms.
This also says something about the makeup of the audience that attended the play. (I have a very strong interest in the question of "for whom", and know that a theatre event performed not even in a high-culture theatre but only in a community theatre space will usually attract a more liberal crowd. Still in this project the need for some kind of "consensus" in community representation seemed important and points out what to my mind is the primary limitation of at least my participation in the project. This will be discussed in more detail later.) We were playing to a self-selected audience. Over eighty per-cent of those who filled out the forms were people who went to the theatre at least 3-4 times a year, and many (over 10%) went almost every month. It is generally assumed that those who go to the theatre tend to the liberal side of the spectrum and this is certainly the case in Ukiah. Though the Players has a season bill that resembles those across the country, they are also known for doing non-traditional experiments from time to time. This too lends to an audience more receptive to the controversial. And the topic itself -- ecology and timber -- tended to bring to the theatre many from the ecology community while the logging and timber operations, while represented, were in a notable minority. But while a minority, it was a vocal presence in the discussion.
The primary criticism was that neither the logger nor the business point of view was presented fairly. The business person, represented in the first monologue and by Laughed, seemed straw men designed to be knocked down. The contributions of the timber business to the area had been ignored and only the difficulties had been dramatized. Also, the characters were shown to be narrow in their self-interest and unable to understand the more complex elements of the struggle that in fact local timber businesspeople understood all too well. Loggers, too, were badly represented, it was said, by a myth character. This abstracted what loggers see as a very concrete life and led to a kind of esoteric or metaphorical existence that might have appeal for intellectuals but not for the persons represented. Also it was felt Paul was lectured to in many parts of the play, was literally "taken to school," an action that was felt to be condescending. And a number of people said Paul's talking to the trees completely misrepresented logger's actual experience and that virtually no loggers saw trees as having a spiritual or especially a communicative life that loggers were somehow ending.
In the later evaluation, I will address these issues in an attempt to assess our achievements and limitations. But two points need to be made here. First, the company that assembled the play believed the representations we offered were both "fair" as far as we could tell and that the general consensus on the urgent need to change the direction of forestry policy impelled us to have a strong point of view, one that while on the one hand aimed at being "fair" also aimed to represent the issues with a mind toward change. Almost 80% of those who filled out forms said the production was fair. Second, while I contend that fair representation is a very important issue, especially in a community-based project, it is also of equal if not more importance that the project not construct its heart around an exhausting process aimed at a "balance above all" that would not only be impossible but would dissipate the theatre-makers' passionate convictions. In fact, to discover where a process needs to lead it is essential that those involved speak from their convictions. Only in this way can convictions be changed, while if conviction is compromised in the process, growth itself is later overrun with sour grapes.
Still, the public display of the group's convictions resulted in several weeks of public debate over the play as well as several months of genuine trauma for Kate Magruder. The opening night's discussions was sufficiently difficult for her that she felt compelled before the next night's performance to change what seemed the most objectionable parts of the play, to the dismay of some of the company. Still other company members felt it was not only appropriate for her as project manager and director to make the changes but that perhaps in the now-public stage of the process changes needed to be made given the information we were getting back. Not surprisingly, those who believed the play housed entirely defensible choices saw the edits as censorship and caving in to the pressure of some of the very forces the company collectively resisted.
In retrospect it is interesting to review the evaluation sheets from that night, for if we are to believe the forty-fifty returned, the evening was a smashing success overall and even a success (3.8 on a 5 points scale) in terms of fairness. What may well have happened is that the audience, one clearly predisposed to favor an ecological point of view, was aware of the play's leanings and were sensitive, or over-sensitive, to a minority which spoke clearly that the play did have a bias. Perhaps the ensuing discussion took its lead from the strong seasoning present but, as the evaluations show, clearly not from the lettuce in the overall mix.
During the next week letters came into the local Ukiah newspaper in the kind of numbers and with a kind of fierceness few people could remember. Letters both attacked and defended the play with the slight majority being in the former category. One especially critical letter was written by someone who had not seen the play but had only heard about its presentation. Still it gave the distinct impression of someone who had in fact been part of the opening weekend. Such were the passions which had been inflamed.
