Oral History and Performance Course: Origins

As part of my contribution to our continuing exploration of “oral history and performance” this term, I thought that I would write a series of reflections and post them in basecamp. These will, I hope, also serve as the building blocks of a (very) short article that I want to write for a special issue of alt.theatre on the Montreal Life Stories Project, being edited by Ted Little.

Oral History and Performance I: Origins

“The performance of oral history is itself a transformational process. At the very least, it translates subjectively remembered events into embodied memory acts, moving memory into re-membering.”

- Della Pollock

If asked to describe a History seminar at the senior undergraduate or graduate level, I don’t think anybody in my own discipline would have imagined a dance studio with hardwood floors, mirrored walls, or floor-to-ceiling windows that cover an entire wall. Nor would they have imagined a classroom where students and faculty communally set-up and take-down the tables and chairs each week or who sometimes sit on foam mats in a big circle. I also doubt they would have expected to see students engaged in song, dance, and improvisational exercises such as the “Fantasy Machine” where one person enters our big circle and begins to do a repetitive movement. One by one, others join in until everyone is a cog in this gloriously strange and silly machine. Yet this is precisely what a group of 26 history and theatre students enrolled in Concordia University’s inaugural “Oral History and Performance” course have been doing since September. If my colleagues in the Department of History only knew!

I often like to say that everyone has an origin story that helps explains who they are and why they are ‘here’. Individuals, families, communities, nations, research projects, and , yes, even new courses originate somewhere. So where did this year’s Oral History and Performance seminar-studio come from?

I think it fair to say that the course is a by-product of the Montreal Life Stories Project, a major collaborative research project recording the stories of Montrealers displaced by war, genocide and other human rights violations. From the outset, we sought to incorporate these recorded life stories into film, radio, exhibition, digital story, and performance. Ted and I proposed this course as part of our 2006 grant application. Seven working-groups took shape over the first 2-3 months of meetings, including one dedicated to Oral History and Performance. Ted Little was instrumental in putting the group together. He brought in Teesri Duniya Theatre (Rahul Varma), Creative Alternatives (Nisha Sajnani), as well as researchers from Music (Sandeep Bhagwatti), Interdisciplinary Studies (Alan Wong), and Applied Human Sciences (Warren Lind). I brought in Tim Schwab, a talented film-maker from the Communications Department, as well as Lorna Roth, who coordinates our Radio Works project. I am also a member of the working group.

Why me? To be honest, I wish that I blogged about these ‘early days’ at the time, as I am no longer certain why I initially chose this particular working group to belong to over others. I have no background in theatre and the thought of being on stage terrifies me. And yet, I remember being inspired the first time that I read Della Pollock’s book Remembering: Oral History Performance, which had only just come out. She writes that “insofar as oral history is a process of making history in dialogue, it is performative. It is cocreative, co-embodied, specially framed, contextually and intersubjectively contingent, sensuous, vital, artful in its achievement of narrative form, meaning and, ethics, and insistent on doing through saying”. It is noteworthy that it was a book (and a dense one at that) rather than a live performance that provided the spark that opened up my imagination.

The members of our Oral History and Performance group met monthly for the first year or two, giving us time to get to know one another. In 2009, we began to see the fruits of our labours. In April, Teesri Duniya organized Untold Histories, four evenings of intercultural song, dance and performance. The table reading of Hourig Attarian and Rachel van Fossen’s script, developed out of Hourig’s own Armenian family history, was particularly affecting and highly reflexive. In May of that year, I participated in a “Playback Theatre” debriefing of project interviewers and watched Sandeep Bhagwati’s initial gestural theatre – each actor adopted the gestures of one of our interviewees as their own. Not a word was spoken - powerful stuff. Most oral historians know that body language is important, but what do we ‘do’ with the visual component of our videotaped interviews?

Everything seemed to come together in November 2009 when the project organized an international conference on Remembering War, Genocide and Other Human Rights Violations: Oral History, New Media and the Arts. For three days, I was surprised and delighted by how people approached their presentations. Rachel and Hourig, for example, presented about their collaboration – each speaking in their own voice (rather than a universalized ‘we’). At regular intervals, they stopped and three actors (the same three who presented at Untold Histories) did a mini-table reading. This hybrid-approach that embraced scholarship and art, worked beautifully. Another project, based in Boston, wove fragments of first-person testimony from veterans in distress into classical music, played live. At first, it was disconcerting as these fragments seemed to come from the audience itself – thus destabilizing convention. Boundaries between audience and performance, blurred. Sandeep Bhagwatti’s Lamentations challenged me even more – the actors were directed to adopt the hand gestures of one of the survivors we interviewed. However, they had to watch, not listen, as the audio was turned off. This conscious decision to suppress the voice, troubled me - particularly now that Sandeep had inserted the words of others to create a narrative. Still, it did force me to realize how often oral historians similarly suppress the body, without a thought. There were other moments, too. The evening session with Montreal’s Rwandan community was one of the most remarkable that I have ever witnessed at a conference. What astonished me over the three day meeting was how little distance there seemed to be between participants, as we all seemed to be exploring the same mental/artistic/scholarly/political space. For a moment, the professional (professor/community/activist), disciplinary, and geographic (“canadianist”/’africanist’/etc) categories that structure our existence in the university did not seem to matter. At one point I said to myself: “this is where I want to spend the rest of my career.”

I felt at home.

Steven High