My first memory of being on stage was in grade school. I was an ultra-skinny kid with a pronounced Polio limp, earning me the nickname, Chester, a clear reference to the TV series, Gun smoke. It was a remarkable TV series and a truly dreadful nickname.
In about fourth grade my teacher had me learn a brief monolog which began, “How! Me big chief, What-A-Pot-AM-I.” When I presented the monolog to some five hundred gathered parents, it brought the house down. My parents were not amused, and I was humiliated, but we never really talked about it, and as far as I know, my parents did not lodge a protest with the principal.
The monolog was problematic for several reasons. First, it mocked me as a disabled child. Second, it outed my family as Native, an identity they tried for very good reasons to hide. Third, it was a filled with settler humor, with jokes that made light of the displacement of the Potawatomi tribe from their traditional home in Illinois.
I mostly forgot about that night until as a young I began seriously studying theatre. What I learned from that monolog and the audience’s response is that theatre has the power to do real harm to people, and often does. Too often the stage belongs to the dominant culture, and the words, gestures, and narratives employed on that stage are used to validate settler and ablist stories of superiority at the expense of people who experience every day degradation.
It was not until I was in college that I saw my first play that privileged others’ voices. I no longer remember the name of that play, but I do remember that it acknowledged the courage and resilience of folks I knew, Appalachian folks, and that it was pure magic. It’s been more than forty years since that night at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Granted, there probably were no black or explicitly Native stories being told, but some of the stories on stage that night were ours.
Later in my twenties I began telling stories and performing at festivals. Mostly I told tales from the British Isles and from Native America, stories I borrowed from books. For me, the stories were alive and saturated with the possibility of transformation. I noticed early on that for most performers the stories they told were just a vehicle for displaying their theatrical talents. I also noticed that when I tried to be theatrical, the stories I shared tended to fall flat, as though all the life had been taken from them.
It eventually dawned on me that telling traditional stories is problematic in several ways. For one thing, Native stories are traditionally the property of individuals, families, or clans, and one is supposed to ask permission to tell them; one must also acknowledge the holders of stories and their generosity. For another, traditional stories that are told simply come vibrantly alive in the present, whereas stories that are told theatrically become simple moments of entertainment.
After a while I found myself bored by most of the storytelling at festivals and simply stopped going. I also became bored with my storytelling, and dismayed by the focus on the teller rather than the tale. Now, I love a well told tale as much as the next person, and a fabulous telling will keep me energized for days, but way too often the spirit of the story gets lost in the telling.
It seems to me that what really matters in traditional stories is the spirit of the tale. I was, even as a kid, encouraged to look past the surface of stories and events, to try and ascertain the spirit that resides in the heart of them. I was taught that if the spirit of the story is nurtured, great healing might come to the listeners and the teller. Although I was not raised to identify as Native, I now know that teaching to be at the heart of Indigenous life, here in the Americas and around the world. That was , and remains, a good and powerful teaching.
Sometime in my thirties I became part of a very active Playback Theatre troupe. Playback is an improvisational form in which individuals from the audience tell personal stories and the actors on stage seek to faithfully play the story back to the teller. Doing Playback well is a remarkably challenging practice, one filled with opportunities to honor profound moments in individual lives, and in our collative experience. At it’s best it is a theatre practice of honoring the sacred.
Playback stories come in many forms: playful, sad, angry, loving, passionate, and hysterically funny. Most of the stories people chose to share are tales of transition or transformation, although frequently the teller only discovers that after the story has been played back. I like to think that the actors, when we do our job well, make the sacred nature of stories visible to the teller and the audience, and by doing so, make a space for some healing.
Playback, like many theatre forms, is both a style and a disciple, and one can go to Playback school, an activity I heartily condone. Although Playback aims to create decolonized spaces, here in the US it is haunted by the same ghosts and challenges that confront most of North American theatre: there are remarkably few Indigenous people and people of color in the Playback world, and few people with disability.
Often, when audience members tell stories of discrimination and hardship, actors completely miss the underlying truth of the narrative. Playback companies are often eager to make performances for marginalized communities, but are more hesitant to invite marginalized performers, including actors with disabilities, to join their companies, let alone teach in their training programs. Tellingly, there are a number of companies for people with intellectual disabilities spread around the world, but I know of few companies that integrate obviously physically disabled actors into their ranks. I am grateful to our local company for making me a crucial part of their performance lives for many years.
I stopped performing a few years ago, as the late effects of Polio made the grueling work of rehearsal and performance impossible. Every now and then I will tell a story or two to a few people in an intimate setting. Sometimes the stories work, sometimes not so much. The outcome has a lot to do with whether I can give myself over to the spirit of the story, whether I can allow the story to shape itself to the mood and needs of the audience, and whether I can allow the sacred heart of the tale to shine through.
One of my theatre teachers insisted that Western forms of theatre arose from people’s attempts to give physical embodiment to the sacred. Another teacher, a dear one and a traditional healer, believed that healing happens when the persons in the role of healer and patient both embody the wholeness that is the sacred. He was an inspiration, inevitably shifting form deeply serious to outrageously funny without warning, and just at the perfect moment! He insisted that all healing is theatre, and that laughter is a master healer. He also knew theatre could can be a powerful force for those who do evil, that it can harm, maybe even kill. He was profoundly aware that when we make theatre we are choosing sides in the struggle for healing, and he was always asking those who came to him for instruction or aid to think about, “Which side are you on?”
© 2017, Michael Watson