I didn’t pay too much attention to the theme of the Hemispheric Institute’s 2014 Encuentro before I arrived in Montreal and found the logo sticker on the door of every Concordia building designated for the conference. A little hand print and the word “Manifesto” broken up. The first time I set eyes on it I skipped over the “mani” and just saw “festo,” which my language-confused brain interpreted as “fete,” one of the few words I know in French. But I didn’t feel throwing a “fete” or “fiesta” or any of the above.
I was in Montreal for the first time in my life, confused by the rush of languages (French for Quebec, plus Portuguese and Spanish as the conference’s additional official languages), embarking on a week-long conference of activist-related performance studies activities with my graduate class. I was supposed to be excited be the opportunities–hadn’t I been waiting for this trip throughout the summer? But I wasn’t fully present in the city, in my courses, in most of the performances. I found myself still wishing that I could be elsewhere. It wasn’t my fault that life had dumped a bucket load of changes on me in the days before my departure, but it made that little logo and hand print that much more of a confrontation as the conference forced me to constantly return and consider what that little word and its anagrams could mean.
During the first part of the week, it was all I could do to pay attention and be present in the classrooms and theaters with my peers. In the mornings, we read and discussed very dense performance materials by Erin Manning that spoke of the “becoming-body” and other vague terms. I had read them, but like poetry only the feelings of what I had read came back to me when I tried to break the text down into more definable parts. We went to afternoon performances in dark, warm black box spaces . . . where guilty Zz’s plagued me (and my classmates, as it turned out). I wore my volunteer t-shirt and answered questions, I played Heads Up with my roommates for the week and tried to giggle as if getting a question wrong was all that was on my mind, and I dutifully poured over my schedule to try to get excited about panels, performances, manifestos and more. Still, it felt like I was just going through the motions while my mind and heart tugged to be in the United States, or at least back in Toronto. It felt like in order to move forward I had to pretend than none of my personal baggage mattered in the scheme of this larger conference trying to confront issues of access for disabled persons, of representation for First Nations/indigenous peoples, of privacy and acceptance for trans people and performers across the Americas. How could I even ask these questions when I was listening to manifestos about the threats to the indigenous bush culture in Northern Canada? How could I cry over the pieces of my breaking heart when confronted with stories about performers’ own families and friends turning their backs and discriminating against them?
Thankfully I had no choice but to keep attending performances and panels until at least one or two of them distracted me and more importantly, spoke to everything I had brought with me to Montreal. During the first part of Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani’s Confesiones: A Solo Stage Action by Ana Correa, I must admit that I was falling asleep. The antics of Correa dressed as a clown nurse tossing toilet paper and latex glove balloons into the audience during the pre-show had me on the edge of my seat but as soon as the lights went down, I found myself struggling to keep my eyes open. I tried to listen to her voice and unearth all my high school Spanish instead of reading the surtitles, but I quickly lost the thread of her narrative. I tried to then give in and just read the surtitles, but they didn’t match up with her rapid Spanish and before I could understand the next scene, she had already moved into the performance. I thought I would just sleep through the whole thing, pretend I had watched it and make some vague comments to that effect in class later when suddenly the emotion and impact of her second-to-last character performance grabbed me and shook me wide awake.
In spite of the poor timing of the surtitles, I understood this character’s background and how she related to Correa’s own life. Correa recounted the story of the conception of her first child, how she and her partner decided to try for a child right as violence in their home country of Peru began to rip apart the country and challenge their theatre group’s safety and ability to create. Just as she and her partner decided to part, as the national conflict intensified, she conceived and prepared to give birth to her first child. In performance, Correa found a character from a Lorca play, a barren woman who could never conceive or give birth to a child. With these two stories in mind, Correa stepped onto the stage and performed the Lorca character in a wordless dance. As she strung a clothes line and strung dripping wet clothing across it, whipping the water-laden linen across her body and cradling it like the child she craved, I could feel both streams of the personal and political happening at the same time. I could see Correa’s own pain of bringing a child into a politically unstable and threatening world. I could see the pain of the Lorca character desiring a child from a body that was unwilling to cooperate. I could see it all and none of it, the political or the personal, felt like it was worth less. Both deserved to be felt and shared, equal narratives coursing forward on the same plane.
I left this performance and attended the rest of the five-minute manifestos, the late night performance cabarets, the Cinema Politico film series, teach-in’s the closing dance party, performances by DLo, Great Small Works, Bread and Puppet Theater and even some Montreal sightseeing like attending parts of the Jazz Festival and sampling real French pastries by the Old Montreal Port. I could feel more hope along with the struggle with the knowledge that my personal battles didn’t have to be hidden or pushed aside in order to make room for the larger political battles. They are equally important stories. My question by the end of the conference became: how do we make manifest our needs both personal and political? How do we manifest the changes we want, make present the world that we want in the mess of the present?
How do I celebrate the horrible present, the cruel changes and growing pains, when the world keeps drawing me off to the next step, the next visitor, the next vacation, the next deadline? How do I manifest what I’m feeling in a way that doesn’t lead to silence, but to changes and measurable actions?
I’m not sure of the answers. I’m not sure what I think about Montreal after my first visit. I can’t say categorically that I’m thankful for the Encuentro and the tough questions it forced me to confront. Suffice it to say that it happened and now I have that I am back home in Toronto, I have the time and resources to write and enact the manifestos for my ever-unraveling future.