FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Kristy Benz
FUTURES/forward Mentee, Kristy Benz — cohort #3 triad, October 2020 to March 2021 — mentored by Will Weigler
— As part of the triad model, Kristy was placed as an artist-in-residence at the Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA).
— Community-engaged arts project co-created with OCAA: Attitude of the Heart, a series of “clown logic as a radical tool” workshops hosted over zoom.
KRISTY BENZ is a queer performance artist and climate justice activist located in Mohkinstsis (so-called Calgary) on Treaty 7 Territory. After graduating from Bishop’s University with degrees in Liberal Arts, English Literature, and Drama, Kristy let academics take a back seat and pursued her love of clown. She trained at the Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance (also lovingly known as the Clown Farm) for several summers before moving to Northern California to do the Professional Training Program at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. Finally back in her home province, Kristy is engaging with the theatre and climate justice communities. Last Christmas she performed as Tumnus in Alberta Theatre Projects’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She also co-produced a drag adaptation of A Christmas Carol performed in a digital run in the 2020 holiday season. Kristy is a founding member of the social and climate justice group YYC For a Green New Deal. Now more than ever she longs to unite her love of performing arts with her passion for climate justice and is very thankful to the International Centre of Art for Social Change for this opportunity to do so.
I applied for the FUTURES/forward Mentorship Program with few concrete ideas about what it would turn into. I only knew that I wanted to use my love of clown to engage with the climate crisis. Luck would have it that my soon-to-be mentor, internationally acclaimed community-arts theatre practitioner and author, Will Weigler, shared these two passions. We began meeting via Zoom in early October 2020 and soon realized that we had yet another shared interest: the world of academia. So, as we waited to be matched with our partner organization, we dove into theory, reading and discussing articles on community-based arts, clowning, risk-taking, online performance, applied theatre, and more. Together we began to build a shared vocabulary that would become the basis of our working partnership.
Will and I met online once a week to discuss these articles and the questions they prompted. Our discussions often revolved around the remarkable capabilities of the clown: their capacity for vulnerability, their openness to the world, their ability to bounce back from failure. We slowly gravitated towards the idea of conducting a virtual clown workshop for climate activists. We would share these unique capabilities of the clown with climate activists and invite them to apply these attributes to their work. Central to this idea was the use of clown logic as an arts-based approach to improving one’s effectiveness as an environmental and social justice activist.
Clown logic is based on setting aside the idea of the impossible so that we can reframe it from a new point of view. A clown may try and fail several times when attempting to solve a problem. Ultimately the solution for the clown often comes from radically shifting the window through which they are viewing the issue. A clown who is running late and stuck in traffic, for example, after repeated failed attempts to manoeuvre through a traffic jam, may try a new tack: simply setting their dashboard clock back an hour. Problem solved; they are no longer late. While this example in itself is not a practical approach to the problem (we can’t just set the clock back on the climate crisis), it demonstrates a type of thinking that allows us to change our perspective and thereby to change how we tackle a problem. What is important is that the clown doesn’t believe this to be impossible or absurd.
Towards the beginning of December, Will and I were introduced to our partner organization, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, and their representative, Angela. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance is focused on dismantling and phasing out harmful energy sources, such as coal, and building green energy networks in their place. Angela came on board in the early planning phases of the workshop, ready to engage in and nurture our arts-based offering. With an interest in the arts and a strong background in climate activism and community organizing, Angela was a valuable sounding board as the workshop plan developed. She also became the first participant to sign up.
The workshop would run on six consecutive Sundays, for three hours each session. I chose Sundays because we knew we would have participants across various time zones, making weeknights problematic. We decided on a maximum of sixteen participants, plus Will, Angela, and me. This number was important to us, as it would mean that all participants could be easily seen on one Zoom screen.
As far as I know, this was the first workshop of its kind. The question soon became clear: How do you advertise something that has never been done before? I did my best to create an appealing poster to advertise the workshop series and let participants know what could be expected from the workshop. Yet I still needed to make the occasional clarification to prospective participants. Most often I needed to clarify that this workshop was not about developing or enhancing a clown character but, rather, it was about using clown as a means of radical connection. Also, it was intended as a clown workshop for climate activists, not a climate activism workshop for clowns. The distinction was that Will and I wanted to engage community members, people who had little or no exposure to clown, and use the skills and viewpoint of the clown to gain new insight to problems we face as activists. This decision led us to turn away a few possible participants who had more extensive clown training. However, I have since been in contact with those clowns to discuss the possibility of hosting a condensed version of the workshop for those who already have a background in clown technique.
I wound up enlisting fifteen participants, plus Will, Angela, and I. It was an intergenerational group, of which the largest demographic was white, urban, and female identifying. After the second session one participant had to drop out due to family matters. A second participant stopped attending without warning after the fourth session. We finished the series with thirteen participants plus Will and Angela.
