To create means to relate
Kent and Steward
How does an artist researcher explore meanings of home in Mexico City without ever having physically been there? I am an Irish female doctoral candidate based in Galway, in the West of Ireland pursuing practice-based research into how theatre artists create and challenge meanings of home in Galway, Gaza and Mexico City. Due to the global COVID-19 crisis, my practice as research for the past eighteen months has been through online engagement. This essay explores the process of an online co-creation with two theatre artists, Astrid Hadad and Tanya Gomez based in Mexico City, which explores the theme of home focusing on the female body. Theatre occurs within a space where bodies and minds may meet and share an experience and is thus a very fitting medium for playing out the multi-directionality and complexity of “home.” How may this occur when creating and presenting work online? How does one embody home through digital performance? This is an analysis of process and performance, including artist and audience feedback.
Keywords: collaboration, digital performance, female body, home, Mexico, Galway
Corita Kent aptly describes the process of Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa, a collaborative digital performance devised by Astrid Hadad, Tanya Gomez and me. The piece was devised through weekly online rehearsals over six weeks. Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa consists of video footage, nine personal narratives and collages, the presentation of a letter written by Lidia Florencio about the feminicide of her daughter Diana Velasquez Florencio, satirical sketches and a performance of a poem. The piece was performed in Spanish and English with subtitled text and presented to an international audience of 94 in May 2021. A third of the audience attended the post-performance feedback session on Zoom. Thirty-seven audience members completed a Google form of four questions pertaining to emotional response, impact and understanding of “home” post performance. This article explores process and performing over Zoom, including issues like trust, vulnerability and working with digital imagery. A quantitative and qualitative analysis of audience and artist feedback supports this exploration.
Hadad is a Mexican performer-cabaretera who has created and performed over 25 shows in Mexico and internationally since the 1980s. Gomez is a Mexican theatre artist, working in theatre since 2006, and the founder of theatre company Labios Rojos. I am a theatre artist and doctoral candidate based in Galway, Ireland, pursuing a practice-based PhD on the performance and politics of home in Galway, Gaza and Mexico City. Robin Nelson defines Practice as Research as a “project in which practice is a key method of enquiry,” where knowledge is a “matter of doing” (9). My research investigates how theatre and performance artists may create and/or challenge meanings of home and how these meanings may be culturally circulated. Artists are thus core to the project, as is exploring the experience of home through performance.
The overall project is, as Kershaw describes, “a hybrid enquiry combining creative doing with reflexive being” (Kershaw and Nicholson 64); this piece follows this hybrid model, critically reflecting on the collaborative process of Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa and on how the piece investigates the theme of “home” in relation to the body and to the female body in particular.
Diana Taylor states that performance “operates as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory and a sense of identity through reiterated reactions” (2). Taylor’s work is foundational to this project, as she emphasizes the importance of embodied knowledge and how performance is a multifaceted phenomenon, which includes performance as a methodological lens, practice and process. Process for this project became of utmost importance, resulting in not only the performance itself, but in a space for learning and reflection that extends the performance experience. This learning was facilitated primarily by the generosity of the co-creators of Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa, giving their time and giving of themselves to make this piece, and through audience response and feedback.
Key concepts that emerge in this process include how to present the body in relation to home through digital mediums and navigate the socio-political contexts of home in Mexico City, which encompasses critical issues such as memory, belonging, loss and feminicide. Language is a vital factor. I have basic Spanish; Tanya is fluent in English and Spanish and thus facilitated most of the translation. However, to explore the impact of bilingualism and the vitality of language to this process is beyond the scope of this article. I focus on an analysis of the aspects of the performance that occurred most frequently in the audience feedback. These are the personal narratives of the three participating artists and collages, and the presentation of Lidia Florencio’s letter.
This feels ridiculous; I’m in my living room
Bogart and Shevtosa
Theatre has been a home for me, a space from which I have felt safe to explore, interrogate or imagine the world. This space changed drastically in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, when the majority of live performance artists who could access digital media relied on that medium to disseminate their work. For many theatre artists in particular, this was a relatively new or unexplored medium (Weinert-Kendt) and harnessed new insights into the experience of presence, engagement, embodiment and connection, concepts fundamental to the acts of theatre and performance.