It must be said that Kate Magruder handled what must originally have been a heart-numbing experience with integrity and principle. She immediately contacted those who had spoken against the play on opening night and asked to meet them over lunch. She did the same with critics who had written letters to the editor, and within a week a deep dialogue had begun about not only the play, the issues raised and how a new play might represent them, but about how the direction of forestry policy might have to change. This to my mind is the most remarkable achievement of this exercise in community playmaking.
It was as if the community and its local theatre and that theatre's leader were all riding a rising wave of inevitable economic flux. In the spirit of a true community-based arts endeavor the Ukiah Players had determined to do their part in adding to the regional debate, and in so doing propelled some of its people, Kate Magruder in particular, into not only a crucible of theatre advocacy but into the very policy struggle itself. From my outsider's point of view, it was clear that all in the community were in some stage of denial -- whether it was the understandable denial in the ecological community that led to saying the corporations and loggers were unreachable or the deep-brain denial of the timber business that lead to saying business had to proceed as usual. The play, to quote Laurel Near, choreographer for the project, had lanced a boil. That being true, I suggest it was a boil of growing denial and I am unsure if such a lancing could occur cleanly.
Through the rest of the summer and into the late fall, Kate held meetings with people on all points of the spectrum and attended meetings of policy-deciding boards. She became intimately acquainted with the political procedures whereby forestry guidelines were being decided. She was in daily contact with the ecological activists who sought to encode in law more enlightened language on logging procedures. Yet at the same time she maintained her connection to those whose interests lay with current policies. In early November the Mendocino County Forest Advisory Committee, to the surprise of many, voted for the first time in its history to restrict logging in the country and to adopt the principles of sustainable forestry. To my mind Kate Magruder's presence in this most difficult process was a model of diplomacy and arts activism demonstrating the finest features of community-based work amidst highly contradictory community interests.
With the coming of fall, Kate (and others?) decided that the only way to proceed with the project, which did have as its goal to tour through the region a play about forestry, was to abandon UpROOTED! altogether and start virtually from scratch on a new play. I agreed with the decision. The central objectives of the new piece were: (1) to capture the idea of a "portrait" in the work, consistent with the description of the original project; (2) to achieve this portrait in part through the use of more actual stories and more direct quotations from people interviewed; (3) to avoid the more inflammatory confrontations dramatized in UpROOTED! and focus rather on common interests and possible solutions, or at least processes whereby solutions could be found.
I spoke with Kate several times in September and October. She was passionately committed to addressing her own pain at the initial reception of UpROOTED! and the collective pain she sensed in the community by means of a play that was boldly inclusive. It was the story of the region that had to be told, she said. "If I can just find a way to tell the stories we have been told, everything is there -- the conflicts, the hopes, the fears, the ideologies." In a sense the author needed, as she said later, just to keep her glass held up to the Mendocino County walls and listen. If she reported what she heard, that would be both compelling and true. Of course "just" implies abilities she now had that perhaps because of her position others didn't and couldn't have, such as what information coming through the walls was bravado and what genuine, what a real part of the several main streams and what truly marginal, and what would resonate in an audience as not necessarily the truth but certainly as "a" truth in the raucous world of forest politics. Trusting her instincts and her much greater appreciation for the dynamics of Mendocino County in the fall of 1991, she met with several groups of people for guidance and proceeded to write on her own the new play, ReROOTED. When I heard there would be a staged public reading of the work in mid-November, I made plans to get to Ukiah for the event.
About seventy-five people turned out for this next stage in what was an increasingly process-oriented playmaking venture. The evening began with Kate describing briefly the events that led to this current reading. It was clear that although a few people had not seen UpROOTED, the audience was mainly familiar with the public debate and Kate's attempt to come to terms with the community's polarities.
In a blackout, a view of the earth from space was serenaded by a young child singing an earth survival song. Then news reports chronicled the major events in the forestry crisis over the previous two years. When the lights came up, the readers on the stage set a different tone than the summer work. Pieces of character and conversation dominated, no scenes were developed. What emerged were people's statements given much life through multiple actor presentations, like a monologue delivered as a polylogue. A history was described with slides that documented the concrete reality of those who were there first, who arrived first, and who won and lost first. This was going to be a piece that pointed few if any fingers but extended a hand to virtually everyone. At was an extraordinarily generous gesture.
