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The FEAR Project

Stages of Resistance
Five actors, dressed all in blue, black, or white, each wearing some kind of head covering (hats, hoods, and hijabs) crowd onto two wooden chairs onstage, looking scared.

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series through May 2017!

It all started with a question.

A man was sitting next to me at an immersive, experimental theater performance in Prague. There was a large map taped to the table in front of us. Participants were asked to add their countries of both home and work.  I got busy drawing in the Middle East and India on one side of the flat spectrum of the world and the United States on the other. The man watched with curiosity as I ran around the table trying to establish my geography. He asked me; “You work all over the world. Don’t you think, since we are not a racist country, that we should keep refugees out so we don’t become racists?” I was shocked by the strange logic of the question. I repeated it to several people over the next few days and discovered the man’s question was a not an atypical response to the growing refugee crisis in Europe. By questioning people about their opinions regarding refugees, I uncovered a surprising amount of hatred for the “other” in this seemingly friendly country, which had welcomed me so warmly. I couldn’t understand it. Then a Czech artist I was working with hit the nail on the head: “In the basement of The Hate you will always find The Fear.”

I began to wonder whether fear really is at the root of most intolerance and conflict, and if people get angry before even realizing they are afraid. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless work advocating for human rights in Burma always repeated to her audiences that it is not power that corrupts, but fear.

The FEAR Project was born out of my investigation of fear as a core motivator for xenophobia. Based on interviews, it is an ensemble piece that tells stories about fear. The play is a combination of theatrical styles. It contains choral poetry made from verbatim interviews, monologues, and realistic scenes. The theatrical experience includes pre-show interviews and a post- show discussion with the audience. The FEAR Project aspires to create an atmosphere of restoration by giving people a chance to communicate about fear in a safe space.

I first developed the project in Prague at The Alfred Theatre, and then created a version of the play at the Sagbahar Theatre Festival in Kolkata, India, the next variation of the FEAR Project was developed through a U.S. State Department Arts Envoy grant and performed throughout the Czech Republic in five cities and a variety of venues.

On November 9th I responded to the 2016 Presidential Election by starting a theater collective with a close friend and colleague in Los Angeles. She founded Artists Rise up Los Angeles while I put a call out to all artists in New York. Artists Rise Up New York creates performative actions for Justice and Peace. We are a small but hearty group of resistors; artist/activists who curate free theatrical community events for the purpose of getting people energized and talking. Our first theater action was to produce The FEAR Project, which we performed at La MaMa and then at Dixon Place in conjunction with the International Human Rights Arts Festival.

Choosing the company is an important part of The FEAR Project process. The people who carry out the interviews are the actors, as well as friends of the production. I suggest the interviewers choose one interviewee they know well and then try to find someone different (in age, gender, ethnicity, political orientation, sexual orientation etc.). Their instructions are to collect interviews by voice whenever possible and to notate sounds made (like sneezes, laughs, hesitations etc.).

The interviewers ask 13 questions in the following order:
  1. What are you afraid of?
  2. Who are you afraid of? 
  3. Where are you afraid? 
  4. How do you react to fear?
  5. How do you conquer fear? 
  6. What is the enemy?
  7. Who is the enemy?
  8. Where is the enemy?
  9. How do you react to the enemy?
  10. What do you do to conquer hate?
  11. Who is the stranger?
  12. What is home?
  13. How do you feel about your country?

Once the interviews are collected I organize them by question, into thirteen groups. Then I craft them into a choral poem.  The choral poem brings a unity to the diverse voices and stories in the text. The interviews are re-imagined with rhythm and metaphor to enhance self-revelation to the actors conveying the words and the audience hearing them.

The following text emerged from the first set of U.S. Interviews:

ALL: What are you afraid of?
ONE: Sharks. (Laughs) Guns. Elevators. Darkness. Heights. Earthquakes. Death.
ALL: Donald Trump.
TWO: Lakes. Spiders. Snakes. Deserted Streets. And uh…Mobs. Oh. Volcanoes.
ALL: Volcanoes?
THREE: Losing a child
FOUR: Losing a friend.
FIVE: Losing my job. Losing my health insurance. Losing my memory.
ALL: Losing my country.
ONE: Fascism, Racism, Alternate facts, the death of democracy, deportation.
ALL: Muslim registrations
TWO: Tigers. Horror Movies. Uh…Deep Water. Dark Woods.
THREE: Failure. Sadness. (laughs)
FIVE: Black men getting shot, mass incarceration.
ALL: Racism, Sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, Homophobia
ONE: Getting my phone and electricity turned off.
THREE: Climate change. Animals dying.
ALL: Zombie apocalypse. Death… Donald Trump.

The next step in the process is for the actors to read the choral poem aloud and respond to it. This reading is a pivotal point in the process. C talked about her recent split with her adult siblings over politics, E remembered her fear of being bullied in school, M recalled the first time he realized that one day he was going to die, G expressed a political rage and a desire to create a space where people could throw things at walls. Each of these responses was developed in scenes or monologues.