Prior to this project, I had spent a year working with theatre artists primarily over Zoom, a tool designed for “corporate collaborations of business” (Neideck et al. 56), and thus a space that demanded constant negotiation, energy and focus to function as a space for theatre making. Although this process was often exhausting, it necessitated different considerations of embodiment and collaboration, offering new ways of what philosopher Joseph Tanke describes as “constructing the shared world” (6).
Zoom brought a softening of the professional space as the reality of working from home made visible the rituals and interruptions of daily home life (Neideck et al.). The Zoom window often provided a window into the homes of participants, which for theatre making provided a new form of intimacy, as experienced in this project. There was something quite grounding to “meet” with two artists as they were having their morning beverage in their homes in Mexico City from a wet grey afternoon in the West of Ireland. It felt as though we were welcoming each other into our personal space, our home, a space from where a relationship could begin. As theatre artists, we had experienced a loss of another space we considered home, the physical space of theatre, such as studios, dressing rooms, stages and the physical sharing of space with other performers and audiences. Gallagher et al. highlight the significance of this loss and assert that “thinking through loss” (641) while creating art online enables a deeper consideration of ways to inspire intimacy, connection and a sense of community. I feel that through this project we were also seeking that sense of connection and, in this sense, welcomed working collaboratively in a different modality to our regular practice.
Working within a digital space also facilitates a greater consciousness of worlds beyond our immediate inhabited space, enabling a manipulation of space through technology, playing with aural and visual texts. The accessibility of digital theatre, though uneven throughout the world, to wider and more international audiences is a huge advantage, both in terms of the performance reach and perhaps a deeper consideration of content. This medium asks theatre artists what the work is saying on a national and international level. Practically, it presents the opportunity of working with two artists over 8,000 km away in a different time zone! This is supported by Tanya who stated:
it was enormously enriching to see the process happen despite the distance and the monitor, the online tool allowed us to reach out to other audiences, propose something that is so familiar to all of us, and communicate stories despite language and distance.Gomez qtd. in Tivnan, Artist Feedback Form
They’re not only seeking to tell their stories-they
are seeking a family to help them in the telling
Burnett and Storck 9
To work collaboratively, performers need to trust each other, building an ensemble that operates as a family of sorts. Building this trust comes from building a relationship and creating an environment where performers feel comfortable and safe to share ideas, stories and ways of working, particularly when exploring a theme that is intensely personal and political, like home. By participating in this project, all three artists agreed to explore and present “stories” of home together through online and digital mediums. The devising period allowed for space for reflection and discussion between Zoom rehearsals, and as the weeks progressed, we became more familiar with each other and with our individual ways of working.
The first rehearsal presented excitement, hope and an opportunity for us to get to know each other better. For this rehearsal, we discussed the boundaries and boundlessness of home, the planet Earth as home, home as a house or a room and home as memory. Music became an important element of this process, and I sang songs that evoked strong memories for me around home, A Woman’s Heart by Eleanor McEvoy and Down by the Salley Gardens with lyrics by William Butler Yeats. Hadad then described singing to her mother, as she was in the final stages of dementia, and how this was the only way she could connect to her. This sparked a discussion around la primer casa or first home, as mother/madre and of the body/el cuerpo as home. The body as home emerged as a central theme for the piece.
Stories as Home
El dolor que cargamos las mujeres , milenario. Interminable. Y al mismo tiempo la ternura con la que estas tres mujeres narran su vivir. [The pain that women carry, millennial. Endless. And at the same time the tenderness with which these three women narrate their lives.]qtd. in Tivnan, Audience Feedback Form
. . . me impactó cómo logran desmenuzar y compartir cómo les atraviesa todo su ser la palabra hogar. [. . . I was struck by how they manage to break down and share how the word home goes through their entire being.]
It was a very beautiful collage.
These are some of the audience responses to the question: What part of the performance did you find the most impactful? I asked this of the audience to gain an understanding of which elements of the piece were most effective in exploring the theme of the body and home. Stories emerged as the most frequent response referring to the personal narratives of each artist about embodied experiences of home.