There was literally not a "scene" until almost half-way through. Rather it was a montage of history, personal stories, diary entries, remembrances, and insecurities, all woven by an eye that had it's distinct agenda but which strove to put as many people in the portrait with as much integrity as possible. When finally a scene did appear, between a woman trucker and several other briefly drawn characters, the drama jumped off the stage for a moment. It was not that the montage lacked interest. Far from it, for the audience seemed at least attentive and even riveted. But suddenly the implications of the gentle blizzard of people, stories, and information took on a detailed face and the telescope changed focus from the mountain to the person working on the mountain. It was for me striking to move to the foreground this barrage of impressions and then to plant in the middle of the barrage a woman voicing fear over being shot at, not being understood, and needing a job.
The play returned to the montage format but did occasionally foreground a specific story for dramatic development. Slides -- especially faces -- continued to reinforce the narratives in effective, moving ways. Occasionally fragments or whole moments from UpROOTED! emerged as did several of the songs carried over from the original. The ending, however, reflected what Kate herself had said was the dilemma of her playmaking at this stage, and likely what was the dilemma of the portrait process and the community crisis itself: there was no ending. There was a humanistic call for all to sit down and talk seasoned with brief snippets of what Kate, and the company itself most likely, believed was essential -- a shift to sustainable forestry. But a fairly focussed multiple narrative dissipated mainly into gentle generalities like arrows fired into a lake, drifting to the bottom. Kate had indicated the ending was changing on a daily or even hourly basis and it seemed to me entirely appropriate because the context in Mendocino was changing almost as rapidly.
After a short break, those who wished stayed to discuss what they had heard. Overall people were extremely pleased. Typical comments were: it was more focused; polarizing elements are gone; multicultural elements stand out more clearly; was hopeful and not judgmental; can generate debate; didn't dismiss the corporations; focus on fear was good because that is what all sides are experiencing; there is "still time" (appropriately enough, one of the last works of the Provisional Theatre of Los Angeles, a progressive group of the 70's and 80's, was about the earth and ecology and was called Still Time). Concern was registered about: still could be seen as an attack on local timber businesses; elimination of most native and new age spiritual content; possibility of material, even in a performance mode, being boring to high school and junior high students; the play becomes too inclusive -- you have to draw the line somewhere or you bend back so far as to place your head in a dark place; a lack of characters who are confronted with need to change and do so -- transformation of consciousness needs to be modeled.
On the whole, the response from the audience was both very positive and heartfelt. Perhaps it was in part a sigh of relief from supporters that a work had finally emerged which embraced without squeezing. Perhaps it was delight that so much was included and yet was seemingly accessible to all. Perhaps it was simple homage to Kate and company for having stayed the course and producing an engaging, moving evening of theatre. It was likely a little of all this. For me it was, in addition to each of these, a validation of the process, of the months of work, hope, and heartache, of stepping like Indiana Jones into the bottomless chasm and finding a bridge at last. As my Caravan experience taught me, there is something important about putting your glass up to the wall and listening, but there is something even more important about simply getting up each day, as Kate and others had done, and going to the wall glass in hand. If creativity is in fact ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration, the People's Portrait Project of Mendocino County had sweated it out. The performance in mid-November, 1991, confirmed the importance of not only artistry, but of sheer persistence.
The morning after the reading Kate and I got an opportunity to talk about the new work. She said she was more pensive than elated over the response. What lay ahead was yet more work. "I wanted to say the things I heard and they needed to be in the play," she observed. "Now there needs to be a kind of combination of the two plays -- this one needs dramatization, relationships, development of people." The ending too was going to take work. "My husband said it was sort of like a group of romantics standing around waxing about the future." What still needed doing was to tackle the complexity and to answer the question how do we get the genuine knotty details back into the play without there being another group of talking heads. "And," she concluded, "we need some character somewhere who truly transforms."
I concurred with most of her observations and added that the possibility of scenes, if elaborated, could be a vigorous structural feature. It also occurred to me that, since the theatre project itself was now a part if even a notorious part of the forestry debate, it might be fun to have a very brief scene or two of people trying to put together a play and not getting it so anyone was satisfied. In this way, and at this time, it a seemed appropriate that the People's Portrait Project could now also reflect publicly upon itself having reflecting on virtually everything else in the past year.
