Acting Up: Disruptions in Public Space

This conversation aims to bridge theory and practice on the subject of dialogue in the public sphere. The authors approach the subject from their distinct areas of study, Theatre Directing & Public Dialogue and Natural Resource Management. This collaboration grows from a mutual investment in the research and implementation of the Livability Initiative, a three-year regional planning project in the New River Valley, Virginia. Since this piece concerns itself with democratic deliberation—a practice dependent on deep listening and honest speaking—the authors have chosen to present their thoughts as a dialogue. The topic of “disruptions” of democratic processes factors significantly into this conversation, but—for the reader’s sake—the authors have promised not to interrupt each other (too much).

KIM: You seem to work in a space that some would call a public sphere, in which  the community can come together to discuss issues of collective importance.

JON: I do. As a community-based theatre director, I continually engage with the public sphere. My work takes two forms presently, civic practice and social practice respectively (Rohd 2012). In the first mode, I help to lead a team of actors/facilitators and “old time” musicians in the Building Home project, a partnership with the New River Valley Planning District Commission. We meet with small groups and employ participatory performing arts techniques to animate public dialogue around citizens’ perspectives on life in the New River Valley and what they would like to see in the future. In the second form, I create new plays in collaboration with local residents that dramatize issues of shared concern. These efforts serve as both catalysts and containers for community deliberation.

KIM: I’d like to explore your practice in the public sphere a little more. Jürgen Habermas (1962) developed guidelines for when engagement in the public sphere is perhaps most beneficial to the community. Ideally, we should use discourse in the public sphere to question norms and clarify practical questions that have political consequences. Habermas’s principles dictate that,

  • The dialogue in the public sphere should be free from social status, market influence, and laws of the state.
  • There should be open discussion of issues of “common concern.”
  • This sort of exchange should make the culture more inclusive. (Habermas 1962 pgs. 36-37)

JON: A tall order! On the first point, a moment comes to mind in which an undergraduate student—whom I had invited to share his view during one of my participatory theatre events on the topic of “University Department Politics”—chose to bite his tongue. I enthusiastically (although naively) prodded him to express his thoughts. “Out with it!” I joked, “This space is safe!” Blushing, the student politely declined, nodding in the direction of another attendee, the Chair of his particular Department.

In practical terms, I often ask myself what I can do as a director to remove market and state pressures from the dialogic process and foster an environment of equality for those who attend my performances. I do wonder, and often, whether such is even possible.


KIM: Well, there are those who say the political can never be removed from dialogue. Chantal Mouffe (1999), for example, often discusses the innate power structure built into discourse. It is possible that we will never reach a utopian place without conflicts-political power is simply too prevalent. We may reach consensus and/or cooperation at some points along the way, but these are merely “temporary respites in an ongoing confrontation” (p. 755).

        Yet Habermas’s guidelines for engaging in the public sphere should be remembered to reduce potential for leaving someone outside of the process. We too often place people in containers and separate “them” from “us,” often failing to see the person beyond the container in which we have placed them (Stivers 2008).

JON:  In another project I recently directed, behind a stranger’s face, audience members engaged with the phenomenon of “othering” you point up in the context of a community member’s story. In the play, a middle-aged African-American personal trainer named S— shares her account of a complicated encounter with one of her white male clients. The client cracks what he claims to be a joke, the punch line of which (“noose”) S— views as offensive. How should S— respond to this? We invite audience members to step into S—‘ role and act out what they believe would be the most effective method for dealing with the conflict.

In one iteration of this improvisational scene, the audience member playing S—sought to disarm her client and perhaps get him to listen by suggesting, “We’re friends, right? We can talk about this.” At that, an African-American audience member stopped the action. “Freeze!” he clapped. Referring to the client, the audience member declared, “He’s not your friend! This whole time he’s said that he wanted to learn more about you and the community you come from, but he views you as a pet. Like this is some kind of zoo. You don’t owe him an explanation for why you’re upset. Let him learn from your walking away.”

KIM: That sounds quite intense! From a theoretical perspective, it’s sometimes easy to forget how powerful these moments are. The political factor can often run very deep. How have political factors played into your work? What about containers we draw for people?


A performer and audience members share stories during an interactive portion of behind a stranger’s face (2012). Directed by Jon Catherwood-Ginn. Photograph by Bryanna Demerly.

