November 13, 2020
by Wilma Theater Portable Studio Program Coordinator Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez
When the pandemic became a reality only a few short months (but-it-feels-like-years) ago, I remember Portable Studio Director Lee Ann Etzold and I making a commitment to hold onto our connections to the community that we’ve built through the Wilma Theater’s Portable Studio. We became determined to find ways to still make performances accessible, and we wanted to make sure that we could honor the relationships we’ve built over the past three years no matter how bumpy the transition into the virtual world.
And while the journey has been difficult, we’ve discovered new ways of working with our community.
The first practice we brought into the virtual world is a practice inspired by NPR’s crowd sourced poem by George Ella Lyon. We’ve done this practice in the past, but this time we crowdsourced a poem virtually with poetry prompts being launched via email, Instagram, and Facebook. Over 30 people submitted text for our first crowd sourced poem called I Am From.
At the start of the lockdown, we found ourselves unable to partner with Broad Street Ministry because of all the precautions in place. While we were navigating ways to work with our houseless community members, we became connected to Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission through the Asian Arts Initiative. Because Sunday Breakfast had residents sheltering in place, there was a need for folks to have activities to pass the time. So we brainstormed and tried something completely new; instead of a performance project, we decided to create a sculpture of hope (designed and built by Ezra J. Ali-Dow) to commemorate this moment and remind us to hold onto light in the darkness.
Our goal was to teach residents of Sunday Breakfast how to fold origami cranes as well as write poetry inspired by hope and change. We designed and shared out origami instructions via mail, email, and in person at a social distance with Sunday Breakfast residents. Our goal was to collect 1,000 cranes as a symbol of hope in the Japanese practice called senbazuru. To our surprise, we received over 1,000 cranes!
We then partnered with Asian Arts Initiative for their July town hall to create another crowdsourced poem, this time connected to our 1,000 Cranes for Philly project. The members of the town hall shared with me what hope meant to them. I then composed a larger poem and later pulled in a few additions from Sunday Breakfast residents. What emerged was a beautiful poem exploring hope, and what I discovered is when we share joy or hope with one another it becomes contagious – even if we are separated by screens.
Although it felt like the world was falling apart beneath us, I’ve recognized that if we stay committed to building community, we can cultivate it in so many ways. The Portable Studio is in the process of building a virtual curriculum for our amazing partners at Baker Industries, we’re working to establish a play reading club at Sunday Breakfast, and have started a new practice of working with, and seeing folks as, professionals of their own lived experience. As we honor people’s full humanity, I find that people become more open and I have the honor of learning so much from simply listening/making space for other people’s being.
As we honor people’s full humanity, I find that people become more open and I have the honor of learning so much from simply listening/making space for other people’s being.
This practice has become integral to my work as the Program Coordinator of the Portable Studio and my work as a teacher and facilitator. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the key note panelists I had the honor of working with this October. These wonderful young professionals helped me refine this practice when we worked together to create a dynamic key note panel that centered their voices and experiences for The Philadelphia Coalition for Queer Justice and Intersectional Equity.
The Portable Studio teaching artists are not just teachers or artists, they’ve become support systems for community members, checking in with our participants via phone these past few months. We’ve become facilitators, and program designers, and so much more.
Somehow in a moment where I felt like I could lose everything, I have found myself fortunate to gain so much. In many ways this is because of the commitment and support of the Wilma Theater, their faith in the Portable Studio, and ultimately because I’m an artist working with other artists. We’ve always had to be creative to get by. And now, more than ever, I believe that theater artists can use our communication skills, listening skills, facilitation skills, and vision to help imagine a better future for all of us.
“The great work begins.”