Calling a gathering “the welcoming” is a really interesting choice from a facilitation standpoint. It seems to describe the intended purpose of the experience, but raises some further questions. Who is being welcomed, and who is doing the welcoming? Where are people being welcomed to? What are people being welcomed to? The answers to these questions (both conscious and unconscious) shape the choices made by the facilitators, which in turn shape the gathering that emerges. In the context of performance, we call these facilitators artists. Unsurprisingly, all of these questions echo across my own theater community (and, I suspect, the performance world as a whole) when considering the white, American structures and systems that make up “the industry.”
For that reason, then, I was particularly excited to be heading to The Welcoming, a performance project held at the Jones Institute) because it was produced by a group of artists whose approach to performance-making engages with those very questions. For You, founded by Erika Chong Shuch, Rowena Richie, and Ryan Tacata, is “a performance and social practice group” that has been producing work since 2017 that “brings strangers together for shared, intimate encounters.” The first time I learned of them, they were doing something that felt quietly radical to me at the time—choosing a single individual, taking the time to get to know them, and creating & sharing an artistic response specifically for that person, in whatever form suited them best. The specificity of purpose is what drove the creative act, as opposed to what I’ve experienced in my professional career (ie. creating inside of a subscription model).
During the pandemic, For You partnered with the San Francisco-based non-profit, Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly (LBFE) whose mission is to “bring elders who live with social isolation out into the community.” The relationships and stories that emerged from this partnership have been shared with the public through a series of events and programs including more than 75 elders and artists from around the world. The most recent of these sharings is The Welcoming—a series of shared, public rituals that builds off the relationships formed during the pandemic. I actually attended the very last of the seven evenings at The Jones Institute, perhaps evidenced by the high percentage of participants that night who seemed to have some personal connection either to the series, to the artists involved, or both.
It is all of this that led up to me, walking towards what appeared to be a private home around the corner from the Painted Ladies in Hayes Valley, feeling curiosity & anticipation for what I was going to experience, tinged with some slight social anxiety. If nothing else, I knew the night was not likely to involve sitting in the dark for two hours watching something passively. What it would involve would likely require a bit more engagement and energy, but I was ready. First things first, Alison Cao (an intern at the company) greeted me outside the house and invited me to wave for a Polaroid photo. I then entered the house-—because that is what The Jones Institute really feels like, but instead of bedrooms there’s galleries—to be welcomed by Erika, one of that trio of founders. She promptly took me down the hall, pointing out various objects of interest, and introduced me to other participants who had arrived. It was a small crowd- about 20 people- with the sense that most people present were already a part of a community based around For You or the artists in it. My social anxiety dialed up, and I was reminded of the first time I went to drinks with co-workers at a new job, convinced the whole time I was going to call someone the wrong name or otherwise put my foot in it. When offered a cocktail or mocktail, I gladly accepted the former.
Speaking of refreshments, one of the forms of artistic response featured throughout the evening was a menu of “tastes,” prepared in The Jones Institute kitchen and served by Jack Vanchiere (Assistant Chef for Headlands Center of the Arts). Each taste corresponded to a different section of the hour-long experience, heightening the dinner party atmosphere of the evening. The program moved from the backyard to the dining room, and included monologues about fantastic deaths, a meditation on how one can return after death as a certain feeling, a game of charades, an activity of creating Rorschach-like images with our own names, and an exercise in which we buttered the bread of our neighbor, all led by Erika, Ryan and Rowena. I connected most with a group movement ritual (that I think was a seance?). We all saw around a large table, mimicking Erika’s actions. First, we waved to someone across the table. Then someone else. We reached to grab someone’s hand. We repeated a series of gestures. It felt really good to do, and it felt really good to do it together.
The refrain throughout was “I knew a man/woman” referring back to the elder who inspired that particular activity. There was an indirect relationship between the person who inspired what we were experiencing and what we were experiencing. It would be difficult for me to describe the individuals who inspired which thing and how. It was clear, though, that Erika, Rowena, and Ryan had been deeply impacted by those individuals, and this night was an opportunity to witness that.
At the end of the one-hour program, we each received “a takeaway,” consisting of a warm ginger cookie and a Polaroid of one of the other participants, all wrapped up in paper from the Rorschach activity. I took my takeaway, bid farewell to a handful of folks (mostly those I had already knew), and made my way home, unsure about the larger impact the evening had on me.
Did I feel the energy of welcome from our facilitators? Absolutely.
Was I delighted by the playfulness of the format, and did I feel inspired by the creativity and joyful play on display? Confirmed yes, and yes.
Did I head out that night carrying a sense of intimacy with my fellow participants or connection with the elders to whom this was an artistic response? I can’t say that I did. I wonder if other participants did?
I keep coming back to The Welcoming’s purpose: “We want this evening to bring strangers together for a moment of togetherness, to create a situation where people surrender to each other and surrender to a moment of beauty.” What I felt a lack of, in this purpose and in the evening itself, is the specificity that first made For You’s work so exciting to me in the first place. Familiar templates of producing tend to return in the absence of that specificity, particularly the template in which the act of artistic expression eclipses the actual experience people have (or one might say, their experience of belonging). It seemed to me that The Welcoming requires some level of familiarity with performance art to “get it,” as well as a particular level of physical ability. I wonder how many of the elders that LBFE serves and who inspired this response would have felt welcomed in that space.