Monday, March 28, 2011

Creative Activism at Play

On March 19, I set out with two new friends, Oda and Nehemiah, on a clowning expedition to explore the intersection between art and social justice. We were organized around a project I like to call Clown Forum, based on clowning tenants of Jacques LeCoq and participatory theater tenants of Augusto Boal. It was a sunny day as we walked through Lafayette Park to the annual peace rally organized this year by Vets for Peace. A small crowd had gathered around a stage.

The week before, we had devised a short piece with the aim of playing with rally goers around images of peace. Often times, the spirit of anger can take over at peace rallies, quickly turning the day into a rejection of what is rather than a celebration of what can be. We wanted to see what clowns could bring. We were not only out for a good time, but also equipped with some intention. For two hours we prowled the crowd, enticing people away from listening to speakers and to engage with us. The drone of angry voices rang in my ears, echoing in sharp contrast to our squeals of laughter and applause. Honk me! a large sign said, draped around Oda’s neck. A clown horn hung precariously from a string on the sign. As soon as a rally goer would reach out and honk the horn, they found themselves smack dab in front of a pad of paper with a palette of crayons.

After reading a card inviting them to draw an image of concrete actions towards peace, the rally goer was transported into a clown world where they reigned as supreme master of peace. A short color session ensued, peppered with occasional clown heckles. Immediately, what was expected to be a day of listening to a roster of esteemed speakers, turned into a day of teaching lessons of peace –so what if it was to a buncha clowns. Some people drew anarchy symbols and others smiley faces. There were images of public transportation, solar panels and sunshine, books and food, peace signs and even a Buddha. Two young vets simply wrote, “Fuck the Police” in big letters. At times the pictures were hard to decipher and other images made absolutely no sense at all. But no matter what, staying true to form, we clapped and cheered as if they had just come up with the most profound idea ever.

With our spinning Easter egg clown-phone, we asked them to tell us more. The once reflective silent rally goers, now empowered artist activists, shared a wide range of opinions ranging from a call for total anarchy to complete socialism. One woman spoke of meditation and ultimate enlightenment as the key to peace while another woman simply said that sunshine was all we really needed. After each person finished, we clapped and hollered some more. You can imagine we created quite a little scene.

In retrospect, our clown experiment accomplished a few simple but meaningful goals. First, it was a chance to get peaceful protestors laughing, talking and interacting. Others standing around the artist couldn’t help but watch and listen, as they crayola crayoned out their ideas and dreams. In the future, it may be worth engaging curious onlookers as well by asking them what the pictures mean to them.

Our clown experiment was also a chance for people to be heard rather than preached at. Rallies in DC have gotten a bad reputation over the years as a place full of angry bitter people. As clowns, we thought it might be nice to create more of a celebration of sorts. What better way to further the cause for peace, than to celebrate creativity and alternatives to violence. A format such as this has the potential to inspire and connect, rather than blame and disconnect. One can’t help but imagine what an entire park of clowns and poets, jugglers and dancers, painters and singers would look like engaging in artistic participatory models to elicit creative nonviolence.

Two years ago, I lost my brother in Afghanistan. He was a soldier and he fought bravely for what he believed in. His loss propelled a drive in me to deal with the anger and blame I have held for the military ever since we invaded Iraq. After losing Jason, I realized that the military was not my enemy, the military as an enemy was a story I had prescribed to in order to avoid engaging as an active citizen. I realized my biggest enemy was my sense of self righteousness and unwillingness to embrace the creative problem solving skills that live within me. I am still working every day to replace the anger and blame to openness and receptivity. I believe that the vast majority of the people who work within the systems that have propelled us deep into a war state are not evil people. They are human beings with human needs who need to be understood and listened to by people who can offer new solutions.

The same year my brother was killed, I attended the annual peace rally in DC dressed as a clown for the first time. I was tired of feeling angry and helpless at rallies and wanted to try something new. For me, clowning is a chance to celebrate the imperfections that make us human. It allows me to engage with people in a playful format where fun trumps all. Clowning creates inclusivity and space. It embraces art and creativity to an extreme, laying waste to status quo and allowing for new discoveries. While at the rally, I met a little boy carrying around a sign that said, “War is a lack of imagination.”

As I looked around the peace rally this last weekend, I realized the irony that our peace advocacy community may have fallen victim to that very same fate of a lack of imagination. Until we embrace the power of our imagination and creative conflict resolution skills as the central assets we have within our community, and set aside our need to be right, how can we expect anyone to listen to us?

Although the rally last weekend was small, it was chalk full of compassionate, committed, hard working people that will never give up their dreams to create a more equitable peaceful world. My plan is to continue working to ensure that not only do the solutions that emerged on our pad of paper of public transportation, solar panels, books, food and sunshine, get 'drawn out' further, but also that the process in which we do so is full of creativity, openness, and fun.


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