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Commonplaces

Notes on a Future That Has Already Happened

At present, there are three truly urgent matters: to dismantle white supremacy culture and politics, to transition into a post-capitalist reality, and to reverse and endure climate change. But what follows is more meditation than strategy. This is an invitation to hold hands beneath the dinner table while, all around, conversations play in the key of known things; an invitation to sit with grief, to sit with the unknown. This is a space held for latent possibilities to surface and be revealed.


“Commonplace books,” otherwise known as “commonplaces,” are a way to compile thoughts. (Thank you Matthew Fluharty of Art of the Rural for sharing this concept with me.) Commonplaces have been kept since antiquity. They are filled with forms of every kind: quotes, letters, poems, potions, dreams, doodles, proverbs, prayers, recipes, you name it. Commonplaces are used as an aid for remembering useful concepts, facts, or fictions. They are also a portal to reach forward to our future selves and for our future selves to reach back to us.

An image of a commonplace book with a horizontal mirror effect.

A commonplace book. Photo credit: welcometosherwood.wordpress.com.

Below are portions of my in-progress commonplace. Yes, it is appearing in a theatre journal. And yes, I am a theatre artist. I’ve been an ensemble member with Double Edge Theatre for over twenty years. That being said, what follows, most entries, fall outside the realm of theatre. I can’t really say why. Is this prayer? I only see fragments. Broken pieces in my hands. They may be seeds. They may be embers. We live but we don’t last. But while we are here, we can share the seeds we carry. We can tend to the embers.

This is not a vision for the future for our field. In fact, you may not need to read this. But please, if you do, take off your watch. Or go outside. Or take a slow walk. Or be somewhere where there are birds singing or children playing or someone is playing the harp.

An illustration of a woman in a green dress holding a stick up to a circular light above. She is surrounded by plenty of these lights, each connected by lines.

An illustration by Nguyen Tran inspired by the essay.

1. My Future Self

I’m tired. You keep going.

I was visited by my future self, world weary, carrying heartbreak. My heartbroken older self appeared to say keep going, even if the winds get overpowering. Vocation is calling toward the extraordinary. It exists in the acorn. Where does vocation come from if not from the deepest past and most heartfelt future? Who’s to say vocation isn’t a seed of our future selves sent from our future selves as if to say, “We exist. We can exist. Water us.” Of course, our future selves are tired—any transition from one life system to another is agonizing. But we can listen to them and we can invite their presence and wisdom.

A drawing of oak tree leaves with tiny acorns on the right leaf.

Sprays of Oak Leaves and Acorns by Leonardo Da Vinci. Photo credit: leonardodavinci.net.

2. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Rabbi and Civil Rights Activist (1907–1972)

Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith…. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness…. Standing eye to eye with being we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties—with reason and with wonder…. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

We make theatre. Our vocation, our calling, is to research and practice in the imagination, story, dream, myth, and community. I would like to posit that we do so with spiritual ambitions, to be in search of the “numinous” in all its forms and possibilities. Our work is on the trail of awe—those moments that trigger revelation. Whether in a dark black box or in a field, the goal should be nothing short of moments that are spectacular, ridiculous, heartbreaking, that nonetheless make us say “ahh” like when we see a shooting star or when we are touched after so long without contact. That is how we participate in the infinite and make wonders.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sitting down and holding a pencil and paper.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Photo credit: UCLA Newsroom.

3. Dr. Carolin Crawford, Public Astronomer (1963–)

We’ve, in a way, forgotten how incredible the night sky used to be…. When we are confronted with vastness, something so vast that it dwarfs us and is beyond our capacity to comprehend it, psychologists describe that as awe…. Awe pushes down the rational thought in the brain—activity that is thought to do with language, sense of self. And instead people feel much more connected to a bigger picture. They feel more curious, more creative, less stressed…. They make more ethical decisions. They are more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet…. And the researchers have warned of what they call an “awe deficit” in modern society.CrowdScience, “Why Do Planets Spin?”

