Blog #1 from Warsaw - Change Now!

March-April 2023

Hello everyone and welcome to the first post of the new blog for the Lectorate of the Academy of Theatre and Dance (ATD) in Amsterdam.

Inspired by our great colleagues at the Lectorate for Social Justice + Diversity in the Arts, we decided to create a blog as a way to share what we are up to in the research unit – as it emerges – and to provide space for the growing community of researchers and partners we are working with to voice their perspectives and open up their projects to others both inside and beyond the ATD.

Or to dial back a bit further, we are also aware that within our own institution – which has over 650 students, and over 800 teachers and other staff – there may be many people who are not aware of the ATD Lectorate at all, do not know what it does and/or what it might do with and for them.

To introduce myself a bit: My name is Laura Cull Ó Maoilearca (pronouns she/her) and I am a white cis woman, born and raised in Edinburgh in Scotland who moved to the Netherlands in the summer of 2020 to take up my current post as the Lector for the ATD and Head of DAS Graduate School. Together with my husband, I am a parent to two children – Eoin who is 9 and Aoife who is 7. I originally training as a visual artist – in painting, sculpture, installation and performance – before doing a Masters in Cultural Studies and Philosophy and then a PhD in Theatre and Performance.

Right now, I am writing this blog post from Warsaw – where I am attending the final conference of the Change Now! project together with associate researcher and tutor on the THIRD program, Rajni Shah; THIRD Fellow, Szymon Adamczak; and Bachelors student from the ATD Directing program, Toni Kritzner. Joining us online, ATD teacher-researchers Mira Thompson and Carly Everaert will also share their beautiful, deeply personal and important research on access intimacy as part of the conference program.

Change Now! is a 3-year, Erasmus+ Strategic Partnerships project on democratic values and inclusion in performance led by Academy of Dramatic Art, Warsaw, in alliance with 4 other European schools including the ATD. 5 students from the ATD (3 Bachelors and 2 Masters) have participated in the international 2-year program that has formed the core of the research. In February, SNDO student, Ciro Goudsmit was selected to have his work Sonic Portals: A subwoofer odysseyproduced by a major Polish theatre STUDIO Teatrgaleria in Warsaw as part of the project.

Change Now! has been an intense and challenging project for all of us involved in ways that would be impossible for me to recount here. Challenging: not least because we were not doing research “about” questions of social safety, anti-racism in theatre and dance education from a comfortable distance or with the benefit of hindsight; rather, we were in conversation about these topics whilst ourselves being “in the middle” of them in our different ways: in the middle of different institutional crises about social safety, in the middle of personal experiences of a lack of safety, in the middle of growing demands for a fundamental review of the power dynamics of pedagogy and the performing arts, in the middle of cases of abuses of power, inappropriate behaviour, institutionalised racism, ableism, trans*phobia and other forms of oppression coming to light; in the middle of precarity and so on. Participation in the project has been hard for many because the project itself is not separate from but thoroughly embedded in the things that it (says it) is trying to change.

At the same time some seeds of solidarity have been planted. One aim of this Warsaw conference and the previous ones in Giessen, Paris and Amsterdam, has been to bring together staff, teachers and students from European and UK theatre schools to share knowledge about how they are dealing with questions of social safety and inclusion in their respective institutions and specific geopolitical contexts. Sometimes this is about sharing examples of policies and practices, tools and strategies and approaches to making institutions of performing arts education more inclusive, less violent and socially just. But it is also about how it feels to do this work.

Broderick Chow’s talk “To my brother, my friends, to those who are yet to arrive and those who may not; on listening, feeling, and open letters” was a multi-layered meditation about the embodied, psychological and impact of the kinds of performative change that institutions have been enacting particularly since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Inspired by books such as Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings (2020) and building from the open letter White Colleague Listen by the Network Revolution or Nothing and the response to it by Giulia Palladini, the talk articulated what it does to body-minds – particularly those of global majority and other underrepresented groups – to be part of institutions claiming they want to change but in which nothing actually changes. To be part of institutions with mostly white colleagues talking about diversity and inclusion action plans at the same time as individually practicing micro-aggressions or worse. Broderick quotes Toni Morrison:

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing”.

The form and method of the letter – writing letters, open letters, personal correspondence, the question of to whom a letter is addressed and on behalf of whom it is written – is going to be an unexpected thread through this conference program. Since the letter is also the form through which Rajni Shah and I will share our practice of thinking together, and the form of Carly Everaert and Mira Thompson’s Letters from Lying Down.

Perhaps we all gravitate toward the letter as a form that suits our desire to enact thinking-in-relation, research as relation: the letter as a form that meets the emphasis on relation rather than identity, or on identities – our sense of who we are - as always in the process of being produced by relations with other.

Letters and listening. The reference to listening in Broderick’s title – and to the performative failure of both institutions and individual white colleagues to listen - also threads together with Rajni Shah’s practice which has long been focused on listening and gathering as creative and political acts – where, as Rajni says: listening “does not just mean listening with the ears but the act of being attentive. They have recently published published some reflective writing about listening, survival, and collectivity in a special issue of the Journal for Sonic Studies and which will also appear in the Change Now publication and including a dialogue on their amazing book Experiments in Listening At the core of this work is their practice of holding listening sessions or Listening Tables, including as part of Change Now and on a number of occasions at the ATD: a practice which, to me, feels fundamental to building the new theatre schools we seek: namely, onesthat are shaped to meet the needs of all, not just those of a dominant group.

As Rajni says: What I am always trying to do with listening invitations is to allow people to be how they are, for there to be enough time and space for each person to arrive in the way they need to and for there to be an invitation for all of us to be in relationship with our own assumptions around difference.

What Rajni calls listening work is: The invitation to move away from default or dominant hierarchies of attention and modes of attentiveness. The invitation to be together with others while also listening in and respecting the wisdoms that are present through our own bodies.

Listening and letters. Rajni and I have been in a practice of exchanging letters for a few years now. The choice of the form of an exchange of letters was partly inspired by Royona Mitra and Broderick Chow’s The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy (2019). Like them, we are interested in how the process of letter writing enables a kind of dance of thinking between the conceptual and the personal and operates as a practice of listening across difference. But we listen across difference differently. As two scholars of colour, Royona and Broderick’s letters present their shared and diverging perspectives on how to address the whiteness of the UK academy. As a non-binary artist of colour and as a white cis-woman researcher, our letters try to feel their way into an intimate and honest dialogue across difference. The fragments touch on themes of messiness, grief, resistance, attentiveness, and heart-work.

We don’t know what will happen when we read them here in Warsaw.
We don’t know what will happen when we listen to them together here in Warsaw.

But we hope that it might seed solidarities too.