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Open Space - The Transformative Potential of Collaborative Creative Process

By Elsa Menendez, National Hispanic Cultural Center,
Littleglobe Affiliate Artist

There is a solidity here in the Southwest. Vast, open landscapes marked by enormous unfettered formations. Ancient rocks with intricate, sophisticated dwellings carved and shaped into them. The sudden appearance of petroglyphs telling stories of celebrations that took place before the Spanish arrived, before the Mayflower, before modern civilization. History here is uniquely present. It emerges from the environment surrounding us, haunting us, embracing us. The people who live here now are imminently aware of the ones who came before. We practice remembering them regularly. We own a kind of knowledge of the sacredness of our predecessors even if we don’t believe in sacred things. This is a place of open spaces. There is room to breathe here. Things are spread out. Unlike places on the East Coast, lush and crowded, the Southwest is a land where you have to have specific intent to get from one town to another. All of this impacts the cultures here. There are strong attachments to the past, entrenched grudges, deep loyalties, extreme betrayals, mythological senses of belonging, of surviving.

New Mexico is challenged by poverty, racism, immigration issues, internal conflict and geographical separation. It is also a place in which a remarkable openmindedness exists alongside a slower pace of living that matches the rhythms of the landscape. The vastness inspires a sense of mental openness, in general. As with all huge, unpopulated areas, there is an opportunity to create the same kind of space in our way of thinking and reacting.

It takes time here to get places, to grow things, to communicate across languages. Here the arts thrive. There is an inherent appreciation for the time and patience it takes to make things. It is a welcome fact that while working at a desk job at a university, a cultural center, a doctor’s office, you will be regularly visited by skilled artisans peddling their beautiful creations—jewelry, Kachina dolls, paintings, pottery, tamales, bread. In this, the biggest New Mexican city, you cannot throw a stone without hitting a live theatre company. We also have some of the most overcrowded prisons, some of the oldest, poorest neighborhoods in the country, and a strong gang presence. Here people’s stories revolve around water, food, culture and ancestral connections as easily as elsewhere people’s stories revolve around jobs, travel and movies. The stories in New Mexico are inextricably linked to survival.

Working collaboratively here is unusual; it stretches your technique as a theatre artist. In New Mexico, working collaboratively means something different. A combination of factors—the southwest landscape/environment, the history of conquest/dominant cultures, cultural- and situation-specific communities, complex socio-economic strata—makes community engagement especially rich and transformative.

I began creating collaborative theatre pieces in prisons more than 20 years ago, in Connecticut. The work I now do in the Southwest includes teaching and directing in a men’s prison; directing, writing and performing with a professional theatre ensemble known for its original work; and creating and implementing outreach programs at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. My mission is to work with individuals who generally do not consider themselves artists and whose voices are underrepresented in society. I want to connect with the artist inside each person and see what we can make together. The goal is to uncover the richness of the stories within us and see how together they might emerge as something artistically interesting. The hope is that in the process of creating together each person is empowered, each person experiences the thrill of personal accomplishment and along the way we discover compassion for ourselves and others. Doing this work in the Southwest has shown me the even deeper, transformative ramifications of creative collaboration.

Creating performances as a group, a team, an ensemble is a remarkably enriching experience. The act of making art in any medium involves large amounts of inspiration, experimentation, a willingness to open yourself to possibilities that might excite, repulse or even frighten you. In performance the stakes are high. Not only are you exploring a subject, turning it over and around in the light and the dark, trying new angles, but you are doing so from a uniquely vulnerable position, exposing yourself to the possibility of failure and success in front of peers and ultimately a larger live audience. As a performer you are the material the audience experiences, interprets, celebrates, evaluates, judges.

In a prison setting being vulnerable is generally unacceptable. Survival depends on how you are perceived by others—fellow inmates, correctional officers, wardens and people administering correctional programs. “Life inside” is a bizarre combination of unpredictability in a liminal state of living and a constant instability that might manifest as a lockdown, a transfer to another facility, a death, solitary confinement or something unknown. To create collaboratively in prison means making a space safe enough for an inmate to uncover his artistic self. Asking inmates to be vulnerable means enticing them, drawing them toward themselves and their own abilities, skills, ideas and playfulness with theatre games, and assignments. It becomes imperative within a working group to look for unifying experiences.