Astronomers call the dizzying effect of the stars “celestial vaulting.” I like this. I want this feeling: of being lifted by and falling into animism, like vertigo and love. I want this to be a qualifier for theatrical research. Most of us don’t perceive the stars as our ancestors did. It has become lost to us. Our vision is clouded by artificial light and false appearances. We are distracted by what we think we know. Awe is a gift waiting for us. Its undertow rips apart false constructs revealing the stuff of healing and imagination.

A night sky in the mountains with a glow in the center that fans out when closer to the mountains.

Refuge des Merveilles in Tende, France, at night. Photo credit: the Evening Standard.

4. bell hooks, Author, Professor, Feminist, and Activist, (1952–)

Hope lies in the possibility of a resistance that’s based on being able to face our reality as it is.... There’s one way you can look at this: it’s like having a sickness in your body that gets more and more fierce as it is passing on to wellness. We don’t have to view that period of intense sickness as an invitation to despair, but as a sign of potential transformation in the very depths of whatever pain it is we are experiencing… Angry Women

In this interview from 1991, bell hooks talks about the culture of domination—the confluence of white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, and toxic masculinity. And what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “all that is war and acts like war.” This culture of domination and our denial of it is an intensifying sickness. But hooks names the sickness as an inflection point in which latent transformation exists.

Thirty years after this interview with hooks was published, we bear witness to how COVID thrives in this very culture of domination. As I write this, the World Trade Organization has rejected relaxing patent restrictions so vaccinations can be distributed in less resourced countries. And we can see the metaphor of COVID as passage toward transformation, similarly found in Arundhati Roy’s brilliant essay “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” which not only foresaw India’s COVID crisis but implored us early on to see the pandemic as a grand opportunity to dream another world, to “fight for it” and not return to “normalcy.” To inoculate ourselves will be to upend the very culture of domination that allows the virus to thrive.

bell hooks sitting on a dark gray couch with a slight smile.

bell hooks. Photo credit: Min Jin Lee from The New York Times.

5. Rumi, Poet (1207–1273)

We are bees

And our body is a honeycomb.

We made

The body, cell by cell we made it.

When Grapes Turn to Wine Versions of Rumi

I get the feeling we are living in an exoskeleton that we are already molting. It feels weird to be mid-molt. It makes me want to move my body. We are shedding the ways that hold us back. One shift at a time, we wiggle out of the old formation. Simultaneously, cell by cell, we are creating ourselves, our work, our community. We are not bound to the way things are. Most of this construct is false. So let us construct the construct, dream the dream.

Awe is a gift waiting for us. Its undertow rips apart false constructs revealing the stuff of healing and imagination.

6. Definition of “Confluence

1: a coming or flowing together, meeting, or gathering at one point
2: the flowing together of two or more streams; a combined flood
3: or confluency, cell biology: the degree of substrate coverage that is exhibited by proliferating, adherent cells cultured in a laboratory vessel (such as a petri dish or flask)

also: complete coverage of a culture by proliferating, adherent cells

“When the cells reach confluence, they form aggregates and can be serially cultured.”

C. A. B. Jahoda et al.Merriam-Webster

Assignment: Dream about achievable cultural confluence—the good kind. What does it look like?

Mycelium from a close-up view.

A close-up shot of mycelium. Photo credit: Magellan TV.

7. Audre Lorde, Writer, Feminist, Activist, and Librarian (1934–1992)

The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge…. Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama. For not only do we touch our most profoundly creative source, but we do that which is female and self-affirming in the face of a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.

Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power

We are artists, creating within an uncertain future, a future that demands we draw from sacred sources. This requires us to nest within our community and to form webs that connect to inner meaning. The erotic can be our common cause, our ethos, our quiet power to build all forms of community. The erotic is not a form but a muse. By muse, I mean an animating spirit, not the trope of female objectification in service of male revelation.

We can explicitly name the erotic as our way to course correct the rational, the technocratic, the male, and the capitalist.

