Many view the Coronavirus pandemic as The Great Pause, where we hunker down and muddle through, hoping we return to normalcy some time in the near future with at least some of our marbles intact.
Theater J, on the other hand, views Corona Time as space; space to think, reflect, challenge ourselves and grow.
Rather than drinking wine at 10 a.m. and eating all the cookies, Theater J spent the latter part of the summer expanding consciousness—their own and their audiences’. They enlisted Rachel Grossman, a D.C. area director, playwright and performer, to create and lead “How to Become a Raised-Consciousness Audience Member,” a Zoom class with guest speakers, short readings, videos, and (gulp!) homework.
“It all came about when Adam (Immerwahr, Theater J’s Artistic Director) and I were catching up in June,” Grossman said. “I was pretty close to unemployed since I lost all my jobs due to the Coronavirus.” It was a week after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and emotions and unease were high. “A lot of White people suddenly realized that racism exists. They didn’t know what to do about it but wanted to do something, take action.”
The idea for the class came out of a TCG Facebook group Grossman participated in that discussed racism in the theater. There were about 400 people in the group, which blew up to over 4,000 members after Floyd’s murder. “I went from getting unemployment relief from the government to mobilizing this Facebook group into action—doing something other than talking about racism in theater.”
Around that time, Immerwahr asked Grossman if she would be interesting in doing a class about anti-racism and audience. “I said I would if it could be about the role of the audience and racial justice,” Grossman said.
They developed the class structure (four sessions on Thursdays from 3:30 to 5 p.m., with Q & A and feedback after, beginning August 13) and Grossman began thinking about who she wanted to be a guest speaker. She settled upon friends and colleagues Danielle Drakes, a D.C.-area theater artist; Katherine MacHolmes, Omaha-based actor and activist; and Bea Udeh, a U.K.-based writer, poet and producer.
Twelve students signed up, most from the metropolitan area, and then they were off to the races. “I missed theater,” Ellen Blalock said of her motivation to enroll in the class. “The premise of the class intrigued me. I thought it was going to be about plays, but it was really about theater as a filter for looking at the world as it is today.”
On Week One, the class looked at what is the role and responsibility of the theater audience. “Our students were all cis gender and identified as White, but we asked them to think about identity, names and pronouns. And whether or not theater was accessible on all levels to other identities, races or genders—and why.”
“When this whole topic of gender identity came up, I thought “Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” Blalock laughed. “I learned there are virtually unlimited ways of identifying yourself.” Blalock said that Grossman led them in an exercise about where they lived, which in Blalock’s case is the D.C.-Metro area. “Then she asked us who lived there first and were those people displaced,” Blalock explained. “All of a sudden I wasn’t a resident but an occupier, which really shifts your thinking. It was a way of moving beyond what you know and realizing there is so much else to consider.”
They came to the realization that all people want to see people like themselves up on stage. “That’s the journey—How do I identify theater? How do I identify as an audience member?,” said Grossman. “And then to explore the intersections between the two.”
Blalock recounts a fascinating exercise where the students cast Anne Frank in a production. The head shots were of a red-haired, pale White woman, a Eurasian woman, and a Black woman. “I chose the Eurasian woman because she had a vulnerability to her that I thought would be good for Anne Frank. I didn’t think about her facial features or ethnicity, but more of the emotion she stirred in me.”
Another participant chose the White woman and rigorously defended the choice, saying it was “historically accurate and true to Anne Frank’s memory and her family.” “What we learned it that there is no right or wrong answer, but when making choices in theater there are untold complexities, starting with the history, culture, and feelings that you bring to the table,” Blalock said.
MacHolmes led Week Two, which was about social identity and oppression in marginalized communities. “We looked at ‘How do I show up at the theater? What biases, opinions, and assumptions do I bring with me?’”
Blalock saw this as an opportunity to examine how she could conduct herself in the theater to be more sensitive and aware. “What am I seeing now that I never saw or experienced before?,” she said, adding “these kinds of questions have made me more expansive as an audience member and as a person living in a world that has greatly changed.”
On Week Three, Drakes spoke about participation and expectations as an audience. “It was a heavy class,” Grossman admitted. “We discussed the White supremacy identity, which is what the state of theater culture is today.”
The final week with Udeh raised the topic of action. How do we shift, affect change, in the theater world and the world at large? “The students had to look at and sit with their biases, what they bring into the theater with them, and how they can go beyond opinions and prejudices to experience theater differently,” Grossman said.
Blalock emerged from the class with her palette expanded on what theater can do and who theater is for. “My brain is open,” she said. “I now look at theater—and the world—with more than my eyes.”
“People are demanding more of their theaters now,” Grossman said. “They want more representation on the stage and behind the scenes.”
Registration for Theater J’s fall classes is open now. Immerwahr and Grossman hope to present the “How to Become a Raised-Consciousness Audience Member” class again and similar programming on the role of the audience in the theater experience.
Anyone interested in taking the course should contact Chad Kinsman, Director of Patron Experience for more information.