[Editor’s note: The following is the written version of Johnny Wideman’s presentation at the international conference Mennonite/s Writing IX, “Thirty Years of Mennonite/s Writing: Responding to the Past, Creating the Future,” held at Goshen (Ind.) College Sept. 29-Oct. 2, 2022. Wideman’s presentation was part of an Oct. 1 conference session on “Humor” and was pre-recorded and shown on video. You can see more presentations from Mennonite/s Writing IX at the Center for Mennonite Writing, https://mennonitewriting.org/]
Hello, Goshen, my name is Johnny Wideman. I am a playwright, short storyist and occasional poet, and today I am joining you from outside Toronto, Canada. So hello and thank you for having me here. I suppose I am on this panel predominantly as a theatre-maker (that’s spelled theatRE, if you must know) because in 2011, I founded a grassroots theatre company that has predominantly toured in under-artsed, site-specific performance spaces, mainly in the extremely niche settings of Mennonite churches and federal prisons. One of my published plays that you may know is called Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft. It was actually staged here in Goshen College’s Umble Center twice, as part of homecoming in 2013. This Will Lead to Dancing toured throughout the Midwest in 2017, at a couple of churches, colleges and the [annual] Mennonite Arts Weekend [in Cincinnati]. … Theatre of the Beat is about to start a cross-Canada tour of a social justice folk musical I wrote with Bryan Moyer Suderman called Selah’s Song. Today I am talking about pressure points in polarized places, and how humour can be used to help relieve some of this tension. Which makes theatre, to me, a form of acupuncture needle. Which sounds horrible, I’ll admit.
Likely more than any other thing in the world, needles make me incredibly squirmy. Like, I need to leave, but can’t. My knees buckle, I start to sweat from strange places, and suddenly my entire existence melts into the disorientation of a Dalí painting. And so it might come as a surprise that I willingly subjected myself to acupuncture. Once.
It was a decision that began with the question: “Did you sustain a head injury?” Now this is a question I have grown quite accustomed to over the years – however, in this specific case, the question was posed by a doctor when referring to the posture of my shoulders, neck and head. This doctor noticed that my muscles were stuck in a sort of guarded position – a posture that might be natural when responding to someone yelling: “Watch out!” But very much unnatural for just about anything else. Picture a Chicken Little sort of shrug, where my shoulders were perpetually pulled towards my ears in preparation for the sky to fall. Because yes, I did sustain a head injury. At the age of seven, I received seven stitches after a fist-sized bolt fell from a tire swing directly upon my lovely little albino bowl cut. And so, having dealt with chronic pain for 20-some years, I reluctantly decided to give needles a try.
In the acupuncture clinic, everything was portrayed as very relaxing. Soft, borderline-infantile pastel colours, lulling ambient “yoga” music, delicate lavender aromas rested gently upon the acrid smell of my own nervous sweat. I lay my face into the small, toilet-seat-shaped hole of the massage table. My arms were perched below me, palms to the ceiling, relaxed, and I was momentarily surprised to feel supported, calm, even reassured by the soft-spoken acupuncturist. Until, of course, she began filling the palms of my hands with needles. Directly below my face, sticking me with shiny little lightning rods of panic before she turned down the lights and left the room.
Now, as a playwright, I am in no way qualified to talk about acupuncture. But it is my understanding that our muscles tighten to protect us, and when an acupuncturist sticks a needle into these tight spots, it sends a message marked “urgent” to our brain. All of a sudden our body pays attention. It flags this spot in a new way. It realizes that the tension we had previously accepted as normal doesn’t actually need to be there. The needle reminds the body that something is wrong, that the tension we’re holding is unnecessary. It no longer serves us. And so this sharp, momentary pain is used to help remind the body to relax.
It’s no mistake that our communities are often referred to as “bodies.” When a community is in conflict, the tension becomes palpable. We collectively clench to protect our weakest, sorest spots. We brace for impact. Because when that collision of conflict comes, we feel it in deep ripples throughout our entire being. It shifts us. Everything feels different and so we tend to the place of impact, we brace and clench, and soon – in efforts to protect that which we love – our collective bodies slowly see their postures overcompensate and change.
As Mennonites, many of us are pacifists. Which means we have learned to avoid anything that causes pain to others, meaning we’ve associated conflict with violence, making us masterful overlookers – practiced in the art of avoiding the elephant in the room. We’ve convinced ourselves that the pain of facing conflicts (the needle poke) far outweighs the pain associated with protecting ourselves against change, and so our posture alters into a perma-clench. The source of our sore spot goes unaddressed, and living with tension becomes normal.
Which is why I have tried to bring art into our painful church places. Because when we choose to sit together, to feel together, we can intentionally open ourselves up to the proverbial needle poke. Which means that good theatre, when play specifically directed at our conflicts, can serve as acupuncture, and also entertainment.
Theatre of the Beat was created to make plays that specifically address the topics Mennonites intentionally avoid. The idea is that these topics, in their unaddressed-ness, have a sort of power over us. They leave us stuck. And so our model was to stage shows in Mennonite churches as a way of releasing this tension. These are plays written specifically for Mennonite audiences, inviting a church body to join together, to intentionally feel a carefully crafted moment of discomfort in hopes of releasing these underlying tensions collectively.
