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Episode 24: David O'Fallon - Power Plays
Episode 244th May 2021 • Change the Story / Change the World • Bill Cleveland
00:00:00 00:42:13

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CSCW EP 24: David O'Fallon - Power Plays

Please know that this episode contains descriptions of war that include violence and psychological trauma. We endeavor to do our best to engage these hard stories with care and respect.

Please also be aware that there is a lot of hope, healing and optimism contained herein. We hope you will join us whenever you are willing and able.

Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes

Of what use are the arts in these turbulent times?

I think one of the most powerful technologies we have is to actually be in the presence of another person. ...We could go on about how many friends you have on Facebook, how many things you posted on YouTube, how many hits on Instagram and so on, it takes a different kind of courage to be in the room with the person, sharing your story, or listening carefully, looking somebody in the eye, there's a physical presence that you must deal with, and that for me has always been the power particularly of theater,...


Why humanities and vets?

But if you've been in a room with men and women, who've been not all it in combat, but just in service in this almost invisible war, that's still going on, as you and I are talking today and they're not seen as fully human or they think once with a fly over at a football game or something yeah, the power of literature of storytelling of theater of music of creation is unbelievable. it's deep and it's strong and its essential. You want to go back to basics. You asked about, story and in some ways these men and women live the power of story.


What is the value of stories in this hard boiled cynical world?

So, I think the struggle has always been who gets to tell your story. Do you believe you can tell your own story? And a lot of people start out by saying, I ain't got nothing to say. I got no story to tell. I don't do anything. Who am I? So that's where all of us who tried to work in the arts world have had to create a vessel if you will, and the structures of support and encouragement, so that in fact, a person can say," I got this poem I wrote, I've been keeping it underneath my underwear drawer. Maybe I'll say it out loud." And they do, and they discover a voice.


Why are new stories particularly important now?

...the fact is the world is changing and we have dominant stories right now, some of which are being told by genuinely evil people that denigrate others, that build walls and shut people out, and hurt children in cages along the border, because they're not seen fit to enter our country. Who's telling that story? Who gets to tell that story? And there are many voices trying to tell another different story, and I'm going to be very blunt right here. I think those who are wishing and working to create a nation that's based on patriarchal white nationalism, they will fail. That world is impossible, but they can do a great deal of harm as they push that narrative,


CSCW EP 24: David O'Fallon - Power Plays

Transcript


Bill Cleveland: David O'Fallon builds things. Theater sets, theater companies, 12-foot puppets, visionary art schools for teen artists and community musicians, theater programs for veterans from the Afghanistan and Vietnam wars, and more. The through line for David's wonderfully twisty journey is a couple of simple, but powerful questions.

What is the story you want to tell? and how can it be shaped and shared with your community? Which of course are also the central questions we ask all of our guests.

Please know that this episode contains descriptions of war that include violence and psychological trauma. We endeavor to do our best to engage these hard stories with care and respect.

Please also be aware that there is a lot of hope, healing and optimism contained herein. We hope you will join us whenever you are willing and able.

This is Change the Story, Change the World, a Chronicle of Art and Community Transformation. I'm Bill Cleveland.

 

Part One: Relations.

BC: So, I'll just begin with the foundation setting, which is, your work spans many decades as does mine, and over that time you have done many things, and however you want to describe it, describe your work in the world.

David O’Fallon: Yeah. Thank you. It's a great question. I think my work in the world is trying to be a person who actively imagines and creates the narratives that keep us together and take us forward, rather than those that just tell us how screwed up everything is, how bad off we are and why we can't get along. So the bottom line is always looking for connections and relationships and bridge building, and every setting that I've been in.

BC: What would be a concrete version of that?

DO: I'll give a couple of stories that go with that. So, I am in graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia, and my wife, Ann and I are living at the corner of Broad and Allegheny, which if anybody knows Philly, it's North Philly. At some point I discovered, so I'm appreciative of the work we're doing at Temple, I went there to work with a particular guy, Arthur Wagner, who had a way of looking at theater because my background is in theater, creating and acting and directing. [So], I walked down broad street one day to discover the Freedom Theater, which is an all black theater company, and I walked down the basement steps to discover the director of the theater, the guy who was keeping it all together, and they basically said, is there anything at all that I can do here? Because I don't want only to be within the confines of temple university and academia. He looked me up and down this kind of a younger than white guy and said maybe can you build stuff? And I said yeah, I can build sets and stuff. So, I sawed lumber and built sets, and then they had me involved in improvisations where I always got to be the Philly cop. ‘Cause the cops were white guys and they said, we kinda like you, but you're not mean enough to be a Philly cop. So, I ended up being in shows and directing shows at the freedom theater in Philadelphia as the only white guy involved at all.