Many inmates in prisons here are Native American and Hispanic; many are recent immigrants from Mexico. They bring with them the layers of cultural history, rich with overlapping practices and conflict. When I assign them to interview each other and then share stories about themselves, often we discover the commonalities between cultures. Sharing their experiences as we look for material with which to build and shape a performance gives opportunities to listen, support, agree, challenge and appreciate. Working together to create material involves discussing and disagreeing, then problem solving. Being a team of artists means needing to rely on and support each other as we play. Experiencing each other’s skills fans pride, small successes cement our investment in the process. Standing together as we approach the final performance cultivates a willingness to unite around a common goal, to back each other up, to reflect for each other strengths and weaknesses, offer new ideas, find new things to celebrate, connect.

Recently I co-directed a piece in prison entitled “Sonando Lucido/Lucid Dreaming,” which revolved around the idea of the American Dream. In short vignettes told by immigrant inmates facing deportation, the Native American, Pakistani and Latino performers shared their hopes, disappointments and beliefs about the American Dream. Hearing each other’s personal stories had a meaningful impact on the individuals participating. Being able to identify with someone who seemed incredibly different galvanized a sense of unity within the group. Working with physical gestures, improvisation, writing assignments and staged dialogue, the inmates expressed that this experience of making a performance was igniting something new in them—a desire to keep creating, an interest in and respect for others, a realization about the choices they had made, a new way of communicating how they were feeling and what was true for them. They also found safety in working together, sharing the burden and the triumphs of the final piece. Building their skills alongside one another, encouraging each other, stumbling and picking themselves back up over and over again all strengthen their sense of their own endless potential.

The process of collaboration was transformational. While building this series of events we uncovered deep prejudices, intense challenges in communication and an extraordinary sense of kinship.

Creating collaboratively (in prisons or elsewhere), being part of an engaged group of individuals working toward a common goal allows one to dwell in possibilities that once seemed impossible. Challenged and inspired by each other, collaborators move in the direction of hope, witnessing each other’s successes, talents, skills, pain and fear, living in the idea that we can be agents of change in a world where so much is about obstacles. Collaborations allow us to delve into the challenges and triumphs of the human experience, investigating our own perspectives and making us distinctively poised to promote the idea of cultural understanding, healing and growth through artistic exchange.

In the Southwest, “community” has a different meaning. The capital of New Mexico was founded more than 400 years ago. Acoma Pueblo was founded in 1100 A.D. Certainly we play by many of the rules of modern society, but there is something else at work here. People come together to chink a newly built log cabin on the Reservation. People fight over water rights that date back centuries. Ceremonies take on the weight of delivering young people into puberty, asking the sky for rain, pleasing the earth in petition of good crops. There are forest fires and droughts. Here, hippies and cowboys, scientists and farmers, immigrant workers and professors drink at the same watering holes, converse over a plate of eggs and chopped green chile. Some trace their roots to Spanish colonial settlers, others to Sephardic Jewish settlers, many to Navajo Indians who founded some of the oldest communities in the United States. It’s complicated. It’s simple. It’s financially unstable and culturally resplendent.

New Mexico prisoners form “inside” communities based in part on cultural orientations founded in the delicate balances hard won between similar regional cultural groups on the outside. Anyone who lives in New Mexico recognizes the statewide emphasis on and respect for cultural celebrations as a way of uniting and therefore ensuring that the structural fabric of our communities remains strong. Because of our traditions, as a teacher in prisons I can reference with a certain shorthand the importance of seeking a harmonious middle ground from which we can begin to produce uniquely. When they are released, New Mexican inmates who have participated in collaborative programming have been reminded of the strength found in reaching toward others.

The cultures of this region converge to create a heightened arena for creative collaboration. There’s a history of struggling together, and perhaps no one understands struggle more than an incarcerated individual. The challenges and arguments can be intense, but examples of (and passion for) survival and growth, even with limited options, can be heard in the testimonials of people who are imprisoned as well as those who live freely. The power of creative exchange and the resulting potential for people to find unity, peace, and community strength—to find transformation—is alive and well.