JON: Well, many argue that all theatre is political. The medium carries and animates philosophy, cultural traditions, and points-of-view. In so doing, theatre may reinforce the status quo or subvert audience members’ perceptions of reality or perhaps some combination(s) of these.

I often find it helpful to think about how the respective containers that audience, performer, and story inhabit relate to one another. Lyusyena Kirakskoyan vividly illustrates the importance of this triumvirate in her work concerning peacebuilding and theatre. When these three entities move freely among each other’s containers, they can shape the way narrative unfolds, in turn influencing the character of a community building effort.


KIM: Your concept of “moving freely among each other’s containers” reminds me of recent calls for citizens to have a more empathic understanding of each other (Rifkin 2009). However, sometimes container walls can feel impenetrable. The more entrenched we are in our values and norms–our containers–the less likely we are to engage in discussions that seem to threaten them, and the more likely we are to become emotional or angry when those value systems are threatened. Such conditions are  ripe for disrupting deliberative processes in public spaces.

JON: Because of this, I have found that it can be particularly beneficial for participants to role play points-of-view that are drastically dissimilar from their own. I believe this practice deepens citizens’ intellectual and emotional understanding of those different from themselves. Empathizing with versus identifying with are worlds apart, to be sure. But I believe that engaging with the “reality of the pretend moment” as someone different than oneself enhances one’s ability to talk to and listen deeply to another, across differences in values and ideologies (Rohd 1998)?

KIM: Some of these disruptions are beneficial, of course. If they were not, we might still be living in a nation in which only white, Protestant, land-owning men could vote. How can we turn disruptions in the public sphere into a positive force, rather than something that impedes progress or prevents citizen participation?

JON: So, you are asking, what’s the dividing line between negative disruptions that sabotage democratic processes and positive disruptions that keep the institution honest and well-calibrated? Is it strictly a matter of perception?

KIM: Perhaps there is a way to change our perception of “the other side.” Mouffe (1999) has claimed that we may be able to turn this “other” from an enemy, who is dismissed, disregarded, and fought with, to an adversary, who is, “somebody with whose ideas we are going to struggle, but whose right to defend those ideas we will not put into question.” It may be that we need to consider these discussions as less of a brawl and more of a boxing bout, which has clear rules built around respect for one another and a presumption of safety.

JON: Yes, that makes sense to me. As I have learned from numerous acting teachers and public dialogue facilitators, “safety is required, comfort is not.”


Habermas, J. (1962). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

Mouffe, C. (1999). “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism.” Social Research66(3): 745-758.

Rifkin, J. (2009). The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. New York, NY, Penguin Group.

Rohd, Michael. “Translations: The Distinction between Social & Civic Practice and Why I Find It Useful.” HowlRound: A Journal of the Theatre Commons. Emerson College, 1 Sept. 2012. Web. 3 Feb. 2013. <>.

Rohd, Michael. (1998). Theatre for Community, Conflict, & Dialogue: The Hope Is Vital Training Manual. Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Heinemann.

Stivers, C. (2008).Governance in Dark Times: Practical Philosophy for Public Service. Washington, D.C., Georgetown University Press.


IMG_1630.JPGKimberly Hodge Cowgill is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech. Associated with the department’s Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management program, Kim’s research focuses on political, social, and cultural factors associated with environmental decision-making. Her particular areas of interest include civil discourse, conflict analysis and resolution, governance, and sustainable development. She is also a graduate of the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute.


photo.jpegJon Catherwood-Ginn is a Master of Fine Arts student in Directing & Public Dialogue at Virginia Tech, seeking a graduate certificate in Nonprofit & Nongovernmental Organization Management. At the university, Jon is a member of the Community Voices Leadership Team in the Institute for Policy & Governance and “Interact” Studio in the Institute for Creativity, Arts, & Technology. Jon is co-director of Building Home, a performing arts based engagement effort in partnership with the New River Valley Planning District Commission (NRVPDC). Following his graduation from Bucknell University, Jon served as a Teach For America corps member in high-needs schools in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Jon has worked with Lost Nation Theatre, Hamilton-Gibson Productions, Extant Arts Company, Aquila Theatre, Sojourn Theatre, and the TEAM.

This entry was posted in Jon Catherwood-Ginn, Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply