Can the performing arts promote civic dialogue, social and political change? Yes, they do it but as a process and not as much as an immediate and quantifiable outcome. An example of that is the evolution of Am I Invisible, a project where people from the Austin homeless community has been participating and that led towards a main performance last Saturday at the Gym of the Episcopal Church. Since 2013, members of the homeless community have been able to learn and experiment with techniques from the theater of the oppressed, and participatory video, through a series of workshops at the the ARCH, Austin Resources Center for the Homeless. As a volunteer in the project, I have been able to see the transformation of the participants as they became use to tell their stories, act, speak up, self-reflect about their position in society, raise questions, and imagine social change. Last Saturday performance was the culmination of a long process of exploration and learning in where the homeless community had the opportunity to interact with a wider audience and engage in a public conversation about their visibility in one of the fastest growing USA cities.
When Roni Chelben, the led facilitator of the Am I Invisible project invited me to collaborate in the running of weekly workshops at the ARCH, I had not idea of what it took to work with marginalized adult communities. In my experience as a learning designer and participatory video workshop facilitator I had always worked with children and youth so working with adults who were in the edges of society was totally new for me. However, sooner after we started to run the workshops I found that an emergent working group of 4 to 5 male adults were becoming really engaged. They became regulars despite the fact they were not even staying at the ARCH. They showed a truly interest in video making, storytelling, and acting. They wanted to learn, participate, and exercise their creative agency.
Methodologies of theater of the oppressed such as analytical theater, image theater, breaking repression, and rituals, combine very well with participatory video projects. During the workshops we had both small portable video cameras the participants could use for recording their drama exercises, as well as we had television screen connected to a video camera and a microphone that provided audiovisual feedback in real time. Having this television screen was key for not only teaching basic concepts about framing and cinematographic language, but also to show the materiality and fluidity of video. It allowed the participants to collectively, experience the visibility of their performances in real time and to become aware of the expressive potential of different camera shots and their own gestures.
Several of the videos produced during the video workshops became part of the main performance and were shown to a wider audience at the beginning of the event. The videos were projected in three different screens and were arranged according to the the diverse materials created by each participants. They combined very well with the series of monologues and the short theatrical piece that followed their display. Altogether, they told a compelling story of what does it mean to be a homeless in Austin and gave this community the opportunity to reflect on their positionality, and challenge the notions of social visibility/invisibility.