Gobyerno: Collective Dramaturgy, Negotiation, and Performing the Third Space (Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Dramaturgy 2018)

A Note About:
"Collective Dramaturgy, Negotiation, and Performing the Third Space"
The following text is the essay I submitted to the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) on October 8, 2017. The submission required all dramaturgs to explain their project while keeping all details anonymous to avoid bias from the panelists. The work I talk about here is Sipat Lawin Ensemble’s "Gobyerno."
This essay was awarded an Honorable Mention by LMDA's Elliott Hayes Award for Outstanding Dramaturgy 2018.

See the award announcement here:

Collective Dramaturgy, Negotiation, and Performing the Third Space
In "EF’s Visit to A Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play," it is presumed that the world of the play as a performance exists as a separate space bound by a special set of rules. The reader of this world—whether s/he is an audience, dramaturg, actor, or director—is given a luxury of distance as s/he is able to ‘squint’ her eyes from a certain distance and ask questions about the world of this play and methodically, almost in a manner of scientific inquiry in a laboratory, dissect a ‘planet’ that is much much smaller than the real one s/he is in. While the essay has its appeals and merits, I cannot help but feel uneasy in that the whole exercise mirrors imperialist and colonial power relations of looking, reading and ‘scientifically’ understanding a fascinating smaller world of an Other. That is not to say that this was intentional. At the very least, it is only a manifestation of the systemic pervasiveness of certain ways of thinking and being.
Maybe I began with a digression. What I wanted to say is that the work I will discuss clearly refuses to fit into Fuhler’s small planet.
The Project I will discuss is a six-year global project which started in 2015 as a collaboration between our Performance Company, a Foreign Playwright, and a Filmmaker who was born and raised abroad but repatriated to the Project’s Country of Origin. In 2016 the team expanded to include a Visual Artist, and three other members of our Performance Company. The premise was to create a performance about government where the audiences form and performtheir ideal government, which they document on film, and then watch.
Another iteration of the Project that we hoped for was to create an online database of these ideal governments, hosting active discussions about the experience of being part of the Project, as well as larger discussions about issues tackled by the audiences when they created their own governments.
At the end of the six years, a larger documentary film about the six-year journey of the work will be produced. We also hope to use the films and the insights that the audiences have made to lobby certain issues with policy makers.
Some key words that prompted us to pursue the Project were words in performance vocabulary that also pointed outwards towards the performative everyday and performativity that cross over to political language: protests as rehearsals for revolution, politics as theater, enacting legislation, etc. We were interested in employing the language and system of theater and cinema to activate "audience agency" as an opportunity to question and exercise "active citizenship."
The Project runs for six years because one president’s administrative term in the Country of Origin is six years.
The Project as a collaborative space
Central to the Project was the very idea of collaboration as an exercise in negotiating power and control. The very first challenge was to create a system of making the Project that embodies our ideals on power structures. Another key element was to look for local collaborators in each place we perform it in, to ground the Project when we are doing it in an unfamiliar context.
Thus, what we set out to do was create a work that had a soft structure allowing for three layers of collaboration—collaboration between the Project Members, collaboration with Project Collaborators in each new place, and collaboration with audiences in every performance.
My role as dramaturg became that of facilitating collective dramaturgy. Devising was the primary method that we employed when creating the work. We are all equally invested in creating the meaning and structure of the Project. Everyone is part of the devising and dramaturgical process and their ‘theater’ roles only come second. Thus, for example, being Project Manager and Stage Manager were only secondary roles that that the team members take on. The primary role of everyone involved in the work is mainly dramaturgical.
The same principle applies to the Project Collaborators that we work with. When starting the collaboration, we usually do not define what the Project Collaborators’ role will be. What we do instead is have a series of conversations and then move towards a devising process that usually involves research into the local community, restructuring or changing some aspects of the performance based on the research.
When I talk about the Project here, I mean the whole six-year work, and not only the performance itself. It is impossible to think about the performance in isolation. Even during the show itself, we explain the whole work to the audience and they are well aware that the performance they will take part in is a result of a continuous process, which is still ongoing.
