For You, For All of Us

By Rowena Richie

woman leans toward camera shouting
group huddles in center of chair circle on beach
For You / photo by Robbie Sweeny

The recent production of For You at the Marin Headlands was intended to be a break from self-absorbed, opaque art. Conceived by interdisciplinary performance maker Erika Chong Shuch, the April 1, 2017 all-day show was designed to center on the lives of 12 audience members, in an event that would feature recognizable moments and be meaningful to them. The surprise is that For You ended up being as much for us performers as for those in the audience. We artists had peak experiences. And thankfully for all of us it’s not over.

For You was inspired by Erika’s desire to make a show for her grandparents. “My grandparents were my biggest fans,” she says. “Or maybe not fans. Because they didn’t love the work. They loved me.”

Erika’s vision was to create a custom dance theater piece for Phyllis and Milton Shuch. She imagined that they would sit in their house in the chairs they rarely got up from and watch little performances inspired by their lives. It never happened before they both died. But the seed was planted. And the notion of an intimate performance celebrating her grandparents dovetailed with her wish to make theater more democratic—less about processing her own feelings and more about the process of getting to know others.

The result is For You, a series of performances focused on the lives of 12 people, presented exclusively for those 12.

As a longtime friend and collaborator of Erika’s, I have the pleasure of working on For You. In addition to Erika and myself, performance scholar Ryan Tacata and architect A. Ghigo DiTommaso are also lead collaborators. The four of us have been developing For You for over a year: building a website, meeting with each other and with our partners at YBCA, representing For You at a conference of Creative Capital, our major supporter, and conducting For You workshops for the public that revolve around the notion of performative gifts.

On that first Saturday in April we presented For You to the first audience of 12. The performers included not only Erika, Ryan, Ghigo and me, but several trusted collaborator friends old and new—in all, performers outnumbered audience participants. There were interactive elements for the audience to partake in as well: one-on-ones (customized exchanges between one performer and one audience member), invitations to dance, serenades, trivia games, a formal dinner, a ritual at sunset on the beach. The audience knew nothing in advance, not even where we were taking them, in part to play up the suspense, and in part to keep our options open. Our website states: “Our eventual performance might take place in a black box theater, or it might unravel over a three-day road trip…”

We had been meeting with the audience participants for a few months prior to April 1st. The 12 people had to apply to take part. The application required a kind of self-awareness. You were asked to submit a photo of your favorite object, a self-portrait, a map of home, and answer the question, “What happened?” We selected people who wouldn’t necessarily hold the same views or attend the same shows, to give strangers a shared experience. Selected audience members then entered the “dating” phase of the project. We got to know them via individual visits. “The only requirements are your time and curiosity,” our website declares. Their gestures, trinkets, and anecdotes became fodder for our performance actions, menus and images.

Many funding organizations ask about impact: what is the impact of the project on your art? What is the impact of your art on the community? With For You, the impact isn’t broad but deep. “Success in some ways is defined by size,” Erika says. “Size of audiences, of venues – and impact is often also measured by those numbers. I became curious about designing a process that shifts some of the fundamental ways we gauge success.” We’ve trusted that less is more. We believe in that deep impact. We aspire to move the needle both in terms of what it means to be in an audience, and what it means to perform for an audience.

For You’s first performance seemed to succeed among audience members. “I have been moved since Saturday to try to be the best version of myself. I’ve been writing spontaneous thank-you notes,” reflected one of the 12. “I am awash in important new memories,” wrote another. “This experience has challenged and changed me. It’s dismantled my understanding of what can be involved in the act of receiving,” shared another. Yet another told us that it made her think of the best way to welcome her daughter home after a year overseas.

One audience member moved by the event was a medical school graduate about to begin a grueling residency. She shared with us her concerns about being away from her toddler son for up to 80 hours a week. This became the basis of a gift for her: a collection of letters written by YBCA youth artist-interns describing their working mothers’ embodied strength and purpose. For this audience member’s one-on-one she sat on a blanket with a thermos of espresso and a view of the Golden Gate, and read the letters. She wept cathartically. She plans to put these letters up in her office.

