Where decentre Comes in to Help

“It’s only when diverse perspectives are included, respected, and valued that we can start to get a full picture of the world, who we serve, what they need, and how to successfully meet people where they are.” Brené Brown, Dare to Lead

What is decentre? What does it do?

The last two posts, “How Performance Can Break Stereotype (Maybe)” and “Rising Tide of Change”, give a small glimpse of the exciting performance work happening on the East Coast. Theatre and performance artists are challenging the status quo from a place of courage and wholeheartedness. Stretching beyond the boundaries of traditional bums-in-seats theatre, these artists are owning their personal vulnerabilities and redefining Atlantic Canadian culture. If Atlantic Canada is framed as boring, which it often is, these artists are pushing beyond the frame and carving out a new creative path.

Here, I describe how decentre aligns itself with these brave artists and how it prepares artists for further creative risk-taking. The post outlines what decentre can offer as a digital commons: an online space that welcomes vulnerability and listens to those living and working on the margins. There are two parts to this project: online content and creative mentorship.

1. Online Content: Important ideas

The blog posts explore the many creative perspectives within Atlantic Canadian theatre and performance. The podcasts amplify creative voices that are often muffled. There are multiple ideas presented on this website, and many more to come. I’m trying to make decentre less about me, so please leave a comment below to join the conversation. To quote Beyoncé:

If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose. The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective. (Beyoncé, Vogue, September 2018)

decentre presents work created by East Coast artists with different perspectives. It also provides sustained, collaborative support for those new to theatre or approaching it in unconventional ways. It’s a place to strengthen your theatre or performance creations through honest conversation and a variety of perspectives.

The ideas and resources on decentre.org are yours for the taking.

2. Creative Mentorship: Putting these ideas into action

Want some hands on assistance for a play you’re writing? Have a new performance concept and want an outside eye? decentre is ready to turn the light on the creative projects you’ve been keeping in the dark.

I and some other professional artists/arts workers are creating online mentorship programs for those who want to take the next step and confront the status quo: creatives who are tackling material outside of the mainstream. We want to reach out and listen to how you are approaching your creative process, and be available to you to provide any sort of insight when needed.

I’m personally offering my services as an academic, artist, and arts administrator to listen to your ideas and help you shape them into a successful creative project. We will soon outline the types of things I and others on the team can offer, including biweekly video calls, dramaturgical input, directing tips, and more. In the meantime, reach out if you’d like to chat about how we can collaborate.

A friendly resource and an honest guide: that’s what decentre is becoming. And as it starts to grow and take shape, I’d like to take the time to talk about its core values. It’s a creative commons for people who live and work on the margins, ie artists who wish to burst out of their own personal boxes, but why does decentre believe that creative risk and vulnerability is important?

I’d like to start with an anecdote. I hope this sheds light on what decentre is trying to do.

Lately I’ve been posting confessional videos on my personal Instagram. I live alone and I’ve been feeling too lethargic to socialize. Honestly… I’ve been lonely. I record myself speaking through my fears and problems, and it’s really just so I can hear my own voice. Instagram has been my confidant.

My recent Instagram story was about how people’s expression of vulnerability requires heightened listening. I spoke about how people plan responses in advance and how we need to be practicing genuine curiosity and empathy instead.

Interest in what others are saying allows them to feel safe. Connecting to their emotions allows them to feel heard.

In my experience, when I have a lot of emotional baggage and attempt to articulate challenging concepts, it’s important I feel like others can empathize: like they can connect with what I’m trying to say. Even small instances of dismissal can cause damage when we have our entire hearts on the line. And artists have their heart on the line more often than anyone. That’s the purpose of decentre — supporting artists as they dig into their personal creative muck.

A friend watched my story and slid into my DMs. They agreed with what I was saying but felt the argument was incomplete. They explained that as the vulnerable person unloads in a conversation, it’s healthy for them to be aware that the person they’re speaking with may be unable to grasp the intricacies of what they’re saying. Maybe they’re on the autism spectrum, or ill equipped to handle emotional baggage.

I told my friend I completely agreed and appreciated the input. But honestly I felt deflated. They were offering me valuable insight, and all I could see was a huge “BUT” wedged between the conflict and what I thought to be a profound solution (*hair toss*).

I’m a big Brené Brown fan, and after looking back at her research I think I’ve recognized what was going on. Brown is an expert on shame and vulnerability: her work uncovers how we can delve deeper into tough emotions and live more courageous and authentic lives. I tend to point to her popular TED talk as an introduction to her body of work, though you may also wish to watch her recent Netflix special.

