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Trauma and Peace, Part 1

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An odd shoe for an odd foot; broken language for a broken world. Address to trauma should be incomplete, off-the-mark, common property. Theaters are designed to close off experience, to own and sell it, to complete it. The site of commemorative theater is aptly in the architecture of hospitality—a way of going vs. planted station.

Two projects lately are everywhere in me. First is a thousand-page play commemorating lives lost in the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. I’m about two-thirds through; the title is What a Stranger May Know. Each victim gets a play-within-the-play; most of these run simultaneously, in each other’s company on an open field (some of the language, below). The idea is to create a kind of meditation garden; witnesses thread through the action, staying with individual dramas, or moving from one to the next. The history is meant to be—geologic this way. Bigger than we can see. Likewise Soulographie, a set of seventeen plays I’ve been writing over the past twenty years on the United States and genocide. Drawing together collaborators from the past two decades, it’s meant to: gather and share family, and create a profile of genocidal trauma that again is too large to be taken in, in a single view—a series of mnemonics for experiences by proxy.

In support of the Soulographie project, I’ve been conducting annual Arts in the One World conferences (CalArts, Brown), that bring together people interested in art for social change. These gatherings partner summer trips (with students and artists at large) to Rwanda and Uganda, where we meet with performers, scholars, survivors, child soldiers, activists, religious figures, politicians (all overlapping categories) to consider the history of the region and effective forms of collective witness.

Witness is that place where one is at the far limit of what one may know and the near edge of what one may see. Dramatic language is the language of witness. By inserting its incapacity, its loneliness and passivity into the seal over terror, it allows potential for expression (expression that isn’t its own) and an inflow of invited resources (resources not its own); space for new being. All dramatic language has of its own, is space. Following the quotations, further details and definitions.

From What a Stranger May Know

It’s by atomics, by dust in the air
That we know light, invisible, is there.
Draw a sleeve over a new tattoo—
There’s an image hidden from view.

Meaning wires me one for two;
O character, o solo,
We are company in hero.
Emptiness makes the drum.
Before we become safe we become and there, we are open.
Silence is nothing if it is not improved speech.
There’s an engine in the water like an Indian motorcycle.
River’s chains, tight for timing.
The night game;
I miss your listening most.
Your walk down the stars is a perfect hole in gravity.
You cannot remember what has never gone away.
You cannot remember God, for example.
Or family.
Or starlight and stars.

You play anything as a game by first excluding everything that is not your nature.
A soul is that within us that suffers, that has a future.
Paying attention to everything requires a rupture.
Consider the creature as aperture,
Frame as hospitality for light;
Forest is a process of breaking open,
Here is winter letting us in;
Not my fault the way these springs begin.
God bless us with absolute change.
The importance of uncertainty—
Light does not come but out of it, and then to do, not possess.
Grow old, say less,
Best friends with silence.
A stone, comet, guest.
Chaos isn’t a theory it’s an address.
A joke is an arm of the lord.
Gravity is the plural of beauty.
Life is mnemonic for heaven.
A miracle is grace, accepted.
The world is tragic, meaning ongoing.
Ubiquity: when you give everything away.
This is how we see glory: interrogatory.
We are where our love comes from.
To be is to be with.
We are ways of having God happen.
Night is a spouse of the mind,
How a river marries us: hydrolept.
Let me give, let me give you,
Let me give you one a.m.
Who is this wilderness, learning into love?
Who knows the woods this way?
A deer the color of trees, breathing, alert as a burned hand.
More than one, yet we’re in common, in that we’re all begun.
More unique than death, the hour we consent to love.
So much has happened, and still something happens.
I welcome doubt—it gives me time with you.
Day is my left hand, night is my right.
I throw a circle around them both and knowledge is that zero.
Coordinated elements in beautiful stress, like kicking a hymn up a hill.
Storm the day.
Bright drum, play.
A broom or window, a twitching river of sleep.
Want to be taken up out of this world by word;
I want to be the child of the mother of the verb.
Grace gets through all your furniture and breaks open all your alphabets.
It is not greedy to ask again for salvation, it only arrives when it is too much.
Of all ruins opened, Lord, may my memory follow the light let loose.
Light for light.

Life opens only onto life.
What a thing thinking is.
Rivers run in tiger rhythm.
Christ and night ride within them.
Water remembers what we’re wanting,
The river doesn’t flow it haunts.
You lose nothing by giving everything.
I am waiting, I am waiting.
Christopher carry me.
Property is holy when held in common.
How, young man, may we hold you?
Wherever there are two there are three:
Silence, then whatever is left is you and me.
The only mercy is in patience.
There is no consolation
How, young woman, may we hold you?
Without hesitation.
The saint is the one who facilitates distribution.
Heaven is the rest of one, as rapid as many in motion;
The many rapid as one at rest.
The season is turning, now, now.
A little farther to go.
It’s a small planet.
Only a little farther.

Night’s lithe joints.
Night, the teacher.

The theatrical purpose is to see, socially; by knowing something as a people we know each other and ourselves personally and incarnated; we interpret ourselves and others in light of the person—shared to the point of impersonality.