Currently, this is the soft structure of the performance. Note that this is not the first structure of the work when it started in 2015 and is also not the final one. This is merely the current iteration, which plays around with the "State of the Nation Address," an annual speech of the president in the Country of Origin where the leader outlines key policy areas, achievements, and plans of the administration. The running time of this iteration is 3 hours. Outlined below is a bare structure that shifts to accommodate material conditions and contexts of the performance space.
  1. Introduction
    • Audiences are welcomed by the team into an empty space and are introduced to the Project.
    • They are given cards and thick markers and are asked to quickly write ‘something in society that needs to change’
  2. Discussion
    • They are divided into groups and audiences will begin writing policies for the new government
    • Project Members facilitate the discussion
  3. Creating the Film – "State of the Nation Address"
    • Audiences are divided into different filming departments
      • Actors and Script Department
      • Costume Department
      • Art Department
      • Music Department
      • Camera Department
      • Special Department: Protest Scene
  4. Rehearsal
    • Everyone goes into position and rehearse the long take of the film
  5. Filming
    • We film
  6. Film Showing
    • In 5 minutes, the space is turned into a cinema and audiences watch what they just made
  7. [Talkback usually follows]
  8. The performance itself functioning as a Third Space for political dialogue
  9. The online platform and the larger documentary film as a Third Space for political dialogue
  10. Using the whole project itself as a tool to lobby with policy makers or to facilitate some other kind of civic action
In the next phase of developing the work, the Project Members plan to abandon this current structure altogether and start devising again from scratch, but with the insights we’ve learned from the past iterations. This is not to say that the current version will be thrown out. It merely feels to us that the current version is complete in its own way so the only way to move forward and develop the Project is to radically rethink and create more performances. There seems to be a possibility that the Project will become modular—it will have different kinds of performances bourne from the different iterations.
This current version of the performance follows the structure of the Design Thinking process of research/articulating problems > brainstorming/ideation > building a prototype > and getting feedback. It is also an exercise in Systems Thinking where audience/participants clearly see the structure and causalities of each element in the work, thus elevating their positions as agents within the system. (As opposed to, literary structures where the ‘art’ of putting the narrative together is not obvious.)
The current structure allows audiences to shape the meaning of the work in two levels. One, they determine the ideologies of the new government—they create the policies, they write the speeches, they stage the protest, etc. Second, they create the film themselves—they pick costumes and music, design the backdrops, and even hold the camera itself to frame how they will document their new government.
The Project as a Social Function
When we began the Project three years ago we were inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in exploring the social function of a performance that directly intervenes with social and political reality. In the past few months, we have been interested in Homi K. Bhabha’s articulation of the Third Space as a space that will allow new political imagination.
When we started the work three years ago, we were at a point in the project’s Country of Origin where only certain groups, particularly the communist Left and other left-leaning organizations (we are affiliated with some of these organizations and are friends with some of these activists), seemed to only be conversing amongst themselves. For example, it has been hard to engage the middle class into taking civic action, we can’t even ask people to get involved and oppose certain policies that are being lobbied. There is a crippling feeling that other than the ‘circus’ that is the elections, there is nothing else to do. This is dangerous for a democratic nation.
Our Performance Company sees that it has been hard to engage the middle class into the civic sphere because the groups that facilitate civic engagement mostly already have a political agenda. If, for example, someone understands that a certain policy is oppressive, but they do not necessarily adhere to Marxist/Leninist/Maoist ideologies—generally, these people have nowhere to go. And we believe that this is where the problem lies. A huge portion of the population would rather disengage from politics and civic action because taking civic action will have to mean that you are already choosing a political ideology or agenda.
And this is a big problem in a country that is laden with corruption and is being abused by oligarchs from the country’s colonial and feudal past/present and the neo-liberal/neo-colonial globalized economy. It sees that while the people with ‘good intentions’ for the country cannot agree on their ideologies, oppression continues.