I can testify that my own skewed sense of responsibility and ego has allowed me to misstep, to lose sensitivity. But I, too, can course correct.

We can make technocracy servant to the erotic. I can see brothers and sisters in the field of theatre, embedded in institutions, too overwhelmed by deliverables to believe in a conscious shift toward the erotic. You could say “eroticism” is the process in what a facilitator may call our POP exercise (purpose/outcome/process), as long as it allows for slowness. As long as it includes an authentic learning and sharing of desires and longings from cell to cell throughout an ecology. How would it be to evaluate production by its eroticism? Those who scoff are haters and fear vulnerability.

We can interpret place as a mosaic of desire. This is not esoteric. From the practical to the spiritual, the erotic is the way our molecules meet. It’s what makes the cell walls porous. It’s the confluence of artistic practice, community, and our personal lives. Stacy Klein, founder of Double Edge Theatre, coined this phenomenon “living culture.” Being and becoming is the oft-overlooked heart of community wealth and engagement.

Having lived and made art in rural communities myself most of my life, I’ve borne witness to innate local cooperation and mutual aid that emerges erotically: Farmers who hayed fields for other farmers who had been suddenly hospitalized. The sewing club that made masks for all the children in the town during COVID. Farmers and tradespeople collaborating with Double Edge over many years, sharing knowledge, skills, and equipment—not to mention creativity and imagination. The ritualized celebration of seasons and sharing of harvests and traditions.

The biologist Andreas Weber calls this an “erotic ecology.”

Audre Lorde holding a hollow white object.

Audre Lorde in Audre Lorde - The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992 by Dagmar Schwartz.

8. Helena Norberg-Hodge, Founder and Director of Local Futures (1946–)

The practical, structural path to interdependence is through decentralization, is through the thriving of living examples of interdependence, where people do actually come to place and feel and touch and really become part of their local ecosystems and communities…. In a way, the most important lesson is that rebuilding the community fabric is a prerequisite for a healthier and happier society and for healthier and happier individuals. That’s why I call localization the economics of happiness, because in rebuilding the community fabric we’re helping ourselves and our children to reestablish identities that … all of us, deep down inside, long for. We all want to be seen, recognized, heard, connected to one another. The tragedy of the modern economy is that it has succeeded in separating us from one another.

Alternative Radio, “Thinking Outside the Box”

This helps me connect culture and the systems we live in. Theatre and art are often put into some bullshit economic development container. This holistic seeing of localization helps me visualize and understand its layers. Structurally, again, it’s about cells. Circles that connect to other circles.

We begin with looking inside. Inner work is hyper-localization. Martin Luther King called this place of inwardness the “church within a church.” There is an inner circle that is the mythic experience of human existence, the wonder and heartbreak. When each circle of inner life is connected, we can visualize a collective nervous system. Norberg-Hodges’ “economy of happiness” sees place as a confluence of becoming (both ontological and practical). If culture is a river that flows downstream into politics, civic life, and the social fabric, then the work of imagination, creativity, and dream—the numinous—is the wellspring.

Helena Norberg-Hodge smiling and leaning against a rail.

Helena Norberg-Hodge. Photo credit: Impact Boom.

9. Buckminster Fuller, Architect, Systems Theorist, Author, Designer, Inventor, and Futurist (1895–1983)

Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. Playboy

Bucky loved this function of the trim tab on big ships. The rudder is the large heavy mechanism that helps steer the ship. The trim tab is a tiny mechanism that alters the direction of the rudder. If culture is the rudder on a big ship, imagination as a lived, communal experience is the trim tab. It is an idea, a person, a collective, or a great performance.

Buckminster Fuller smiling and holding a sphere made of sticks connected by string.

Buckminster Fuller with a Tensegrity Sphere in 1979. Photo credit: Dwell.