After a while, Ann and I moved up to Germantown a little further North and we're going to church called the first United Methodist church of Germantown which had its own issues, and we invited in black theater companies to co-create productions with. The first United Methodist church in Germantown. So, connecting, bridge building, people working together. The point was working together by creating work, doing theater, building things, sharing stories, collaborating, that was the work, it always has been the work, If you will, so that's one concrete example.

BC: Yeah. So actually, I have a question for you about work. We live in an increasingly abstract world not just abstract in concepts and ideas, but also even in the means by which we communicate in the way in which we disseminate our stories.

The reason I'm asking you this question is because I've had similar experiences of recognizing that the closer you are to literally putting the shovel in the soil together, the closer you can come to the combination of trust and truth that is essential for any relationship to get built. Is that your sense, is that a core belief that you have in your work?

DO: I think it is, and I think one of the most powerful technologies we have Bill is to actually be in the presence of another person. And to your point about abstractions, we could go on about how many friends you have on Facebook, how many things you posted on YouTube, how many hits on Instagram and so on, it takes a different kind of courage to be in the room with the person, sharing your story, or listening carefully, looking somebody in the eye, there's a physical presence that you must deal with, and that for me has always been the power particularly of theater, but of many other art forms in which you have to be present to each other.

So that, and encourage, and I think, hanging out in the performing arts world, which is my home base led to other things, different groups and encounter groups of one kind or another that asked for, or a similar kind of courage of a physical presence with each other and being open to another person.

BC: There's something akin to what I would call old school, spiritual practice in what you described. Literally, a congregation or a group of people being together, the laying on of hands, the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that humans needed in order to survive for most of human history.

DO: And we still need it. And I'll share another story about these connections; and this is a very tangible story. So, I recently left being the president of the Minnesota Humanities Center. And so, when. I took the position. They said, “What is your definition of the humanities?” And I said, “I don't have one, and I won't spend any time on it because that's a big academic question.” I said, “I'm coming to you, the Humanities Center, because I really care about how we get along in the world and how we connect with each other.”

But here's the concrete example of that. My first board meeting, this was in Minnesota, so it's November. So it's cold and a young woman walks into the boardroom in a puffy winter coat with her arms crossed in front of her and says, “yeah, I, like I'm all for the humanities center and I get it, we should speak for those who have been marginalized and left out, and we should make sure that every voice gets heard, but I want to know new-president, what do you think about the veterans voice?” And I said, “absolutely. We are in the longest war in our history, and it's fought by the fewest number of people”, and she took off her puffy winter coat and she said, “okay, I'm going to stay on the board”. That was a woman named Corinda Horton, who was a combat veteran from Desert Storm.

BC: Wow.

DO: And we went on then to create a Veterans Voices Program at the Center by first meeting with veterans to say, “is there anything that we can do that would actually matter to you, because there's a thousand veterans’ programs” and they basically said in various ways, “we want to be treated as a full human”. One of them said to me, “if one more person says, "Thanks for your service", I'm going to deck them because they have no idea. They have no idea what you asked me to do, and I want to be very personal because this is a story that I carry with me”.

So we were having the usual kind of meeting that, Bill you've been through. large pieces of post-it notes on the wall, and markers, and it’s a designing, thinking, planning, meeting in a conference room and they're all veterans except one or two of us.

And one of the guys in the corner, a man heavily tattooed, is bouncing around and swaying back and forth and people go over to them and say, “you doing okay? How are you doing?” And he says, “yeah, I'm okay. I'm here. I'm okay. That was day one. Day two, we always had a good breakfast, so I walk into the breakfast meeting the next morning and Richard is there and I say, “Hey Schmidty”, which was his sort of nickname, “Schmidty”. I stick out my hand. “I'm really glad you're here. I didn't know if you'd be coming back.” He says, “I'm not shaking your hand”, and he gave me this bear hug that I thought would crack my spine he said he's an Afghanistan combat vet who was Medivac-ed out. And he said, “You never go into battle without your battle buddy. Never. And I'm back now. And I got different battles, and now the humanities are my battle buddy, and I trust what you're doing here.”

And that program grew and grew with an authenticity, and I hired veterans to run it. And there were still people I think there might still be people at the humanities center who don't get it. “Why are we connecting the humanities with veterans?” But if you've been in a room with men and women, who've been not all it in combat, but just in service in this almost invisible war, that's still going on, as you and I are talking today and they're not seen as fully human or they think once with a fly over at a football game or something yeah, the power of literature of storytelling of theater of music of creation is unbelievable. it's deep and it's strong and its essential. You want to go back to basics. You asked about, story and in some ways these men and women live the power of story.

