Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living an Artful Life

by Jennifer Denning

On a cold and rainy Sunday evening the Soulprint Players gathered at Holy Comforter Church to explore with our audience “The Art of Being Human.” One of the questions we asked the audience was, “What does it mean to live an artful life?”

Soulprint Players perform side-by-side solo dances
-photo credit Tony Martin

This is a question I continue to ruminate on over a week after our performance. The question feels particularly important after the attacks on Paris last Friday. What does this being human mean? How does one live fully in this world that includes such heart ache and horror?

A few years ago after the Sandy Hook shootings I heard this quote from Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Testing Tree”: “In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking. It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.” After the Paris attacks, my mind returns to the truth of those words. The heart lives by breaking. The alternative is not to feel. The alternative is to succumb to anger, fear and thoughts of retribution. Perhaps an artful life cannot be lived without this willingness to break. Can there be art without an alive and open heart?

Masankho Banda tells a story with a "gesture choir"
-Photo credit Tony Martin
The Soulprint Players were honored to have long-time InterPlay leader, Masankho Banda from Malawi join our performance.  In Masankho’s young adulthood he came to California as a refugee from Malawi. Masankho’s father was imprisoned there for 12 years after speaking up to the dictator about the rights of the people. Masankho came to the U.S. when he learned he was also at risk of being imprisoned. During our performance one of the stories Masankho told was of being a young boy on a trip and desperately needing to use the bathroom when he was confronted with the sign “Whites only.” Masankho told his story with voice and dance. We watched him and felt the injustice with him.

Telling stories is one part of living an artful life. Speaking truth is another. Moving the realities of our worlds and the broader world out into the light through dance and song is a powerful experience. And yet making an artful life is not limited to those who find their fullness through “the arts.” Living an artful life might simply mean a willingness to find and create beauty in the midst of the whole range of human experience, “to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn.” To let ourselves be penetrated and opened and to live our lives from the depth of that openness.

Soulprint Players celebrate post-performance
-Photo credit Lachlan Brown

In InterPlay performance a connection happens between the ensemble members and the audience. There is an openness present that asserts we can make art from anything that happens in our lives. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines art as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.”  We are all called to live artful lives- rich in imagination, skill, beauty and importance.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

InterPlay at Clarkston, Georgia, Ellis Island of the South: Screening of ELLIS and Panel Discussion

Written by Ruth Schowalter, Certified InterPlay Leader
On the second Tuesday night in November, InterPlay Atlanta was asked to join the  gathering at the Clarkston Community Center (CCC) to provide an experiential way to delve into the stories of being an immigrant in the past and now after the screening of the movie, ELLIS.

After arriving from traffic-filled metro-Atlanta roads to get to the CCC, those attending relaxed and chatted around a table of satisfying finger food and drink. I was pleased to meet various people from different nonprofit organizations that serve refugees and established communities that receive these new arrivals from different places in the world like Bhutan, Nepal, Somali, and Iraq.  

McKenzie Wren, CCC Director, welcomes everyone.
McKenzie Wren, CCC director, welcomed everyone and gave an introduction to the 15-minute film “ELLIS,” an artful film set in the abandoned Ellis hospital complex. Giving power to the stories of those who travelled through the Ellis facilities written by Academy Award winner Eric Roth, were the images in the art installation by the artist JR, who also directed the film. Adding even more star power to this film about people seeking refuge from persecution and poverty, was Robert DeNiro who starred in it.

Here is the trailer to ELLIS:

ELLIS - trailer from SOCIAL ANIMALS on Vimeo.

A “tie-in” to the InterPlay form, “Walking, Stopping, Running” were unnerving words at the conclusion of the film that advised new arrivals to the shores of the United States to walk, walk faster, and to run as they endeavored to make a new home for themselves. Did the words suggest fleeing, exhausting work, seeking help, finding eventual success and comfort?

InterPlay’s “Walking, Stopping, Running” allows a group of people to make choices in the presence of those participating to remain still to rest and witness others moving, walk at a speed they desire, or run. Participants discover on their own that they can join others in either stopping or moving.

This form supported and held space for those present in the room who had left their countries to find a new home in the United States, for example, Luay Sami from Iraq and Daniel Valdez from Mexico. It allowed others of us in the room born in this country to feel connected in a new way to those who were not.

Satyam Barakoti, CCC Advancements Director, who invited me to offer an InterPlay activity for this event explained her reasons for the invitation: “I wanted to move the energy from the sadness of the movie, move people from a place of being stuck—hopeless to a different place. I think by giving permission to walk, run, walk alone or walk with someone, we also characterized various journeys that immigrants take.”

During the ten minutes of “Walking, Stopping, Running,” that we did between the ELLIS film and the panel discussion on the topic of immigration, “I added the “lean.” The “lean” is an opportunity if participants are willing to move into contact with one another and to feel the support through a physical connection. I observed some people choosing to stop and connect while some held hands and walked or ran around the room together.

