Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dinner Party as Embodied Performance

"Social Potluck is a philosophy more than anything else. It is the belief that the heart of culture, art and society is located at the dinner table."

Food activists, community activists and children's advocates spout the virtues of the family meal saying that it promotes healthier eating, children's vocabulary, brain development, healthier lifestyle choices, and family harmony which in turn means that it is good for the community as a whole (You are who you eat with - Yes Magazine). Everyone benefits when families eat together. What a great way to improve the world we live in. The importance of breaking bread together does not stop with the family as the same effect can be created by eating with friends, colleagues and strangers. We are all children of the world (I know that sounds flaky but bear with me) in that we are always learning and susceptible to new influences. Beware those who claim to have nothing to learn. There is no better place to learn than at the dinner table. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that the table is a performance venue which places everyone on equal footing (more on this later) and the second is that the ritualistic act of eating quite literally lets people internalize knowledge. Knowledge, stories and food are digested into a piece of embodied memory. It is through sharing experiences and stories both as performer and spectator that the dinner table becomes a site for an embodied community performance.

This is all well and good but how is it performance? Certainly the idea of having guests over to your house for a dinner party feels like putting on a show as the good dishes come out, the house gets cleaned and some flowers get stuck in a vase. Often times it can feel like a one person play. I know Martha Stewart tells you how to prepare weeks in advance making a dinner party feel like the staging of Phantom of the Opera. How you plan your party is certainly part of the performance and if you plan it just like Martha told you then that says something about who you are and what you value. That is not a judgement, just a statement of fact. I will talk about location later. My interest has to with what happens when the guests arrive because that is when the performance truly starts. Everything before that is set dressing and props, though important as it can certainly affect the performance, it isn't performance until there are bodies in the room. Suddenly the decorations don't matter as much as when there are live people interacting with live people because there is no script, just a common sense of courtesy to act as guidelines for topics and behaviour.

I say this because we perform ourselves every day. What we say and how we say it gives off clues to who we are, what we value and who we strive to be. This communication is a whole body experience as we communicate not just with words but our entire body through gesture, body language and movement. It is through combining the mind and the body that we provide a more accurate and complex performance. Humans do not just respond to language despite the fact that our society is for the most part text focussed. We also respond to the body. We can sense intuitively or intellectually what an individual is communicating with their body. It is through these sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory means of communication that we live as both spectator and performer. As any student in an acting class learns, we operate with objectives and subtext that may not be apparent in our text. The director's exercise of watching a rehearsal first with the ears plugged and then listening with the eyes closed in order to tell if the play is understandable to only once sense at a time can also be done in real life, the only difference is that the plots in real life tend to be a little less dramatic though infinitely more meaningful. We are all performers and play our parts in a long improvised show. A dinner party with strangers is an opportunity to perform in and be entertained by an improvised community play.

In this project I am requesting a story be presented as payment for the dinner. The story will be presented to the group and recorded so I can refer to it later for accuracy purposes. I tell people to present a story that they tell often, the kind of story your family or spouse is sick of hearing because you always tell it. If they can't think of one they should just ask their family, they will know. I want this story for a couple reasons. The first is that they have told it numerous times before so it has been what we in the performance world call rehearsed. There is a good chance the teller knows what kind of reaction they will get from it because, just like a performer, they know your material. Most likely they know what will get a laugh or cause a tear; they know how to work your material. See, I told you we are all performers. The second reason I want this story is that because they tell it often I am inclined to believe they like their story and what it says about them otherwise they wouldn't tell it. These don't have to be flattering stories, often we like to tell stories which feature our own foibles because it can put others at ease, or because we want to demonstrate your own humanness. It is a story which, without consciously realizing it, says, "This is who I am." Because the Social Potluck is a dinner with strangers this is a perfect way to cut through the small talk and get right down to an embodied performance of self.

I was at a party recently and I realized how long we spend trying to pry information out of people and how it devolves to asking about work or family. Facts do not make a person. I just wanted to ask them to tell me a story because I don't really care about their work (and I could tell some didn't care about their work either) so we could cut through the formalities and hang out because once we have done that we can truly connect.

