Here's how it is described:
"A blind and homeless man sits by the side of a building hoping for some spare change, but no one seems to notice him or care. A stranger walks by and changes the message on his sign and suddenly the homeless man's fortunes change."
But it's not a PSA in support and awareness of the homeless and/or disabled communities. It's an ad for online copy writers. Thank you, A. Rey Pamatmat for sharing this useful bit of dramaturgy.
Confession: I silenced the little voice in my head that said, "Wait a minute, she didn't even ask if she could change his sign." I did so, because I found the compassion of people giving so touching. I have a heightened awareness to the homeless community right now for a number of reasons:
- There but for the grace of God, my family, and a handful of dear friends go I, in this wretched economy.
- In my new play, Among These Wild Things, one of the characters is a former featherweight boxing champion, who is now living on the streets. I made notes on this act of giving, but lack of engagement
- The weather is awful right now. There are people in great need of shelter and warmth.
Mind you, using the poor and disenfranchised to evoke compassion is nothing new and it's where things get tricky.
Also, let's contemplate this woman's action to change his sign. It reminds me of a scene in Episode Six of the ever brilliant House of Cards when Claire Underwood sees a homeless man perched outside of her office and hands him a $20 bill. She tells him there is a cafe up the street and walks away. We see him look at the money, but he does not move. The next day, he returns the $20 bill to her as a beautifully folded crane. She takes the crane, contemplates it and learns how to make cranes of her own. I'd also like to think that Claire sees this man as a man and as someone for whom she should not make assumptions. Also, I hope we get more of him in this next season.
There is a space where the women in the video's actions could be applauded. She didn't just walk by or drop of a few coins. As someone good with words, this is what she could do or give. In my own arrogance, I have seen the signs of the homeless or experienced the pitches, and wanted to offer a few tweaks. Historically, much has been made of this space of not just giving, but of doing what you can. Colonialism is a result of this space as are the many welfare programs in this country.
And it is here where I want to focus this conversation, this space of knowing what is best for a community and therefore providing a service. It's troublesome as it relates to the work we do in theatre when we provide artistic programming FOR a community and not WITH the community.
With theatre, we are creating what we believe is a deeply powerful, important, and meaningful experience. But within that is the knowledge/working assumption that the community doesn't know what it needs and/or that it needs to be taught, and certainly that it needs to be taught a standard of excellence. But we are surprised and disappointed when the community doesn't show up, and because of our business model and need for sustainability, we are also panicked. We do our best to try to engage with the audience: surveys, post show discussions, marketing, etc. But something is missing. There is a disconnect in all of this somewhere.
I decided to write about this, because I've been a part of conversations about how in the nonprofit theatre world, we serve our communities by providing artistic programming for them versus with them. This is subtle, but marked distinction. Also, I've been a part of conversations about how theatres use people of color in their marketing, but their programming and artistic/administrative staff do not reflect the same level of diversity. There is a disconnect between the mission statement, the programming, and the community, which could account for dwindling audiences, the continued lack of diversity, and no doubt contributes to unstable capitalization. Click here to learn more about how all of this is intertwined.
There's so much to unpack here. I thought about deleting the video from my Facebook page, but felt the conversation was relevant and important to have. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.