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The Interdisciplinary Work of Lyss Warmland.

Posts from the Essays Category

Okay, I don’t really know what the revolution will look like. To me, it’s already happening. It looks like: community gardens/ community meetings/ learning to take care of ourselves (whatever that means)/ community dinners/ debriefs/ sober spaces/ systemic institutions that are honestly willing to accept feedback/ spaces that aren’t sober/ art groups/engaging in discussion about what caring for one another looks like. The reason those things feel revolutionary to me is the focus on simultaneously taking care of myself and also actively caring for the people (and other non-human beings) in my life. 
 
Standpoint theory is a postmodern feminist assertion that day to day experience is what shapes a person’s knowledge of the world, which informs the way they experience the world and shapes their identity. Scholars such as Sandra Harding, Nancy Heartsick, Patricia Hill Collins, and Dorothy Smith have written about it, and a lot of modern-day feminism is approached according to it. You and I went to a theatre to see a play and I sat front and centre and you sat on the back, stage right. After the play, we sit down for coffee and discuss. You saw things that I didn’t see and I noticed things you didn’t notice because we had different perspectives of the performance. Similarly, if you are a straight, masculine person of colour, you are going to experience things differently than I, a queer, femme, white person. Intersectionality is the concept that identity is comprised of multiple standpoints, all of which work together to inform the experiences and identity of a person. Identity informs experience because the world we live in is one comprised of thousands of years worth of historically informed power dynamics which are embedded in defining concepts that construct social and legal systems. Comprehending identity according to standpoint theory and intersectionality can be difficult, because once you think about yourself in relation to these concepts, you’re faced with the realty that you’re privileged in some ways, and likely being systemically oppressed (oppression = systemic power + prejudice) in some ways as well. This is a complex reality to be faced with. But when you start to explore it, beautiful things happen.
 
Finding your “authentic self” is, simply, a never ending process. It’s a process full of checking in with yourself about what qualities and subject positions make up your identity, and how you perform your identity in relation to the social world. To me, finding for my authentic self means analyzing my subject positions, and it also means being honest about my capacity to actively care for both myself and others. As with many things, it comes down to balance. Being honest with myself about my capacity. This requires me to make myself vulnerable enough to be authentic with myself. It’s been a far from linear journey towards recognizing my capacity in this sense. I am a person who gives until I am depleted. This may sound like a positive quality, and in some ways, it is. But in other ways, it’s rooted in selfishness. I get off on caring or other people. Call it mommy issues, call it a saviour complex, either way, caring for others makes me feel good. But this can be problematic in that not only does it deplete myself, but it leads me to inserting myself into peoples’ lives because I identify them as needing to be cared for. 
 
This is where the concept of capacity comes in. When I get that urge to care, I ask myself: What is my capacity to engage in the situation? Sometimes, the answer is that I am feeling relatively emotionally well, relatively physically well, and I have the time to allow to providing care for someone. Sometimes, I am struggling with pain or mental health shit that lessens my capacity. Sometimes, I don’t have time. Sometimes, I weigh the amount of emotional labour the other person has contributed outward when they had the capacity and the balance is off for me. 
 
The next question I ask myself is: why do I feel that someone may benefit from my emotional labour? Sometimes, the answer is that I have skills or knowledge that may be useful. Sometimes, it’s that the person has explicitly asked for support, advice, counselling, or another form of active caring. Sometimes, the answer is that I feel compelled to do something that I think may make someone else’s life easier or happier, whether they agree or not. 
 
As always, consent is key when caring, and it’s a much more complicated concept than someone asking for emotional labour or not. Ideally, we would live in a society where consent is always given verbally and explicitly. “I need support/advice/help/validation, is it within your capacity too engage in this kind of emotional labour”. I actually have groups of friends where we do this and people will actually reflect and acknowledge whether or not they have the capacity to engage, and in what way. I feel that moving towards this kind of mutual, consensual exchange of emotional labour is absolutely revolutionary. Of course, there are situations where people (ie. me) assume predetermined consent, or where people are physically and emotionally unable to take care of themselves in a way that puts themselves or others in danger. This is where this concept gets really complicated, and I can’t even begin to think of answers. But this is where discussions come into play. The almighty exchange of knowledge based in lived experience.
 
