NET/TEN Shareback: Siobhan O'Loughlin - Exploring Political Currents Creatively Through International Collaboration

Spring 2016 Travel Grant Recipient

Siobhan O’Loughlin (Brooklyn, NY) traveled to Manila, the Philippines, to build a creative relationship with Issa Manalo Lopez and Sipat Lawin Ensemble. Siobhan and Issa engaged in a six-week process exploring themes of colonization, racism, and the possibilities of intersectionality. They researched the ongoing protests of Indigenous Filipinos opposed to US occupation and the violent histories these two countries share. Under the supervision of Sipat’s Jk Anicoche and Sarah Salazar, two separate “showings” were held in the Makati and Quezon City neighborhoods of Manila, with discussions led by community members in Tagalog and in English. 


I was working in the Philippines when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, and when former President (and alleged dictator) Ferdinand Marcos was nationally declared a hero to be given a hero’s burial in the Philippines. In times of great international political strife, I found myself wanting to “represent” the USA better than ever while abroad. In this Shareback, Illustrates (through personal experiences of both success and failure) a few ways to do that while in the midst of a tense creative process.

-Siobhan O'Loughlin

Exploring Political Currents Creatively Through International Collaboration

Photo by: J Lasupuna Villanueva

1. Approaching Material: Be Brave

Issa and I came together with a pretty heavy theme and title: Colonize(d): A Duet on Identity and Intersectionality. I was excited to explore the history of the US colonization of the Philippines, to discover definitions of identity, and the possibility for intersectionality. Devising tends to vary from process to process, but for us, our work began with lots of cold, hard conversation. These talks are more challenging than we are often prepared for. Here are a few ways to reap the benefits of being brave in difficult talks:

A. Ask questions. Ask every challenging question.

We learned in school that no question is a bad one. While “bad” is a subjective word, it’s definitely true that there are “uncomfortable” questions. Issa and I laid out a ground rule straight away that in our rehearsal space, any question would be welcome. As the only white person in the room, the only American in the room, and often the only straight person in the room, I was hyper-aware of my privilege and constantly afraid that what I might say might also offend. This fear held us back. One afternoon, Issa told me about a transgender Filipina woman who was drowned in the toilet by an American soldier a few years ago. Being a queer woman of color herself, I asked Issa if this story made her feel scared. This moment, where I asked something vulnerable of Issa, even in my place of privilege, helped to propel us forward. We used her answer as material for our performance.

B. Acknowledge your mistakes. Allow yourself to be challenged, and humbled by the challenge so that you may grow.

In the beginning of our process, Issa had a much longer chunk of performance in the piece than I did. I said that I preferred it that way; I felt that the world and other people in it had much more to learn from Issa than they did from me. When Carlo, an outside director, pointed out the discrepancy, I responded that I liked it that way because I wanted “to uplift Issa and her voice.” Carlo raised an eyebrow. “Uplift her?” he asked, surveying me. “Do you think that she needs you to uplift her?” “Well.” I said slowly, uncertain of how to explain myself, “I don’t think she NEEDS me to, I’m just…” I looked around the room, at Issa, at J, at Carlo, Chris and Sarah. Of course it isn’t my job to uplift Issa. Of course it isn’t Carlo’s job to be nice to me in this moment that I got so wrong. It’s not even his job to call me out in the first place. I have been called out for things before and not handled it well. It’s an ongoing process, and I will continue to make mistakes. But in this moment, it was safe for everyone. I was embarrassed, and that’s okay. My ego can stand to be embarrassed when I’m trying to be a better human, creating theatre in a place where white Americans had previously killed brown Filipino lives. The least we can do, as privileged people, is take on humiliation, as we take on the task of theatre for social change.

C. Take Initiative.

It is challenging to travel now as an American, and there will be even more criticism as we travel with Trump as our President. This is where the artist retains self respect, awareness, and confidence. Know who you are and why you have come. But beyond knowing exists introspection: I have come to represent my country well, as an anti-racist advocate and artist for social change. How will you be that? What will you do? Every day counts when you are an artist abroad. What will you do?

2. In the Process: When to Step Back and Listen (Always)

I’m a workaholic. I know that I am. I can be obsessed with time efficiency, with scheduling, with memorizing ahead of time, with mapping out our process. This often means that I would end up directing the piece. Even if I hadn’t wanted to or meant to. What I had wanted was for things to go a certain way, as they’d go if I could be in control of them, in the United States. But if you are collaborating abroad, then you are NOT in the United States and you DO NOT have control. You must abandon the desire to control anything, and instead pay attention to the new environment you are in. You must listen to that environment. You must enter the rehearsal space and consider how time is dealt with in this country. Nothing is the same, and it is your job to step back and absorb and digest and listen. Listen to collaborators as well. Ask them the difficult questions, as I’ve said, and listen to their answers. Let their responses guide you. Remember their expressions when they speak, remember the motion of their bodies when they move. You, as an American, are a trespasser. That doesn’t make you a bad person. It simply means that it is our role as we travel to honor our collaborators more than ever.

3. Audience Perceptions: Know Where You Stand, and Let the Ground Move

We never know how our material will land on others. When we are creating something that is emotional, or even somewhat controversial, the chances of SOMEONE disliking it or being hurt by it drastically increase. Issa and I decided to come prepared when showing our work in progress to audiences: all of the choices we made were specific and defensible. We knew where we were with the work and where it should go. However, listening is definitely a skill to be developed by devising, and listening allows for the earth around you, and under you, to change. One queer identified young woman in our talkback said that she was hurt by the fact that I never learned anything about the Philippines in school, when all of her life, she had been idolizing the USA. I was surprised to see how this seemingly small part of the piece impacted her, and heartbroken, for a moment, that I had caused this hurt. At the same time, I’m grateful for the hurt, and for her expression of it. Her perspectives, as did the perspectives of my collaborators and many other spectators, changed my approach to the work, and changed how I will approach where the work goes when we next have an opportunity. We are not creating work to be liked. We are not trying to represent the good that exists in the United States so that people outside of the United States will like us. We are here so that we can build bridges of understanding and empathy. That doesn’t mean that everyone will like you. We will be insecure in this construction of the new world. If we don’t go to the heart of the insecurity we feel, as both oppressor and oppressed, we’re merely creating performance for fun and as a pastime. We must access the discomfort; for the discomfort brings us to social change.


Courtesy of Brandon Relucio

USA x PI: Siobhan from Siobhan O'Loughlin on Vimeo.

USA x PI: Issa from Siobhan O'Loughlin on Vimeo.


Courtesy of J Lasupuna Villanueva


Colonize(d): A Duet on Identity and Intersectionality


I Was Born in Prison: The true story and life of my collaborator, Issa Lopez, written for Manila Today. 

Sipat Lawin Ensemble: Based in the Philippines.

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ): An American organization with chapters all over the country, organizing white people to be activists and make a difference.

Twitter: @siobhan_solo

Posted by: 
Monday, June 19, 2017

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