Radical, inclusive applied theater education
Inventive audience participation opportunities
A cross-generational party
In My Pockets
In addition to being a theater maker, I identify strongly as being a teaching artist, so part of the reason why I wanted to attend and review this experience was because I wanted to bring more attention to performances that feature kids as makers and participants. I did end up knowing three of the kids in Fashion Machine, from previous projects, although I didn’t know that when I arrived.
The program doesn’t list any designers, but the core artists of Fashion Machine are Pamela Bethel, Ingrid Hansen, Matthew Payne, Pauline Stynes, and Shayna Ward of Theatre SKAM, a group out of Victoria, Canada. When you walk into the Fringe space, first you see a spread of food available for audience members young and old, and then seven sewing tables with machines lined up against a catwalk. The audience sits or stands around the tables, but as the action quickly gets underway, it’s clear that we are encouraged to move about the space just as much as the artists do.
The conceit of Fashion Machine is, as described in the digital program on FringeArts’ website, “part installation, part performance, and all fun.” As an audience member, you are asked to pick one of two stickers; one that says “I’m In!!” or one with a giant chicken on it, if you’re chicken. When the young artists are introduced and pile out from backstage, they are asked to identify a brave audience member with an “I’m In!!” sticker on and ask them if they will be their model; the kids take your measurements, ask you questions about your style, and then totally re-make the outfit you wore to the show. They have 50 minutes to cut, add, swap, and accessorize your clothes, while you watch in a fluffy white robe. The piece ends with a fashion show – models and their designers walk down the catwalk together.
Talk about the performances:
I can tell that this piece is made by non-American hands, because its treatment of these kids as contributors is honest, supportive, and refreshing. Theatre SKAM Artistic Producer Matthew Payne kicked off the event by thanking the Lenape Delaware and Susquehannock First Nations for being the original caretakers of this land, asking the audience to honor them as well before the piece begins. This kind of no-shame, no-shaming tribute is the same earnestness and radical care-taking that the adult artists exude when they walk around the space, jumping in to help kids thread needles or take measurements. There’s no pandering or belittling of the kids; they are there to help, but the outfits will be totally of the young artists’ making. There’s also a lot of dancing – Theatre SKAM’s playlist while the piece goes on is totally groovy and the core artists made sure people got moving.
I, of course, chose an “I’m In!!” sticker, and one of the girls I knew from a previous piece asked me if I could be her groups’ model. The experience of being measured and interviewed by three tiny girls before they asked me to go backstage, put all the clothes I wanted altered in a box, and come back in a fluffy robe was both terrifying and hilarious. I had a moment of panic about the possibility of them “ruining” the $14 sweatshirt I bought online, but through the guidance of the adult artists, who took the kids totally seriously, I as a participant, adult, and audience member, was able to do the same.
Not all of the models were adults – only three were over the age of 18. It was a sweet experience to be able to take part in a performance piece that asked all ages to come and support artists who are usually asked to subscribe to an “established” model of education and art-making before they can invent their own. But not at Fashion Machine. The young artists spent an accumulative 12 hours with the Core Artists learning about sewing and fashion design, sure, but also about team-building, art-making, and leadership. This kind of process-based theater education gives kids the tools to make their own work without it feeling prescriptive or annoying, and without asking the kids to make the work you want them to make first.
Although all the core artists present at Fashion Machine presented as white, the piece included a more diverse pool of artists and audience members in total than I’m used to seeing in FringeArt’s space. I saw kids whose parents are not American, kids whose parents are not white, and other adults who came not because their kid was in the show, but because they’re curious and/or trust FringeArts enough to see something they’ve curated. I’m happy that FringeArts asked Theatre SKAM to come back, because it legitimizes a kind of art that I feel the American theater landscape needs. Theater and art-making is an incredible process that teaches kids sensitivity, resourcefulness, collaboration, and problem-solving, but the process that builds those skills take time, and more and more now we see professional theaters sacrificing that time for the “good” of their show. The irony is that your show won’t be good unless you take that time, because actually, when you give kids the tools to make something on their own, they end up creating something really beautiful, affecting, and fun.
I’m probably not going to wear the skirt the girls made me, but I will definitely continue to wear my sweatshirt (they cut off the hood and added a pink panel in the back). The thing is, I don’t really care about the clothes they made me. That we made something “together” was more important, and that they took the lead was even better.