I was fortunate enough, this past year, to begin both a working relationship and friendship with educator, poet, director, joker and generally fascinating person, Bobby Gordon. I count myself tremendously lucky to be able to tap you into some of the profound work he has in the making. Enjoy, as he gets back at my 5 Questions.
When I think about the directorial projects that I am most proud of, and why I feel that way, I remember this moment sitting at lunch with my friend Amy Burtaine in Carrboro, North Carolina. We are both arts-activist directors and theater of the oppressed practitioners, and were reflecting on the work that we do. She called what we do “creative midwife-ing” and I absolutely love that. Like midwives, we are helping someone else give birth to something creative that was living inside of them, be it a scene, a poem, or a song. What they create is certainly theirs, not ours, but there is something tangible and beautiful about being in the room and assisting them bring this new art into the world. There is something magical about asking the right question, giving the needed challenge or encouragement, and witnessing them seeing themselves as artists in perhaps a way that they hadn’t before.
All of the directorial projects I am most proud of, had a big element of this sensation. Of being a creative midwife in the trenches, with an individual or a group, pushing them past where they thought they could go, to create a piece of art to try and change the world around them, changing themselves dramatically in the process.
The first project that comes to mind that falls into this category is actually the project that Amy and I collaborated on together, the Sex Squad. The Sex Squad is group of university students working together in a class to learn about sexual health and arts-activism, and then create their own funny, moving, and interactive performances to take on tour to local high school students to supplement their health education. Sparked by a collaboration with the incredible South African activist, actor, and creative midwife Pieter-Dirk Uys, I founded the UCLA Sex Squad through my work at the UCLA Art & Global Health Center, and the project has since grown with groups in action in North Carolina and Georgia (where the groups are known as Sex-Ed Squads), and high school Sex Squads in Los Angeles and Mexico City.
The Sex Squad is a powerful thing to witness in action, because students dive into their own complex and challenging stories, and offer them to the audience through poetry, music, and interactive theater. The performances don’t involve professional actors with scripts about what might be important to high school students. Instead, the performances involve college students creatively grappling with their own real, ongoing issues. The college student actors are incredibly bold and vulnerable, offering themselves to the audience, and they create a space where high school students are invited to be bold as well, entering into the college student stories (using the technique of forum theater from Theater of the Oppressed) to rehearse these real life situations.
In the past students have created powerful works on a number of topics, including scenes that challenge gender inequity, stand up to homophobia, and explore trying to use a condom with a partner that doesn’t want to (and also has more structural power.) That last part is important. These sexual health situations don’t happen in a vacuum, but inside systems and structures of power, so for a young student to really be an advocate for their own sexual health, they have to challenge the systems that get in the way of that (sexism, homophobia, ageism, and the list goes on…) In the best of scenarios, the college students become creative midwives themselves to the high school students creative social change.
Theater of the Oppressed (T.O.) found me, rather than the other way around. I happened to be at work on a random Tuesday and ended up volunteering at a convening of Imagining America members. I met Brent Blair. The amazing Brent Blair. Brent is a Theater of the Oppressed joker (facilitator/practitioner) and the director of the Applied Theater Arts MA at USC. He told me about his summer intensive, a week of T.O. training. I was in the midst of a million things at work, and preparing to take a new theater piece to a festival, it was not the moment to do an intensive. But something told me I had to. After meeting Brent and hearing about the program, I felt compelled that I had to see what T.O. was all about.
That week of early mornings, late nights, and intensive T.O. workshops told me what I needed to know. T.O. opened a space for play, for wildly and collectively using art to reimagine the world and imagine social change. I wanted more, so I enrolled in the M.A. program which I completed in 2012 and T.O. has been a part of my life ever since.
In my own life, T.O. has been a place to ask questions, to unpack my own privilege (as a heterosexual white American male) and attempt to stand in solidarity with others battling a variety of oppressions without attempting to ride in on any white horses. I’m reminded of the words of Lilla Watson the Indigenous Australian activist, who said, “if you’re here to save me, then you are wasting your time. But if you’re here because your liberation is inextricably linked with mine, then let’s work together.” T.O. is the place in my life for letting go of any savoir complexes I might have and showing up to work together with others. At this moment, in the wake of all of the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, and in the midst of protests and marches, learning to do this work in solidarity is crucial.
Theater of the Oppressed is all about finding the next question, and because of that it requires constant curiosity. A joker has to be genuinely curious about things, about people, ideas, and opportunities. Ultimately, this curiosity is more important than a desire to draw conclusions. Because there is no finish line for social justice work, or arts-activism, in the real world, finding conclusions is not really so useful. A conclusion means the work is done. But this work is never done. What is useful, is fining a way to celebrate the victories that come, in order to refuel for tomorrow.
I do two things to keep refreshing myself and the groups I work with. 1) We make time to celebrate, either with meals, parties, or events where we are together for no purpose other than to be together and honor what we’ve accomplished. And 2) reflection is a part of the ongoing process. We often look at reflection as something that happens after a project. It is like an epilogue, and because of that, when non-profits are strapped for time and money it is often the first thing that people let go of. However, if you look at arts-activism as an ongoing cycle, then reflection becomes a crucial step in the middle of a cycle where you learn the lessons from the past and prepare to make the next cycle as successful as possible. Reflection becomes the crucial first step in a program happening again, and being even better the next time around. If there isn’t time for this, then a group is limiting it’s potential for creativity and growth.