In the subsequent phase of the process I write, working to make the script poignant, precise, and provocative. The theatrical structure of the FEAR script is made up of four parts: realistic scenes, direct address monologues that reveal each character’s inner voice, the interviews as choral poetry, and surplus scenes.

Since the fiercest microcosm of the larger world can often be found around a family table, there is always a family at the center of a FEAR Project script. In the ARUNY group members wept in our first meetings about family members who had broken with them over the recent election. One colleague whose mother had voted for Trump said, “You talk about our Nation breaking apart over this election. What about families?”  In India, the actors spoke openly about the need to keep families together by keeping youth from leaving the area, and keeping women family members safe.

five actors, one in a bathrobe, sit around a table with a punch bowl in the center. All but the one in the bathrobe look uncomfortable.

Our cast in The Czech Republic reported generational chasms in the response to the refugee crisis in their own homes, and in the Czech version of the play the family deals with impending changes due to the potential influx of refugees.  The Czech family is made up of a mother, a father, a racist grandmother, a patriotic son, and a rebellious activist daughter who is protesting for refugee rights. The family scenes take place across one continuous night as the family celebrates the grandmother’s birthday, each time they return to the table the tension has grown thicker until the father explodes and breaks the table in fury. The mother sneaks off to sip from a vodka bottle throughout the evening but has a reversal towards the end of the play when she witnesses her son beat the nut selling immigrant woman. The mother puts on a hijab in solidarity with refugees and accompanies her daughter to a protest. The production in the Czech Republic also contained some invisible theater. An older woman wearing a hijab enters the theater trying to sell nuts to the audience. Sometimes the audience spit at her, sometimes they offered to give her shelter, and sometimes arguments ensued between audience members about what to do with the woman. Eventually the actors threw her out of the theater. She returns later and is beaten by the son.

The following is from the first family scene in the Czech production:
Slashes (/) indicate overlaps.
Eli - father, Simona - mother, Adam - son, June -daughter. Eliza - Grandma.


They sit at the table.

JUNE: How long is this party going to last?
ELIZA: Are you in a rush, dear?
JUNE: I have to be somewhere.
ADAM: She is going to a protest!
ELIZA: A protest!
ELI: No she is not going to a protest.
JUNE: It’s a demonstration to advocate for the refugees!
ADAM: She wants to have the refugees move into our neighborhood!
ELIZA: Refugees are not welcome in this neighborhood. We already have that Gypsy with the nuts!
ELI: Let’s get on with the cake. SIMONA!
ELIZA: That Gypsy woman is disgusting.
JUNE: She’s not a gypsy Grandma she’s an immigrant.
ELIZA: Even worse.
JUNE: Refugees have rights!
ELIZA: They all need to GO HOME.
JUNE: Grandma you are a racist.
ELIZA: I am not a racist dear. We are not a racist country. And if we keep the immigrants out, then we won’t ever have to ever be racists.

Simona returns, without a cake

JUNE: That’s not logical.
ELIZA: It is to me, Dear.
ADAM: And to me, Grandma.
​SIMONA: Isn’t this a lovely evening, everybody together-
ELI: You were going to get the cake.
ELIZA: Not all of them are bad.
ADAM: Most are dangerous.
JUNE: Do you agree with him Daddy?
ELI: What?
ELIZA: The Vietnamese are OK.
JUNE: You think we should keep the refugees out?
ELIZA: But Syrians, No.
ELI: My beliefs are not the point, here.
ELIZA: The Germans are OK.
JUNE: What is the point, then?
ELIZA: But Gypsies, No.
ELI: It is Grandma’s birthday.
ELIZA: Except the Gypsies that are Christian.
JUNE: I am going to the protest.
ELIZA: But those people in the funny hats. No.
ELI: You are not going to a protest on a school night.
ELIZA: And Muslims. No. No. NO.
JUNE: Grandma you don’t even know what a Muslim is.
ELIZA: Muslims are the enemies of this country.
JUNE: They are not. This country is in denial. It’s a mess.
ADAM: You should be grateful to be born here. This is a wonderful country.
ELIZA: I just don’t like immigrants.
ELI: We are immigrants, Ma.
ELIZA: We are from the West. It is very different. We’re not like that nut seller with that Jihad on her head-
JUNE: Wearing what?
ELIZA: You know the Jihad.
JUNE: It’s called a hijab, Grandma. Not a Jihad.
ELIZA: Well whatever it is called it is a sign of the devil.
JUNE: You don’t understand anything. It is for modesty, morals and / expressing identity-
ELIZA: Why can’t they make her go away go to another street and sell her disgusting nuts? I called the police/ but now she’s back.

From left to right, an older man in glasses speaks, smiling, an older woman speaks, looking distressed, a younger man smiles at them.

In Kolkata, India, the three actors, an older woman and man and a younger man easily fell into the roles of parents and a son. These family scenes span the boys lifetime. He begins the play as a boy of seven, playing with a ball, and ends the play as a grown man living far away in the West, talking to his parents on the phone about his own seven year old son that they have never met.

From the first family scene in the Kolkata Production:

A family sits around a kitchen table.

