Embodying the Stories
When the participants arrive at the third station, they find 3 to 4 chairs arranged in a cluster around a table. On the table are some sheets of blank paper and coloured markers, pens or crayons used for drawing, “scripting” or making notes. Each station also has two handouts: Reflecting on the reading, and Be Creative!
The first handout is designed to encourage them to set aside any intellectual analysis, and instead to notice and resister feelings that surface when encountering this material. The handout offers a way into this kind of response by suggesting that when they share their thoughts with one another, they might try using one of the following words as they begin to speak:
I wonder . . .
I feel . . .
I am . . .
This is . . .
Standing here . . .
Amidst the . . .
I see . . .
I breathe deep and . . .
Inside my heart . . .
My mind is . . .
My body speaks . . .
I soften . . .
I awaken to . . .
I begin to move . . .
The second part of the Reflecting on the reading handout guides readers away from an inactive stance of pity toward the Indigenous people in these stories or to perceive of them as hopeless or powerless victims. The prompts, presented as a set of two columns, are designed to contain the powerful paradox of those who strive to hold on to their inherently buoyant, strong, and loving spirits while being targeted by extraordinarily racist and dehumanizing oppression. This deceptively simple mix-and-match exercise—drawing a line from one of the feelings in the left column to one of the feelings in the right column—is intended to shine a light on what might not otherwise have been recognized within a story of personal, historic, and social trauma. To support this task they have been given, the participants are invited to identify a single physical action in the story that quintessentially embodies that contradiction*
* Readers familiar with the theoretical writing of 20th Century German playwright, director, and poet, Bertolt Brecht, will recognize this as what he termed gestus. In English, it’s gest, an archaic word that meant bearing, or the way one carries oneself. Brecht’s translator John Willett chose to use the term gest in part because it happens to work as a portmanteau: a combination of gist and gesture. Brecht explains that a gest is not a metaphor or a symbol, but rather a single physical action in a performance that perfectly embodies the nature of a relationship, an emotional state, or the complexities of a character’s social circumstances (Willett, 1959, p. 173).
Up until this point participants have been gathering and pooling their responses to the readings. Now, while still at the third station, the activity turns performative. The flip side of the handout, Be Creative!, presents them with the following invitation:
Now that you have identified one or more physical actions that capture the gist of the situation and relationships in the reading, does this remind you of a memory of a moment from your own life? Perhaps it was something from your family’s history, or something you once heard about, read, or witnessed as a bystander. In collaboration with your partners, your task is to create a short poem, a brief story, a single performed image, a few lyrics of a song, or a simple movement, that incorporates that very same physical action in the context of your own experience. Borrow the power of that physical action itself (and the reaction it prompted in you) as the central element in your new creative work. Resist the temptation to re-enact the events in the passage you read because these stories are not our stories to tell. Ground it in your own experience. Take ten to fifteen minutes to develop and practice your piece. When everyone is ready, we will reconvene to share with each other what we’ve created.
Moving into a more performative space can feel like a risk for many people. Borrowing a delightful term from San Francisco-based community choral leader Doug Von Koss, we found it useful to describe the room as a "Perfection-free Zone," explaining to the participants that no one was expecting their presentations would be a polished performance.
It’s up to the co-facilitators to monitor the progress of each group. Find the right time to offer clarification for those who are struggling; to coax them away from their sedentary conversations and up on to the floor to try out their ideas for performing their creative responses; to give all the groups some notification (when the time comes) that only a few minutes remain; and, ultimately, to gauge when everyone is ready to move to station 4. In our pilot event, each group embraced the task with enthusiasm, though some showed a little more trepidation than others. With just a bit of encouragement, clarification of the task, and time-keeping announcements from the facilitators, everyone had soon created a short performative response to their readings.