Oct. 14-- SAN DIEGO-As a teenager, it was a joke to answer uncertainty. As an adult, Blake McCarty's joke about just wanting to create good art with good people when he grew up became the thing he gets to do professionally, every day.
"Fast forward and I'm very lucky to do just that, even if I've opted not to focus on a specific career path or a single skill," said the creator and director of the Verbitas program for New Village Arts. "More generally, one of my core beliefs is that empathy and understanding are critical to our health, happiness and sheer survival. During particularly divisive social and political times, storytelling is one of the only ways to build understanding and develop empathy. In my opinion, live theater forces us to engage with other people's humanity, experience and perspective in ways unlike any other medium."
With Verbitas, he's working directly with students in local high school theater programs, using community organizing methods to engage students and create representation through a specific style of theater.
McCarty, 33, is also co-founder and director of artistic development of Blindspot Collective, which produces inclusive content and programming. He's worked extensively in New York City and San Diego, garnering awards, grants and recognition for various projects as a director, playwright, designer and teaching artist. He took some time to talk about his work with the Verbitas program and an element in the program involving intergenerational communication between youths and elders.
Q: Tell us about the Verbitas program.
A: In partnership with New Village Arts, we created Verbitas in 2016. The name of the program is a mashup of two ideas central to the program: verbatim theater, which uses the exact words and stories of real people, and veritas, the Latin word meaning "truth." The hope is that the medium of verbatim theater allows us to reflect on the true experiences of people in our own communities. Through a consensus-building process, we work with ensembles of high school students to identify topics and themes that they feel are relevant and worthy of exploration. Students then conduct interviews, transcribe portions of those interviews, and then perform a full-length script that I develop based on their content.
Q: Why was this program something you wanted to do?
A: Most students in high school theater programs will be introduced to Shakespeare and musical theater, but there are so many other genres and modalities of live performance that are not traditionally taught until college or graduate school. I think that's a missed opportunity because too many students walk away thinking theater is essentially only Shakespeare and musicals. Hopefully, this program expands the definition of "theater" for young people while also challenging them to consider the world around them a bit differently. Engaging with the exact words of real people and then performing as them-sometimes in an audience that may include them-is an incredibly unique experience that builds empathy and understanding unlike any other work of which I'm aware.
Q: What community organizing and engagement methods do you use in Verbitas?
A: Early on in the process, we establish community agreements that foster an environment of collaboration, entirely based on suggestions from the students. Multiple theater games are used that provide opportunities to reflect on power, privilege, and positionality so that there is personal awareness about how those affect perspectives and communication. When the ensemble chooses a topic or theme to explore, we use a step-by-step process that ensures every student voice is present and creates consensus by identifying common threads.
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I recall visiting Carlsbad for the first time when my husband and I relocated to San Diego. We went to multiple antique stores in Carlsbad Village, grabbed lunch at Board and Brew, and sat on the beach at sunset. Having spent a decade in New York City, it was such a stark and welcome contrast to life as a New Yorker. I love discovering fantastic restaurants in Carlsbad and always appreciate that the beach is a short walk away when I want to hit the reset button or have some solitude.
Q: How do things like intergenerational/intercultural conversations enhance student agency and representation?
A: Intergenerational and intercultural conversations create a culture of dialogue, empathy and self-awareness. By having conversations with people who may be wildly different from themselves, students learn to communicate more effectively, ask questions to build understanding, and consider perspectives and experiences that are different from their own. Simultaneously, celebrating difference and diversity creates a safer space for students who may be marginalized as a result of their own identity.
Q: Can you share some of what's been covered in these intergenerational conversations with your students?
A: The students have a long list of questions that we craft and shape collaboratively. In the current process at Sage Creek High School, the most insightful and impactful conversations have been around issues related to identity, and the ways in which society has grown more aware and accepting. While the interviews are conducted privately, the transcripts are evidence of amazing conversations about the evolution of racism and race relations; feminism and women's rights; and the struggle for visibility and tolerance in the LGTBQ+ community. Students have been challenged to consider the ways in which American culture has shifted, in good ways and bad. However, it's also interesting to see the moments in which young people challenge assumptions about their generation being self-centered, naive, or ruined by technology and media.
Q: Will the program culminate in any kind of final performance or screening open to the public? If so, when and where can people see it?
A: Verbitas always culminates in a final public performance. Sage Creek High School students will perform in their beautiful, new performing arts center on Friday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. Tickets are free to the public and performances by other participating schools will be held later in the school year in 2020.
Q: Why was it important to you to showcase the diversity of student experiences in North County high schools?
A: When I co-founded a theater company in San Diego, I named it Blindspot Collective because I believe deeply in considering the individuals, communities and experiences that exist in our cultural blindspots. In that same way, I believe there is value and power in amplifying marginalized voices and illuminating untold stories, particularly when doing so may energize the next generation to be better than the last.
Q: What's been challenging about your work with the program?
A: By the very nature of the program, we are forced to have difficult conversations about delicate topics. However, it's our hope to normalize that type of dialogue, and create a space where it's acceptable to feel uncomfortable or not have the answers.
Q: What's been rewarding about this work?
A: It's amazing to listen, read and edit the exact words and stories of real people. There's a responsibility involved that's very rewarding. I find that my own opinions and assumptions are often challenged in that process, and I'm perpetually learning new things. In addition, watching students perform this style of work never ceases to amaze me. Theater requires an audience and it isn't until the students feel and hear an audience's response that they really understand the intent and value of documentary or verbatim theater. Seeing young people have that "a-ha" moment is always gratifying.
Q: What has your work taught you about yourself?
A: Verbitas has definitely honed my editing and play-writing skills, while also reigniting my passion for verbatim and documentary theater. On a more personal level, the work has fundamentally changed the ways in which I communicate and interact with others because I'm reminded that every person I meet has a story that is meaningful and valuable, even if I am never afforded the opportunity to hear that story.
Q: What is the best advice you've ever received?
A: "Fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run." It's from the Rudyard Kipling poem "If," and is something my mother often says. I remember hearing and reading that poem repeatedly as I grew up, and I find myself repeating it more frequently as I get older. Life is short, and I genuinely believe in filling every moment with as much meaning and value as I can.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: The order of events wouldn't matter much to me, but an ideal weekend would be spent with my husband (Jonathan Boland) and friends, and would definitely include one meal out at a delicious local restaurant, a long hike, seeing a new play or musical, a visit to the beach at sunset, and some down time in my backyard without thinking about work.
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