Design by Raegan Kelly
Monica Stufft is a performance studies researcher at the University of California @ Berkeley, where she is writing a dissertation about the living and working conditions of American theater women at the turn of the 20th century. In March of 2005, she participated in a playtest of PlaceStorming v 3.0.
As a PlaceStormer, Monica used her work on American theater women to create the profile of an imaginary new breed of superheroes called the "Sister Chorines." She created a superhero manifesto for the Sister Chorines by playfully quoting, or "cutting up," Domesticating Showgirls: Historicizing the Ziegfeld Girls, her own conference paper for Performance Studies International. With two other PlaceStormers, Monica role-played as the Sister Chorines in downtown Providence and performed a site-specific public intervention. She then geocached her manifesto for future PlaceStormers to find and to perform.
What follows are some of her notes and images from the playtest.
It felt like an act of violence, cutting up my work, forcing it into another context.
I resented the parameters of the superhero manifesto. They required me to deconstruct carefully crafted sentences, sentences I had struggled over and polished until they were exactly what I wanted to say. Now I was wrenching words from those sentences and giving them a strange new form, a form I was sure couldn't come close to articulating my argument. I had struggled to make that argument fit the 10 page limit of a conference paper. Here, I had only 10 lines.
It was challenging. I hit a wall more than once. I felt a tinge of regret each time I sacrificed the complexity of a thought to fit the tiny space and right part of speech for a particular field in the manifesto. I kept asking myself: What could playing with the most formal expression of my research project accomplish?
I was still struggling with my manifesto when our playtesting group started packing up supplies and preparing to leave the classroom. I'd named my superheroes the "Sister Chorines" ”" it had a nice ring to it. ('Chorine' is a term for a woman who was a member of a chorus, and my research focuses on the communities and networking practices chorines created at the turn of the 20th century.) I'd called the Sister Chorines' superhero tool "Midnight frolics" ”" that was the name of the nightly midnight show Ziegfeld girls put on before Prohibition. But I couldn't figure out what to use as my superheroes' call to action. What would the Sister Chorines yell in a public space? They weren't so much speakers as dancers. Finally, just to finish up, I jotted down something relating to the chorus girls' kick lines — "Get a leg up!" There was no good reason for picking this phrase over the many others.
I had no idea what it would yield.
We were going to perform, and then hide, our manifestos with a prop. The prop would represent a kind of "supertool".
We were asked to choose our superhero tools from a variety of everyday objects arranged into a PlaceStorming array: balloons, sunglasses, little diaries, colored electrical tape. My first impulse was to use the sunglasses, but even as I was reaching for them, I realized that it didn't feel quite right. I followed some unconscious instinct and grabbed the electrical tape to stash with my manifesto. I didn't have a good reason at the time. It just felt right.
I had never heard of geocaching before, and it was my first time using GPS equipment. It was incredibly exciting. I forgot my frustrations with my own manifesto as I helped others perform theirs. After an hour, we meandered off campus and into the surrounding downtown area. I felt that this move to a more public setting was more fitting for my superheroes, as "increased visibility" and "social interaction" were important terms in my Sister Chorines' manifesto. I studied the urban landscape for a site that seemed suited for the Sister Chorines' mission: "to join the ranks of a political vehicle, with a sense of genuine fellowship."
As we walked down the hill from the university, we chanced upon a square with a fountain in the center. There were groups of children playing around and on the fountain. The ring of cement encasing the water made an excellent playground for the children. So why not join the children in a genuine fellowship of play? We could use it as our PlaceStorming playground. To kick off our intervention, we "Got a Leg Up" by hopping onto the edge of the fountain, and began discussing the best way to use the Sister Chorines' supertool in that particular setting.
The Sister Chorines' super power was to be "friendly and encouraging to all newcomers." So we decided to approach the children. We did this with a bit of nervousness, understanding that the adult chaperones would be skeptical of our presence and of our interest in the children. We told the children's chaperones that we wanted to ask the children to decorate us with the electrical tape, to make art on us, anywhere they wanted.
What began as hesitant introductions ended in a melee of tape as the children decorated our clothing with colorful patches. One girl marked her name on my arm in yellow while a house was constructed out of blue, green, and red. My fellow "Sister Chorines" ended up as brilliantly decorated as I was—face, hair, shoes, hands. We now had attractive alternatives to our somewhat solemn conference garb—and "making attractive alternatives" was part of the Sister Chorines' modus operandi, according to the manifesto I'd created. So was "increased visibility"—and we definitely achieved that, as well.
We thanked the children and their chaperones, and we told them that we'd wear their artwork for the rest of the day. The children were doubtful at first and then, when they finally believed us, jubilant. They had expected us to take the tape off immediately. Instead, we promised to take their artwork back to Brown and with us for the remainder of our day.
As my fellow PlaceStormers and I walked back to campus, we talked about the significance of letting the children mark us. I told them more about my paper and explained that an important aspect of my scholarly work is to reframe the way that other scholars understand the professional and personal lives of, and relationships between, working chorus girls. An argument commonly made by historians is that the chorus girls were entirely structured, controlled, and disciplined by their male directors, producers, and audience members. In my writing, I refute this position and argue instead that through their participation in theater, women formed communities and networks that were not entirely guided by the masculine presences around them, but rather had a life of their own.
My fellow PlaceStormers pointed out that while we had structured the experience of performing our manifesto, operating as a kind of director, the children had truly left their mark on us by surprising us with what they came up with. They had an active role in performing the manifesto, a role that touched and changed us. It made me realize how important it was for me to let my work have a life of its own, that I am in my historical approach to chorus girls already actively arguing for the importance and validity of a multi-authored experience. And with our superhero electrical tape, we had truly (and literally) "patched together new communities" through the "collaborative action" of the children on our clothes and bodies.
When I made my decision about what prop to use, I didn't really have a reason for the switch at the time. But its significance to my work became evident in the PlaceStorming process. I learned (or, perhaps, relearned) how important physical connections between individuals are. The sunglasses would have facilitated viewing, while the tape allowed for literal physical connections, for a tangible and tactile experience in the field.
Instead of viewing from a distance, a position that we so often occupy as scholars, I was able to experience my work from a new, more physically engaged, perspective. And I had to remain open for how the children engaged with the manifesto, just as I must remain open to hear how the women experienced their networks and communities.
PlaceStorming allowed me to re-vision my project, to feel the energy of creative engagement with the work and to create communities and networks of my own. I left the conference with a deeper understanding of my work and why I had been drawn to it in the first place. But I also learned how to be a more responsible historian as I go into the archives more willing to be touched and changed by what I encounter.
Through play, PlaceStorming helped me rediscover the heart of my research project. I came out of the playtest with a stronger sense of the personal stakes of the research.
I realize now that PlaceStorming facilitates the same reflective process in writers that I encourage my acting students to do when they develop a scene. In the acting studio, I ask students to find their motivation -- to uncover core goals of their characters, and to make those goals meaningful to them on a personal level. In the same way, PlaceStorming asks writers and public actors to understand the motivations of a research project, to find and embody the core goal of a research project. It is, perhaps, a kind of method acting for researchers.
I've left my work and the superhero tools for you to find. I left my manifesto underneath a trash can, in a little alcove, a kind of cement cave. It was the only sheltered space in that open square, I didn't want to leave it exposed, I wanted to leave it protected.
It would be wonderful to see what happens when you perform the manifesto. I know that I'll get new insights every time someone leaves their mark. I'd also love to see what happens if you create your own manifesto and join this network of superheroes. So I say to you, "Get a leg up!"
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