Again, things find you. I was working at the UCLA Art & Global Health Center when my amazing boss David Gere told me that he was bringing South African artist/activist/satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys to lead a theater workshop on humor and HIV, and would I like to be his assistant. What followed was two weeks of sponging. Pieter’s use of humor to break apart taboo and create spaces to have conversations about the things that frighten us blew my mind open. It was Pieter’s inspiration and methodology that led to the founding of the UCLA Sex Squad.
I’ve found that the issues in sexual health are so deeply intersectional, that you end up talking about a wide variety of issues. To have a full conversation about sexual health, you have to talk about gender, sexism, homophobia, race and racism, ageism, and much more because the situations where these issues come up are not in a vacuum. All of these issues are at present and at play, and it is more a matter of trying to be aware of how.
In my own life, as an artist and educator, I’ve been really interested in masculinity because of the strange way I was raised. My parents raised me in an environment where, as a young boy, I had to talk about my feelings. I knew how to share, how to cry, and when I was in social situations with other boys and issues came up, I’d talk about my feelings. This last part didn’t make much sense to the boys around me who’d internalized that boys don’t do that. Their reactions taught me that something was wrong with me.
And then I found slam poetry. I found Youth Speaks, a fantastic youth literary organization, and not too long after that I found myself on a stage sharing poetry. People weren’t making fun of me for sharing my feelings. They were applauding. In art I found a space to challenge the gender norm and it felt like fully being myself in public in a way I hadn’t in a long time. It felt like being seen. And heard. For who I really was.
My art and activism is in large part about queering masculinity, about opening up a space where men can be different. Where men can feel, and express, question, and not need to subscribe to a system that gives them (us) power, but at the expense of everyone else, and through a hegemonic limiting of what it can mean to be a man.
I should probably say now that I was born into a house where the taboo of sex was not so taboo. My dad was a retired adult film star and my mom (a marriage and family therapist) used to do therapy with pre-orgasmic women, talking them through exploring their bodies. I was taught that sex can be a good thing. I was taught to have a “normal” and healthy relationship with sex, and this made my sisters and I very fucked up in the world.
In 2010 I began working on a one-man show called Debbie Does My Dad, which explored my experiences of growing up with a porn star dad, and coming into my own sexual identity. I knew my dad to be sweet and sensitive. Was he that? Or was he really the stereotype our society has of male porn stars? And if he was sweet, and knew what people thought of porn stars, why would he choose that? And what did all of this say about who I was?
Ultimately in my own sexual experiences, I’ve found that it was a rich and valuable gift to able to talk openly. You have better sex, for one. If you can say what you want, then you just might get it. And if you can ask what the other(s) want, then you’ve got a much better shot at providing it. Silence benefits no one. All it does is reinforce this status quo where men are supposed to know what to do, and women are supposed to go along with things, and the heteronormativity of society makes it so that’s it’s only men with women in this example. If there’s anything I’ve learned about the status quo, is that it sucks and needs changing. For me, gender, sex, and sexual health is a crucial arena for this change. I’ve found it in my art, and in my life, and it keeps getting better because of it.
In doing work on the topic of sex, I find that international boundaries are of less importance than cultural ones. Even within one city there are a wide range of communities with vastly different cultural norms around sex and taboos. What can you say? What can’t you say? What can you do? What can’t you? And why?
As a cultural field worker, I find the question mark to be my most important tool in navigating this challenge. I mentioned privilege earlier. In many instances, it is my privilege as a white male American with the right business card to be able to travel somewhere and do a workshop. And then it’s my internalized privilege that would have me believe that I know what the workshop participants need, even though their lives are vastly different from mine in so many ways.
It would be really easy for me to go into community unaware of all of this and knock things off the shelves with my unpacked privilege. And I have to admit that I probably have done this on numerous occasions. Ultimately, all this does is reinforce a system that privileges white American men, and does nothing to challenge that or seek equality and liberation.
However, if I can come in with questions, the relationship shifts. Privilege is still very much in the room, but there is least space for something different to take place. I am able to be full of care, but not careful. I’m not walking on egg shells, trying not to offend or to pretend like I know things I don’t. I am trying to own my not knowing with grace and playfulness. I am an outsider in a community, state, or country, and I have to own that fact, and be real about why I’m there. Who invited me? And I have to be transparent if I don’t know anything about what it is like for the people who live there. What I do have to offer, are my skills as a T.O. practitioner, an artist, and everything in my tool kit as a human being.
I have to give up the reigns of where things are going, and be open to helping the group discover where it wants to go. If and when I can do that successfully, the what takes place in the room is a fuller collaboration between the workshop participants as the artists and myself as a creative midwife.
Bobby Gordon is an arts-based activist working with theater of the oppressed, devised theater, spoken word poetry, and an enduring belief in the power of laughter. Earning his B.A. from UCLA in World Arts & Cultures and an M.A. from USC in Applied Theater Arts, Gordon is the founder of the UCLA Sex Squad, an activist sexual health theater troupe, and co-founder of the Melrose Poetry Bureau, a collective that creates live, interactive poetry installations. Currently, Gordon is researching arts-activism in various forms throughout Brazil, while remaining active as the Director of Special Programs for the UCLA Art & Global Health Center.
Bobby is currently building a study abroad program for UCLA students to study Theater of the Oppressed in Rio. Also he is actively developing the Melrose Poetry Bureau, a collective he co-founded with Nayeli Adorador, manifesting live and interactive poetry writing.