These narratives were presented as pre-recorded audio and represented visually by a digital collage created by artist Valentine Colin. Colin works with Hadad regularly and collaborated with us to create an image for each of our three stories, nine in total. I had three personal stories connected to the feet, the heart and the womb. Gomez’s stories were based around her mother, body size and the body in theatre, and Hadad’s stories were about her childhood home, her ancestry, immigration, travel and the theatre as home.
Sharing these stories with the other performers was a huge act of trust as we were expressing intimate and personal details. For example, one of my stories involved a description of traveling to Birmingham in 2012 to have a termination of pregnancy, and the bodily connection with my children and my homeland, Ireland. Termination of pregnancy (unless life threatening) was illegal in Ireland until 2018, when a majority vote repealed this amendment of the constitution (Together for Yes). Trust developed through our dialogue and regular meetings online, and the digital space became a powerful site of collaboration and co-creation. We were also certain of the importance of creating a medium for stories about the female body in this way, in keeping with Carol Hanisch’s idea of the personal is political. Performing these personal narratives may offer “an alternative understanding of civic engagement that aims to reinstate individuals’ dignity and agency” (Man Ling Lee 163). In this sense, the performance became empowering as our stories and experiences of home resonated with the audience, as evidenced by the audience feedback.
The aesthetics of digital performance is highlighted by Steven Dixon who calls for a greater focus on the artistic vision and content of digital work rather than on the technology. Our choice to tell personal narratives accompanied by digital collages blends “older modes of performance,” such as aural storytelling, with technology to express the intention of forming a connection with an online audience through sharing corporeal experiences of home. However, there is a paradox here, as performing an embodied experience of “home” was enabled through somewhat of a disembodied medium, the digital. At our screens, we cannot smell or touch the performance space or hear the innate bodily movements and sounds of the audience who we may ordinarily be in close proximity to. We cannot share the same air. We created and presented this piece using these limitations to the best of our ability. However, the data reveals that the most prevalent feeling reported by the audience was that of feeling connected, specifically to the artists who performed the piece, followed by a connection to the subject matter and to the body.
The feedback suggests that the exchange between performer and audience in terms of emotional connection was very strong, as expressed in the following quotes.
. . . the topics/themes explored made me feel connected, emotional and vulnerable but the passion and strength shown by the performers fuelled me. Strange as it sounds I felt stronger watching the performance.
Me tocó me alma. [It touched my soul.]
. . . me senti muy abrigada y cercana al tema de la obra y las actrices.” [. . . I felt very warm and close to the theme of the play and the actresses.]
. . . al ver cómo las intérpretes se mostraban de una fomra tan abierta, me hacian sentir parte de esa misma exposición. [. . . seeing how the performers showed themselves so openly made me feel part of the performance.]
Words like “warm,” “close,” “openly,” “touched,” “fuelled” and “vulnerable” suggest a meaningful connection between artists and audience. This may be due to the autobiographical nature of our narratives, and our vulnerability in presenting these narratives to both the audience and to each other. However, I feel the trust and respect we developed through the rehearsal process, and our faith in the process and performance itself, created a safe space for this vulnerability. This was particularly evident in the feedback session following the performance: “I found the post-performance conversation to be truly amazing, productive, generative, and a good overall demonstration of care among those present virtually” (qtd. in Tivnan, Audience Feedback Form).
The session lasted for approximately 45 minutes, many participants shared personal stories of home and loss, and there were discussions around the female body, femicide and migration. Every participant who wished to speak had an opportunity to do so. It was a very emotional session as the issues raised in the performance effected many participants. I provided my email address to anyone who wished to contact me about the performance in an effort to provide space for continuing reflection and support.
Expressing Home and the Body Through Digital Art
I propose that the personal narratives accompanied by Colin’s collages created a heightened sense of the female body, as her art manifested both the vulnerability and strength of the female body as home. My work with Colin in creating an image for the story Waist, Hips, Womb exemplifies this. The story featured my pregnancy with my son and the changes to my body and mind as a result of being a “home” for him. I wished to express how this pregnancy affected me as a theatre artist and my interactions with my environment and others. EL Putnam argues that pregnancy is a “liminal body experience [that] involves intersubjective relationships between the pregnant woman, the foetus and others” (205). Putnam also argues that pregnancy is a “process of transformation” and that performance can highlight this, something I hoped could be communicated through this narrative and accompanying collage.