10. David Bollier (1966–) & Silke Helfrich (1967–), Authors and Activists

Right now, a huge universe of bottom-up social initiatives—familiar and novel, in all realms of life, in industrialized and rural settings—are successfully addressing needs that the market economy and state power are unable to meet. The premise is not whether an idea or initiative is big or small, but whether its premises contain the germ of change for the whole. The commons involves an identity shift... different roles and perspectives. We can escape from capitalist value chains by creating value networks of mutual commitment. It is by changing the micropatterns of social life on the ground with each other that we can begin to decolonize ourselves from history and culture.Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons
 

There are an abundance of models, in the field of theatre and across many disciplines and sectors, that can redirect us from despair toward what is actually afoot. Our society has become an engine in futility. If our actions are predicated by what we perceive to be possible, we must claim a particular, radical disposition around what is possible. Bollier calls it “reality-based hope.” Canadian psychologist Romin Tafarodi calls it “remedial optimism,” an engaged and active kind of optimism where we look at the problems we face and try to come together collectively to remediate. As bell hooks wrote, “Hope lies in the possibility of a resistance that’s based on being able to face our reality as it is.”

We are already molting the exoskeleton of the way theatre is conventionally made: the marketplace, the industry, and the investment in the way things are. We are molting the role of higher education to simply undergird the commercial theatre. We are molting paywalls. Theatre, like vaccinations, only reaches those with the highest incomes. But we are molting.

Bollier and Helfrich direct our attention to “small gambits with adaptive capacities which are powerful vehicles for systems change.” There is an abundance of models that make the existing market-based models obsolete. By acknowledging this molting process we can internalize its latent power—the power of convergence.

A group of circles concentrated in one larger circle.

An illustration from Free, Fair and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich. Photo credit: freefairandalive.org.

11. Etymology of “Converge”

1690s, “to tend to meet in a point or line,” from Late Latin convergere “to incline together” from assimilated form of com “with, together”(…) + vergere “to bend, turn, tend toward” Online Etymology Dictionary

We are not bound to the way things are. Most of this construct is false. So let us construct the construct, dream the dream.

12. Judy Glassman, Educator (1948–)

In 2017, when my mother was sixty-nine years old and living with Alzheimer’s, she took to doodling. You can see them below. The squiggles are cave paintings of her transformation, a combination of her obsessive-compulsive tendencies and her childlike imagination (two ingredients necessary in making theatre)—a compulsively creative act while fading.

The year before this, she attended my wedding. In Judaism, one of the wedding traditions is the Mezinke, essentially a hora danced for the parents of the bride and groom. All parents sit in a row and everyone dances around them in a circle that undulates like an amoeba. In and out and around, we dance for them: our source, our givers. I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face as we danced around her, for her, ecstatically to the klezmer music. Such a state of joyous surprise. Like an opening number that makes you feel like you’re being lifted.

A drawing containing several stick figures, some clouds, a circle with spikes labeled 'Sun', and other miscellaneous things.

An illustration by Judy Glassman.

13. Ornette Coleman, Jazz Musician and Composer (1930–2015)

You can’t see outside yourself but we do have imagination…. The expression of all individual imagination is what I call harmolodics, and each being’s imagination is their own unison, and there are as many unisons as there are stars in the sky.Ornette: Made in America

Ornette Coleman standing behind overlapping neon circles and a neon triangle.

Still image of Ornette Coleman in Ornette: Made in America by Shirley Clarke.

My future self said to me:

Laugh, for it is ridiculous and true: the theatre can change the world. The theatre holds the same molecular magic of funerals and rites of passage. The theatre is a liminal space, a psychogeography, a commonplace through which we emerge more courageous and more tender. It is to tend to the soil in order for our roots to reach farther back and our branches to reach farther ahead with our love. Take this commonplace as a token of my gratitude.

A black and white shot of an oak tree with its lower branches drooping towards the ground.

"Oak Tree, Sunset City, Sierra Foothills, California" (1962) by Ansel Adams.

Thoughts from the curator

It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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Thank you, Matthew. Thank you for this compassionate vision of a life/arts ecology. This is precisely the type of thinking we need right now as we emerge from this period of the pandemic. May we remember your wise words as we move forward.