In Social Potluck after we share our "payment" story we can eat and talk. My hope is that some stories will spark discussion or other stories, as that is often how it works. I have conducted a number of story exchanges and often people attend "just to listen" because they think they aren't a good story teller or that they don't have stories; two of the most common things I hear. Usually half way through these "listeners" have been reminded of a story that they want to share. Asked point blank almost nobody can think of a story but given time or an opportunity to hear someone else's story suddenly ideas start appearing. That is what I hope happens as we eat. Secondly, these stories are not being recorded, sure I will listen and remember what I can but most likely I will forget most of the details, so people can be freer with their stories. Also, because everyone is in the same boat and has taken the same risk there is a release from expectations which allows people to be more honest and relaxed, in effect, they can be themselves. I am interested to see if the stories told during the second half of the evening are different than the stories from the first half. Will people perform themselves differently? Will the show change?

The other aspect of note during this second half of the project is the ritualistic act of eating. By sharing the physical act of eating with strangers along with the mental act of presenting a story allows for the transferral into this second stage of embodied experience where we consume food, ideas and knowledge. Eating is a ritual, regardless of if you eat items on your plate separately or mixed up. We have been eating for our entire lives. It is a reflex and a pleasure. We must eat and accept that others must as well so to share an eating experience with strangers is to create a communal event; as equals eating the same food, at the same time while sitting in a circle is an embodied statement of community without anyone speaking a word. There is comfort in ritual and by tapping into humanity's oldest ritual Social Potluck believes the comfort of this act allows defences to come down to allow freedom of performance and acceptance of new ideas so that we, as children of this world, can continue to be ever learning members of the world.

How we conduct ourselves with our families, colleagues or strangers is an embodied performance of who you are and what we believe in. As public figures we present how we want people to regard us while as private citizens we behave, usually, a little closer to how we actually think and feel. Sometimes these performances contradict each other and sometimes, usually, they don't because our bodies can betray our motivations and objectives. Horrible liars know what I am talking about. You may say you are innocent but your body flushes and vibrates with the truth and there is nothing you can do. By telling public stories before taking part in the very human ritual of eating together Social Potluck aims to explore the differences in how we perform ourselves at the dinner table.


Monday, November 1, 2010

What is a Social Potluck project?

I said I was doing a Social Potluck project and proceeded to say that Social Potluck is a philosophy. How can it be both? The reality is that I want to do a number of projects that use the Social Potluck Philosophy and this initial project should have its own name but unfortunately I haven't decided on one yet. I was thinking about "Dinner with an Alien" as a response to some righteous ethnography I have been forced to read but I'm not married to it which is why I'm sticking with Social Potluck Project.

By using the Social Potluck philosophy I will be creating a project which exploits, celebrates and tests the truth of the Social Potluck statements because, you know, I could be wrong.

The Project

As mentioned earlier the Social Potluck project is an "interactive performance project, community building project, community arts project and community food project" all rolled into one. Putting aside intent and philosophy for a minute let me tell you the structure I am planning to test out over the next few months as my first official Social Potluck project.

The Structure for "Dinner with an Alien" or "Dinner with Strangers" or "Planet Paprikas" or "As yet unnamed Social Potluck project"

Step 1. I will barter with local farmers and suppliers to get enough food for the project.

Step 2. I will arrange for a location through barter (hopefully).

Step 3. I will host a series of five dinners for up to ten people at a dinner. These dinners operate as performance and research. Participants will be chosen at random from a list of potential volunteers. Everyone who comes to the dinners will pay for their meal by telling one story. I will record this story digitally (sound only) as it is presented to the group. These are the "official" stories. After all the stories have been "collected" we eat dinner. During the meal any conversation or stories that are told will be not digitally recorded but I will be allowed to use them (what I can remember regardless of whether I remember correctly or not) for Step 4. The mealtime stories are the "unofficial" stories.

Step 4. After the five dinners I will take all the "official" stories and combine them with all the "unofficial" stories along with the stories of where the food came from and create a performance based on the stories, themes and my experience at those meals (perhaps from the perspective of an alien –the kind that come from another planet).