Throughout this narrative there has been an attempt to provide an ongoing evaluation of the larger People's Portrait Project of Mendocino County. Though it is still incomplete, it is fair to say that the project has had and retains great vigor. The community participation has been strong and key institutions and individuals have been cultivated regularly for their points-of-view. Gathering and processing a vast amount of information was done in a disciplined yet passionate way, while the playmaking process at the UpROOTED$33; stage was rife with commitment, controversy, and genuine concern for the community. The performance was, for a non-professional group, entirely credible and occasionally very moving. And while the public response was volcanic, it remains entirely to the credit of Kate Magruder that she was able to move past the personal anguish and get on with the business of making a portrait that was clearly more credible, yet still see this stage as merely another step in the process.
Where this evaluation more deservedly needs to be directed is at this author, facilitator of the project. For several questions stand before me about the role of the outside resource in a project that entails by definition and by fact intimate local content. Those questions are, briefly:
It is my conclusion that an outside facilitator can provide very useful organizational and cultural information to a project that is attempting to bring difficult local issues to the surface. But there are many parts to such a contribution, and each must be assessed as to whether the local group wants or needs the contribution in each area. In all cases, moreover, it is imperative that local people be empowered to continue the kinds of activities carried out by the facilitator after the facilitator is gone. Disempowerment occurs when a community senses that its strength in a project relied ultimately on one person and that person leaves. The practice resembles a kinds of neo-colonialism whereby dependency is sown where self-determination is needed.
Simple organizational skills can be useful but these tend to be something any local group can generate. The Caravan story-gathering process I brought is a more specialized organizational approach and, as with any specific methodology, does need to be explained and executed with some attention to a basic outline. Still, it is a process that lends itself to local appropriation, and once a group or even individual has a grasp of the essentials, an outside presence is not needed. This or any process, once "domesticated," will most likely then be changed and adjusted to meet the needs of the region and project. And this is as it should be.
The debatable involvement concerns questions of content and content-related activities. Let's begin with a seemingly neutral activity: facilitation. While on first glance it might appear primarily a formal/organizational element, facilitation is always connected with content. In a project where deeply-seated social issues are involved, it is particularly content-oriented. I do not mean consultants here. I do mean the conventional outside facilitator, the one who is brought in (merely) to help the process in meetings. For simple meeting process involves directing discussion, creating ongoing agenda, and developing preferences regarding personalities, issues, and values, all of which have a direct bearing on content. While it is the outside facilitator's task as much as possible to keep separate from specific content management, we are faced here with the classic physics question: how does one see light without light?; ie, how do we describe or interact with a phenomenon without altering it? Facilitation requires interaction, implies impact, means alteration of some kind. There is no problem in that unless we attempt to say that the impact is either not there or is negligible. While the traditional facilitator needs to maintain both an appearance of and an actual psychic distance from content questions, it is also essential to acknowledge that if process is content, guiding process is powerfully content-loaded.
Of even more impact is the facilitator who is entering a project such as the People's Portrait where regional, national, and even global issues are involved. If as I suggest any outside facilitator brings content- affect, the facilitator in such a highly-charged project is inevitably a central feature of all content choices. Even the selection of a facilitator would likely involve selection by value. Let us say a community or group wished to do a play about nuclear energy. It is my experience, and certainly my experience in Ukiah, that individuals involved would want the facilitator to be familiar with relevant issues and that, in nuclear energy as in timber, it was assumed the subject precluded anyone being neutral. Since most people who want publicity and especially plays about nuclear energy are against its use, the group would be most interested in someone who not only knew the subject but tended to be against nuclear development. While I might be accused here of making rash generalizations, I submit for purposes of this evaluation that traditional and conservative power structures tend not to use the theatre intentionally or as a forum for advancing their points of view. The number of plays resisting apartheid, Central American involvement, nuclear energy, Vietnam, development over ecology, patriarchy, and homophobia to name are few are legion. Plays supporting those policies or attitudes here in the US or elsewhere exist but just barely. In other words, unless there is a change in the way theatre is perceived, it will continue to be an outlet for unofficial points of view and a cultural agent available to those who desire change.
If my assumption here is correct, then a facilitator who is asked to help with a project where great social value is at stake, the very context will mean the facilitator enters the arena with not only baggage but expected baggage.