Even as we gave such poignant gifts to the audience members, we performers reaped unexpected rewards. I experienced a career high point. The moment was fleeting, but powerful and based on the slow, intimate creative process leading up to it. Buried Child is a Sam Shepherd play that was formative to one of our audience member’s careers. She happens to be the San Francisco Chronicle theater critic, Lily Rae Loving Janiak. (I prefer to use her full name, which I believe is a testament to how For You is a bonding experience. I have such affection for all 12). I knew nothing about Buried Child so I looked it up on YouTube. Among talks and stage productions I found a two-minute animated synopsis. We lifted the text from the video verbatim. It starts out, “So, you want to know more about the plot of Buried Child? If so, you’ve come to the right place. If not, well you can just get the hell out!” That shockingly aggressive greeting began what Lily described in the Chronicle as a “square-dance-inflected caricature of Buried Child.”

woman leans toward camera shouting
Rowena Richie in For You / photo by Michael Short special to the San Francisco Chronicle

The caricature was very demanding: a slurry of fast-paced facts about a family with confusing first names. It was under-rehearsed. Not surprising: we had a week-long residency at the Marin Headlands to pull together the whole For You smorgasbord. But as soon as I lit into “So, you want to know more…!” I discovered I was grounded—in Erika, in dance-theater, in my body, all the way down to my supporting breath. I was channeling, not talking about me or processing my feelings as I typically do – so liberating! There’s a photo from this moment of discovery. I’m surging forward almost unhinged, “Well you can just get the hell out!” Exhilarating doesn’t quite describe it. It was orgasmic.

As well as stimulating my performer instincts, this collaboration with Erika, Ghigo, and Ryan flexes my performance-maker muscles. Erika makes me see the big picture and the smallest details, Ghigo makes me see through his deft design-eye, and Ryan opens my eyes to the unseen.

We conducted in-home visits with each audience member. “Small talk” led to deeper dialog that shaped the performance. In the medical school graduate’s orderly, minimalist home Ryan asked to see her messiest space. She hesitated, then opened her sock drawer for us. By our standards it wasn’t messy, but underneath her paired socks were some loose papers, among them a card containing photos of her father trimming trees. The photos took her by surprise. She got choked up looking at them. The house, the trees, the tree-trimming days are gone. Her father suffered a stroke a few years back and consequently lost his beloved home, and some of his dignity. I would have—we would have—missed this bittersweet, telling story without Ryan’s scholarly, sleuthing skills.

For You continues. Rounds two and three are slated for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. In these upcoming versions, we plan to cast a wider net. After the next two rounds, we have dreams of taking it across the country and beyond our national borders. To be one of the 12 audience members you need to apply online. For application instructions go to our website: Applications for the next round are open from June 1st to July 21st. Application deadlines for future rounds will be posted online and updated regularly.

I can’t wait to work with the next set of “yous.” If the upcoming events are anything like the first one, they will be transformative. Lily’s one-on-one involved the Native American teaching that each of us has a ‘medicine’ that we are meant to share with others. It’s what gives us purpose. The April performance seemed to draw out that medicine in everyone involved—audience members and performers. We learned that in giving, you receive. For You ended up being For All of Us.

ROWENA RICHIE has a BFA in dance from California State University, Long Beach, and an MA in Creative Inquiry from New College of California. She is work- ing with Christy Funsch, and others, on a new project about the connections between capitalism and longing. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart’s 100 Days Practice blog can be found at John Milton Hendricks’ 100 Days blog can be found on Tumblr under MiltoJr. Sue Roginski is a co-founding member of P.L.A.C.E. Performance; Get the skinny on Chris Black at chrisblackdance.wix. com/dance.