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.
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.
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.”