Backyard Community Theater with Warmth from The 408

October 13, 2023, was such a frigid night on the remarkable backyard stage/skate ramp – christened “The 408” – hosted by Phaidra and Ryan, and yet I could not feel warmer in my heart to be performing with my friends.

Many people have this idea that artistic performance is only for those who can do it well. As an example, when my best friend Aly and I dance in public, we frequently hear some variation from passersby of “I can’t dance.” And when I perform improv on stage, I hear, “I could never do that.” Not immune to this idea myself, it is common for me to cringe at the pitchy sound of my voice singing.

Moreover, not only do the performers need to meet some standard of being good enough to perform, but also we assume that we must go to specific places for performance. We spend a lot of money to go to the movies, the playhouse, or the dance club. The idea that we can just break out into a song and dance routine anywhere sounds ludicrous, and it is even more so if you don’t have some special talent to pull it off.

The biggest reason why seems to be an overwhelming fear of judgment and humiliation from others or even perhaps oneself. We are so trained as to what is acceptable both in terms of societal behavior as well as the standard of acceptable quality that we are beyond hesitant to put ourselves on the line. If we do put ourselves publicly out there, it is usually in places considered safer for it, probably supplemented by a few drinks. On the dance floor, I often see it fill up only when dozens of people join at the very same time.

I would argue that this fear that keeps us back is an incredibly significant detriment to our quality of life. Break through the fear, and you will feel happier and more empowered regardless of who joins you. But if more did join us, society would see profound shifts across the board. At a minimum, we will feel much more joyful.

For some time, Aly and I have been involved in a community project – a two-person group – that we have called the Bozeman Antifa Dance (& Theatre Collective) – shortened to the cheeky acronym BAD. People’s eyes fixate on “Antifa;” obviously we know that they will. We know what a trigger word that is for right wingers, and just having that name in our group has been enough for people to give us death threats. While we are satirizing the idea that antifa needs to look and feel a certain way, of course we are stridently antifascist and have no tolerance for it in our community. We support anyone who acts against fascists and fascism. Yet, we are a dance and theatre collective. By tying dance and theatre to antifascism, we are making a further commentary about fascism and its dangers to our society. Fascism to us does not simply mean the racism and bigotry of neo-Nazis; it also refers to the radical conformity to particular norms that dominate our society. That conformity by itself is not fascist, but it lays the groundwork for a fundamentally fascist, unfree society. It leads us to limit our beliefs in what is possible for ourselves and for other people. BAD believes that if we publicly open ourselves up to free and creative expression without thought of how well it conforms to any particular societal standard while also opening up more spaces for that expression within society, we shall remove the ground that fascism needs for standing. Moreover, we will have a lot more fun, friendship, and connection.

Over time, as Aly and I have continued to free dance in public spaces, we have made more friends who want to play with us. One of these friends is a remarkable woman named Phaidra. Aly and Phaidra were in a show together at The Verge, and I met Phaidra through Aly. While BAD was doing our thing dancing everywhere in our colorful outfits, Phaidra and her partner Ryan were building a skate ramp in the backyard of their home. Only, it was not just a skate ramp; Phaidra, ever the free thinker, could see that the skate ramp could also serve as a perfect stage. With Ryan’s support, they figured out how to light the ramp at night. Their space allows for multiple angles to view any staging and includes various ways to enter and exit. Moreover, Phaidra had a vision where the community could come together in a judgment-free zone to perform. Basically, she shared BAD’s vision to radically democratize performance both in terms of accessibility of who can perform and where they can perform.

We obviously have all become fast friends, and so also including our larger set of friends, we have all decided to dance and put on shows together while also really connecting intentionally as friends who care deeply about each other. It has become infectious, and we have met others who feel the delight in doing something that is way outside the box and fills us each with incredible joy.

Last Friday, Phaidra and Ryan hosted the first open stage night. While it was cold, we stayed physically warm with a fire that Ryan built and some hot apple cider and tea. What really kept us warm, though, was performing with and for each other on this beautiful stage. Phaidra opened “The 408” with a beautiful and intimate speech thanking us for our part in making this happen and outlining the same vision I have outlined in this essay.

Then, a few of us did a little experimental skit that I won’t explain here because we don’t want to ruin the surprise of you seeing us on the streets of town doing it. Let’s just say that it mixes ragtime music and hacker Anonymous (that is, Guy Fawkes) masks.

Also, The 408 open stage featured remarkable poem readings, both original and unoriginal, all meaning a lot to the performer. One reading, by our newest and incredibly delightful friend Clara, came with some lovely performative flourishes.

Aly sang beautifully while I interpretively danced behind her, not knowing what she was singing prior to her singing it. This was not easy for me. Aly trained in her youth as an opera singer and meets the societally objective standards of a “good” singer, while I only started dancing at all in my late 30s. Besides a few swing dancing classes, no one ever trained me to dance. My body is terribly inflexible, and I don’t even like to keep the beat a good chunk of the time, inventing beats out of each melodic note. I love to dance, but I still found it difficult to go out there to a song I had never heard before behind someone as incredibly talented as Aly. Yet, I chose to live my principle, and I felt good supporting her knowing she wanted me to dance as she sang. It felt good just trying it out knowing that we were in a space attempting to create a culture of support. And while people said I did a good job, what really matters is that I chose to show up and be me on that stage with my friends.

We also did some improv, which put Aly outside of her comfort zone. But just as I supported her, she supported something I enjoy doing and had just done on stage the previous night at Last Best Comedy.

Performing continued after everyone left, too, when Aly, Phaidra, and I did some incredibly moving improvisational dance, much of it to Alanis Morissette.

Was any of it any good? Who can say? But I can say definitively that it was good to be there with people who really wanted to be there and present with each other. It was so cold, hiding beneath blankets. Yet, in the power of the sharing, in the earnestness of witnessing each other, in just the audacity of performing for ourselves and for each other, I became so overwhelmed with joyful emotion.

After we left, apparently a neighbor had called the police, though we were done by 10 pm on a Friday night, were not using a sound system except a Bluetooth speaker to play some music, and apparently were not as loud as nearby neighbors sometimes are at later hours. Honestly, I could barely hear what people were saying from the stage mere feet in front of me. I am not sure why this neighbor could not have just come over. If they are reading it, it is not our intention to violate any boundaries. Let us just talk so that we can make it work for everyone. Just as we do not need to resort to the authority of society to tell us where we can and cannot dance, we surely can work out our issues over what can and cannot happen from each other’s backyards. As an antifascist, it tells me we have a long ways to go before we can undo the ways we have become alienated from each other in a radically conformist society.

We are going to keep dancing in public, and we are going to keep doing theatrical productions in backyards and on Bozeman streets. Whether it is Aly and I doing BAD or whether it is friends just tap dancing in the rain, we are determined to make our lives much more interesting and performative. We want to free our bodies to reclaim the entirety of our human nature. With free bodies in free spaces and with a growing community of support, we make it that much easier to inspire others to create a freely embodied culture – one where we are no longer limited by the fears that keep us conformed to a rather uninteresting set of societally acceptable options.

If this resonates with you, contact me, and we would love to have you join us dancing, singing, performing, writing, painting, screaming, crawling, or whatever your heart fancies. And if you only want at this point to witness, we could all use more friends. Let us all make beautiful art … together. Even on literally cold nights, we can dramatically thrive in a much warmer space.

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