This is not at all to say that the situation such as the one in which I found myself becomes a forum for dogmatic control or even manipulation of the process by the facilitator simply because conviction is inevitable and expected. In fact, the opposite is true. Because this or any question where the stakes are high will imply high stakes on literally countless daily issues, the facilitator is then compelled to maintain as much as possible, just as with the traditional facilitator, a psychic distance from the push and press that attends every moment of discussion and creation. Again it is well to keep in mind that the facilitator will still find her/himself deeply involved in not only the issues but the personalities and procedures as well and that these are content-affecting interactions, not purely neutral arbitration. In point of fact, actually having a personal history in the intellectual and emotional tides shaping the political questions helps the facilitator get a sense from moment to moment how sensitive some individuals might be to the questions at hand. Still, it must continually be remembered that one is having a direct impact on the results of the process as facilitator. If this is understood, then I believe it is entirely appropriate for an outside person to help a community-based project.
Lack of community contact itself has advantages. While it is undeniably appropriate for a local person to facilitate a playmaking effort, an outside resource is unrelated to personal and political histories that can be brought by participants to a project. This was clearly one of the advantages I found I brought in the Ukiah project. Because individuals had mixed opinions about other individuals' past behaviors and political assumptions, I was viewed I believe as someone who was simply not involved in the more complicated interpersonal or interpolitical knots, and as a result was accorded more trust -- for as long as I could deserve it by not entering or definitely not choosing sides in certain matters. A local participant, it seemed, would simply have had to have been involved in some of the stickier issues and might have been suspect from the start. Again, this seems to me an advantage brought by the outside facilitator.
There are disadvantages, however, to being an outsider. Not having a history with the people is a distinct disadvantage. In Ukiah, for example, I felt I understood very minimally if at all the "cultural semiotics" preferred by the logging community. Had I more or even any familiarity, I believe I would have suggested that the logger rap song and even the Paul Bunyan story itself were mistaken vehicles with which to say what the group wanted to say. And while I did detect as early as March that the group was virulently anti-timber-business and correctly warned them against setting up straw representations, I did not perceive, as I believe I might have had I been more locally aware, that the timber business existed at least in two layers -- the multinational and the local/regional. I learned at last that the two had to be separated and that, while multinationals were unreachable and at least in the short term unsalvageable, local/regional interests could be swayed and could moreover be part of a coalition for change. As a result of this oversight, we developed a "business" representative in the play (Laughed) that alienated a part of the community which was, at least to Kate's and my way of thinking later, a potential ally in the fight to gain sustainable forestry.
These matters anticipate the second set of evaluation questions, and it is necessary to address them in their own right.
Whereas the first question raises more general matters of process theory, this second question asks for analysis of my specific perceptions and contributions. What is necessary to answer the question in a sense depends on having the experience and discoveries described in question one. For on reflection, it is my conclusion that, yes, it was possible for me to understand the strong personal agendas in the group if I understood objectively that in fact there would be strong personal agendas. As someone who has participated in many political and cultural activities, I have been surprised to realize that although I was aware in an abstract way individuals in the People's Portrait Project would have histories and agendas, I did not translate this into a working awareness. Herein lies one of the primary shortcomings of my work in the project. Had I grasped the fact that, of course, this highly-politicized gathering around a highly-politicized subject would have needs and objectives, I could have made that understanding not only a part of my own methodology but made it a methodology of the group as well. Not that we want to admit or even are consciously aware of our biases or even of the day-to-day operation of our convictions, to say nothing of being able to put that into a group process. But after the work with the People's Project I am convinced that one of the functions of a facilitator is to incorporate discussions whereby individuals' assumptions and biases are both a feature of early discussions and a subject for ongoing investigation as the process evolves.
To a certain extent the Caravan-style discussions which I held involving hopes and expectations and even fears is a part the desired process whereby personal values and ideology are brought concretely into the playmaking process. But this discussion needed, and needs, to be more specific. A series of questions such as the following might well be asked: What do you perceive as your ultimate/central personal and/or political values? What is the greatest threat to these values? How could the play/event to be presented incorporate your central values and how might it work against those values?
I then need to answer the question: Would these questions have helped us, and me in particular, avoid the more obvious limitations of UpROOTED!? The question is of course mainly hypothetical, but I believe it would have been beneficial to hear, in as clear a way as possible, the heart of each of our concerns. For example, there were some who believed the ecological issues of trees, water, and soil were ultimate, and that if humans were to be inconvenienced or even profoundly disrupted to restore natural balances that was acceptable. A second group had a strong feeling of wanting to communicate with local loggers and, while also harboring strong ecological biases, wanted to find ways to build bridges. I do not know for sure, but I suspect some in the first group felt those bridges were either not able to be built or, if built, would mortally compromise their central values. At the same time participants in the second group assumed that on-going but hopefully lessening degradation of the environment would be an acceptable and even unavoidable scenario into which logging people could be incorporated. Moreover, the loggers would neither be implicated fundamentally in the devastation nor threatened with a virtual and even advocated collapse of the human economy that was assumed by some necessary to save ecological systems.