I aimed to present the pregnant body aesthetically in an open manner whilst holding on to the idea that pregnancy is “both intensely private and unavoidably public” (Matthews and Wexler 2). I also wished the image to move away from the idea of the pregnant female body as a symbol and focus on the experience. The body in the final design is in a crouched position and the head is not visible. Its grey colour is reminiscent of marble statues, such as iconic figures of motherhood like the Virgin Mary; however, the texture and shading is more like human skin. Not being able to see a head or face places greater focus on body parts such as the chest womb, and legs, all of which work to carry the baby. The red background and its blood vessels gave the sense of blood and bodily exertion I associated with this piece, also suggesting connection. The element of the collage we struggled with most, however, was the representation of the umbilical cord. This cord for me needed to represent a connection that was both earthly and unearthly. That is to say, a connection that may be imagined, mythical, felt, biological, physically present, the absence of which can also be felt. Colin explored these complexities as she experimented with different colouring and texture before we both settled on a sea green cord, reminiscent of grass, underwater plants, DNA and blood vessels.
Aesthetics and ownership of the body in performance is interrogated in Gomez’s story ¿Mi cuerpo habita el teatro o el teatro habita mi cuerpo? (Does My Body Inhabit the Theatre or Does Theatre Inhabit My Body?). She describes playing the Angel in a production of Angels in America, where she is directed to perform nude covered in mud. The director later decides this does not fit the aesthetics of the production, so her nudity is removed. Gomez refuses to change the scene, stating, “no it is not your nude. It is not your body; it is not yours to remove” (Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa).
For each of us three artists, the theatre is home, a space we feel we can inhabit well. Gomez tells of her investment after “25 of years of hating her body” into becoming comfortable and confident to perform nude. Her refusal to compromise is representative of the power of inhabiting one’s body in performance, expressed through Valentine’s visceral image. The kneeling body may suggest vulnerability. However, the raised arms, the presence of the wings, the tattoo and the suggestion of a red curtain, indicate performance. The image with the narrative expresses Tanya’s effort to be at home in this body in performance.
Five audience members specifically mentioned this story as impactful in their feedback. The centrality of the body to the experience of home is highlighted in the audience responses to the question: What does home mean to you having watched this performance?
Figure 6 shows that most audience members associated the body with meanings of home, a response likely impacted by the overall theme of the performance. However, considering this in conjunction with the high number of audience responses regarding connection with the artists, with the body in general and one’s own body, the feedback supports Taylor’s assertion that the body in performance “is the medium as well as the message’” (60). It also suggests that an artist does not have to physically share the same space as the audience for their corporeal presence to be felt, which Taylor also proposes.
The next most frequent response was home in relation to self or a sense of self, followed by the importance of feeling safe, secure and comfortable in relation to home. Four people mentioned home in relation to the mind, and three people mentioned home and heart, seven people mentioned home and family, four of these mentioned home and mother. These responses demonstrate the significance of the subjective experience of home, physically, emotionally, mentally and socially.
A further analysis of the body and home revealed a number of varying responses and themes, including ideas around reproduction, inhabiting the body, feelings of safety and ownership, as well as care, represented in the figure below.
This data indicates the complexity of the meanings of home but also demonstrates both the internal and external landscapes of home, in terms of memory, mind, the body and the living environment of “home,” which is perhaps best reflected in the following audience responses:
. . . la conciencia plena del refugio..interno y externo. [. . . the full consciousness of refuge internal and external.]qtd. in Tivnan, Audience Feedback Form
Yo mi cuerpo. [Me, my body.]
. . . this performance has altered my perception of what “home” is. “Home” was first my mother’s body, her body. Then, my own body, the home I must carry everywhere I go like the “snail carries its home.” There is pain and cost to having this female home.
