a brief history of the our own voice theatre troupe

by Bill Baker

The Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe was founded twenty years ago as a project of the Mental Health Association of the Mid-South to empower mental health consumers to make their own theatre.  The mission was to give voice to their experience, to express their concerns about mental health treatment and to attack the stigma attached to mental illness.  We recruited actors from community mental health centers and mental health drop-in centers and ran a series of workshops, teaching basic improvisation skills and Augusto Boal’s image theatre techniques as tools for articulating experience.  We used these to construct a series of group images of mental illness and its treatment.  We also conducted writing exercises, gathering autobiographical sketches from our participants describing their experiences in the mental health system.  These texts and images were woven together into our first script (with some borrowing from Lewis Carroll), Alice in…. Understand?, which represented the story of one company member’s teenage suicide attempt and first hospitalization as the archetypal trip down the rabbit hole.   Initially, we targeted mental health service providers as our audience, seeking to raise awareness in the doctors, nurses and social workers who provide mental health services about the consumer’s experience of mental illness and mental health treatment.   Subsequently, we found audiences in the community at large, touring to churches, schools and community groups.

For the first three years, we continued to identify ourselves as a mental health consumer group and our ensemble-created plays focused on mental illness and its treatment.  But two things happened which compelled us to expand our mission.  First, one of our company members, Randy Youngblood, wrote a script called Radio Refinement while doing some time as an inpatient.   I was intrigued by the challenge of staging the text, and worked with Jeff Hutchison, a local performance artist,  to present it as a solo performance piece.  Artistically, it was very successful, but the Mental Health Association was put off, to say the least, by the avant-garde “weirdness” of the production, feeling it didn’t conform to their goal of destigmatizing mental illness.   We felt that their concerns about alienating “normal” people and the pressure to create a mental health “poster child” image with each production was too confining and compromised the integrity of what we were trying to do.  There was a parting of the ways with MHA, and Our Own Voice incorporated as an independent non-profit.  Second, we found that our identification as a mental health consumer group was stigmatizing in and of itself.  Journalists insisted upon labeling our work as “an outlet for the mentally ill” and the public perception seemed to be that it was some form of group therapy, more for our benefit than for theirs.  In spite of the fact that we were one of the only theatre troupes in Memphis creating original theatre, writing our own scripts and experimenting with theatrical forms, no one was taking us seriously.  We were the “mentally ill theatre company.”

So, in 1995, coincident with becoming a resident company at Theatreworks, a small experimental theatre space in midtown Memphis, we expanded our mission to invite everyone into our process.  While we retained many of the original company members and our focus on mental health issues, we recruited performers from other theatre and dance companies and encouraged anyone who wanted to play to join with us.  The term “inclusive” became a guiding principle, as we developed an approach to casting our productions that allowed us to live up to our name, giving every participant a voice.  For each production, we conduct a series of open workshops centered around a chosen theme and immerse participants in the method of ensemble playmaking which we have adapted from Viola Spolin’s improvisation games and Augusto Boal’s image theatre techniques.   After exploring the theme together, we invite everyone in attendance (“if you enjoy what we’re doing”) to be part of the production.  We then fashion our script or scenario around the ensemble we have formed, building it out of the unique skills (and “limitations”) of the performers.  With this approach, the troupe has come to represent enormous diversity, across race, religion, age and gender orientations.  Casts have included children and the elderly, blacks and whites, gays and straights,  people with physical disabilities as well as those with mental disabilities, whom we continue to actively recruit.  We have shifted from a focus on “mental illness” to a focus on “mental health”, and from psychological issues to issues of social justice and oppression.  We like to say “You don’t have to be crazy to be in Our Own Voice, but it helps.“

The theories and practices of Augusto Boal have been a primary influence on Our Own Voice.   His image theatre techniques are almost always used in the early developmental stage of a production to help each member find their unique connection to the theme and to identify the images that are meaningful to the specific ensemble and therefore central to the production.  Boal’s forum theatre has been used as a structure for a number of our scripts,  allowing for audience participation and input in problem-solving during performance.  In general, Boal’s conception of a theatre that empowers its audience to engage in dialogue with performers to confront oppression and work toward change is a beacon and inspiration to all our work.

The troupe has been increasingly interested in using dance and movement ritual for community building and healing, and the teachings of Anna Halprin have been influential in this regard.  Just as we believe that everybody can, and should, act, we believe that every body that can act can also dance.   The non-verbal communication of dance allows us to engage our themes on a different level and in a way that is in many respects more inclusive than spoken language.  In addition to a number of modern dance productions, we have created a disco show, a couple of rock musicals and “a country-and-western space ballet.”   We expect Halprin’s vision of healing and transformation through movement to be an important aspect of our future direction.

Our Own Voice currently presents two productions a year, one in the Spring and one in the Fall.   We tend to characterize ourselves now as an “experimental theatre company” rather than emphasizing our mental health orientation.  Every production is an experiment to find the form and content that will best express the unique ensemble to its specific audience.   Improvisation is always a part of the developmental process of our productions, and is very often included in performance.  We are always interested in the opportunity for spontaneity provided by the encounter between spectator and performer, and we nurture interaction between them at every opportunity, always devising in our productions some way to acknowledge, if not actively interact with, the audience.  Our motto is:  “Fourth walls are made to be broken.”

The Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe has been documented on our website.  Under “Past Productions” on our home page, an archive of our twenty years can be accessed, with photos, posters and press coverage.  The troupe includes a few members (three, to be exact) who have been performing with it since the beginning, a number who have been with us for many years, and plenty of others who have joined us for one or two productions.   We are excited to be celebrating twenty years, and look forward to building and serving community for many more.