Moving into the fourth week of rehearsal, Lara and I have gone back and forth about how best to facilitate the writing process. Good facilitation can be elusive; it dances somewhere in the middle between unilateral leadership and anarchic consensus. It also demands keeping one eye on the product and the other on the process. Navigating these many balancing acts during the rehearsal process, I think back to a theater class at Duke with Jeff Storer, who once told us, “a director’s job is to create community.”
Lara and I long ago abandoned the image of ourselves as the “teachers” of Bull City Dignity. As Paulo Friere argues in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal echoes in Theatre of the Oppressed, learning is a two-way street. We shouldn’t see students as “empty vessels” for our wisdom; often they know just as much, or more than we do. This is particularly important when it comes to discussing the community history of Durham. As two co-directors from Washington, D.C., we’re outsiders. Our role in facilitating conversations about Durham’s history is not to lecture, but to create an environment for dialogue and mutual learning. Sometimes, though creating a collaborative space means we’re at the front of the room less, it often takes much more work. It’s not infrequent that Lara and I will stay for an hour after rehearsal talking over our group dynamics and what we can do better. Should we have corrected our student who kept interrupting her castmates? How much should we allow one actor to write on their own without feedback from others? Did we take up too much space in that last conversation?
While we hope to give the students knowledge and skills in documentary theatre, we can gain new knowledge and skills from the students’ experiences and contributions as well. Some days, we’re able to offer the students skills from our own backgrounds, as when Lara leads writing exercises, I talk about acting technique, or we discuss our research. Other days, creating a productive environment means stepping back and acting as little more than “emailers in chief.” At these times we bring in community leaders to co-teach the workshop and guide the students through lessons about their own area of expertise. Whether they’re poets, activists, professors, or artists, these community leaders from Durham and Duke are an essential part of our model for Bull City Dignity. These community leaders also disrupt the usual hierarchy between us and the students. During their workshops, Lara and I act as participants rather than facilitators; we are on an equal playing field with the students. Returning to the rehearsal environment after the workshop, we hope that our students will view the facilitator-student hierarchy less rigidly than before.
While the ideal of a non-hierarchical environment attracts us, such an environment is neither always possible nor always advisable. As co-directors, we will always occupy a certain position of power. When we honestly acknowledge this power differential, it can facilitate students communicating with us in an authentic way. Moreover, even when all participants are formally equal, we need to recognize the inequalities in who speaks up most and who tends to occupy space. Sometimes, we as directors have to make choices between creating a non-hierarchical rehearsal environment and stepping in to make sure that our workshops don’t marginalize any of our cast members.
When a cast member mis-uses a pronoun or makes a microagression, should we intervene? This is the paradox of creating an equal community; the more we take control of a rehearsal space, trying to prevent inequality within our cast, the more Lara and I reinforce our existing power in the environment, both as facilitators and as Duke students. To upset the traditional hierarchy between Lara and I and the students, we have found community partners to join us each week and facilitate discussions about different topics. During these workshops with community partners, and Lara and I have participated and thereby placed ourselves at the same level as the students. During our conversations about Durham history, Lara and I are not the experts. Seeing us listen in these workshops may encourage the students to take the lead later on and to let us listen then as well.
Although facilitation carries the literal meaning of making easier, we also see value in challenging the students. Throghout the process, we have placed a lot of trust in the students (to generate their own to-do lists, to imagine the play’s plot, to find interviewees, e.g.). We have made life easier for the students by handling the logistics of venue, publicity, rehearsal schedule, etc. Apart from that, we have given the students much control of the vision of the project. Similarly, with the guest artists we have brought in and discussions we have had, we’ve asked the students to put in a tremendous amount of mental and emotional work. We finished our script last night. It weaves together more than twenty interviews to tell give a portrait of Durham that deals with themes such as gentrification, faith and LGBT+ life, and Durham’s rich history of civil rights activism. The past three weeks have been rich with hours of interviews and messed up recordings, late nights of transcribing and nutella sandwiches, demanding conversations and hours upon hours of writing. The students have be working hard. Brazilian director Augusto Boal writes that we should not aspire to be “facilitators” but rather “difficultators.” And now its time to get the students on stage.