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Stages of Resistance
Lisa Schlesinger in profile stands in an Iowa field.
Photo by Sandy Dyas

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!

Act I Slow

We were just getting acquainted with slow food, slow living, and coming to accept that slow is actually good for our minds and our imaginations.

Then bam—we’re bombarded with executive orders, legislative changes, lies. Here in Iowa it hits us from all sides, national, state as the Iowa legislature starts to dismantle everything that was Iowa. I can’t get my bearings, I hunker down with the phone in my hands like a catcher in a squat, legs cramped, face caged, and call our senators and congressmen, try to catch, fend off, and throw back. I wasn’t prepared for this.

There’s this new bill in the house. A man’s on the radio, he wants to teach his 14 year old how to shoot a sawed-off shotgun with out committing a felony. Why don’t you teach her how to plant a carrot?

I boycotted the man who is now president. For the whole campaign.  Turned off the car radio every time he began to spea/Click. No television. Passed over him in the newspaper. Did not read or say his name.
 I thought he was a _______and he would simply go away. I thought it was all lies and manipulation and someone would blow the whistle on all of it and him.

Then just days before the election, I read an article called “how to hack a voting machine in 7 minutes.” On Election night, the dials on the New York Times jag back and forth, like a broken engine, jittery, stuttering, and somehow always in the red. 

Now, he’s here. To stay.

Like many, I was not prepared for this new world, with its high pitched alarms and threats and I’m trying to learn how to respond, rather than react--- to the escalation of war—yes, though no one officially declares: we are at war.

Act II Weather

of another kind on Thursday when I walk out of the house and it feels and smells like snow, my neighbor agrees, yet it isn't cold enough for snow. So why does it smell like that?

When I first moved to Iowa 20 years ago and people would say There's Weather I thought of course there's weather. There's always Weather. I was an East Coast snob.

Over time I learned that weather means something fierce is coming but no one knows how it will actually land. Sometimes they’d even set up lawn chairs and wait.

Iowa has weather now. Last week we watched, with hawk eyes, the 45th president while our legislature stole our children's pencils and lunches and fed them to the corporations. The tax breaks they gave the corporations matched the budget deficit they took from the schools.

Call it out: lie.

I am Iowan now, too. I smell rain coming, know a tornado from the amber light cast across the sky, the stillness of the leaves before heavy winds, what time it is from where the sunlight falls over the floor.

No, it’s not from boredom and not agriculture either. It’s love.

Sometimes disaster has a beautiful name and disastrous weather is exquisite. While the arctic melts and it rains like a summer downpour, tainted rain on the earth that never even froze this winter, and there is a tornado in the middle of February, just a bit east of here, just a bit north, and those birds protest so loudly, so beautifully—and they should not even be here at this time of year, I know, again, that the world is ending.

The weather storms at the political situation.
At the water regulation bill repealed this morning,
against 54 billion dollars of military spending.
Storms against the climate change deniers denying this climate change. 

If the percentage of the world’s water changes, won’t a human heart, made up of 73% water, respond to that flooding and also change?

Act III Why I Don’t Want to Watch Your Couch

I was going to write an essay on why I don’t want to watch any more couches on stage more than a year ago and now it is too late. The essay addressed the couch as a stage object, the humans upon it, the actions taken there and the stories told. For most of history humans sat on benches or used a trunk or a bed to eat, to worship, to rest. Until the late 17th century, the couch had no place.

The election makes this essay obsolete.

Now, I can’t watch any plays with couches because I am a news addict and I don’t look up from New York Times front page except to switch to Democracy Now. From the moment I wake up, I either read, checking all my devices at once, or resist reading the news. I’ve lost my mind. At least, my slow imaginative playwriting mind. Now I have this panic attack instead.

This morning a headline read _______ signed an Executive Order “scrapping Obama era water regulations.” That word: scrapping.
Listen to the sound of their names: Flint, Katrina, Three Mile Island, St. Francis Dam, Tennessee Ash Spill, Libby Asbestos, Exxon Valdez, Colorado. Gold King Mine.