Reading Dare to Lead I found this quote:

vulnerability is not a sympathy-seeking tool … Sharing just to share without understanding your role, recognizing your professional boundaries, and getting clear on your intentions and expectations (especially those flying under the radar) is just purging or venting or gossip or a million other things that are often propelled by hidden needs. (Brené Brown, Dare to Lead)

My video confession may have been insightful, but there was also a hidden need of simply feeling heard and not expecting feedback. I think many of us have created a piece of art that simply existed as a way for us to vent. Instead, creations should spark conversations. That’s what leads to change.

I realized that though I was being honest I wasn’t fully leaning into vulnerability. Part of being vulnerable as a person and as an artist is staying curious no matter what. My friend was happy about my comments on empathy and listening, but wanted to grow my initial thoughts in an even more fruitful direction: “Yes, we need to try to be more aware of our privilege in conversation, and we can acknowledge each other’s boundaries and limitations at the same time.” Great input, but I felt thrown off.

My friend said “and”. My fear heard “but”.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as artists, we dismantled our fears and remained open to others’ experiences? Others’ unique perspectives that can make our own work even more beautiful?

When I felt discouraged, lost, and lonely, I turned to Instagram. The conversation with my friend was hard for me to handle. My armour was up and I wasn’t ready to engage with the muck. But when I did, the reward was great. My friend was speaking from a place with which I was also familiar. Brené Brown calls this the arena: we can afford to be vulnerable and listen to others, but only those who are in the arena with us, fighting a similar battle.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been in environments where we’ve felt shame in pursuing our creative impulses. As someone who grew up in rural New Brunswick, my experience of the East Coast is that it’s filled with a lot of cute butts and not-so-cute “buts”: “I would love to do this, but there are no opportunities here”; “I love theatre but it’s not a practical career choice”. I viewed my friend’s comment as a “but” when it was really an “and”. They were cultivating the conversation and encouraging it to grow.

decentre is a place to move beyond your personal “but” and, like I discussed in the last two posts, explore the many potentials of the “and”. Doing so requires courage. It means leaning into vulnerability, embracing risk, and asking the hard questions. It also means creating what Brown and her team call a “safe container”: asking each other what we need to feel supported and safe in creative conversations.

decentre is a platform to discuss and embrace challenge. East Coast artists are doing wonderful things. If we can hone that and keep questioning ourselves, we can achieve even more than we set out to. We can reposition Atlantic Canadian culture as one that is always pushing boundaries in productive ways.

decentre offers opportunities to gain new insight. My experience as a director, actor, teacher, and administrator may help any theatre artist wanting to move beyond their personal “but”. Because of the large distances between communities, and a lack of city centres, East Coast artists may not have access to the creative support they’re looking for. You may wish to create in a field with which you’re unfamiliar, or do something that’s different and unexpected. You’re welcome to collaborate with us, artists who know the East Coast and have successfully created outside of the box. You can engage with us through a mentorship program (stay tuned for the next blog post), which may help you hit the ground running with your brilliant, provocative ideas.

If you’re marginalized, you face more obstacles in getting your work seen. And I know many of these obstacles aren’t physical. Shame and discouragement stop you from showing your true potential. By offering sustained creative support, decentre lends a listening ear and a helping hand. The online content is an invitation to join the conversation. The mentorship is collaborative and flexible, and provides reliable encouragement throughout your creative process.

Creators can’t go it completely alone 100% of the time. We get lonely. If you are creating from a place of vulnerability, it is important to have a mentor or advisor with whom you can be honest. This is also true if you are leading others: often our professional boundaries are such that we require outside guidance. Having honest conversations about our practice can help us dig deeper into problems and shape long lasting solutions.

As Atlantic Canadians, we sometimes can’t see beyond the fog of the “but”: decentre gets its hands dirty with honest kindness, delves into difficult conversations, and ultimately points you to an “and”.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What ideas do you have that are ridiculous but that also might just work? How do you find the courage to put them into action?

Email me at lukedanbrown@gmail.com to chat about what your creative project needs to move forward. I’m happy to suggest approaches and point you to the resources I have to share.

In my Instagram story, what I landed on at first wasn’t the final solution: it was the start of one that would grow into something better. Let’s let our armour down and embrace vulnerability. Let’s get into it and build more intricate solutions: ones that can guide us through the muck and allow marginalized Atlantic Canadian artists to reach their full potential.

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