Janet Schlapkohl, founder and managing director of Combined Efforts Theatre of Iowa City, wrote this opinion piece in response to the Theatre Cedar Rapids Tribes casting controversy. Combined Efforts is a visual and performing arts company with a mission of purposeful collaboration between artists with and without physical and mental challenges.
I have been thinking a good deal about the social organization of responsibility and obligation.
Questions about compliance with obligations to serve all the members of a community are particularly compelling when the matter is of great importance to those who are traditionally marginalized and isolated. What is at stake is enormously fragile and exceedingly precious; the opportunity and possibility of connection. When members of an organization meet their obligations in a perfunctory or ill-informed way, the consequences are great; isolated members are forced to continue a compromised participation. The difference in offering opportunities to everyone and offering opportunities to those who routinely have not or cannot access them is a difference in degree not kind. The time and effort spent on inclusion in the beginning can result in decades of collaboration. The initial period when consequential decisions are made is of vital importance.
If we are surprised by the intensity of the reaction when we misstep it is really a perfect indication of our own ignorance. It is a measure of our inability to accept someone else’s values.
I have also been thinking about individual responsibility. The subtle differences in how people perceive their obligations to others in their community are key to understanding if high-quality collaboration can be achieved. High-quality would mean invested involvement where the stake holders are those whose issues, culture, and identities are being examined, and in this instance, portrayed.
Our responsibilities are continuously mediated by our own needs and by our perceptions of others. We impose our own standards and codes and then design strategies to avoid information that contradicts our view. We cling to agency and can’t see when we are denying it to others. We want to control the narrative and define the roles. We participate without thought in a formidable social control system. We socialize with people who do not challenge our place in that system; friends who offer phrases of support and don’t correct us even when they should.
I have been thinking that nothing can ever be done because the disparity is just too great. It’s too late, it will always be with us.
I was thinking that.
But then I wondered, what if we just listen to people and watch them and grab on to every moment when they are better than our collective natures?
What if we do that?