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When Family Inspires Political Protest Art

I was shell-shocked after the recent US presidential election and simply posted on social media, as one does in the #worldweliveinnow. The post was a link to an article by a historian who’d spent his life studying the Black Plague; his was a fascinating perspective, full of predictions based on human history, that things will get better. However, he said, we are destined (doomed?) to a plague of our own before a return to normalcy.

For the first time in months, my father reached out to me, to negate the article’s merit and condemn the perspective. I replied with a respectful disagreement, followed by several friends becoming offended for me via more posts, and it all devolved from there. I ended up unfriending my own father for posting five or six troll-y stories in a row on my timeline. I was disgusted that he would lump me into a category with one Trump-protester who was taking (ahem) a bathroom break on a Trump sign. After the unfriending, he sent several all-caps-riddled, kind-of-nasty-but-ultimately-informative emails that helped me to a realization: my family judges me for being an artist and an educator. They think I’ve become a bleeding heart, a wimp, a whiner. He called my views “snowflake.”

The truth we’ve discovered is manifold: we are lost without one another, but we’re so angry. And “snowflake” is just a label that shuts down talk.

This is a word I’d only heard flung at millennials who were having trouble (or perceived as having trouble) moving into the real world—young people who had been parented into weakness and into thinking they were somehow special. Somehow special. In this moment with my father, I understood how weird that label was. You taught me all of these things. You taught me to be kind. You taught me to love my neighbor. But now you hate your neighbor. And I’m somehow a fool. A clown.

I am a forty-two year old woman, man. I know my own mind.

This moment, this word, inspired me to get to work. I created a survey with my Boston-based ensemble, Anthem Theatre Company, and we sent it out all over the US. We asked people what a snowflake was, and what this label meant to them. We asked if they were scared, enraged, or even proud of anything. We asked about their families, and the effects of the election on their identity, if any. We asked how we could combat hate…in 140 characters or less. We asked what they’d do if they were standing between the gun of authority and a young black man. We asked what they’d say in eulogy at a funeral for divisive thinking. We asked which poetry, paintings, or song lyrics had begun to have new poignancy since the election.

The answers were striking. Responses came in from all kinds of different people in red states and blue states alike. We received surveys from Nebraska, California, Louisiana, New York, and Missouri, to name a few. We heard from a professional Trump impersonator in New Zealand; a fired-up Broadway playwright; a middle school assistant principal in St. Louis; a woman who has lived, worked, or played in thirty-six different countries; a whole class of high school drama students in Overland Park, KS; and of course, Bostonians of both varieties: transplants like me, and Massholes like the rest of my company.

Once we had received a fair amount of questionnaires, we compiled an anonymous master document giving everyone a number. (I proudly claim Snowflake #14.) At our first devising session I read aloud all of the responses to “What does this term snowflake mean to you? What should it mean?” and “Are you afraid? If so, can you tell us about this (using your words, quotes from others, or an artistic response)?” From there, we began to construct a through-line, taking inspiration from Jerzy Grotowski’s methods for devising. We called each new scene an “etude” because we’d exercise, or wrestle, each subject to find the most potent or frequent responses. We worked from question to question, etude to etude. A recurring theme began to develop through these early sessions: this project’s personal impetus was as important to the overall story as other responses. This fool, this clown, this me, this personal moment, was indeed universal. So we put the clown in the show.

actors discussing a work in rehearsal
Actors devising a mechanical Thanksgiving dinner in I, Snowflake. Photo by Daniel Thomas Blackwell.

In this devised piece, I, Snowflake, we’re exploring what happens when a mute commedia clown wanders into our 60s-style Open Theater-esque protest piece. Our Pierrot, Snowflake, has been silenced, but through our explorations, she comes to know her own mind. She uses the ensemble of women to speak for her in true snowflake fashion. As one respondent said, “The magic is in its unique quality, but the strength and staying power of a snowflake comes when it’s part of a collective.”

At the beginning of the process we found great comfort in being able to simply sit in a room and talk about why we were so disturbed. One might literally call it a dreaded “safe space”: men, women, and transgender individuals finding out they’re not alone. There was some talk of feelings (for which snowflakes are oft criticized) but more talk of action. How do we begin to understand how this happened? What is the next step that I, personally, can take? Ironically, the early devising sessions happened before and between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks; our collaborators came back with firsthand stories of holiday difficulties due to politically divided families. We put that in the show, too.

actors in rehearsal
Snowflake watches the "Are you Afraid?" etude. Photo by Bryn Boice.

Now, as we’re working on staging and fleshing out the script, we realize how touchy this subject really is. The label “snowflake” makes us want to push through, squelch our feelings about the division in this country. People are raw. Some of the images and ideas put forth in the surveys and in our sessions are not easy to digest. We have removed the president’s name entirely because we’ve found the play is about so much more than one man. His name distracts us from the truth. The truth we’ve discovered is manifold: we are lost without one another, but we’re so angry. And “snowflake” is just a label that shuts down talk. These feelings have to be felt and then dealt with, versus what I know my father wishes—that we’d just stop crying and shut up.