BC: So, David Talk about some of the specific aspects of that program that got designed with those veterans?

DO: A couple of things happened in the program. The key one is probably that we created a particular approach to theater in which these men and women helped to tell and shape their own story, with an arc to it, like, “why did you join up? Where were you?

What was going on? What were the promises made to you when you signed up and then what did you go through? What did you experience? And now you're out, and what has that been like? How has the transition affected them?” And they’d perform in the black box at the Guthrie, and in sites and cities around Minnesota, each telling their own stories. So, they're not quote unquote acting. They're saying, this is my story, and one man, I'll just use his first name Richard told the story of being in combat in Afghanistan and the convoys could only run at night. And they're out running at night and he's in an armored vehicle and he's manning the 50-caliber machine gun, and it's after curfew. So, no civilian should be on the road, but there's a car behind the convoy. So, Richard tells his crew chief. "There's a guy back there with headlights", and the guy says basically "Give them a little warning shot." He did, and the car just kept coming. "Well give them another one." And the car just kept coming.

Richard said, "What am I going to do? "And the guy said, "Take them out. "So, Richard did, and the car flipped over when it, because the ditch, the convoy stopped, they went and it was a mom, and dad, and two kids trying to get home at curfew.

Now Richard had never told that story until he's telling it in public. Here in a theater coach and understanding people sitting there. Richard said, I came home, and I stood on the Third Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi with a six pack, just thinking to hell with it. I got nothing. What am I here for? But he said, “I'm here tonight. So, I obviously didn't do that”.

Then after all the stories have been told, and each person is now standing on the stage, you can imagine there's six vets there. Some go back to the Vietnam era. Some are right now, men and women. And so, a man in the audience near the end says “what do you want from us? What can we do?” And Richard says, “I want you to think about what you're asking us to do”. So, there's another connection made. and Richard just got married a week or so ago.

BC: Wow. What a wonderful thing!

DO: Yeah, I'm really happy to say. And his life hasn’t been easy, and Schmidty's life hasn’t been easy, and we're not making it easy for him, even though there's all kinds of public praise for veterans and so forth. But again, connections, relationship and being in the room with Corinda Horton, from Desert Storm, or Richard and Schmidty from the war right now.

 

Part Two: Original Stories.

BC: So, one of the things that has really marked your entire life is this relationship to theater and performance, and you just described a powerful moment. What is it about theater, the practice, its history, people's involvement in it, professionals nonprofessionals, what is it about theater that is deep enough for people like the veterans you just described to employ it, use it, take it seriously, and obviously benefit from it? What's going on there?

DO: I think there's a bunch of things and I think they're important to where we are right now and a culture and a climate as well. In that particular instance, what was powerful were men and women shaping their own story, coming to grips with their own personal narrative and then having the courage, and it took a lot of courage to put that out there in public. I think almost every woman had a story of sexual exploitation or being challenged. So, to share that in public. So the point is I am shaping my own life through shaping this story.

As a young man, I was lucky to get into academic theater early. I was teaching in college when I was like two years out of college. I was always drawn to the creation of original work, and that's one thing that took me up to Northern Vermont work with Bread and Puppet Theater, which was a formative experience because that's all-original work, being created on the spot, with Peter Schuman and the gang up there. And I think the challenge has always been to discover the way that theater can articulate the stories of people who might not be represented the 44th time that you performed Twelfth Night, or how many Hamlets have you seen? And I love that. I go to those plays they're powerful. But for me, the performance has always been part and parcel with whose story is being told in what venue, how can it be shared? How can we shape it? And that of course led me back to Minneapolis, to a job where I helped found a theater that is still going 45 years later, that always is creating original work. Every story that we do is coming up from, you could say below over from the side or some other way sometimes informed by other works, but most often about people trying to speak their own story into the great noise of our time.

 BC: That company was the 45-year track record is the world-renowned Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, whose work is very much influenced by bread and puppet, and whose annual Mayday parade and festival is a beloved twin cities institution.

BC: Most people aren't really familiar with theater that is tapping into the stories of the communities in which the theater is being made. What is that in particular? When in fact you are, as theater makers, both witness and steward, of an evolving and sometimes a very tenuous community story?

DO: Yeah, let's expand this beyond theater for a moment because whether you are the mural makers in Philadelphia, which has this incredible mural tradition (Mural Arts Program) Those are all original. They're not copying somebody else's work, whether they've got Martin Luther King on the wall, or Frederick Douglas on the wall, or the neighborhood kids on the wall, the murals and Philly are original work, and here's one thing they have in common with...