So, now you’re thinking about authenticity, capacity, and emotional labour, but what next? I think that with this process, there eventually comes a sense of assertiveness. I understand my Self, my capacity, my needs, and I am comfortable asking for them and receiving them. There also comes a time and place where you find a sense of “okayness”. I am okay with my Self and what is happening in this moment because I am in it, and it will pass one way or another in a way that will contribute to my process and my experience of the world. Sometimes this is simple, other times, it may challenge the very essence of your sense of Self, and it feels like you’re back where you began. This concept of “okayness” is often referring to as “radical acceptance”.
 
How are these concepts revolutionary? By actively caring for both your Self and the people around you, it alters the workings of our social world. First on a personal level, and then an interpersonal one. It shifts focus from productivity, to an ethic of care, which is arguably far more complicated, but also more sustainable. This shift toward an ethic of care then expands:
 
Self -> interpersonal ->  social systems -> physical environment.
 
When we learn to prioritize an ethic of care in accordance to the capacity of each of our authentic selves, that is absolutely revolutionary. 
 

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of social justice theatre and the general concept of using art of a means of expression, healing, and communication. The first time I found myself really drawn to exploring this more, I was sitting in my eleventh grade English class with one of my favourite teachers, who was also my drama teacher. He had us read Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” out loud, and, naturally, I read for the role of Nora. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this play, it’s the story of a woman (Nora) who leaves her husband and children to find herself. In 1879, when the play premiered, it was pretty scandalous.
 
My first week of university, I walked through the University Centre, carefully scouting out the various tables all the clubs had set up. I came across a booth that said “Vagina Monologues”, and, as a women’s studies major and theatre studies minor, I was sold. I spend that year directing Vagina Monologues’ sister play, “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and a Prayer”, a collection of monologues about stories of violence against women in girls that raised money for the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guelph’s local Women in Crisis Centre. It was a heavy play. Over my university career, I performed in “The Vagina Monologues” and directed “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and a Prayer” for a second time.
 
When I moved to Port Hope, a small town on the other side of Toronto from where I’d spent my life so far, I produced two collective creation performances, “The Performance and Disability Project” and “The Performance and Disordered Eating Project”, which raised money for a local charity I have since become heavily involved with, Green Wood Coalition. These shows were created over a 5-8 week long workshopping process and a 3-5 week long rehearsal process, each with two performances at the end. The intention of these projects was to give people the opportunity to share their story, on their terms, in a way that utilized the healing potential of performance.
 
Now, I am acting as the liaison between Green Wood Coalition and the production team (lead by director, Dave Clark and producer, Mary Elizabeth Clark) of a play that Dave wrote called “To Shut the Mouths of Lions”, which is being remounted for one show to raise funds for Green Wood Coalition. From the press release: “To Shut the Mouths of Lions explores themes of social justice, fairness, freedom of expression, and family dynamics. The scene is set on a Boxing Day, when the McBride brothers gather in the home of their mother and father, a patriarch with some very specific ideas about how men (and women, for that matter) ought to be. One son, a left-leaning, gentle soul, is invited to bring his wife, while the other son, an athletic, career-oriented man isn’t welcome to bring his husband, due to their father’s heterocentric family values. The play’s title, a reference to the biblical tale of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, quickly proves its accuracy.
 
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The play follows the family’s interactions throughout this setting, revealing tensions, differences in values, varying conceptions of masculinity, gender, and sexuality, uncomfortable attempts at communication, and expressions of love. The dialogue is witty, gritty, and honest, keeping audiences engaged through a story that is both dramatic and comedic.”
 
An issue that was come up for me time and time again in the time I’ve been involved in social justice theatre has been that of trigger warnings, content warnings, and caring for both the cast members and the audience so that it is a positive experience for as many people as possible. Sounds great in theory, right? Generally, when people are involved in creating any type of performance, one of the main goals is to provide entertainment and enjoyment for as many people as possible. No, you’re never going to be able to please everyone (or provide a “safe space” for everyone) because everyone’s needs, interests, and values are different… but the goal is to give people a good time.
 
When I was involved with “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer” and “Vagina Monologues”, it was very clear that a trigger warning or content warning ought to be used, since the plays deal directly with sexual violence, include explicit descriptions of violence, and the shows were produced by an activist organization, not a theatre company. When I was involved with “The Performance and Disability Project” and “The Performance and Healing Project”, again, the content was extremely sensitive and contained specific accounts of violence, struggle, and oppression and was also produced by a charity rooted in social justice principals, not a theatre company. In both cases, actively caring for the cast, crew, and audience were central roles of the production team.
 