Well, there’s no crying in this play. But we can’t shut up. We need our systems and institutions to be worthy of the faith we put in them, and we feel this much and this hard because our individual voices seem too small to fix such big problems. The play is anchored in both paralyzed and activated responses; it’s about working out the next collective step. In the words of W.H. Auden (in one of the most frequently-mentioned pieces from our respondents), “We must love one another or die.”

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This sounds like really productive and engaging work - congratulations on creating effective theatrical action! I wish I could see the final result!

Okay......since it seems the moderator continues to delete my posts (based upon what they say are personal attacks) I will state my points more clearly and generically.....so as NOT to offend anyone in their SAFE environment........Snowflake is a term used to infer, that at the 'slightest' sign of HEAT or
OPPOSITION or DISAPPOINTMENT the snowflake melts ......or cries or isn't
able to function or take tests or becomes incapable of dealing with the
REALITY of a given situation. It's perfectly FINE to have 'FEELINGS' as
is often used as justification by the LEFT for making decisions. We are
all Human and as such are emotional beings. BUT....it's rarely a
good idea to base one's life or one's decisions or policy based strictly upon FEELINGS or
emotions or a strict IDEOLOGY. Dreaming is fine as far as it goes, it's
good to have aspirations ....BUT we all must live in reality and make
sound decisions based upon what IS and what works in the REAL world. In today's
HYPER-partisan world...too many expectations are being propagated NOT
based upon FACT but rather a litany of FAKE NEWS and an ideology
supported by a leftist agenda from Hollywood, the Entertainment
Industry, Mainstream media, and by Academia. The LEFT needs to take a
break and have a good hard INTROSPECTIVE look at themselves in the mirror. AMERICANS are
tired of the Politically Correct, walking on eggshells mentality....IF
ANYONE DARE DISAGREE....you're labeled as RACIST or misogynist, or
homophobic, or sexist, or even NAZI or White Supremacists simply because
we are patriotic and want to put COUNTRY FIRST and it's Citizens. WE AREN'T THE MOTHER OF THE WORLD.....even though at times we're called upon to 'HELP' those in need. Most of
us.....believe that everyone should get a shot and play on a level
playing field....but we neither have the resources or the ability to do EVERYTHING for EVERYONE. You're ENTITLED to nothing other than your rights as a Citizen. There are PLENTY of failed
socialist countries out there, if you feel everyone deserves the
LIVE. THIS....is the last bastian of Capitalism and Free Enterprise. It's been the biggest and best chance for people to pull themselves out of the rags and into the pursuit of happiness in the world. But railing against the very system that provides you the right to
peaceful protests, or of establishing your 'SAFE ZONES' where
everyone's opinion is heard....(SO LONG AS IT AGREES WITH THE IDEOLOGY
YOU SUBSCRIBE TO) is NOT FREEDOM. It's anarchy...... We're tired of Flag
burners and whiners who've never lifted a finger to defend our country, or ever had
to serve 1 day in defense of our liberties or our constitution. If
you've NEVER in your life had to defend the Flag or
risk being laid to rest under it.....WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO
YES.....we're tired of sitting idly by, while AMERICAN jobs are shipped
overseas at the expense of cheaper clothing at the local Walmart or
buying products from other countries simply because they have fewer regulations and pay lower wages. ALL THE WHILE....it's perfectly
fine to stomp all over the rights of the Citizens and use OUR Social
'safety nets' in favor of someone who comes here knowingly breaking our
laws and gaming the system. Yes.....we're tired of our institutions and
government, treating those who come to our shores, break our laws, giving them rights they've never paid or worked for...over
those of hard working AMERICANS, and those who've served the country,.....particularly when our senior citizens or veterans now live in abject poverty and unable to obtain the necessary services THEY need. The sooner that Snowflakes, or those subscribing to Leftist
'group-think' ideology, or the John Lennon NEW WORLD ORDER, come to a realization that
FREEDOM ISN'T FREE and there is EVIL in the world,.... that this country is a
good and noble country with laws and borders, that WE THE PEOPLE have pledged our allegiance and sworn to uphold it's laws....... the sooner COGNITIVE, THINKING ADULTS will be able to restore this
country to something resembling America rather than some 3rd world
Socialist Republic. AMERICA......LOVE IT OR

Lately I feel like we're all trapped in an old episode of "The Twilight Zone" ("The Monsters Are Due on Mulberry Street" I think), where the true forces of evil (in that case creatures from outer space who want to take over the Earth but don't have much in the way of weapons) demonstrate how easy it is to get human neighbors to blame --and ultimately kill -- each other, ultimately destroying everyone in the town (and then this is replicated for every town on the planet).

I hope someday people will realize that it isn't republican versus democrat, man versues woman, or white versus non-white... it only seems this way because the true forces of evil conspire to make us think so.