This difference in basic assumptions escaped us all and proceeded to work against a truly integrated theatre production. In the follow up interviews, the results of our inability to see the schisms appeared. While on the whole the participant evaluations were mainly positive, the success of the project was perceived by several to be at best mixed. A member of the environmentally-focussed group mentioned that the process resulted in a "betrayal" of her principles. A member of the more pragmatic group said flatly, "I didn't like it when we lost sight of the loggers. We were in the library basement, doing interviews, then came a script. And they were missing, right from the beginning." Other responses reflect similar concerns. I don't believe it is mere speculation on my part if I suggest that, had I assumed the possible existence of such deep philosophical assumptions and had those assumptions been brought out boldly into the light of day, we would have had a far different play. But the matters did not get fully aired and we got a production that in a sense was neither fish nor fowl nor plant nor rock. It did not come out boldly for ecology but rather obliquely attacked a general "business" practice through confrontations of loggers and environmentalists -- Paul and Babe in the metaphor, actual loggers and environmentalists in several scenes. A clearer sense of our collective biases would have helped give the play greater cohesion and, again, might have resulted in a very different story line. But with the production of UpROOTED!, the contradictions were finally revealed and a second play came into being that has managed, as of November 1991, to incorporate the antagonistic forces without antagonizing the forces further. And this also is part of the achievement of the entire People's Portrait Project.
There are many features of the process developed by the Dakota Theatre Caravan that were used in the People's Portrait Project including: group building (personal backgrounds, hopes, fears, needs), interviewing, collaborative playmaking (invention, writing, directing), and a commitment to local culture. Several of these approaches were successful. Group building in March seemed to work very well. People were generous with their personal stories and this led to a loose but still palpable group identity by the end of the first week. According to Kate, this overall commitment remained with the playmaking company through April and May and was still very present when I returned in June. Indeed, despite the uproar created by UpROOTED!, the company was still remarkably positive about the overall event and the company creation in mid-July.
I have already discussed what I felt was a limitation of the overall process -- not getting to the nub of people's personal stake in the project -- and this I would categorize as part of the group building process. It is also one that, as I have said, needs to be added to the process, particularly when issues of high social impact are involved. To that extent, I would now recommend this as part of the "Caravan" approach when the situation requires it.
A second feature is interviewing, but because it is closely tied to the fourth element -- commitment to local culture -- I will address it in that discussion. But the third feature -- collaborative playmaking in invention, writing, and directing -- worked exceedingly well. It is true that while we collaborated successfully with the ecological community, we simply did not "collaborate" as well as we needed to with local timber businesses or the logging community. But within the company ideas dropped like rain into the group in March, certainly in the April/May period, and continued to deluge us in the final stages of playmaking in June. This was a distinct success and in follow-up interviews it is interesting to see that, without exception, participants did not feel as if their ideas had been dismissed. Rather, there was a strong feeling that any and all ideas were considered.
Up to a half-dozen hands can be found in the actual script of the play and this again was a triumph for at least collaborative creation on the most specific level and perhaps for quality playwriting as well. For the limitations of the play had more to do with the ideas we brought to it rather than the execution of those ideas. If Babe and Paul were not the best idea, they were written up with real flair. If there was too much information, we at least asked for that information and tried to make it compelling. If the play began to stray away from logging and into a bias toward ecological interests, it was because these were the forces at work in the group. The scenes themselves -- restaurant, supermarket, the forest -- had integrity as drama. While the demands of the group meant we were writing a half-dozen plays in one, this is more a result of not being able, as a group, to focus our purpose, and that is a flaw in the collaborative process that requires attention. To capture a truly interesting and imaginative script in a brief period with relative newcomers to dramatic invention was a considerable achievement. That Kate Magruder, one of the principal authors, took on the task of reconstituting all the relevant information, moving the process forward, and generating a much more credible script in ReROOTED! is perhaps a further testimony of collaborative processes preparing an individual to make major strides in representing community culture. For another area of the collaboration was directing. Here again the process served us well.