Navigating “To Shut the Mouths of Lions” has looked a little different, since it was originally produced by a theatre company and is not a straight-up social justice play, but rather a play containing social justice themes. This has brought up some really interesting and important discussions for those of us involved in this particular production, and has made me think a lot about trigger warnings, content warnings, and care in the context of not just social justice theatre, but theatre in general. Although the content of the play is not nearly as blatantly upsetting as some of the other more straight up social justice plays I’ve worked on were, I could certainly see watching a gay son triggering some intense shit for someone who grew up queer in a heterosexist household. There are many aspects of the play that may bring things up for people, so I feel as though it’s an important thing to consider, given a dedication to caring.
 
Initially, I called for a meeting of anyone who wanted to be involved in the planning of the remount and was joined by 3 members of the board from Green Wood Coalition, one of whom is also performing in the play, as well as one member’s sister. At that meeting, in that context, with that group of people, I brought up the idea of whether or not to include a content warning. I stopped using trigger warnings a long time ago, since I don’t think it’s useful to attempt to identify what a group of peoples’ triggers may or may not be, and instead opt for content warnings, a broader kind of heads up about the subjects approached in a performance, tv show, movie, article, essay, book, etcetera. The response from that group at that time was “yes! Absolutely include a content warning on all promotional materials and on the day of the performance!”. Honestly, even given how social justice oriented that group of people was, I was kind of surprised. I wrote up a specific, clear content warning: “This play discusses subjects such as family dynamics, various types of family relationships, heterosexism, sexism, childhood trauma. There will be peer support available”.
 
I’m the kind of person who loves to hear other peoples’ input on projects. I love collective creation, and I truly value differing standpoints. I emailed my updated planning list to all involved parties including this content warning and the plan to include it on all promotional materials and at the performance. The play’s writer and director emailed me back with some concerns that the content warning may be a bit of a spoiler and might deter people from coming to to show out of fear that it will be upsetting more than entertaining. I could see why that was a concern, and feel as though it’s really important to keep this event within the integrity of the vision of the director of a play. So I reached out to my friends and colleagues, David Sheffield and Jillien Hone, the Community Outreach Coordinator and Community Outreach Coordinator Assistant of Green Wood Coalition to get their thoughts. We had a really valuable conversation where David echoed Dave Clark’s concerns, focusing on the potential of folks not being interested in seeing the production based on their concern that it would be more upsetting than entertaining. (As usual, Jill was on the exact same page as me, coming from a similar background/standpoint regarding content warnings and social justice.)
 
This gave way to a conversation about content warnings in general. To me, content warnings aren’t about recommending that people opt out as much as the ability to consent and take care of one’s self accordingly. A content warning doesn’t encourage me to opt out of a performance/essay/book/movie etcetera about 98% of the time I see one. However, some days where I’m already struggling to convince myself that not every man I come into contact with is going to rape me I don’t always feel up to engaging with anything to do with sexual violence. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever see that performance/read that book/see that movie/read that essay…it just means that in that moment, I do not consent to engaging with something that will probably make me feel not okay. OR, maybe I really want to engage even though it will probably make me feel not okay, so I give a friend or two a heads up and ask them if they’re willing to provide some support if I do end up feeling triggered by specific content. Or I’ll make sure to engage at a time where my partner is around and I’m not home (to freak out) alone. Or I’ll accept that it’s worth being not okay because it may contribute my healing process…or simply be entertaining. And that’s valid. I think that art can be healing and that there is a place, both in healing and in art, to be triggered. But it ought to be consensual. When you look at content warnings this way, it seems to follow pretty logically to me that, as a person who is invested in caring for myself and other people, content warnings make a lot of sense in working towards a community that is caring, supportive, and autonomous.
 

I’m part of some communities where this is kind of the general consensus. I’m part of some communities where some people do not choose to ever engage with anything that they may find triggering. That’s where they’re at, and to that, I say: good for them for knowing themselves and their capacity in the moment. In Port Hope, I am situated in a rural context where content warnings are rarely looked at this way, but instead as a warning that this whatever you’re about to experience IS going to feel fucked up. If that’s the interpretation, I don’t blame people for feeling deterred by it. And if two very socially conscious men are concerned about this, you better believe I’m going to take it seriously.