Members of our Performance Company also come from this middle class, in-between position. While we may identify with socialist values, we definitely do not identify as Leftists. What we have realized over the years was that this was a valuable position of ambiguity, because this is the position of a huge portion of the population, and because it is a position that can facilitate dialogue and negotiation.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that we are slowly reading and understanding Bhabha’s theory of the Third Space into articulating the Project’s position and trajectory for further development. Our practice came first and then slowly we are able to find an articulation of what we have been doing.
Thus, we see that the Project’s very existence as a work intends to function as a direct dialogue with the real world in three ways:
Needless to say, we do not aim for the Project to remain as the only Third Space for new political imagination. The hope is that there will be several sites that will facilitate critical engagement in different ways. Our work is merely our contribution to what should be a network or several pockets of Third Spaces.
The project’s Country of Origin recently elected a new president and is under a new administration and the Project’s team is suddenly faced with a new level of urgency. There is ongoing political turmoil and now the Project is faced with new questions on how it can function better. For example, there have been several protests in recent months to oppose the president’s ‘war against drugs’ which has left 13,000 (or more) people dead so far, in unsolved vigilante killings in our city’s poorest communities. Some protest organizers have invited us to perform the Project during protests, or to bring the Project to one of the urban poor communities affected by the violent anti-drug campaign. However, the Project members need to thoroughly plan and change the performance if we are to deal with these sensitive contexts.
These are functions that we did not anticipate when we started the work, but we believe that we must pursue them. However, we will need to strategize and equip ourselves properly. What we seem to be up against is time. These issues are urgent and it seems like the pace by which we are developing the Project is up against the pace of worsening political turmoil. Frankly, we are constantly questioning ourselves if we should be continuing the project, or if yes, how should we continue, etc. These are things that I cannot answer now as we will be having a big evaluation meeting at the end of the year to discuss where we are going as we close the first 3 years of the work. We will only understand the next step of the Project through a collective discussion.
Understanding its Global Scope
Finally, I’d like to address the meaning of the work as a global project. The very first prototype was premiered in a festival overseas in collaboration with a contemporary performance company that explores using protest as a performative form. A festival invited our Performance Company to do a work and we pitched the Project, which was then just an idea. Thankfully the festival said yes to us developing the Project and bringing it to the festival. However, the festival is a non-English speaking country. The first prototype of the Project was actually done in a different language, facilitated by our Project Collaborators, with the Project Team watching on the side.
Since then, the Project has been brought oversees in different contexts—for festivals, for community engagement, for education, etc.
First, doing the work overseas means that the Project Team can get funding to develop the work locally. It is the only way we can fund the work due to limited arts grants in our country. Thus, it is a reciprocal arrangement. Second, returning to Bhabha’s Third Space, expanding the scope of the Project into global yet still local sphere creates more space for difference, negotiation, liminality, and thus hybridity. And there is synchronicity between nations, especially in a globalized economy. Conversations on government, social justice, freedom, etc., can no longer be isolated by geo-political borders. We are actively seeking to learn from one another through our differences.
As mentioned before, the current iteration of the project already touches on this as we deliberately mention to audiences the current journey of the work—where the Project has been performed, how different were the ‘governments’ created by previous audiences, how different the Project was in each country. Thus, the performance itself is an ongoing conversation.
For the further development of the work, we hope to extend this conversation through the Project Website which archives and hosts updates on the the Project, which audiences and partners could access. Finally, the larger Documentary Film at the end of the six years hopes to synthesize or at least frame the whole duration of the Project.
I began this essay by mentioning EF’s Visit to a Small Planet. Even as I question it, I cannot help but also envy it. How clean it is, how clear it is, that in the world of the play everything is intentional and nothing is in the script by accident. You can get lost in the world of the play and take pleasure in it. We have been working in the Project for three years now and we still have three more years to go. And it is not a small planet separate from the world. It is an articulation of our planet, it is an attempt to directly dialogue and intervene and shake the real world we are in. Its very structure asks for accidents to happen. The very idea of creating a Third Space is to lose control of existing notions to allow the New to happen.
It can be a tiring task because in truth, we work on this Project everyday as we watch the news, walk the street, just live our lives as citizens. However, it is the importance of creating this work that pushes to keep on working.