“The InterPlay experience was the perfect connector between the power of the film and the richness of the discussion,” McKenzie Wren texted me.  “It helped us to feel in our bodies what we had just witnessed on the screen. It was simple and yet profound.”

After our InterPlay experience, the audience settled down for a panel discussion moderated by an immigration lawyer Meighan Vargas with Ted Terry, the Clarkston Mayor  (who I had “leaned” with not knowing he was the Mayor!); Daniel Valdez, Regional Manager of Welcoming America, and Luay Sami, CCC Events and Facilities Manager. I learned more about the immigration experience while I sat in the CCC heard for the first time Clarkston described as the “Ellis Island to the South.”

CLARKSTON, GEORGIA, "ELLIS ISLAND of the SOUTH." (Left to right), Ted Terry, Clarkston's Mayor, Daniel Valdez of Welcoming America, and Luay Sami of the CCC, answer questions moderated by Meighan Vargas, immigration lawyer. "Ellis Island of the South" is a fitting description for one of the most diverse cities in the United States.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Thank you to Satyam Barakoti for inviting me to lead InterPlay at this event. It felt like InterPlay, an improvisational system used as a tool for building community and social change, was a great fit. McKenzie Wren thank you for such a great introduction to me and to InterPlay. As always, I'm so appreciative to Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, co-founders of InterPlay. And, finally, gratitude to all of those people who shared their experiences as new arrivals to the United States.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Accessing the Stories within You: Workshop with Masankho Banda

MASANKHO KAMSISI BANDA. Facilitating the storytelling workshop, "Accessing the Stories within You." (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
by Ruth Schowalter, certified InterPlay leader

We slipped our shoes off at the door of the Rising Phoenix T’ai Chi studio located in the Little Five Points Community Center and joined Masankho Kamsisi Banda, international storyteller and InterPlayer from Malawi. After a centering meditative activity, we shared our names and began by telling a one-minute story about “walking” with the group of six participants that had gathered for the evening storytelling workshop.

Masankho prefaced this one-minute storytelling activity with the question: “Where do our stories hang out and how do we tell them?”

To my surprise as we went around the circle telling our one-minute walking stories, I discovered that I have gathered numerous stories about my walking experiences over the course of my 57 years. This realization thrilled me! It is possible that storytelling can come in categories of simple unpretentious words! Consider the following words: toothbrush, cake, mosquito, and sidewalk. What stories organize around those words for you? Is it possible to tell a one-minute story about each one of those words? I think the answer might be “YES”! This is the beauty of InterPlay’s incremental steps and Masankho’s calm peaceful facilitation of them.

On this warm rainy Friday night in November, InterPlay Atlanta was privileged to offer a workshop to our metro Atlanta area folks to learn how to access the stories that are already with us and how to share them in dynamic and fun ways. Masankho, who learned the arts of storytelling and drumming from his village elders in the African country of Malawi, blends his cultural learning together with Interplay providing powerful learning tools for both the emerging and accomplished storyteller. (For more information about Masankho go here:

After doing some “noticings” about our one-minute stories, we warmed up using  InterPlay forms accompanied by what I can only describe as “poetic” instructions. As a lifelong writing teacher who has struggled with ways to get students to be more specific by paying attention to their senses, I experienced a master teacher ease us into observation. Masankho asked us to notice the colors, the shapes, and the textures as we moved about the room. With excitement, I experienced the “embodiment” of details as I stretched my arms out and swung them and stepped about the room looking and seeing. It was almost as if the colors were brighter and the shapes more defined! And that was just the warm up!

Going deeper into the warm-up, as we continued to move, Masankho called out letters of the alphabet and asked us to give him words beginning with that letter. Moving and creating together, a symphony of voices filled the room in response to “T,” “M,” and “W.” Being a voice in a community of voices allows you to listen, to speak out and to layer on top of other voices.  Yes! It was challenging, fun, and satisfying.
Masankho offered us poetic phrases to repeat. Some were poetic phrases composed with alliteration; others were of ordinary things but compellingly visual, and still others were just really fun to say! He then asked us to complete sentences for him. Imagine such fun word play while still engaging yourself in stepping about the room, looking or not looking, listening to others, responding when you are ready!

InterPlayers around the world will gasp at the “sneaky deep” and elegant play we did to access our stories within. Masankho partnered us, with one person being “Partner A” and the other being “Partner B.” Then we did the InterPlay exercise, “Walk Stop Run” while he played the drum. When he stopped playing, we told whatever story came up from our running, stopping, and walking. Movement for me triggered a memory from the early 1980’s at a syrup sopping festival in Loachapoka, Alabama.

FIND MY STORY. TELL MY STORY. SOMEONE WILL LISTEN. We finished our evening with an affirming three-sentence song about being storytellers. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)

The progression of Masankho’s movement and storytelling workshop led us to a “Hand to Hand” dance with a new partner and a word given to us by Masankho, which we released with a “wheee” before beginning our “dance.” The “wheee” is permission to let the word go, be present, or a launching pad for something else.
After this activity, we sat down and noticed what are experiences were. Masankho acknowledged what we said, and offered: “Physical proximity and touch are fertile grounds for stories.”

