This blog post was intended to discuss the piece I recently directed at the Indy Convergence on the subject of Otherness, and I will do so. However, considering the nature of the subject and with recent events that highlight just how much Otherness vs. privilege plays a role in our lives, there is some politics involved toward the end of this post. You have been warned.
What is Otherness? In a nutshell, it’s the result, conscious or unconscious, of putting someone in a category that means they are Not Like Us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If I’m walking down the street, I can’t afford to assume that everyone I meet is a wonderful person who just needs a hug. For my own safety, I don’t choose to stop and have a conversation with the stranger who says, “Hey, baby” as I pass by. But once you’ve put someone in that category of “Other,” they are essentially a non-person. It’s ok if bad things happen to them—things that could never happen to us, because, of course, we’re not like them. We have to be really careful how and in what context we deploy this categorization, be aware of when we’re doing it, and recognize that it often causes more harm than good. It is a pair of blinders we put on when bad things happen that makes us feel safe, because bad things happen to the Other—not to us.
This is a theme I explore frequently in my writing. Fantasy and science fiction are excellent ways to deal with the subject since you can have non-human characters—the ultimate Other. When I was brainstorming about a project I could propose for the 2013 Indy Convergence that could be developed collaboratively based on the input and experiences of all participants, I’d already thought of using dancers in fabric bags to represent something non-human. This is an idea I got from choreographer Kirstie Simson, one of the professors leading the COLAB improvisation class with musicians and dancers that I took in the fall.
Going into the rehearsal process at the Indy Convergence, a two-week arts residency for collaborative work, I first gave a short presentation and led a discussion on the subject of Otherness to help determine the interests of the participants. I knew I wanted to end with a “humans vs. blobs” scene, but wanted to stay open to the thoughts and interests of participants. We practiced vocal improvisation, we storyboarded, we improvised scenes, and eventually we had a piece to present for the Open Lab Performance. The idea of the Convergence is to have just enough time to get something on its feet, giving it the freedom to be a work in progress, and using the audience as a tool to gauge success. With all the talents of the participants, the collaboration became much greater than something that I or any of us could have done alone. Though if we had had more time, I would have liked to put some more polish on things, I was extremely pleased with the overall result. All photos below are by Roberta Wong, lighting and projections are by Ian Garrett, and the set is by Lee Rainboth.
The piece had five sections, including two poems for two voices, which is something we workshopped with participant and poet Leah Falk. One poem, by Leah, dealt with the Otherness between a husband and wife, and the other was inspired by an article by artist Haley Morris-Cafiero,
“How I Got Back at the Strangers Who Mock Me for Being Fat” . Morris-Cafiero does an excellent job of shining a light on the unpleasantness that occurs when we decide someone is Other by having her assistant shoot film of people making fun of her behind her back for her size.
Colleen Laliberte, Laura Krause, Adriana Dimitri, and Ashley Benninghoff read a poem for 4 voices. Photo by Roberta Wong.
Another scene featured a giant puppet, constructed by Christina Feinberg and Colleen Laliberte, who narrated an introduction to the subject of Otherness while accompanied by a soundscape of voices and instruments.
Frankie, puppeteered by Colleen Laliberte, Robert Negron, and Christina Feinberg, talks about Otherness. Photo by Roberta Wong.
The two main scenes were titled “The Other in the Forest” and “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.” We moved from Otherness on a very personal level (woman gets treated as a non-person because of her physical appearance) to Otherness on an intergalactic level (humans travel to planet where the inhabitants are sentient rocks). In between, we stopped by an enchanted forest to explore a type of Otherness that primarily affects women: slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
“The Other in the Forest” was loosely inspired by a novella I’ve written imagining dryads once lived in the Indiana Territory when the first white settlers arrived. To the accompaniment of voices, violin, and wooden sticks, a young man is told by his parents not to go out into the forest because the Forest People have been seen again—tree spirits, and bird spirits, promiscuous creatures who would “draw you into their nakedness” and drive you insane.
Joshua Morris and Sara Yanney-Chantanasombut tell Tommy Lewey not to go into the forest. Photo by Roberta Wong.
Of course, he goes, and because he has been told they are promiscuous, he believes that he is owed sex.
Caitlin Negron and Ashley Benninghoff as the dryad and tree reject Tommy Lewey and Robert Negron as the young man and his alter ego. Photo by Roberta Wong.
All participants workshopped the rape scene, and the result, though I’m biased, I have to say was pretty devastating. The orchestra of voices represented the voice of the dryad as she is ripped away from her tree.
Participants sing a musical phrase representing the voice of the dryad. Photo by Roberta Wong.
Afterwards, the boy’s parents hunt her down for “ruining his life” and the orchestra joins in a chorus of slut-shaming as she is burned.
“Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” features three explorers who travel to the mineral-rich planet hoping to mine it.
Kristin Bowlby, Colleen Laliberte, and Lee Rainboth arrive to mine the planet. Photo by Roberta Wong.
Unbeknownst to them at first, the “rocks” they see are sentient and have their own dance, accompanied by the orchestra of voices and instruments.
Ashley Benninghoff, Tommy Lewey, Joshua Morris, Caitlin Negron, and Sara Yanney-Chantanasombut dance as blobs. Photo by Roberta Wong.
While the anthropologist discovers the sentience of the rock creatures and tries to get to know them, the other two are only interested in the financial potential. When the second sun is about to rise, the blobs get agitated and move toward the humans in a way that is seen as hostile. Too late, after one of the humans has shot all the blobs dead, the anthropologist realizes that the blobs were trying to shield them with their bodies from the ravages of the deadly second sun.
Kristin Bowlby and Colleen Laliberte are burned to death by the harsh sun of the alien planet. Photo by Roberta Wong.
There’s a lot more I could say about the process, how wonderful the Convergence is, how much I appreciate and value the contributions of every participant, but what strikes me today is how deadly categorization as the Other is in real life, for someone like Trayvon Martin. To quote Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera, voicing the views of his creator, Bertolt Brecht, “Art isn’t nice.” I chose Otherness as a subject because I believe it is a real problem in society. How successful the project was in getting this across is debatable, but not, I feel, the fact that art can and should imitate life and sometimes hold up a mirror to show a side of ourselves that we’d rather not see.
Rampant categorization of people as the Other isn’t just a bad idea; it can get someone killed. At its root, the problem is a failure of imagination. President Obama once said that if he had a son, he might look like Trayvon Martin. If I had married an African-American man and had human babies instead of furry ones, I might have a son that looked like Trayvon Martin. But why do we have to look at skin color as the determining factor between someone being Other and someone being just like our son? I grieve for him and his family because he could have been my son, or my friend, my neighbor, my colleague, my student. People who aren’t outraged that an unarmed young man was shot and killed in his own neighborhood without consequence have placed him in a category that such things can happen to and themselves and their families in a category where they can’t. This may sound harsh, but think about if for a minute. If you worried that something like this could happen to your son, would you feel differently?
Perhaps this sounds like I’m preaching, and I don’t mean to. What I would like to do is plead for all of us, myself included, to be aware when we’re categorizing someone as Other and to try, just try, to imagine ourselves in their shoes. And for those of us in the arts, I plead that we all keep holding up that mirror so we can see our ugly faces when we need to be reminded of our collective failures of imagination.