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What’s it like being seen? : Reflecting on Am I Invisible

04.28.14 | 1 Comment


CATEGORIES #stealthisidea, #tawg, Applied Theatre

ED NOTE: A part of what I intend to be a continued spotlight in this space on applied theatre – a follow-up to the post here. If you run or participate in an applied theatre program and would like to be featured, please contact me @travisbedard on Twitter.  

Am I Invisible, an original performance about the experiences of the homeless community, debuted in Austin TX on April 12th, in a gym full of 200 excited audience members. The audience astounded us [the company] with their generous reception of our stories, their appreciation, and the dialogue we created. In advance of our May 17th performance, the company gathered over fish tacos, to reflect on the process and look forward to the future.

Rachel Gilbert [producer]: So, we’ve had two weeks to recover from our performance. If you had to sum up the process of making Am I Invisible in three words, what would those words be?

Steve Potter [Creative Performer]: Enlightening, fluidic…

Thomas Clarke [Creative Performer]: Insane

Steve: Amazing.

James Mosley [Creative Performer]: Very Genuine, communicative, very positive.

John Thompkins [Creative Performer]: It’s interesting that the ideas and thoughts and fantasies that are important to you, when pruned and rehearsed and cursed turned out to be real to the audience that views them, it’s really amazing. 

Roni Chelben [Director]: Observing, responding, creating.

Seen 1

Rachel: Well, what was the most challenging part of the process of making Am I Invisible for you? What was the most rewarding?

Thomas: I’d say performing in public – I’ve never been comfortable being the center of attention in large groups of people. Being a shelter is out of my comfort zone, performing in front of people is out of my comfort zone, it’s in my avoid zone.

John: I wrote this thing, this monologue, and my problem was that what I wrote was a real challenge to perform. We had these two people, they were both me, and I had to get mad at myself. And Roni had to help me do that, you made me do what I needed to do. You kept pushing – anger, anger, where’s that anger?

Thomas: There was a part of me, when I was in New York, where I was looking for a fight. Now I’m in Austin, and I’m trying to avoid conflict, but now [Roni is] trying to push me back into Brooklyn.

Steve: The challenging thing, being that it’s our first year and kind of formless, seeing the end result was probably the most difficult part of the whole process. The most rewarding was to see, although we had really different backgrounds and stories, we were all coming from the same place. To see how diverse homelessness is, and we all have a story to tell.

James: I guess for me, what was kind of difficult was to be able to let my guard down enough that I could actually become my character. A lot of times, you know, anger and stuff like that comes about because people are fearful of. And to get in touch with that part of me, and to write things from that place to share with others, was the most challenging and rewarding as well.

Roni: Me? I can’t summarize it. Two most challenging things: 1 it’s not so much as seeing the end result, as it is between seeing the end and seeing the process, while finding the space for both, because they’re not always the same. And between sensing the time for exploration, and becoming more structured. 

Rachel: And rewarding?

Roni: The most rewarding thing? I don’t think I can say one thing, the whole process was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Letting myself learn, and being educated so much about a place I don’t know, America, Austin, Shelter Alley, to learn about things that really happen. 

John: I have a quote from The Passion of Pussy Riot: “to create and confront, one has to be an ‘outcast’. A constant state of discomfort is an insufficient but necessary condition for protest.” We’re outsiders because we’re homeless, and so that keeps it real. You [Roni] give us a chance, encouragement, and the framing, and we protest, because that’s the way it is.

Roni: But isn’t part of our protest being outsiders? If what generates our protest is being outsider, what does it mean to be mainstream?

John: The thing that’s hard to realize about our state is that it’s temporary. We aren’t going to go back into the mainstream, but at least the edge of the mainstream. Most of the people who move out of the ARCH [Austin Resource Center for the Homeless] and into apartments, we never hear from them again.

Thomas: I think, in a way, the ARCH is such a chaotic place, in a way it’s a deterrent to people who don’t want to pay their rent and move into the shelter, as well as a deterrent for people in the shelter.

 

Rachel: Has participating in this performance changed your sense of self in any way?

Seen 1-5

John: I’m a different person…

Roni: You’re two people now!

John: Yes, I present myself differently, I’m more expressive and dramatic. I’m more comfortable with, and feel more accepting of other people, and more informal with people I would never be informal with before. I’m putting together this webpage, and it’s a much different page now, really. It’s still surprising how different, everything was under there, now it’s on top! Maybe I’m just a better actor at life now.

