You Be Me
Report on the Open Space event of Saturday, May 18, 2019 at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium, Middlesex University London UK.
Frank Totino
While walking to the Symposium on Saturday morning, I saw a man cross the road. He looked towards me and I recognized him as someone from the GII meetings. I hadn’t met him but said, “good morning”. We walked in together and along the way decided to follow the principals of the Open Space. In particular, the people who arrive are the right ones, and the right time is now…So we decided to co-sponsor a session.
I had proposed You Be Me the day before based on the idea that this might be useful to others. It was something that I had developed while teaching at the performing arts Højskolen Snoghøj in Denmark this past winter. There we were working on a project with the theme: Normality and Abnormality. From the research part of the project we had come to the conclusion that everyone had felt abnormal at some point in their lives, and that feeling Abnormal was Normal. I had the participant tell stories of their own experiences with this theme, but it seemed to involve a question and answer process, which is fine on the one hand, but how to get to the details or the key elements in the story, the thing that tipped the balance towards feeling abnormalized…if one can even say that. I wanted a way to get a performance out of the details in some way.
From a series of experiments I came up with the following scenario:
The group mills about saying “good morning” to each other in a continuing movement. When moved to do so, a student would choose someone and take them out of the group, point at them and say loudly, “you be me!” The one being pointed at would then play the role of the person who was pointing at them. Then the one who was in charge of the story, the pointer, who knew the details of the bullying or the trauma, would play the aggressor who caused the sense of abnormality in the principal character (which was themselves of course). Most of the stories in this project were based on bullying and since most bullying is done for the benefit of an audience I had the rest of the actors in the group play the background ‘gang’ of onlookers and supporters of the bully, throwing in agreement phrases and extrapolating a little on the main dialogue. The person playing the principal then had to react without foreknowledge of the details, which proved to be very interesting and cathartic to the person whose story it was.
Later in the year while teaching an Acting workshop in London I asked the group if they felt like experimenting with this exercise. In these instances it sometimes occurred that it was the person whose story it was that was the aggressor in the incident. This then would be handled in the way that the You Be Me concept placed the storyteller in the hot spot in a different way. In one case the teller set up the consequences of his bad behaviour and played the ‘judge’ in the little trial that was part of the consequences. This allowed for other characters to be included in the scenario. The person that had been bullied originally (not the storyteller in this case) was played by another actor and was able to bring to the scene a kind of push back on the facts and took the thing into a place where the person whose story it was had more understanding of the consequences than even the ‘trial’ had delivered.
Here at the GII, we experimented with the form in collaboration with Dance Movement Therapist Richard Coaten, whose report is available in these archives. (You Be Me' - Mental Health Improvisation and Dementia ) He well describes the events of the session and includes his development of extending the chorus to be for each of the principals. Robert’s sensitivity as a therapist in the rather powerful stories of that session allowed for a further development of the application. It became evident that serious trauma events could be voluntarily presented and dealt with in an immediate way. Robert also offered a side bar of ‘constellations’ therapy to one of the storytellers, but wisely he said that they could decline it if they so chose, which they did.
My take away is that this exercise is obviously similar to approaches in drama therapy and social forum theatre as well as the role playing devices of Playback Theatre, LifeGame© and others. Personally I find that it might be useful in development of plays and is certainly interesting when improvised. If the participants are giving themselves permission to tell these stories it must be that the process offers a ‘safe space’ in which to do that. It also is necessary that this condition is met by all participants. For the facilitators there must be no coercion or regulations that cause a feeling of obligation to perform. It must always be presented as optional, experimental and benevolent.