This idea of carrying home in one’s body is also explored in Hadad’s story Mi Premier Casa (My First Home), where she describes her family home. This has elements of magic and myth, evident in the accompanying collage, yet is grounded in family life. She states “Mi primera casa son ellos. La llevo en el alma como un caracol lleva su casa” (“My first home is them. I carry it in my soul like a snail carries its home”) (Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa). The act of carrying home is referred to many times throughout the rehearsal process, and the embodiment of the experience of home is central to this piece.
Gomez explores the fragility of the body and home, as she describes her mother as her home and how this home was destroyed by serious illness: “Como la casa de tu infancia, demolida por un bulldozer y con eso, el duelo en vida de una madre que tu viste y no volverá. La resignificación del espacio que por 40 semanas habitaste” (“the house of your childhood destroyed by a bulldozer the house of your childhood, demolished by a bulldozer and with that, the mourning in life of a mother that you had and will not return. The resignification of the space that you inhabited for 40 weeks”) (Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa).
Gomez compares her mother’s ill body to a house that is in ruin, yet still inhabited, exposing human vulnerability as well as resilience in terms of our bodies and our surroundings. The image for this narrative became the poster for the piece, as we felt it captured the complexities of the body as home in relation to memory, childhood, family and the environment.
Our stories and collages also explored the relationship between the body, memory and objects associated with home. Hadad’s story Mi Casa y el Mundo (My House and the World), speaks of migration with a focus on the suitcase, an object deeply associated with the processes of migration, displacement and associated cultural practices.
Para ellos la casa cabía en una maleta. En ella se llevaban todas sus riquezas:Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa
recuerdos, ahorros, un idioma, sabores de su cocina, cantos y música, la medalla
de un santo, a veces un puñado de tierra.
[For them the house fits in a suitcase, in it they carried all their treasures, memories, souvenirs, language, flavours of their kitchen, music , a holy medal, sometimes a handful of dirt.]
Hadad’s narrative tells of memory objects which can be conceptualized as “special personal belongings that elicit deliberate or involuntary memories of homeland, home culture, social relations and episodes in one’s own autobiographical past and significant relations associated with home or origin” (Marschall 254). Her narrative is accompanied by Colin’s collage that expresses the potential of objects to evoke memories of home, which becomes more powerful when objects and spaces are associated or become associated with loss, particularly the loss of family, as is explored in the performance section Saliste de Casa para no regresar jamas/ You Left Home Never to Return Again.
Home and Loss
Saliste de Casa para no regresar jamas is the opening line of a letter written by Lidia Florencia for her daughter Diana Velasquez Florenica who died by femicide in 2017. Femicide may be understood as the gender-based violence and killing of women (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: WHO). The notion of home as a safe space was prominent throughout the rehearsal process, a notion also supported by audience feedback. When home becomes unsafe, it can result in distress, displacement and even death, as is demonstrated by the current femicide crisis in Mexico. At least ten women per day were murdered in Mexico in 2020, and approximately a third of these were feminicides (Amnesty International).
As performers, we felt that telling Diana’s story could convey the human context and reality of these statistics. We recorded our reading of Lidia’ Florencio’s letter in English and Spanish; this audio was then played over photographs from a project called You Left Home Never to Return by Alejandra Edwards. Her images provide insight into how loss may affect spaces of home, capturing how memory may be associated with objects and rituals of remembering the dead. Edwards states that part of the intention of her project is “to shine a light on the personal and human side of femicide by photographing objects that belonged to five victims, the spaces they inhabited and the people who surrounded them” (Edwards) .
Diana Velasquez Florencio left her home on the night of July 2, 2017. At 7am the next morning, her family tried to file a missing person’s report; however, it was not accepted as 72 hours had not yet elapsed. Unknown to Diana’s family, a body was discovered on a highway near the family home at 5am that morning. The police incorrectly identified the body as a male person. This was Diana’s body (Amnesty International 36). Four days after her disappearance Diana’s family went to the Forensic Medical Service (SEMFO) to look for her body, finding her on a floor and not safeguarded along with other bodies. Evidence for Diana’s case was lost, and the clothes she was wearing were not examined and are missing. Lidia’s letter describes these details.