Step 5. I perform my show for everyone who participated in the dinners along with their guests. There is no financial cost to attend but they must pay with some kind of dish or food item resulting in a giant potluck after the show thereby completing the cycle of food for stories.

That's the general idea.

    The Intention for "Dinner with an Alien" or "Dinner with Strangers" or "Planet Paprikas" or "As yet unnamed Social Potluck project" is…

    Step 1. Through offering goodwill and effort rather than just money I hope to build a relationship with the local area farmers and merchants. Ideally I want them to know that they are a part of this project since what we eat is an integral part of lives. By knowing the story of our food we can reengage with our community through the pleasing, ritualistic, practice of eating. These goods are no longer commodities but integral parts of our cultural and social network (I suspect many farmers know that). I will be giving their stories a platform along with the participants at the dinner.

It would be remiss if I did not mention that what we eat at our tables is just as important as what we say. We are what we eat just as we are our stories. Cheeseburger Doritos anyone?

    Step 2. The location means delving into the world of commercial businesses, realtors and legal bylaws. Where we shop, where we go out to eat and the limitations put on commercial food production says a lot about who we are and what we value.

Can one legally give away food anymore? Has generosity been curtailed by a fear of lawyers? How can a project that exists entirely without money changing hands function in our market based economy?

    Step 3. From a community member's perspective I am interested in who lives in, travels through, or visits my community. The easiest way is to have them over for dinner; it is what I did when I moved to new house and has proven to be one of a handful of good ideas I have had. I hope others feel the same way. I also get the sense that by learning more about who lives in this community our attachment to it grows as well. This has been my experience so far in all the research I have conducted for my other projects. To some extend I want to share, in a generous and supporting environment, the opportunity for members of this community to learn more about who else lives here. I acknowledge this is purely arbitrary since each meal is only with 5-10 people who participants may or may not know but that is intentional because if the meals were larger the chance to share a particular experience as a group, especially something as intimate as a meal, would be lost.

From a performance perspective I am interested in the difference between how we present ourselves officially versus unofficially. By asking for a payment of a story I am asking for an official story, that doesn't mean "official" in the sense of what is dictated but rather the kind of story we feel comfortable telling in front of strangers. I tell people to tell the story that their spouse/lover/friend or family is sick of hearing because it means it is well rehearsed. Usually those stories are the kind of stories told again and again around the table. Now is the time to share it with a fresh audience. Some people are comfortable telling embarrassing stories about themselves; others may want to tell a folk tale or family story. Honestly, it doesn't matter what story is told because no matter what is chosen it is relevant. If participants want to tell someone else's story that is interesting to me and my research. In the end, these stories act as fodder for the conversations that occur when we sit down to eat.

Once the official part of the evening is over everyone can sit down to dinner and conversation. It is my sense that the ritualistic aspect of sharing food builds trust and comfort. It is a chance to discuss the official stories or begin other topics completely unrelated to stories. It is not my intention to direct conversation but rather watch, observe and participate. Will the stories told be different, will participants behave differently than when they are presenting in front of a group rather than a table? I don't know, that is why I am exploring with this project.

    Step 4. How do you tell a community's story? How can you summarize 5 evenings of stories, endless conversations with farmers and business people into a pleasing piece of entertainment? I don't know. I am hoping to rely on themes, excellent material and a tonne of energy. This will be the creative challenge of the project. I will keep you informed as to how that goes. I am trying not to pre-write as that would defeat the entire project.

    Step 5. I am indebted to everyone who participates so it is essential that the first performance be for them. It is their story, they deserve to be the first ones to see what it inspired. Since they purchased a meal with their entertainment it is only fair to offer them the same deal. I will offer them a show in exchange for a meal. In this case a potluck as, honestly, my performance will be a potluck of stories. I believe it is only fitting to end the project with generosity and communal celebration. Perhaps down the road if this format works and I believe the performances have marketable value they may be performed again but should they be performed for money (to help fund further projects) or should they always be for food?

So, that is the project. What do you think?