Deidra smiles in front of the Boston skyline
Former Program Coordinator, Creative City

Maia Dolphin-Krute and Jesse Erin Posner’s Creative City-supported The Way We Live Now (2018) is a multimedia, performance-based collaborative project centered on the Susan Sontag short story The Way We Live Now (1987). This project updates the story, originally set during the AIDS epidemic, to reflect our current opioid epidemic and uses this updated script to facilitate the public processing of what too often remain private and painful experiences. This project uses the model of Susan Sontag’s short story to ask: What does it mean to live within an epidemic? How do we continue living?

The Way We Live Now (2018); provided by Maia Dolphin Krute.

Creative City (CC): How did this collaboration come together?

Maia Dolphin-Krute (MDK): We met while we were both working in one of the galleries at Harvard.

Jesse Erin Posner (JEP): We met working in an art space there. We were both interested in figuring out how to use public art and performance art and our lives as public intellectuals to discuss things like the Boston Creates plan and our experience as artists. Those conversations led us to thinking big picture about affordable housing and other things in the city of Boston. From there, we expanded those conversations into our own lives and the book that Maia was writing and now is being published this summer. And that’s what led us more to actually focusing on this issue of the opioid epidemic.

MDK: For me what was so interesting was hearing about Jesse’s background in community organizing, which was a new vocabulary for me. Thinking about how we use our public lives in that way was a really interesting starting point for me with you, Jesse.

CC: Can you tell us about your process?

MDK: One of the things we’ve been talking about throughout the whole rehearsal process is the way we’ve been starting from this very open, almost blank, space – doing a lot of improvised scenes and conversations around very simple conversation prompts and then using those to build to more specific place. And the ensemble is at this beautiful cusp moment of being so ready to move more fully into the script. Something that has been so stunning to me during this whole process has been how much we get to, through just that openness in the conversations.

JEP: I feel that , too, in the sense that Maia and my conversations also started from an open place and a place that felt risky, and something that we took step by step from those conversations to bring to a wider audience. And in a way that first step with that wider audience is the ensemble that we’re working with.

MDK: The auditions were a game-changer. Up until that point, we just had this amazing vision of these wonderful people, who we have now found. During the auditions it was such a wide and varied group of experiences and different kinds of stories that we heard, and in writing the script I have been writing not only for but because of the group that we wound up with. We have been so lucky in being able to bring everything to the writing that I’ve heard from them.

JEP: I love that, Maia. All the parts of this process, including the auditions, have been really intentional, taking the form of these sort of classic theater tropes, like auditions, and using them as ways to invite people into this conversation. We had an outpouring of interest based just on what we wrote in the audition notice. We got letters from people about their families and their personal connection to this issue. We cast a wide net but then used a clear relatable form – auditions – for people to come and engage with us. We really used them more as a chance to talk with people and invite them in a way that felt right for them to share whatever part of their story they chose.

CC: Who are some of your partners on this project?

JEP:  We held auditions and are rehearsing at the Pao Arts Center. Public art spaces are so valuable in this city and so essential. I learned that the Pao Arts Center has a really incredible history of being built on land that used to be part of an active immigrant neighborhood in Chinatown but was redeveloped. The Pao Arts Center was established with the idea of reinvigorating the community and having some offerings to give back after that difficult history. To me, that shines light on the fact that lots of communities in Boston thrive from having creative community gathering spaces, and the Pao Arts Center is a really cool example of people who understand the importance in that, the potential that comes with that. I think that’s one reason why they were a great match for us.

And I think it’s really beautiful and speaks to the excellent of their work and their mission the fact that Fenway Health has been so collaborative and open to engaging with their project. I feel that they’re really a model of the type of institution that can simultaneously take on these really complex issues that don’t have an immediate answer and approach them without fear and with hope and creativity and I think that’s the type of spirit that a lot of the big pressures that we face, we can first start to make change around them.

CC: What is your vision for this project?

JEP: This project, for us, is an experiment in how to use the tools of art and writing and performance art and theater to make public elements of our reality right now that often remain in the shadows. That’s a process that I’m super fascinated by, whether it’s in a community organizing sense or in an artistic sense. It seems like our opportunity with public art and public works like this is to find ways to invite people into those public conversations in a way that can shift reality and shift the isolation, stigma, and imagine a different outcome than the one we live in now.

CC: Your project is called “The Way We Live Now (2018).” How is this project inspired by Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now” from 1986?

MDK: We have been looking to Sontag’s original story as a model for the overall tone of the performance, especially in terms of how deeply conversational the story is. We wanted to retain that atmosphere that while it’s only this one group of friends who may be on the stage, it’s very much set within this larger group of other ongoing conversations and a wider sense of it’s in the air.

JEP: There are conversations in some ways and there is a buzz in some ways about the crisis we’re in with opioids right now. But I think both Maia and I had a sense that that wasn’t necessarily capturing a broader range of experiences and part of our impulse to have these conversations with each other was to understand each other’s perspectives in this but also complexify the narratives that are going on around this and to kind of bust open that picture. We had that impulse and I think that Susan Sontag’s text is a powerful activist example, and we found that this text captured this much broader flavor of what was going on and a really wide range of people’s connections to it and views on it. That was a big inspiration for determining that this is an example we can learn from and use to break open this conversation at this moment.

The fact that people’s experiences in and around this particular epidemic feel so removed or so siloed from these very relatable circumstances of having someone ill, or spending time in the hospital, or trying to navigate difficult situations, feels like an added way that the harm our communities in Massachusetts and further have faced is just imbedded all the deeper. Sontag’s story both captured the particulars and is universally relatable to how different relationships and different people’s experiences affect how they interact with the current crisis in their lives. That is what’s happening to the 1 in 4 people that know someone who’s overdosed in the state, and it’s not just what’s happening to that person. It’s what’s happening to the people who know that them, and the people who know the people who know those people. It’s great that it’s in the news and it’s great that people want to pass legislation about it, and it’s also something that has become almost normal and that has become deeply part of our current moment’s experience that it’s almost silenced in that way.

MDK: We have definitely kept the unnamed person within our script, and that’s something that has been really important to us from the beginning and something we’ve been trying to find a balance on with our ensemble. I think it’s totally natural for actors to want more specifics and to want all these details of who exactly we are talking about and what exactly is happening to them, and we’ve been working with them to find ways of talking about it and exactly as Sontag writes, where we do have a sense of what’s going on and we don’t necessarily know exactly and that’s what keeps it most open to the audience.

But we did have a really beautiful moment in our rehearsal at the end yesterday where one of our ensemble members was basically saying that she loves this person now, that she feels connected to this unnamed person. And I’ve been feeling like that, too.

CC: Why do you think people should come to the performance, and what do you hope they’ll get out of it?

MDK: I think someone should come because, even if it's not always acknowledged, I think we do all know how involved (or implicated or embedded) we each are within the opioid epidemic; I think people should come because one in four people in the state know someone who has overdosed--even if we're not the "one," we likely know someone who is. In coming, I hope that someone feels they've had the opportunity to see (others; their community) and be seen, and ultimately the opportunity to find a sense of gratitude or hope within the feelings of connection that may bring, sparking collective action from those connections.

The Way We Live Now (2018) invites open, public conversation about our shared experiences in and around opioids, pain, trauma, and hope. Come join the conversation.

Sunday, May 6, 2018 | Dress Rehearsal | 3-5 PM
Pao Arts Center | 99 Albany Street Boston, MA 02111

The rehearsal will be followed by a brief Q&A session with the artists and actors.

Wednesday, May 16 | Opening Performance | 6 PM
Fenway Health | 1340 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02215

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