This letter demonstrates several systematic failings in the state’s judicial system and highlights the hardship for families living with feminicide, particularly those with unsolved cases. The letter heightens the emotional and psychological weight of everyday intimate objects such as a hair clip (fig. 13) depicted in the images. These objects may become more significant when bodies are not recovered and personal items and clothing belonging to victims are lost. The homemade memorials and shrines (fig. 12) indicate the wish of families to retain some presence of those lost within the home.
At the live feedback session following the performance, Florencio expressed her satisfaction at her letter being part of our performance stating the more often her daughter’s name was spoken the more she felt she would not be forgotten. The process of translating and speaking the text of the letter was difficult and emotional particularly for Hadad and Gomez, who explains, “For me it was challenging to give myself the time to write from my gut and not stay in the emotion. It was difficult to speak particularly about the situation in my country with a case as painful and as real as Diana’s” (qtd. in Artist Feedback Form). However, exploring this aspect of home in Mexico was critical to the performance. Audience feedback demonstrates the high impact of this part of the performance, as exemplified in this quote “the letter to Diana was probably the most sad and beautiful part.”
Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa shatters any simple, four-walled interpretation of the word home. When I consider home now, I’ll be more inclined to think inwardly, to look inward. I might just start with my very first true home- my mother’s womb, and slowly work my way out from there.qtd. in Tivnan, Audience Feedback Form
This feedback eloquently describes the way us three artists collaborated to consider, explore and express home as an embodied experience through digital performance. The odd intimacy of Zoom, combined with a commitment to each other to explore the theme of home, facilitated a profound sharing of highly personal yet socially relevant topics rooted in the female body such as mothering, pregnancy, shame, loss and the aesthetics of the body in performance. We turned ourselves as the quote suggests inside out and back again, exploring the reciprocal relationship between body and home, including origin, family, a sense of self, memory and artistry. To reflect on and revisit choices that we as creators intuitively made provides much greater insight into what this work may express, particularly illuminating the meanings of home.
In conclusion, the process of making, presenting and reflecting on Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa emphasizes the importance of experience; specifically, the experience of home, the experience of the artist and the experience of the audience. These experiences encompass many landscapes that may be internal, external, collective and individual, such as memory, emotion, familial and physical. Theatre and performance provide a space for encounter, in this case to encounter the experience of “home,” and the experience of performance itself, which the data demonstrates resonates with an audience on an emotional, personal and political level. The data also indicates that audience responses were unhindered by an online digital performance as the majority of the audience felt connected to the piece and the performers. This may also be due to the presence of the performers in the Zoom meeting and at the feedback session, where a community of sorts was formed.
It is of huge significance that the data indicates a strong corporeal element in the audience response. The data indicates that the artists’ consideration of home in a highly localised way, through the body connected to wider socio-political contexts, proving very effective for an audience on a digital forum. The high impact of the personal narratives demonstrates the importance of creating a working environment based on trust and respect, where performers can give of themselves and their stories safely. Mutual curiosity and desire to explore “home” in new ways during a global crisis fuelled the development of this transnational digital practice-based research enquiry. However, the process and presentation of this performance demonstrates the importance of connection; the artist’s connection with each other, the connection with the audience and with “home” a topic that is highly politicised and personal. This iteration of practice concludes with perhaps more questions than answers about how experiences of presence, performance and community influence a sense of home and identity in both private and public realms.
Mi Cuerpo Mi Casa/My Body My Home. Devised by Maria Tivnan, Astrid Hadad, and Tanya Gomez, 25 May 2021, online.
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*Maria Tivnan is a third-year Irish Research Council doctoral candidate with the National University of Ireland, Galway. Her practice-based project examines how theatre artists create and/challenge meanings of “home” in Galway, Gaza and Mexico City. Maria is the artistic director of Fregoli Theatre and co-chair of Galway theatre collective Theatre57. She holds a BA in Psychology (NUI Galway), an MA in Modern Drama (University College Dublin) and an MA in Social Work (NUI Galway). Maria has also worked as a youth worker, mental health care professional and drama teacher, lecturing on various modules for theatre devising at NUI Galway.
Copyright © 2022 Maria Tivnan
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