The cast sits in circle with scripts.
Participants discuss their roles at the start of a rehearsal for "What a Stranger May Know" by Erik Ehn. Photo by the Martinsville Bulletin.

At the Edge
The currency of live, social, performed art, which lives essentially at the edge of the market, depends on subversive glamour. Our action (protest) advocates for a reclamation of space (that space within space as well as the space at the edge; performance both creates and feeds on surplus—reaches of the internet are still free, and performance is flowing in there; so many theaters are in old garages, mattress factories, churches… On the other hand the Superdome was grandly, wickedly inappropriate as an arena for the performance of charity… because a space is large and subsidized doesn’t mean that it is civil or civic; a commercially constituted community is wholly unreliable when the environment gets superhuman—and the superhuman is our zone of esthetic and spiritual aspiration?).

The out-law performance economy also requires the allure of excellence (our work, even—or especially chaotic, free, improvised—must be perfect), and discovery of symbol (the more poetic a work, the more it converges on unity/metaphor, where winning and losing fuse, heaven and hell are in marriage, and the agapé of witness is the persistent demand). The thrill of quickening, of becoming fully alive, is a sort of vertigo—the more alive we are the more we are living life itself, and not so much our distinctive biographies—the space of the self becomes spare (we squat our souls). The theatrical purpose is to see, socially; by knowing something as a people we know each other and ourselves personally and incarnated; we interpret ourselves and others in light of the person—shared to the point of impersonality.

Inexact Inefficiencies, Embodied Impulses
Theater for peace is no more natural than peace for theater. We do not have one for the sake of the other; we also can’t really have one without the other. Putting theater in process in order to cause peace, or putting peace in process in order to cause theater, or cooking in order to cause silverware, or driving in order to cause radio—this may function, but the way is inexact—in the case of art and peace, inefficiencies cause mistrust and burnout. Both are embodied practices (freedom from harm is a chief right; theater is hospitality), and both look to understand the absolute position of this accident of meat. They are not each other’s child or parent, they are siblings, different and related.

Performance for social change, theater for development, art in the communities—these impulses are often used to justify theater from without, usurping art as defined by the art makers, imposing extra-dramatic responsibilities; once the art has been categorized and broken out into currency, it is stripped of its aesthetic basis and held to results not of its own making. While truly theater must firm its footing in community, its work there, and its monstrance of community's heart, must remain self-described and original.

Art is for social change—operating as art. New means of community formation—a new sense of the body, the border, new energies around the composition of families and the civic—reaffirm experiments with story, with history, with reading, and memory. To the extent that performance practice is designed to be liminal—where it’s outcome is intended expressly to promote peace—it should be balanced by a category of peace building whose success is measured in the number of plays it produces—cultural expression as a direct measurable outcome of peace building.

Experimental Subversion, Persistent Excellence
Experiment is impartial, responsible guessing; outcome is uncertain. An example of revolution without experiment is a military coup. If art and peace building are to be revolutionary—are to effect change, to subvert stasis and idolatry, to trigger metanoia—then they are experimental. The marketplace and civil doctrine restrain us exactly here when they feel threatened. And in the genius that authority has for conservation of wealth, it sets art and peace at each other. We’re being used to control each other’s behavior and the experimental nature of our experiments are often denatured; we’re being robbed of the subversion our practices require… In accepting each other as each other’s outcome, we are made insecure in our processes; our insecurity leads us to equip ourselves with the spare parts of each other’s machinery, performing formal tasks whose impact is obscure but whose operation is certain; there is a huge loss of vitality.

Still, excellence persists. There is an insistence on principles of organization that exceed corporate and nationalistic models. The world is organizing its prime energies along new channels. Story telling (and story making) styles that insist on private control (of wealth, of history) are passing away, and where they survive, are in service of processes of symbolization that are in a panicked drive to hold onto the obligatories of segregation. Genocide, for example, needs linear narrative. In redress, experiment needs to refresh its quietude, its pacific uncertainty, and members of the family of the incarnated ideal must know their souls and use them.

We have to ask what we are for, according to what, by what means we are to reach our natural aims, and what will change on the basis of our getting there. Just as a song is made by singing, and an act of justice invokes justice absolutely, so a person is made through people, by expressing humanity. We are made as humans to be with humans—to be more than ourselves.

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I'm not sure genius is the point. Or that what it is to communicate or even to relate is entirely known. How to live? How to live in the world with each other at this moment? A generosity of address - not necessarily a complete answer. Still - how?

Fragmented thoughts do not a genius make. Playing with language does not make a play. To communicate is to relate. Transmissio and emission are equedistance experiences...

Erik's post made my day and my future, as a person and a writer. Thanks for the wisdom, the heart, the articulate voice! Thanks for the challenge and mighty encouragement. Thanks, Howl Round, for the access to such vitality.

Erik is a genius. His EQ and IQ merge in one of the most beautiful ways I have ever witnessed. Study with him if you get the chance. Or just be around him, watch him work, read him, experience him--whatever you can. I wish there were thousands of Eriks walking the earth. Maybe there are, I wish I knew more of them.