Throughout 2017-19, Theatre of the Beat toured an original play entitled #ChurchToo. This play was not a comedy. It was written to start conversations about the extremely taboo topic of abuse of power in the church and its direct relation to sexual assault. The play was comprised of several playlets, or shorts, which each examined various factors or perspectives on this topic. And – believe it or not – some were funny. My job as the dramaturg was to work with each playwright in order to help shape the scenes, and then order them so that the flow of the play worked. The evening opened with a piece from a teenager’s perspective on grooming. It was told through video blogs and had some charming, funny moments. But it was also haunting. We used it as an opener because we thought it would showcase the type of variety that would occur over the evening. Because then, the second play was an absurd, almost Monty Pythonesque comedy written by Alison Casella Brookins. You might know Alison’s work from Ted & Co. here in the United States. Her piece used various Scripture verses that referred to height to justify why pastors could not be short.
We intentionally featured a comedic playlet off the top in order to give the crowd permission to laugh. Because at the best of times, Mennonites are a fairly polite bunch, but Canadian Mennonites can be painfully polite, especially when dealing with uncomfortable content. So we intentionally designed the flow of the evening to invoke a moment of release in the audience – straight out of the gate. Typically this has to take the form of a safe joke, a joke that won’t divide and that will bring about a sense of ease. The goal here is a chuckle more than a guffaw, but the objective is definitely to elicit an actual LOL. This is important because if we can get one person to physically, audibly laugh, the rest of the audience will follow suit. We very clearly marketed the piece to let audiences know what it was about (there were trigger warnings and announcements before the show), so our audiences often started out very quiet. Which makes sense – especially when dealing with such difficult, entrenched topics like sexual assault in the church, our polite audiences were extremely concerned about offending the people around them. But politically, it’s imperative that you give the audience encouragement to react naturally. It’s the only way to provide them with permission to release their feelings when the pressure builds up and the audience gets needle-squirmy. And so, our director Matt White would sit at the back of the theatre and loudly, unabashedly, laugh at anything that even slightly resembled a joke throughout the first two scenes. It was manipulative, but it was necessary to break the ice. Because it taught the audience that they were allowed their own individual reactions, and that it was a perfectly appropriate way of releasing tension. If we could get a laugh early on, we knew that the sound of unclenching would come when it needed to. This would take the form of a chortle, or a tsk, a sigh, even open sobbing, but in order for our audiences to get there, they needed to start with a collective chuckle. Because once everyone joined in, the audience would slowly realize that they were on the same team: one collective church body, uncomfortable, but ready to ease into motion.
Because #ChurchToo intentionally worked towards a grand finale entitled Lodged in the Body. I actually never made the connection of that title to this topic until this very moment. Anyways, the piece, written by Scout Rexe, worked up towards a carefully cultivated crescendo of discomfort. While touring, I doubled as the stage manager, and so from my place at the back of the sanctuary, I would see a physical thing move through the sanctuary: a squirm, or a swell, that seemed to travel through the audience each and every night in this piece. Picture the awkward beginnings of the Wave at a sporting event. It started in the front/middle of the audience, one small section. Then it would begin to ripple out amongst the crowd, spreading to the point of actually being able to hear it: the din of weight shifting, the creak of folks wanting to get up, wanting to leave but staying politely seated. This is honestly one of the best things about staging plays in churches – not only do pews have a magnetic quality (we aren’t used to walking out of church), the worn wooden ways of those benches also magnify the sounds of our discomfort far more than red cushy theatre chairs.
Theatre of the Beat’s audience would often be a congregation, gathered together in the same places they would often sit on Sundays, seated in their sacred space, coming together on a Friday or Saturday night to intentionally commit themselves to sitting through some form of collective processing. #ChurchToo was touring within months of the start of the #MeToo movement, and so for many of our audiences these conversations about sexual abuse, about acknowledging the shame and secrets we’ve held onto for so long, was uncharted territory. And so by this final piece, everyone’s attention was collectively directed upon this same spot of suffering: The needle found its sorest spot. But the result was a holy moment, occurring like some sort of group exorcism where we finally acknowledged the tension we’ve held onto for so long. Every night, we – the body – shuddered together like a dog expelling water, shaking it off, holding our breath, slowly settling into the sigh that seemed to flood through our bodies in that special way where something metaphysical physically transforms into flesh. Which is sort of the goal of live theatre, in many ways.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote “the crowd” as a character, and not just any character: the crowd was the driving force of the play and is responsible for changing the course of history. This squirm, this crowd, is an example of the audience as a body, a body that aches, a body that feels. From onstage, there are moments when you can hear the audience collectively hold its breath, bracing. In these moments, the audience, the body, is not a “they” but a “the”: the sum of various individuals. A sum who chose to gather despite our collective fear of needles. We came to be healed. We came to do the right thing. And once we’ve gathered, it is then the theatre actors’ job to remind everyone that it’s OK to feel here, that it’s OK to react and to respond, even audibly. A collective clench (breath) and release.