Before leaving, we had the opportunity to do a “DT3,” an InterPlay form, which the storyteller moves first, then talks in three successive intervals while a partner witnesses. Masankho encouraged us to “move, and move, and move, without thinking” and to allow words to emerge from our movement. This experience allowed some of us to relinquish “linearity” to our stories.

There is so much more to the rich experience of this storytelling workshop with Masankho. I have just given you a “taste” here with this blog post written hastily on a Saturday morning.  (It is still raining by the way.) I hope Masankho will forgive me if I have misportrayed anything about last night’s workshop by giving this broad view. It is “my story” of my first meeting with Masankho. I look forward to future ones! He led us in this short song before we dispersed out into the rainy night skies over Georgia:

Find my story

Tell my story

Someone will listen


Thank you Jennifer Denning for contacting Masankho Kamsisi Banda and engaging him in the workshops and performances this weekend. And, as always, many thanks to Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, co-founders of this amazing improvisational system of InterPlay. Also a shout out to Sheila K. Collins, Ginny Goings and Tom Henderson, who also gave storytelling workshops for InterPlay Atlanta.
THANK YOU MASANKHO! Here I am (left) with Masankho and Jennifer! Feeling a lot of gratitude for all that InterPlay has brought to my life. I am beginning to "grow" the storyteller in me and it feels good! I know someone will listen. (photo by Tony Martin)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Soulprint Players Perform on All Saints Day at Pine Lake Art Salon

By Ruth Schowalter, Certified InterPlay Leader

The beginning of November brought Soulprint Players to their first performance of the month at the Pine Lake Art Salon in Pine Lake, Georgia, on All Saints Day, the afternoon after Halloween. In this quiet idyllic community nestled around a lake replete with turtles and geese and punctuated with a sandy beach and beach house, there are two women Kathie DeNobriga and Alice Teeter, who have a big red barn next to their home where they have been hosting this art salon for eight years.

Joyce Kinnard (photo by R. Schowalter)
This November 1st  salon began with Joyce Kinnard (who coincidentally is a Soulprint Player) reading a collection of her prose and poetry. She was followed by Stephen Windham, who read poetry from his chapbook, “After Words.” The cool air poured in from where one whole wall of the barn was opened up to the Pine Lake neighborhood. While these writers shared their work, audience members lounged on couches and chairs watching leaves fall from trees in a gentle autumn rain.
Stephen Windham (photo by R. Schowalter)

After a short break during which conversations were conducted, furniture was rearranged, cheddar cheese, cornbread muffins, and grapes were munched on, the Soulprint Players began their performance in this informal and welcoming Pine Lake space.

Jennifer Denning, Soulprint Players director, warmed up the audience with shaking their bodies out, clapping, and creating foundation and decoration songs. Then she collected their ideas about Halloween and All Saints Day. Since Soulprint Players are an improvisational troupe, these audience-given topics were our material for performance.
We are so fortunate to have the drummer Wade Levering, a new Soulprint Player, join Debra Hiers, a clarinetist to play music during our performance. We began with the Pittsburgh form and were invited to tell stories about someone in our lives who had died.

Afterwards, Jennifer called a new InterPlay form,“Been Stiller,” one we learned from the Minneapolis InterPlayers at the InterPlay Leaders meeting in Racine, Wisconsin, this past summer. Asked to sing a song inspired by Saints real or imaginary given to us from the audience, a group of five InterPlayers perform with one player singing and moving until another player began singing or moving.

Next, Jennifer called the “Gesture Choir” form, and Vivian Slade, also a  new InterPlay performer, told a story about her grandmother. Audience members were invited to join the gesture choir and one member did. It is was fun! Everyone can do InterPlay!

We concluded our performance by playing around with another new form for our InterPlay Atlanta group--“Solo Group Movement” form. In this form, individual InterPlayers have their own spotlight for a solo dance but five movers go out incrementally and then are replaced one at a time by other InterPlayers during the performance. We did this form on “behalf of” people who had passed away with names given to us from the audience and for someone we named ourselves.

Big thank you’s to Alice Teeter and Kathie DeNobriga for inviting us to perform at the November Pine Lake Art Salon and to the warm audience who played with us and gave us such great topics!

We look forward to our next performance this Sunday, November 8th at the Holy Comforter Episcopal Church at 5:00 PM. “The Art of Being Human,” will have special guest artist Masankho Banda, international InterPlayer and storyteller.  Please join us at 737 Woodland Avenue Southeast, Atlanta, Georgia,  30316. Suggested donations $10 to $50 (be affordable but generous). Donations will support InterPlay sessions at the Friendship Center of Holy Comforter.
SOULPRINT PLAYERS. Here we are! A handful of Soulprint Players. We will be joined by other players for our performance this Sunday at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church. (photo by Art Salon audience member)