I wrote this piece when I first introduced Documentary Songwriting to the Hilltown Youth Recovery Theatre. The event was the first Winter Intensive we put on, that I organized as a winter school project. This was written January of 2017, as a blog post about the Recovery Theatre and Documentary Songwriting.
Reeling from the aftermath of the election this November I sent Jon Diamond a desperate email. In it I conveyed my need to heal the fear, hate, and ignorance that has been breeding throughout this year by forging connections and relationships. Jon was in a unique position to make something like this happen. Not only does he produce several theatrical spectacles a year with kids ages 5-6 to 17-18, but also he’s been a therapist for around 30 years. This means he is an artistic powerhouse with the therapeutic knowledge to create an environment that doesn’t just build skills (acting, singing etc.) but actively heals all those involved. Combine that skill set with Alyssa Wright, another maven of organizing, raising money and manipulating social media who also has extensive theater experience and you get the Recovery Theater Intensive.
Jon and Alyssa founded these several years ago, and they’ve become unstoppable. The several that have happened have been anywhere from a weekend to a full week, but are rapidly expanding. The culture and community that Jon and Alyssa have created propels the work forward, people show up relentlessly for the love and support; the fantastic art making is a bonus. Relationships are formed and nourished far beyond just the weekend. It’s into this culture that I was thrust into when I hit send on that email.
I’ve been collaborating with Jon for several years, I’ve had roles in his shows and most recently was the music director in last year’s outdoor, traveling summer spectacle, Peter Pan. We led 70 performers and 300 audience members, including all the participants from a weeklong pre-workshop Recovery Intensive, through the wooded meadows of the Academy at Charlemont. We transformed the bucolic five-acre campus into a huge musical instrument, drawing the sound out with a combination of subtle instruments and the environment itself. It’s an incredible experience. The entire community looks forward to them for the whole year and that excitement bleeds into the shows, they’re extraordinary. As Jon told me the other day, if we (the organizers) didn’t do anything, people would still show up.
However, the therapeutic side (or at least the part labeled therapeutic) was new for me. I brought a type of songwriting to the planning sessions as my contribution. Based on a composing method called Documentary Songwriting, we worked collaboratively with stories; someone gives their words and their phrasing, the arc of their voice the way the pitch rises and falls. We then captured both, and worked together to transcribe it and transform it into songs that serve as a proud exclamation of our individual lives and stories. It is taking music and using it as a story telling device, instead of writing words to fit a melody, we use the melody to enhance the words.
With this in our canon, we drafted a rough outline of what the weekend would look like. Jon brought a letter writing activity, Alyssa did a workshop with spoken word, and a guest artist, Kaia Jackson, offered a gender gesture exercise. We had a few other activities planned, but for the most part the weekend was only lightly structured. Going in, the exercises were there to complement and enhance the sense of trust and safety that has been cultivated for the three years these intensives and eight years the summer spectacles have been run.
Jon has a catch phrase when talking about these workshops; he says the model we practice is “the less broken take care of the more broken.” In that spirit, I won’t try to capture the impact this weekend had for anyone else but me. We started off the weekend on Friday night with a lantern light training. There were twelve of us in Heath Elementary School with all the lights turned off except for three lanterns. For over an hour we moved to music in an exercise called “training.” I’ve tried to explain what this is to my family and others and I always fall short of an accurate description. At its most basic it is full body follow the leader. Yet, as with everything that means anything, to leave the definition there we ignore the entire universe it creates. We move throughout the space as one collective entity, one-person leads, but the whole room creates a space to trust each other. It is fast and slow paced, we run outside into the snow in bare feet, people are hoisted into the air on giant wooden spools, and we create a current of energy threading through everyone there that lasts far beyond the weekend and the workshop.
This year is my freshman year of college, and as people who have been a first year in any institution know, it is not easy. The first few months of school were so hard for me; I had just uprooted my whole life and was forging into new friendships and relationships. I felt lonely and ungrounded, it was beyond time to move away from my parents’ house, but I didn’t fully belong at school yet. Even though I have made my place and created new wonderful relationships at Oberlin, traces of that loneliness have lingered, leaving me feeling just a tad off balanced, even being home.