In 2014 a West Virginia coal cleaning plant accidentally spilled crude methylcyclohexanemethanol into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River and home of the last 50 Diamond Darters in the world. The water smelled delicious, like licorice, and 300,000 people in nine counties were without water. They could not bathe and were told not to flush the toilet.  There was a sign at the check in desk of the Holiday Inn in East Charleston, that said pregnant women and children should not drink the water. Behind it, a woman and her small child swam in the pool. The child lapped at the water, joyfully.

A couple of my students call this new world the twilight zone, a spooky thing that crept up on us and made our lives a kind of 21st century horror movie—just last semester they were all enjoying writing about zombies – but now it’s not funny anymore. They say there is a shadow sneaking up behind us all the time and it’s making them anxious and restless and why should they not be afraid?

Why were we watching people sitting on the couch?
With its padding and petty arguments?
We became complacent. And complicit. With comfort.

Act IV Enter R. Buckminster Fuller:

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." 

Let’s start over. From the beginning. With our bodies and words.

Robert Lowell called depression dust in the blood and mania fire in the blood
I imagine a theater of dust and fire. And blood.  With a recycling bin.

I used to ask all the playwrights how do you live? I meant how do you pay the bills. Now I ask, how do you live? And I mean how do you transform fear and despair into something beautiful and meaningful and alive? What’s the difference between theater and life? And what does this have to do with resistance?

My neighbor, Iris, says she can’t do this alone. I can’t do it alone either. So we call a neighborhood meeting, Iris invites ten, I invite ten. We meet in her kitchen. Everyone has a lot to say. Someone takes notes. After that first meeting,  when we go back home to make our phone calls to our senators and congressmen, we know we are not alone but members of a collective of phone call makers.  When we write emails and make more phone calls and sign petitions and then learn petitions don't do much and make more phone calls, we do it collectively, even when we are alone in our kitchens.  At times, we go out in the streets to protest or to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in the city north of here, and sometimes we gather around the table, have tea, check in, strategize, revive our energy for next weeks’ actions.

One day we realize we each need to bring what we do best to this resistance. Someone plays piano. Someone owns the bookstore. Someone writes poetry. Someone runs the Free Medical Clinic. Someone makes theater. Someone bakes bread. Someone teaches. Someone makes chili. Someone writes plays. Someone is an expert on the Pipelines. Someone lists political actions every week in the local independent newspaper. People have always formed such unions, through music, sewing circles, theater companies, phone trees, meetings of worker’s unions, quilting groups, church organizations offering sanctuary.

We have so much to learn. About immigration laws. Sanctuary cities. Discrimination. Racism. We gather in different houses in our neighborhood. We sit on kitchen chairs, around a table, sometimes we spill over into other rooms. We educate ourselves and each other. We can’t keep up with all the work to be done but we can keep on going.  We are in this for the long haul.

Act V Truth

I’m thinking, of course, of how to get back to the work of making a theater of beauty and meaning, of upheaval and ritual, resistance. A theater of sanctity. For now it’s all fragments but I know in time it will coalesce into practice.

To stay true, keep language true.
Telling the truth is an action.
Make truthful theater even when it has no words.

Choosing not to use the language of deceivers and dictators is an act of resistance.
Don’t allow lies and manipulations to be called by euphemisms.
Don’t use the euphemisms. Maybe they are funny, but it’s not a joke.
Whatever you do, do not co-opt their language.

Let’s don’t use their names:
they’ve relinquished them in exchange for the pay offs they take.

Reorganizing and imagining and using a language of resistance is important.
For art and for life. Language is the active naming of life.
It must be compassionate. It must not denigrate.
It must have forgiveness but also say no when necessary.
It must not forget.

Resist the urge to use a certain number of characters, instead,
be eloquent with real words whenever possible.
Write them carefully, with a pen or pencil.
Words are important. So keep them sacred.
Keep a little rag in your pocket to polish them up.

The Ancient Greeks had six words for love.
Let’s adopt that breadth and depth and reach.
Lets start with telling truth as an act of resistance and an act of love.