How can theater help us find and be all of ourselves? For Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera, this was the question driving their work with Rysing Women during the 2015-2016 season.
Rysing Womyn works with the women that society is prone to throw away: the angry, the rageful, the sad, the traumatized, the oppressed, the exploited. Artivist and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project Cat Brooks and actor and theatre facilitator Anna Maria Luera worked with young women of color in the project to find refuge in creativity and artistic expression.
Watch below to hear Brooks and Luera discuss creating and holding space where young women can share their stories, find joy and healing in laughter, and “be all of themsel[ves].”
Want to see more from Rysing Women? Check out Slaying Our Inner Demons, an experimental visual essay based on one of the poems that came out of this Artist-Investigator project, and Cat Brooks’ essay on the project here.
Full Transcript of Video:
CAT: Community–based art has always been a part of my life and understanding the power of theater to heal, theater saved my life quite literally. I would not be here, had I not found the theater.
RYSING WOMYN: The Artist-Investigator Program at California Shakespeare Theater investigates how the tools of theater artists can be applied outside the rehearsal room.
Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera helped young women of color find refuge in creativity and artistic expression through the Rysing Womyn project.
ANNA MARIA: There’s a joy spread in being like what can happen, what is the impacts that these young women can make on the world, in their work, that we’re facilitating and really creating space for them to be all of themself, through art, through political education, through healing.
CAT: We would get there, and the girls would slowly roll in. Sloooowly roll in. And uh, food, like Anna was talking about, so we got to the point where we just realized that they had to eat, every time, so. We’d eat, and then Anna talked earlier about ritual being very important. So we had the ritual of checking in. Going around and just honoring whatever the girls are walking in with. And sometimes the girls would go into very deep detail about what they were feeling. And sometimes it was, “I’m cool,” right, or “I don’t feel like it” and that’s sort of the check–in. And then a meditation, a grounding and a meditation, a getting in the space. And then, some sort of vocal warm up, breathing, exercise to move in that direction and then it varied. So then it was either political education and improv and journaling or it was improv and journaling and then doing the, you know, reading. We used poems a lot, as a way to get them used to reading words and comfortable with putting emotion on it. And we would do, you know, give different direction about how to read it. We did that a lot. And then we would close out with “Pass the Pulse,” which was my favorite piece of it, and then, and every time the girls would hug each other, tell each other they love them, hug us.
ANNA: They were beautiful, they are so beautiful.
CAT: And then off they would go.
ANNA MARIA: Many of our girls, most of our girls, if not all of them had some very basic needs not met. And then we said, come to this theater program, right, and I believe it’s a necessity ‘cause they tell their stories and who they are, but those things, if they’re not working in connection with meeting basic needs, then the part where they don’t have food, they don’t have housing, they are in and out of foster care. All of these things will overthrow your whole program.
CAT: Things we didn’t know, right, or think about: the demographic that we were working with, transient, right…not time-bound. The idea initially was that they would improv their way to writing their own pieces, and then there were so many shifts in girls, and timing, and when we’re going to perform, and then we weren’t going to perform. There was one period we went from having, like, 15 girls, right, to 8, to 2, right, for the extended period of time. So balancing the realities of Black girls from low-income communities, who have gone through some things that I can’t even imagine the weight of. I’m going to cry. So balancing them bringing all of themselves and all of their experience into the space with trying to incorporate theater discipline and like, being on time, or grounding yourself before you begin the work, or not talking when somebody else is doing a monologue, or commitment to being at rehearsal on time and for the duration, things that…you know, as actors, that’s how we live our lives, was challenging. But we never stopped trying.
ANNA MARIA: Yeah, yeah.
CAT: There was one young woman, she would need to leave early. It was always, it was always, something, right, with her.
ANNA MARIA: We had to talk her into everything.
CAT: Oh my God. I love her, and…
ANNA MARIA: And she showed up all the time.
