The Love Balm Project: Form Follows Function

By Arielle Brown

In January of this year, after working as an artist-investigator with the Triangle Lab to explore site specific performances of testimonies from The Love Balm Project, I began a second residency with The Triangle Lab to consider how The Love Balm Project might come to have a more sustained community presence. At the time, Rebecca Novick at Calshakes had been talking with me about the idea of developing a Love Balm Institute. The Institute would be an opportunity for me to train other cultural workers in the methodologies of The Love Balm Project in order to implement them with mothers and other communities in the Bay Area. The inaugural Love Balm Institute took place in may of this year and was a powerful encounter and skill sharing gathering. Still the institute posed more questions than answers. Practitioners who attended the institute brought to light all of the other specific communities that needed work like what the Love Balm Project offered to mothers. As I moved into working on the run of the play at Brava Theatre Center, I filed these questions and concerns. I soon began to think more about the organizational structure of the Love Balm Project. I considered that perhaps I needed to look to other collective organizational structures to inform and get to the root of exactly how I wanted the Love Balm Project to continue on.  

As I often share, I got the idea for The Love Balm Project not long after returning from a trip to Rwanda to study with the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center. Correspondingly, I strongly believe that intercultural exchange is an opportunity to network knowledges and solutions.  So with the help of Cal Shakes and the Center for Cultural Innovation, I decided to leave the Bay Area to study with two groups whose structures could speak to what I have been considering with The Love Balm Project. The first group I sought to learn about is Sistren Theatre Collective in Kingston, Jamaica. The second group is the Tenderloin Opera Company based in Providence, Rhode Island. Each of these projects/collectives are relatively small and do witnessing and theatre work with very specific populations. Below is a bit of what I gleaned not only about their structures but also the nature of their work.

Sistren Theatre Collective

Sistren Theatre Collective has a 40 year history in Jamaica of centering Black women’s narratives of violence and survival in their performance practice. I was so privileged to have the opportunity to sit down with Lana Finikin, the Director of Sistren Theatre Collective and learn more about the evolution of their structures over the years. Lana was so giving to speak to the detrimental work a corporate structure once did to the organic collective structure of Sistren’s origins. But perhaps the most important seed of knowledge that I gleaned from this meeting was the story of Sistren’s creation. Sistren came out of a governmental program to train single mothers in arts education to work as teaching artists after school. Theater practitioner Honor Ford-Smith worked with some of these mothers and they soon developed an informal collective. The women in this collective shared stories of abuse and mistreatment in the work place. From these stories, they devised their first piece of work. Their work was widely acclaimed. Sistren has traveled the world sharing their work with other women and students. Honor Ford-Smith worked as the leader of Sistren for several years until she left to pursue a career in academia. The collective which is now 40 years old continues to collaborate and produce content that challenges the abusive structures that impact women and families.

Tenderloin Opera Company

Tenderloin Opera Company was started by Erik Ehn in the San Francisco Tenderloin neighborhood. The TOC is a collaborative process between local artists and composers and homeless or formerly homeless populations. The TOC, while started in the Tenderloin, has now moved to Providence, Rhode Island as Erik Ehn is based at the Brown University theater program. Founded in 2001, Erik notes that the inaugural Tenderloin Opera, presented in April of 2001, was an opera that was derived from work with homeless community members. More recent work of the company has come more directly from homeless and formerly homeless community members themselves. The company’s key mottos are “Always free, always under an hour, always food” and “wrong and strong!”

Reading the scripts of the Tenderloin Opera Company, I found them to be just as playful as they are informative. Structurally, there is both joy and vulnerability in the work the Tenderloin Opera has created together. It seems the cornerstone of TOC’s structure comes from their commitment to equitably building together.

Learning about the work of TOC and Sistren Theatre Collective significantly helped to inform my views of organizational structure for The Love Balm Project. I was most impacted by the work of Sistren, as I learned about the twists and turns of the collective structure over the last 40 years. Sistren’s greatest asset is the collective of women that come together to build, envision and play. Their power is not based on how adaptively resilient they are as an NGO but rather how committed each member is to shifting the culture of structural violence for women and families throughout the country. Through his work with TOC Erik Ehn helped me to understand that it is his and others commitment to collaborating with the homeless and formerly homeless that moves their work forward and impacts the shape and weight of their local community. So I sought to learn about how organizational structures can impact change and I returned knowing that it is our dreams of community building and changemaking that must inform the structures we adopt. That is to argue that both of these organizations inherently reject a dichotomy where the theatre makers are in service of a specific community. Rather, each of these collectives claim the radical act of embracing collaboration, exchange, permeability in membership and most importantly a symbiosis in service. Witnessing these core values re-activated my own dreams for The Love Balm Project.  I never want anyone to look at The Love Balm Project and say that witnessing for mothers who have lost children to violence is our mission statement and not theirs as well. I dream of a public movement toward community witnessing – something that is jointly held. So while I know that non-profit structures are strong options for some arts collectives, I have come to believe that that option is not in our best interest.  Rather, I am committed to sharing the Love Balm Institute and tools with cultural workers and practitioners both locally and nationally. I am also committed to skill sharing amongst artists who do work with communities that are impacted by violence. A commitment to sharing both tools and stories with each other is the only way there will actually be enough witnesses for every mother, family member and friend impacted by systemic violence.

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