Within the first thirty minutes of silent training on Friday, I felt my bare feet planting firmly into the rug and that feeling sprouting wings and soaring off. I stepped into my body and welcomed the feelings of joy that were seeping into me and clearly every other person in the room. I was there as a facilitator and organizer, but I too needed, and internalized, the healing that was created by every single person in the room.
The next two days my energy was spent on getting to know the people I was working with better and doing the songwriting exercise with people who wanted too. The first person I worked with was a fifteen-year-old girl, someone with anxiety and other mental health issues. I hadn’t really tried this activity before; I was figuring it out as I went. We first just talked, I asked her about the workshop and this drama community and about her anxiety. As she opened and talked more, I wrote down every word that came out of her mouth, without leaving anything out. After I had about a page of her words, I brought her over and we went over them together. We condensed and collaged them together, creating about three sentences of her words.
Once we had the words, we abandoned them briefly for some breath exercises. We drew out our breath, connecting it to our guts and to ourselves. Breath is incredible, it’s our bodies’ natural link to the muscles we can control (our arms and legs) and those we can’t (our hearts and stomach). We breathe involuntarily, but we can also control it. We integrated the words back in. Then, she read them aloud in different ways at different speeds and volumes. After she was comfortable with the language, the hard part came.
I asked her to sing the words out loud, to a melody that comes only from her. I want to emphasize how hard this task I was asking of her really is. Most people are shy singing out loud in any circumstance. If they can bring themselves to do that, what they are singing is usually a song that they know, or a melody that’s been taught to them. I was asking this fifteen-year-old, who already struggled with anxiety, to sing out loud to me without any guidance whatsoever, and to top it off with words that she created in the first place! The trust she needed in both herself and me was immense; it was intensely vulnerable.
She told me there was no way she’d be able to do it. I gently told her that I knew that she could do it, I placed the paper in her hands and said, jump, do it now. There was an epic pause as she stared at the paper, as she hummed softly, as she reached to pull up the courage to release this song. As I sat with her I remembered my very first production with Jon.
It was The Hobbit, my freshman year. I was Bilbo, and my character had to faint, fall backwards off the stage, and get caught by the gang of dwarves. I am beyond petrified of heights. I can barely stand on a stool without being terrified. So naturally I told Jon there was absolutely no way this would EVER happen. And he just calmly said that I had to, it was part of the show. As the show drew closer, I still refused every single time it came up. Finally, about two weeks before opening night, he said, okay, Zach, you’re going to do it at rehearsal today. I knew what was coming at the end and I was petrified. I stood there for twenty minutes, counting down the clock to the end of rehearsal, determined not to by any means. But at the end of the rehearsal, Jon put me up on the stage, gathered the cast and said no one was leaving until I fell, and proceeded to close all the doors. I froze, terrified. For an hour, people all around me offered words of assurance and support; most of them took turns falling themselves, their words and actions enveloped me. Finally, I did it. I shut my eyes, and fell backwards into theirs (and Jon’s) waiting arms. Pride and relief surged through my body. I beamed for days. I remember it so vividly still, five years later, and I am so thankful Jon encouraged me to take that leap of faith.
I saw the fear I had felt in her pause. She kept glancing at me, hoping I’d give her an out or any reason that she wouldn’t need to do it. I just stayed with her, and said that we’re doing it now, and we won’t do anything else until she sings. I watched her fear work its way through her body and face, until finally she was ready. She sang the three sentences. Immediately she looked at me, tears on her face as her whole body shook with pride. She said that it was the hardest thing she’s ever done.
I repeated the process with several other people, and each time they pushed through the fear and sang their own words. To see the joy and pride painted on their faces after they overcame the terror kept reminding me of falling off that stage, and of the immense gratitude I have for Jon and the whole community. Organizing and helping lead this workshop helped me maybe as much as the people who were there to be helped. The world needs more spaces like this, and honestly so do I. The community holds itself together, and loves every single person it holds.