Steve: I used to see myself more as an outsider, more as an observer but through the project I’ve seen that I am more of a part of the homeless community. 

James: I guess I always thought that I’d get out of this homeless situation real quick, and then I would forget about it, but for some reason or another, this has turned into a very long adventure. And i’m finding out that through time I’m more comfortable being part of this community than mainstream society. That being said, I think it’s important that we continue to perpetuate our voices, and be known as humans and as a part of society, and not just outcasts. 

John: I think when you give someone an opportunity to be human, or a bigger human than what they’ve been, it makes them better than they were before. When I’m at the ARCH, I feel more involved with people and not just wallpaper. 

Thomas: It’s changed it. it’s affected me, because one of my hobbies is something that will put me in front of an audience anyway. As a DJ, you can hid behind a booth, but acting puts you in front of people that this is real for. 

 

Rachel: For you, what’s one issue that Am I Invisible communicates to the audience?

Thomas:  You want the blunt answer? It sucks to be homeless. It’s a major problem, and there’s not enough resources to handle it.

John: The resource problem, we have a real need for more shelter space. 

James: I think we need to have more forums in which different groups of people get together and see how things are from different perspectives. The whole problem comes from a lack of understanding. Our tendency is to hang out with people just like us, we feel more comfortable. If we would set aside some time to hang out with different people of social / educational statuses. 

John: We’re men from a men’s shelter, but there are women that we tried to get involved, but in general, I don’t know how to address that area, because I don’t want to get my head bit off. 

Steve: That anyone can become homeless, that there’s very little that separates us from the general population, and that the more people that are aware that the homeless population is much more diverse than the media image would suggest. 

Roni: I’m always really challenged by this statement, because our society creates this situation, it’s not that it can happen to everyone, but there are many people that are more vulnerable. For many people, it would be much harder to get to this stage than others.

Seen 2

Rachel: After all of our time, work, and circular conversations making this play, how did it feel to perform in “Am I Invisible”?

John: Electricity, I got 20% extra charge on my intellect, energy, expression, I was sitting there doing the father [in our forum theatre scene], and there was someone two feet away from me, and it helped. I was a better performer than I would have been without an audience.

Thomas: For me it was nerve-racking, because I didn’t know anyone in the audience. For me it was a whole bunch of strangers.

James: I had friends from Pflugerville come. I had no idea they were out there until it was over. 

Steve: Because of the parts I was playing, I still had this safety of a role, a mask, so I was comfortable. The fact that we had as many people in the audience really helped with it.

 

Rachel: After going through this process, what one piece of advice would you give to groups looking to make similar work?

James: If you have a vision of what you want to do you should never give up, keep taking that next step, and everything will work it’s way out.

John: You need someone framing the project who can help the people involved in it learn how to be an actor, how to express themselves. If it haven’t been [Roni] there and [Rachel] there, it wouldn’t have happened. 

Rachel: Always order more pizza than you think you need.

Steve: To be flexible and open to the stories that the participants what to tell, like Roni was. It really added to the diversity of the stories that we told.

John: Just about everyone who participated changed and shaped what we did. I was talking with a youngster who came in, and we did a skit where I kicked him out of the house for using drugs, he was in the Salvation Army, and he had just been kicked out of his house from his father. Consciously or unconsciously, we’ve woven everything in.

Am I Invisible will present a second performance at City Hall [301 W 2nd Street, Austin TX 78701] on Saturday, May 17th at 12pm. Find more details about this performance at http://www.invisibleinaustin.com.

Rachel Gilbert, producer for Am I Invisible, conducted and transcribed the above interview on April 26, 2014. Gilbert is also a dramaturg, performer, and theatre maker figuring out how to make a life in Austin, TX. Gilbert holds a MA in Performance as a Public Practice from the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the theatre, Gilbert is an excellent embroiderer and cat aficionado.

Roni Chelben & Rachel Gilbert

Roni Chelben is the founder and director of Am I Invisible, as well as a performance artist and graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin.

Rachel Gilbert is Am I Invisible’s producer, a dramaturg, performer, and theatre maker figuring out Austin. Gilbert is a recent alumnus of the Performance as a Public Practice program at The University of Texas at Austin.

Latest posts by Roni Chelben & Rachel Gilbert (see all)

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  • I am very excited and proud to be a part of such a great group of individuals. I’m excited and anticipating the CITY HALL performance, this weekend. 🙂


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