Twelve students have been hard at work this week putting the finishing touches on an original performance piece to be shared Saturday, Sept. 20, in Tyler-Tallman Hall (Sloan Music Building). The students created the devised piece under the direction of renowned playwright and director Joan Lipkin, and in it they explore a subject many find difficult to talk about: Sex, baby.
Davidson welcomed Lipkin and her team for a week-long artist residency with financial support from the Bacca Foundation. She is the producing artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company in St. Louis, Mo., and has worked extensively with diverse populations on collaborative and devised performance pieces. Professors Ann Fox (English, Disability Studies) and David Wessner (Biology) applied for the Bacca Foundation grant to bring Lipkin to Davidson in concurrence with the exhibition Re/Presenting HIV/AIDS and in compliment to Fox's and Wessner's transdisciplinary Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offering, "Representations of HIV/AIDS," which explores how HIV/AIDS has been portrayed in diverse genres through the perspectives of the scientist and the literary critic.
The performance piece, entitled, "Let's Talk About Sex, Baby," incorporates popular music, dance and true stories of student experiences. Created by members of the Davidson community for members of the Davidson community, it directly speaks to critical issues surrounding sexuality that students face today.
"We are thrilled to have Joan back on campus," Fox said. "She is known for doing work with a community, for that community, and we really wanted the work to come from the students. The cast involved in this project is so diverse, and the students' voices are front and center."
We talked with Lipkin about her approach to making a devised work, her residency, her goals for the project and her time working with the students.
Q: You wear a lot of hats, as a playwright, director, activist, educator and social critic. Tell me about the intersections of those roles in your life.
A: I'm an intensely curious person and feel that I have different skills and experiences to bring to a project, and often, I don't see the reason to keep them separate. Often, they enhance each other.
It excites me to work at the intersections of so many of the things that concern me. I'm a writer who's not afraid to get in the room and direct her own work, for example.
I especially like to watch people grow. And that's what this kind of work has the potential to do.
Q: What is the process for creating a devised work, like the one the students will perform Saturday? How do you begin, and what are the processes that result in creation of the final performance piece?
A: The first thing you have to do in any process is to create a sense of both safety and possibility and also playfulness so that people feel like they can come forth and engage. I do this with silly theatre games, movement, dance and singing. We do story circles or paired sharing or writing prompts to generate text out of our experiences and that can often be the building blocks for the performance.
For me, a project like this is exciting not just in terms of the end product, but really in terms of the process. I like to watch people grapple with issues, whether it's their own personal growth or understanding a topic or material more deeply.
This is a devised work, which is to say there's a concept, and we come together to make it happen. It doesn't exist-it cannot exist-without this particular group of people who bring it into fruition. And in this instance, we have done it in a week.
The process is compressed, it's intense, it's stimulating and it's very doable. And while it might be nice to have more time to work on things, the tight timetable doesn't allow us to get too precious. We jump in and bond and try things. We have less time to get self-conscious or critical in unproductive ways, although of course, I always bring a focused eye to the work.
I come in with a toolbox of techniques. I have been doing this kind of work for a long time. I come in with an idea, and then in a sense, I'm a jazz performer. That is to say, I listen to the feelings and the energies in the room, and I'm willing to change my direction on a dime.
Q: Discuss the ways in which the group experience preparing an original work differs from the experience of a group preparing an established piece?
A: Unlike devised work, established scripts often impose a prescribed notion of who can be in something. So what you see is less representation of women, of minorities-racial, sexual and physical minorities-in the American theatre because people are auditioning to fit a role.
Devised work is inherently democratic. It offers the possibilities for participation that other forms don't always offer. You can cut the cloth of the piece to fit the interests and abilities of the participants.
And there's something about coming together with a shared purpose in a mutual exploration of creativity that is intimate and socially and psychologically affirming.
I absolutely believe in the collective wisdom and possibilities of the group-whoever the group might be-and I have worked with many different kinds of groups all over the country. I know that when you get a group of people in a room and you set up conditions that make it possible for them to feel safe, actually people really do want to talk. They want to share their perspectives, to be heard and to connect with other people.
I make it very clear that they own the authority of their own experience. And with this whole range of experiences, there is tremendous respect in the room for people's different positions on issues.
When you can set up those conditions to have that kind of respectful exchange, it is a microcosm of what we could be looking at in society-of how we can listen to and appreciate difference. I don't mean tolerate difference; I mean appreciate it. And to appreciate that diversity is a natural part of life, and a welcome one.
Q: How does this project complement the exhibition and MOOC about different representations of HIV and AIDS?
A: The way this project relates to the MOOC and the art exhibit has to do with sex. Sexuality in its various forms is both a primary, core aspect of our identity and yet one of the most difficult things to discuss, particularly given the puritanical roots of our culture. And yet it is essential that we learn to communicate about it for both physical and psychological safety.
So what better place to do a project like this than on a college campus, where people are at the beginning of their adult lives, and there are all kinds of things that they need to be able to talk about and negotiate.
Q: Has there been anything that stuck out to you or surprised you during this residency at Davidson?
A: It didn't surprise me that people opened up – I'm used to this type of work and if you have a certain level of experience, you know of certain ways to facilitate that. What surprised me was how open people were about how they identified themselves sexually, and the ways in which gender expression and sexual identity are really changing.
It's fascinating and encouraging because there's been a lot of damage and repercussions from certain repressions of gender roles or from the rigidity and narrowness of societal expectations.
Q: Are there aspects of the process that were unique as a result of the Davidson community? Are there unique ideas expressed in the piece, which was made by members of the community, for the community?
A: I love Davidson. This is not my first visit. I've been here a couple of times. I love the history of the college, the civility and the graciousness of the community, and the students are very smart. When I visited a class on HIV last week to talk about one of my plays that dealt with that subject matter, I was blown away by their literary analysis skills-they are so smart and insightful and sensitive.
What I wanted to do in my most recent visit to the campus as a Bacca Artist-in-Residence was to make something specific to the Davidson community that's very relevant to them, and I wanted the students to claim it. I didn't want to do something generic. These are their experiences.
Watch a promo video of Let's Talk About Sex, Baby.
Read a full bio for Joan Lipkin.