Stories of Community

I am a believer in the power of community. I’ve been a member of many, lead some, watched others. I have my own peculiar relationship with the idea of being a group member, about really being in it as opposed to on the outskirts of it, but I think as I’ve aged, I’ve come to some keen and useful realizations about myself and my role in groups and how that supports the community or doesn’t.

Most recently and prior to Bedposts, I’ve been a part of a community of improvisational artists and producers in Austin that create wild and amazing stories out of nearly thin air. I began my time with the AIC in 2004, taking classes, volunteering at festivals and being a member of the musical improv troupe Girls Girls Girls that won awards and traveled around the country. I produced (with others and on my own) a festival of women comedians for six years. I was lucky enough to be a company member at Gnap Theater Projects from 2009 until this fall, performing many long form narrative pieces (my last being in the spring of 2012).

Long form narrative improv is one of my favorite things to do as a performer, in part because it is a group creating a long complex story with a beginning, middle and end, with interesting characters and story lines, and it’s all made up. It’s made up, not by one person, but by everyone. In the best cases, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the inspiration comes from, within or without, no one really controlling the story but everyone riding inside it letting us be the Story’s puppets.

The best experiences were nearly mystical, and even the worst experiences were fun, playful and freeing. There is something so powerful about allowing yourself to be taken by the Story, about just letting the Story play out its needs and ideas from the minds and bodies in the cast, and while that sounds like possession, it isn’t. It’s far more physical than meta, but still, the best shows are about what the story needs from YOU not what you need from performing. Ego into egolessness, while being aware and conscious of both.

It’s a real high place, energetically, with surges of power coming from between the cast members onstage, and off, the laughter and response of the audience, and your own personal connection to the piece. I could do a show at 10 pm and be awake and alive in my mind and body for hours after.

I’ve recently joined a new community, one that I’ll tell more tales about in the coming months. I joined because I heard a call to join, and because so much of what the community seems to stand for, matches things in me, needs I have. But something has been picking at me as I’ve been contemplating the commitment.

Last night, I had an epiphany of sorts, the kind you get around midnight when you can’t sleep, and I thought, why is the community about me getting what I want or need. What about what the community wants and needs. What in me, is needed, by it? Have I been afraid of what it truly means to be a part of one, fully unabashedly and with complete commitment ready to do for it as much or more than it does for me?

For most of the times I was a member of a group, it’s been about me to a great extent. I suppose that’s probably a normal thing, especially in our American “me” focused culture. We are supposed to find places where we fit in, where our skills get used, where we feel at home. And for a time, that’s pretty easy to match up, except for when “my” needs aren’t getting met, then well..leaving the community for another winds up being the first step taken. Or the second or third, right after, “trying to make it work.” People move, we are a transient culture, and hey, if it doesn’t feel good don’t do it, right? Find a place that does feel good, and say hello to the old groups via Facebook!

Usually, the feeling was…well, maybe I don’t fit in this community anymore and I’m not getting what I want, but how often have I thought, “And what does this community want and need from me? What about me doesn’t fit and why do I think that? What is it in me I think is “needing” something and is that actually a real need? Or is it me looking for a mirror that reflects what I want to see, instead of what is there and what is truly useful to the community?” (Which is not to say one should stay in a truly toxic or pathological relationship, just that our culture makes it easy to shrug and move on.)

I stopped performing improv after spring of this year and while I stated my reasons as being grounded in time, energy, and focus on Bedpost Confessions and social justice, all of which are very very good reasons to limit participation, that wasn’t all of it.

The last year or so I was involved with improv I had inner goals that weren’t in alignment with what the community actually was asking of me. Because I didn’t want to face what the community needed, truly needed from me, I fought harder for the role I thought I was supposed to play, for my own ego, for my own perception of self. Because of that misalignment, my work was compromised and my relationships as well.

Thinking of it in terms of the example above, I held on to the ego, and lost the egolessness that would allow me to be the role the Story needed, while not being conscious of either dynamic. So I needed to back away and review. See what needed to change.

I stopped completely in late spring after the final Ladies Are Funny Festival, and then there was a crash of sorts, and a deep reflection period that I am only finally beginning to come out of.

Odd, but I’ve felt more and more tentative about being on stage since that point, avoiding seeing shows and avoiding placing myself in positions where the old way of performing (and how my energy flowed within that performing-which at the beginning was powerful and good, at the end was selfish and draining and my own fault) would tempt me away from what I really needed to be doing, onstage or off.

I’ve read a few times at Bedposts, and emceed it, but the energy is so different now. Perhaps that’s due to simple dynamics-reading a piece is a solo act, different than an improv story with a group. Telling a personal tale requires more self be given up, rather than riding a character for energy. Hosting a show means creating and holding space for performers and the audience, being attentive to their needs in very different ways than improv felt.

Bedposts is more than entertainment, and I’ve spoken to so many audience members (not to mention performers) who seek and find healing in that space where conversations about sexuality, orientation, gender, pleasure are actually allowed. I know my fellow producers have had similar experiences. Sex is powerful magic, and sex as it’s own story is mighty indeed.

I feel the weight of that in ways I never did doing improv. I go home now after shows, tired but fulfilled, though during the late summer and early fall when I wasn’t really conscious of this shift (I was in the crash, and not able to see out of it), I numbed myself and avoided the connections all together, because the responsibility of it seemed too much.

Sometimes I miss that freedom and lightness, that energetic buzz of letting a tale take me just for fun, inside the group. I also wonder that if I had perhaps been as focused on creating and holding space for the story and the audience, if I had perhaps been taking my role as a conduit within the group more seriously for what the community needed, instead of my own desires, if I’d have had a difference experience.

I think I would have. But much of what I did in those years, free and light, was just right, just enough, and there is much goodness in trusting in pure play. It was only as I was shifting internally towards a place of deep change that the conflict came up.

What would my relationships looked like if I had been able to be who was needed, instead of pushing the community to be what I needed, or trying to fit myself into a role that didn’t fit? Is there room for both dynamics, my desires and the groups needs? How does one identify what and when those needs actually are for the individual and for the group?

And how does all of this connect to social justice? And to spirituality? And yes, to sex?

Are all these questions just facets of the same thing, the same Story looking to take us up in itself, playing with us and us with it, calling out to be heard and to have our voices say what needs to be said, in groups and alone, ego and egoless all at the same time?

Maybe so. Maybe trusting the Story is the thing.

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