MOTHER: You are in complete denial.
FATHER: Pass the rice.
MOTHER: Men are all in denial.
FATHER: I am not in denial. The rice please.
SON: Can I go out to play?
FATHER: Yes, go play.
MOTHER: We are not finished eating.
SON: I am finished.
MOTHER: It is polite to wait until everyone is finished.
SON: Why?
FATHER: Let him play!
MOTHER: Son, it is very important that you grow up with the values of decency.
SON: OK. OK. Can I go out to play now?
MOTHER: It is important that you learn how to treat women with utmost respect.
FATHER: It is more important that he learn how to fend for himself in this world and make a good living.
MOTHER: You don’t want to see what is happening to women in our country. Open your eyes!
SON: If I open my eyes can I go play?
FATHER: He is just a child.
SON: I am just a child!
MOTHER: It is never too early to learn these lessons.
FATHER: It is no time for such lessons! It’s a cutthroat world. He needs to secure a profession and fight his way to the top.
MOTHER: A profession? He is a baby! You just said so yourself.
SON: I am not a baby! Can I go outside to play with my friends?
MOTHER: Son, please be reverential at all times. To girls you must speak quietly and kindly, keep your hands to yourself. Do you understand?
SON: Everyone is playing ball in the street!
MOTHER: He will become like the rest of them!
FATHER: He will learn to be strong and how to survive! You are making him soft. He needs to be a tiger.
SON: I will be a tiger!
MOTHER: I don’t like tigers.
SON: Please let me go play, Ma? I will be good. I will be careful. I will be strong but not a tiger.
MOTHER: Don’t hurt anyone.
FATHER: Don’t let anyone hurt YOU.
SON: Can I go?

He runs out.

In New York, the plot involved a family who has come together for the funeral of their conservative father.

From the New York Production of The FEAR Project:
Serena, Stanley, and Susan are adult siblings, Ivan-is Serena’s Husband (a foreigner); Louise is Susan’s wife (but the family doesn’t know that yet).

The second family scene:

STANLEY: Oh come on, you must have guessed that’s who I would vote for. It’s who/ Dad-
SERENA: We still hoped.
IVAN: We prayed.
SERENA: That you would see the light.
SUSAN: But nope. Darkness.
STANLEY: You’re the ones in darkness. I won.
LOUISE: Breathe, Susan. Deep Breaths.
STANLEY: Deep breaths? What are you her swimming coach?
IVAN: Maybe we should not talk about politics before the funeral.
SERENA: Right. OK. This is what Daddy is wearing. This was his/favorite tie-
SUSAN: He hated that tie.
STANLEY: He should wear his uniform.
SERENA: It won’t fit. He’d lost a lot of weight.
SUSAN: Who judges what a dead man is wearing?
IVAN: I got him that tie.
SERENA: I know, Dear.
SUSAN: He didn’t like the color.
IVAN: He told me it was his favorite tie.
LOUISE: I like it.
STANLEY: Then you should wear it.
LOUISE: Excuse me?
STANLEY: You wear men’s clothes, right?
SUSAN: Shut up Stanley.
STANLEY: She’s your friend? “Friend”? Friend with benefits?
SUSAN: It’s none of your Goddamn business.
STANLEY: Don’t use the Lord’s name in-
SUSAN: Oh shut up.
STANLEY: Who invites a friend to a funeral? Unless she’s more than a “friend”?
SERENA: Stanley, where is Daddy’s sweater? The one from Grampie. Maybe he’d want to wear that. You know the brown cardigan with the elbow patches?
IVAN: He loved that sweater.
STANLEY: He hated that sweater.
LOUISE: I think you should bury him naked. Donate his clothes to charity and put him into the ground like any earthly creature without a coffin or accessories. He goes back to the dust in purity, the way he came in.
LOUISE: Why is it sick?
SERENA: This is really none of your business, Louise.
SUSAN: She’s just trying to help.
STANLEY: Little Susie is a Big Fat Lesbian!
LOUISE: It’s OK, Sue. He’s just upset about your father.
SERENA: He’s heartbroken. We all are.
SUSAN: I’m not heartbroken.
SERENA: Yes you are.
IVAN: Stanny is just afraid.
IVAN: I love you my brother.
IVAN: And in the basement of all hate you will find the fear.

At the beginning of each show the actors spend about 15 minutes interviewing the audience with the same 13 questions. The interviews from the audience are recorded on yellow paper so they are differentiated from the choral interviews on the white paper of the script. The audience’s answers are then embedded in that performance, when the yellow paper appears the audience listens carefully to hear their answers.

Change can be born out of fear or fury.  Feelings of powerlessness, which undercut resistance, can lead to feeling inadequate and impotent. The rigorous work of expressing truth and imagining solutions to conflict, which is a to the act of theater making opens people to the possibility of change. The FEAR Project inspires collaborative action for the artists, the interviewees, and the audiences. We find our way through fear in the radical intimacy of socially engaged performance. We, as theater practitioners, can encourage an imaginative exploration of even the darkest truth to facilitate transformation. We are not afraid, even of fear.

How do we begin the process of utilizing truth and imagination to pave the way for positive change? The FEAR Project offers one path towards healing:

It all starts with a question.