CAT: And she would show up every week and then there was this one time and she legit had to leave early. It was like a legit thing but it was closer to performance, and I was irritated. She bounced out, right, and then like 2 minutes later the door opened again, and she came back and gave this very thorough explanation about why she needed to go, apologized basically for interrupting the process, assured us that she was going to go home and do the work she needed to do, and she would see us next week and then she left, and I was like…
ANNA MARIA: She would’ve never done that a year ago.
CAT: I was like, “Did that just happen, that just happened.”
ANNA MARIA: That amount of accountability that this young women who’s what, 16/17, adults don’t have that.
CAT: Because at first the mandate was you had to perform when we first started, and then, again, things we learned, right, that for a bunch of reasons that just was not going to work. The re-trigger, re-traumatization of the young women, and so we put it out there. We were like, here’s your option, ‘cause we want you to write the piece and so it was an option whether you decided you want to do your own piece or if we could hire some actors that could perform your pieces for you. And a lot more girls thought that they were going to have end up having to act. I think just knowing that they had the safety net of the actors, allowed them to write the piece. Right? It was like “OK, so I’m not really going to have to get up and perform this, right, in front of an audience? Someone else will do it? OK, I’m gonna finish the piece,” but at the end the majority of the girls who remained in the cohort, they wanted to read their, they wanted to perform their own stuff. The other learning I think around the come as you are, what the fullness of that really means, right, and so, I would never go to work high. Right, I can never show up to rehearsal high or drunk or whatever else or go out before the show and, right…but it was more important for them to be in the space and allow them to make the decision about their sobriety in that space and let the power of the work that they were doing in the theater, for them to choose it, than us going you have to show up this way and that way and this way, otherwise you can’t be in the space. And that was not always comfortable, right…
ANNA MARIA: But they couldn’t come in the space and not participate at all…and so that was very clear, and if they didn’t participate they didn’t get paid that day.
CAT: There’s that feeling that you get when you walk into a theater, right, as an actor. When you walk into a theater space and it’s empty and there’s the stage and the work’s getting ready to start. You know and then the lights and the sound, there’s just…And it was really important for us that they had that experience of doing theater on a stage with the lights and a tech and the audience and they got that, right.
ANNA MARIA: And we really I think also tried to incorporate the theater exercise to match with the political education. So if we played a…if we like, or ritual. So if we played a imaginary objects game, later on they would bring another imaginary object that meant something to them into an altar space. If they did statues and it could be like statues in a place in Hawaii that their practicing on, just fun stuff, but later on they would bring those kinds of activities into a space where we talk about police brutality. So it’s like really using those activities, theater activities to forward the vision of what we want for the young people and to also bring them to a space that’s like, we know it feels weird and sometimes we feel weird and it’s okay. And so when we gather the pieces there’s a bunch of themes that came up. Family themes, a lot about mothers, and some of them were mothers, violence, the political themes that came through that were beautiful. It is very easy in this work to say, here are all the hard stories and everybody can feel sorry for you, but being clear that our young ladies are bad asses and they’re warriors and survivors and they laugh and joke and make fun of each other and hold each other in space so in seeing, like the fullness of our group, I wanted their stories to really be about that. They started also doing things that were about them. One young woman comes in and all she says in her check–in is, “this is like the worst day of my life” and she starts crying, and all the young women surrounded her, put their hands on her, and hugged her and held her. We didn’t start, we didn’t do that. They did that on their own and so when you see them care for each other like that…
CAT: In ways that have been modeled for them, right.
ANNA MARIA: Yes.
CAT: It was a practice.
ANNA MARIA: One of the young women who had kind of started off really strong and then had a bunch of stuff happen to her and then came, was coming back, she was back there with them and like going through the pieces and they were like giving her notes and telling her say it like this and those are the things where we go, not only are they down for each other, but they’re down for the work and they’re down for themselves to do the best possible work that they can do for each other. Young people and our young women, we want them to come and feel safe and taken care of. So when you’re going into a space that can be extremely difficult, when young people are in gratitude like that, for what you have to offer them, for how you love them, because we’re in gratitude for them, and that back and forth is really like, we would leave all the time and be like, man, I’m so glad I came.