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Artist, Audience and "no bullshit": A Short Ethnography (lisa)

World Stage is a performance space in South Central that provides a venue for artists to come and practice their crafts. The World Stage was founded by jazz musician Billy Higgins, and is open each night of the week with different workshops. There is a jazz night, where artists from around the globe come to test their skills. There are African drumming classes, concerts and on Wednesday evening, The Anansi Writers Workshop. The Workshop has been built to provide a space for poets and novelists to come share on open mike or if they prefer and are braver, to have their work critiqued,

The space is small, seating about 50 people in a room of about this size. Michael Datcher, the 1998 , artist-in-residence for Los Angeles County Museum of Art is the MC for every Wednesday evening. He is part of the composition at the world stage that has been formulated to ensure artistic growth and excellence.

I chose the World Stage because of my interest in this area of LA, also because of my investment in the community, and finally to try and overcome my own writers block that has been floating with me for about a year now.

I went in with my original hypothesis about WS wanting to focus on "oral communication and literature as a community building device." I found this original idea played out in several ways, but also discovered along the way, by personal experience, how emotionally challenging it is to make the goals of a community succeed even with such strictly established rules. In addition, I discovered a model for communication that can lend itself to the fragmented segments of the Black community. This model I outline here, which concentrates on the Afrocentric phenomenon of community discourse. One specifc connection to Africanisms is the notion of "Nommo" or the "power of the Word".  In West Afrikan culture there exists a meeting place, The Togu Na, relative to city hall and central to the life force of the community. All manner of business and social issues are discussed here. The Togu Na, or "House of Words" is a discourse model that the language of the Anansi Writers Workshop parallels.

The course of the Wednesday evening is as such:

From 7:30-8:30 is the workshop - a poetry workshop is where artists perform works-in-progress to the audience and when they are finished, the audience responds to the work by providing honest, positive critique. The artist is asked to take the critique with a grain of salt, using it as a method for improving their work and to think about ways in which to develop their concepts; sculpt their words, so to speak.

8:30-9:30 - is the featured reader, an established poet who is invited to the Stage to perform for a half-hour work they may have published and / or work they have been writing.

The last hour, 9:30-10:30 is an "open mike".

I chose to focus on the workshop segment of the evening as I noticed the language which structured the conversations at WS were/are concerned with clear communication with each person and developing articulation of self. Also, the dialectic provides a way for us to look at this particular communities dynamic exchange of words. The nature of the workshop itself is extremely democratic and effective, in that the rules are clearly delineated. Artist honesty and Audience response are highly respected and in fact, needed.

The MC, Mike Datcher, opens the evening by welcoming everyone. He sets up the structure for audience and artist every week. The welcome is on these lines "Greetings, greetings, everyone come on in and sit down... people people.... hey! math majors in the back of the room! We are undivided right now, we cannot move forward if we are divided!" This sentence is to get the attention of the audience immediately setting the tone for what the space is about -business, getting something done. It says something else about the black community as a whole; how, since we know the stereotypical idea that supposedly the Black community cannot create unity, this segment of us must not just sit on that idea, we must get on with it, come together in this space, and begin to build.

Next, Mike lays out the rules, which he repeats every Wednesday. "For those of you who have joined us for the first time, we have a few rules for the World Stage - the first and most important rule is the 'no bullshit rule'." The "no bullshit rule" has been specifically created so artists know their responsibility is to come to the stage with their all, with openness and honesty and as Mike puts it "not bull-shit-ting, as it were..." I found the "no bullshit rule" pervades through all of the conversations at the World stage.

Next, Mike sets up the structure for the audience responsibility - "the audience is asked to respond with the same vigor and the same honesty asked of the artist, if you feel a poet has moved you, - and when I say moves, I mean in the sense, "did it make you laugh? Piss you off? Make you cry? Make you remember your mother?" -if you feel a poet has moved you - you respond accordingly, with loud applause and vocal appreciation. If you feel they came to the stage "bullshitting", you are asked to respond with the same honesty, less applause and more critique. The audience is asked to comment if they do not understand something, comment if something bothers them, ask the artist questions, ask them to think about their wording, or why they made certain decisions in their work. Audience response is needed for the goals of this workshop to succeed.