Kate asked that I devise the initial staging for UpROOTED! and I was happy to do so. Then she took over the tasks of directing in mid-June and completed a very demanding assignment. But the lesson to be learned here, which is fundamental to a community-based process, is: The process must empower the community to continue the work after the facilitator has left. Granted, Kate Magruder is a remarkable woman with vast energy and commitment to social values and to her community. But the process, it seems to me, propelled her in several ways into a position of genuine leadership. By August she knew the issues thoroughly, knew the key people in all areas of opinion, remained deeply connected to the stories she and others had gathered, and had cultivated a lasting commitment to bring the project out of a kind of raging whirlpool into genuine community consensus. It is possible that any, or at least several, processes might have positioned her for this kind of personal and public stride. But the Caravan approach was the process used and it is my conviction that it played an important role in bringing her to the kind of vision and work she exhibited in November. The facilitator was clearly not essential, had been exceeded. That speaks well for what we did.
The primary limitation of my work was redeemed by the very vision Kate manifested in creating ReROOTED!. This is because the heart and soul of Caravan work was a commitment to local culture. I find it ironic to make this criticism, for if anything characterized the achievement of the Caravan and my passion in that process and work it was this very commitment. And it is the one that I allowed to recede from the Portrait process. I did not take seriously enough the need to tell the stories, the whole range of stories, gathered by a vigorous group of local interviewers. The play we needed to make was truly within those stories and we got sidetracked onto specific political agendas, due in part to my not making a strong enough case for local story presentation. It is here that the audience found us to be, while not "unfair", not entirely "fair". It is here that the evaluation forms spoke regularly of being slanted toward ecologists and away from loggers, even though the respondent might have agreed with the ecological position. And it is here that local people, interviewed for hours and days, took exception to "the whole story not being told." What we did was to make implicit judgments as to which stories deserved to be told and which not. There is nothing implicitly wrong in this except that:
I introduced a very detailed process for interviewing and sent the entire Portrait group into the region to gather material. We did that, the company did that extremely well. It is a hallmark of the Project that we learned so much from the community. That I did not see us becoming too involved in the Paul Bunyan plot and not attentive enough to the mounds of interview material from the local area was a clear error on my part. Perhaps by June it was too late to return to the interviews as the basis for the show. Upon reflection, it is possible that I was unsure that the processes developed in South Dakota, a very rural and non-California area, were actually valid elsewhere. I might have doubted our discoveries, doubted the value of story. Whatever the case, I did not during my May phone conversations call attention to the fact that we were losing the substance and even the fact of the interviews.
In summary, it is to the credit of the process in general, and to Kate Magruder in particular, that this shortcoming on my part was redeemed. Kate returned to the stories with a vengeance, drew from them the agonizing contradictions that still rock that rural northern California area, and created a second piece that seems destined to be the kind of public event all of us on the original project wanted to find and didn't. It is also entirely possible, and even likely, that the project never could have gotten ReROOTED! without first having endured the agony and the ecstasy of creating UpROOTED!.
No one will ever know. But there is always operating in such processes a feature of faith. We believe in the rightness of our actions. This belief, this step into the dangerous unknown, connects us to the forces of social conflict with a kind of integrity that is self-healing when the tumult is past. This is not just "meaning well". It is combining the best of our impulses with the cacophony of social disruption and its attendant material hardness. And the results can be both ecstatic and punishing. But the key is what we learn, how we assess our actions, and particularly how we feel about our intentions and process.
Having acted in good faith, having taken on a remarkably difficult dragon, the company in general, and Kate Magruder in particular, came away positive, ready remarkably for yet another round. And from that new interaction came a promising piece of community-based theatre. Stories with opinions varying by 180 degrees were juxtaposed. Difference was displayed and not judged. Portraits replaced the abstract expressionism on the community wall. Faith mingled with the material world and a new possibility had been born. A community was in the process of being genuinely empowered, and while many years and thousands of people were involved, a theatre event was now deeply in the mix.
Given reflection, there is reason to hope. Though there are clearly reasons to be, perhaps the world is not yet discouraged of the human endeavor.
Doug Paterson is a leading theater activist, founder of the Dakota Theatre Caravan and faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and directs the new Center for the Theatre of the Oppressed -- Omaha. He can be reached at email@example.com .