Another example of this was the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Canadian Mennonite church. For about six years, the Big-C-Mennonite-Church in Canada was inviting congregations to participate in the Being a Faithful Church process. It was a painfully slow process for many, while others felt rushed into something they weren’t ready to deal with. During this time I was following a 6-week hunger strike being held by Theresa Spence, a chief in Attawapiskat. She was demanding certain processes and rights for Indigenous communities across so-called Canada.
At this time, Theatre of the Beat had already been touring multiple times a year. Two years earlier, our touring consisted of sleeping on floors and living off of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. But by 2013, we were staying with Mennonites in their homes, or sometimes church basements, and our diets significantly improved. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but for many Mennonites, food is a love language. You may never see as much joy as the look on the face of a freshly permed Dolores scooping out seconds onto a bread roll-polished plate. Food is how we welcome people. And so, as the Being a Faithful Church process moseyed along, I started writing a comedy about a two-person youth group who decided to lock themselves in their sanctuary on a hunger strike until the church agreed to welcome the Queer community.
Theatre of the Beat began touring the country, specifically inviting congregations who were undecided on where they stood on the inclusion topic. And by July of 2016, Canadian Mennonites were gathering to “vote” on the Being a Faithful Church process in Saskatoon at the national Mennonite convention.
So Theatre of the Beat organized a team of Mennonites living in Saskatchewan to help us find a way to perform at the conference. They worked together to find volunteers and deal with logistics, and we rented a room in the conference centre, as we weren’t allowed to officially be a part of the national convention. We fundraised and were able to fly out the cast, and on the evening after “the vote,” we performed This Will Lead to Dancing for 200+ Mennonites.
This Will Lead to Dancing is published, so if anyone is interested in reading it, you can purchase it through online through Theatre of the Beat. Without giving away the ending entirely, the finale of the play involves the hunger-induced hallucination of Menno Simons passing out a communion of cookies and milk (cookies baked by congregants from Mennonite churches across Saskatchewan and secretly brought to the conference for us to hand out as part of the play). Menno Simons appears as a vision and desperately wants this starving Queer youth to break her fast and eat with her church community. This absurd scenario plays along while a Feeding the 5,000 sort of miracle unfolds: trays and trays of cookies move throughout the audience while the malnourished youth leads “We are people of God’s peace,” a hymn written by Menno himself, underscored with the sound of approaching ambulances.
So this moment, when described plainly, sounds like a bad – likely sacrilegious – joke. But that year at conference, the tension was palpable. I have never seen the Canadian Mennonite church so openly polarized. I had attended every discussion regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion, and in each session, voices were strained. Emotions were palpable. I had a stranger pray over me (without consent) in a drive-by “laying of hands,” asking God that “the scales would fall from my eyes.” It seemed like people were stressed. And so after the vote, which didn’t really change anything for the Queer community, some 200+ Mennonites gave up their evening to sit through a show – naming these very tensions.
And so, during this absurd finale, a sort of release came over the crowd and, to this day, it was the most beautiful theatrical experience I have ever been a part of. Tear-filled voices sang along with the characters in full harmony, food was passed to one another, people were hugging in aisles, weeping, laughing – somehow acknowledging all the horrifying silliness and pain and unity that was deeply understood by everyone in that audience.
When a joke is understood by all, when we laugh together, we are truly and deeply community, because to laugh at the same joke means to understand the context of that joke. Therefore, by acknowledging we all get it, we are forced to remember that we are united. That we do share commonalities with each other. George Gordon, Lord Byron, said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” And when a joke is related so specifically to us, as a body, we can laugh despite the tears, because we feel it together. We were all uncomfortable, so we all laughed. And in doing so, we acknowledged our own pain as individuals, which related to our experience as a collective entity. A body.
As much as we resist it, we need the needle. We need to have these sore spots pointed out and poked. It can draw our attention to the unhelpful ways we’ve been protecting ourselves. It can stir us out of stillness, swirling the bottom of our emotional wells into movement. Because then, when a perfectly timed joke catches us off guard, laughter expels from us. It shivers out of our mouths, or our tear ducts – all the dark, sticky tenseness that collected at the bottom geysers forth from our proverbial blowholes. All the negative feelings that have been trapped suddenly flutter away. It’s thermal dynamics, really. Our bodies, our churches, our communities, will eventually explode if we don’t learn to release these tensions and acknowledge our collective clenching. Social thermodynamics suggests that the energy of a group – the unique sum of the unique people observed in this unique sanctuary environment – behaves the same way that heat does, the same way that muscle tension does.
And with the laughter, comes the pain. All that fidgety, bundled energy that wanted to move but hadn’t been acknowledged – it expands! Seeking equalization. And if we’re lucky, this wave of movement will spill into the person beside us in the pew, moving our bodies and our body. Reminding us that we’re in this together. And that everything is going to be OK.
Thank you so much. I won’t be able to answer any of your questions right now, in this moment. But if you’d like to chat or follow up with me at all, please feel free to send me an e-mail at email@example.com I’d love to connect with you.