After Mike explains the rules, an artist goes to the front of the room, walks onstage, introduces him/herself and reads their work. This is how it feels to be an artist on stage (taken from my field notes):

"I finally brought some work (and some resolve) with me to my visit to the World Stage. I sat in my usual place in the second to last row, and watched as people filed in. Mike, the M.C. "opened" the microphone for workshoppers and I immediately got up to head toward the stage, and my stomach began to turn over. I could feel people watching my face, wondering at how many times I had been there and never performed. The only thing I could think about was walking on stage and making my voice not crack, and sound clear. I thought about the piece I had chosen to workshop and wondered if the audience would understand it. I thought about after I finished, if the audience would make me read it again. I thought finally of what they would say to me when I finished and opened myself up for critique. I walked on the stage, adjusted the mike, smiled and introduced myself. The audience responded to my greeting and I felt their eyes watching my every move. I introduced the poem as a work in progress, took a huge breath and read. I read a poem written in 1995 that I have revised repeatedly. It is a poem titled "For Pia" about a dream of a witch/healing woman who was brought to America from Africa, and how she is used by the village for her talents, but remains an outcast. My fears about the poem were that it would be too dense, and hard to understand.

I remember when I finished - that moment of silence before people start clapping. I tried to gauge the applause as compared to other applause's I have been hearing over the past few weeks, but my self-consciousness crippled me in this aspect." 1

For artists, this next moment, is the moment of truth - especially if you have followed the "no bullshit rule" and exposed yourself. During the critique, you sit up on stage and LISTEN, you cannot be afraid or defensive; you must be prepared for your work to be talked about and potentially torn apart. You may be asked to repeat lines, you may be asked to read the whole poem again.

There is no set format for audience critique, only the unspoken rules not to interrupt, and never, ever to laugh or disregard what someone says as unimportant. There is no order for when the audience can speak, and there is no raising of hands unless several people try to speak at once. (ToguNa)

Mike begins the critique, he is not the "leader" of the critique, but I noticed he usually begins. This is because I feel, again, Mike would like to set up a model for the audience to adhere to. He is very distinct in the manner in which he uses his words and how he formulates his critique, very specifically positive first, then critiquing with specific examples. He wants the audience to sculpt their response as carefully as the artist who has been asked not to bullshit on the stage.

This exercise teaches an artist is how to take critique and learn from it, not to get defensive. It also teaches there is niche for artists to feel safe to be vulnerable, and provides the opportunity to develop the skills to perform under positive, Afrocentric scrutiny - Something the black community does not get to do outside the realm of spaces such as the World Stage. (In terms of non-standard language, Ebonics, patois) Another significant factor in terms of community, is that an artist can learn to understand the nature of creative work depends of the existence of others.

The reliance on audience response was a re-occurring theme in my field notes Responses varied from "never underestimate your audience" "don't be corny", "say what you mean to say", "don't be afraid to say it", "work on your images", to "you made me angry", "you need to re-work that second stanza", "think about what a cliche is", "try not to rhyme all the time".

This type of audience response is significant because it correlates so directly with "the no bullshit rule" and the philosophy of the Togu Na. As one woman I interviewed put it, in her take on the "no bullshit rule" :

"keep it real...be critical...develop a community of Writerz who help each other grow through critique/through feedback. A community of artists who trust each other to be critical cause the world is no joke...if you are comin' you got to come correct - that type thing. The people who are serious about their work love it, and criticism is something you have to get used to."

For the audience, the workshop provides a way to learn listening and critical thinking skills. This space allows members of the black community to come and share ideas, pains, joy and love with each other. The model of a self-defined, self-critical community, helping itself grow and articulate its needs is one of the reasons why the entire Leimert Park Village is so successful in its struggle to maintain itself as a site flourishing with African and AA culture.


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