When David Sheffield, Jill, and I had our discussion, we ended up realizing that what it came down to was deciding whether to prioritize keeping as many people feeling safe and okay as possible or getting people to actually come see the show. In the context of this community, that seems to be the way it is. (I’ve gotta say, nothing has challenged my activism more than settling in a small, rural town). We decided on a middle ground of sorts that we felt straddles this line decently. On the posters that are posted around town, there is a brief content warning that isn’t identified as a content warning: “This play may contain some subjects that may be upsetting to some”. On social media, there is a more specific content warning right at the very bottom of the poster.

In the press release, I wrote, “The connection between To Shut the Mouths of Lions and Green Wood Coalition is easy to see, given the shared themes between the play and the organization regarding community, communication, family-based trauma, and caring as the characters discuss issues such as poverty and equality. Given the potentially sensitive nature of some of the topics involved in the play, there will be peer support available during and after the show, as well as a question and answer period with cast and crew following the performance.” Is this too much? Will it deter people? Will it simply be seen and ignored and chalked up to some young radical because it’s a small town and enough people know I’m involved in the planning and this is how I roll? Or will it allow them to make a consensual, informed choice about what they’re about to engage in and give them the knowledge that the community in that space and time will be caring and supportive?

 

I don’t think there’s any one right answer, and this whole experience has taught me a lot about idealism and activism in small, rural communities-and especially theatre communities within those small, rural communities. The standpoint of most people here is different from my standpoint. Is it more conducive to change to get as many people to see the play (and raise as much money) as possible, or to radically care for the community in a way that will only be useful to some people at this  time? Should I leave that paragraph out of the press release before I actually release it to the press? I have no idea. But this is the way I’ve been thinking about it.

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When I was fifteen, I designed a tattoo I wanted to get to commemorate my mom. The word, green, was the name she gave me when her tumour-riddled brain refused to let her access words- including my name. The font was taken from the band that played the first show I ever went to (with my mom), and I incorporated a moon and star- we had always shared a love of the sky. It was meant to symbolize our relationship, and it included symbols of all the most formative things my teenaged brain could comprehend at the time. My dad made me wait until I was 18 to get the design tattooed on me, but he did suggest engraving it on the bench that looked on to her grave. On my eighteenth birthday, he handed me a hundred dollars, I picked up my best friend, and I finally got my green tattoo on my left forearm. Years later, my brother would get the same tattoo, tying him to us even closer than he had been to start of with.

A year and a half later, my dad and I had a huge confrontation that resulted in us barely speaking for years afterward. During this confrontation, he expressed his disapproval of some of my choices, and I told him, through salty, gasp-filled breathes, that I was an adult who was capable of making my own decisions about my life. That same summer, I got my fourth(?) tattoo by a woman who was just learning to tattoo in her apartment for $20. Three birds sitting on a wire on my left wrist, one flying away. Dad, my brother, (still at home), and mom (who left, but is still here). On my right arm, there is one lone bird, soaring. Independence. The birds are facing me- a reminder. I went straight to a concert (The Specials) and danced until I was so drenched in sweat that the bandages on my wrists fell away into the pit and the ink smudged throughout my new tattoos.

It has been eight years since my first tattoo, and my body is now home to seventeen pieces of permanent art. Seventeen stories to illustrate my life so far. Just a couple of days ago, a lovely friend graciously offered to hand-poke one of her drawings into my skin. I looked through her sketchbooks and found a thin evergreen tree with an eye for roots, complete with straight lines extending downward. I instantly felt connected to the naturalness, the resilience, the grounding, the good vibes, the introspection, the connection of this image. I thought for a while about the placement, and after discussing with another close and cherished friend, my initial intuition was confirmed, and I decided on the placement: my left forearm, parallel to my green tattoo, and so that the roots of my new tree, which faces away from me and out into the world, extend towards the lone bird on my wrist wrist.

This series of tattoos wasn’t even meant to be representative of my healing process as I have learned to grieve for my mother while simultaneously standing in my power. But it was. Really, it’s a perfect expression of how when you learn to accept the universe as it is, that’s a step towards ending your own personal suffering. I am so grateful for this process.