I called my workshop Attitude of the Heart, light-heartedly sub-titled “Not your average clown workshop for climate activists.” The title was taken from a passage in the dissertation of Julia Lane, whose work also greatly informed the content of my workshop series. Julia has studied in the same clowning tradition as me (Pochinko clown), and her work centres around the application of clowning, particularly in an educational environment. Her dissertation, Impossibility Aside: Clowning and the Scholarly Context, inspired Will and I (“Impossibility Aside” is a reference to the aforementioned clown logic). Among many other articles and books, this work propelled us into the ethics of engagement and relationality, a fundamental element of arts for social change. What it meant for us, and for me as a facilitator, is that we were seeking to create an environment of co-learning among the participants and myself, grounded in mutual respect and care. I did not intend to set myself up as the One Great Holder of Knowledge who then endows that knowledge on others. Rather, I was the facilitator (which Will reminds me is One Who Makes Things Easy), and this was a meeting of curious minds, a co-learning laboratory where I could share what I knew and loved about clown and together we could find ways to apply this to our work as climate activists.
During the months leading up to the workshops, Will and I worked out how to translate this theoretical premise into practical applications in the design of the activities that I would lead in each session. The workshop plan I created was ambitious. I had a lot to get through in those six sessions, with many exercises and points of discussion to occupy us in each three-hour session. And yet, because of the co-learning template that was so central to the operation of the workshop, I also had to make room for the participants’ questions, comments, and discoveries that were just as important, if not more important, than the activities I had planned. Each week I had to think on my feet, reworking my plan as we went, adjusting for time spent in valuable discussion. These modifications on the go were a lesson in themselves; I had to know my material well enough to be able to judge in the moment which exercises could get left behind and which ones were imperative. As the weeks went on, I became better at altering my schedule beforehand but still, each week, something from the lesson plan was left behind to make room for the insight my participants brought. This leads me to believe that the workshop would be best as an eight-week series.
Working online is in many ways a blessing. Perhaps most obvious is that it allows collaboration from all over; Will and I were able to work together in two different provinces thanks to the ease of ZOOM meetings (barring the occasional time zone slip-up), and participants from all over Turtle Island were able to come together easily for the workshop, without the monetary cost of travel and accommodations or the environmental cost of a carbon footprint. However, one thing that we noticed is that the online format made connecting with one another more difficult. There was less of the pre-and post-workshop chatter, and few of us took our breaks together. This inhibited us coming together as a group in the nuanced ways that happen in person. I do not know the solution for this. Perhaps as a facilitator I need to account for this and to dedicate time specifically each session to group cohesion.
Things did not always go as expected. One of the biggest missteps on my part came in our penultimate session, when I asked the participants to pair off for a short piece they would perform on the final day. Earlier we had made a list of the struggles we have faced in our climate activism, and the final pieces were to address these struggles through the lens of the clown. It was my hope that the participants would gravitate towards certain struggles and make their pairings based off that criteria. However, it did not happen the way I had anticipated, and we found ourselves in the midst of an awkward pick-your-partner scenario that one participant said in the chat was like choosing partners in grade school except you couldn’t just reach out to your friend. By the time I realized that the pairing-off wasn’t going as planned it was too late, and I hadn’t equipped myself with a backup plan. From this I learned that, while some exercises and activities can be performed on the fly, others require more insight and careful planning – particularly on the online platform – to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
Facilitating a workshop is something that I had never thought I would do. I didn’t consider myself a teacher. It never occurred to me that I had enough expertise in my own field to pass that knowledge on to others. However, Will helped me change my perspective on this (as did the material with which we were engaging). By helping me to see the value of co-learning, Will instilled in me the confidence to bring together this group of participants and to explore our common concerns together, with everyone (including myself as facilitator) bringing their unique perspectives and expertise to the table.
I went into the first session of the workshop series nervous, with pages and pages of notes and quotes, not knowing what to expect. However, the very clown skills I was encouraging my participants to develop helped me through. Clown is a practice, I told them, whether or not you have the tell-tale red nose on. As a facilitator I drew on my clown skills without even realizing it. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and open, to connect with others, to welcome the unexpected. I learned the value of admitting when I have failed, the importance of fixing my mistakes, the capacity to take feedback without debate.
I am walking away from this workshop series and the FUTURES/forward program with extreme gratitude to Will Weigler, Angela Bischoff, the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, all of my participants, Kim Gilker, Judith Marcuse, the International Center of Art for Social Change, the McConnell Foundation, the Government of Canada’ s Emergency Community Support Fund, and Community Foundations of Canada.
I plan to continue to offer this workshop in an online capacity with the hopes that one day I will be able to meet my participants face-to-face. The participants who completed Attitude of the Heart have been incredible resources and learning partners, and a few have reached out to propose platforms through which to discuss this work or new co-learners with whom to share it.
“I really enjoyed working with Kristy Benz in this clowning class. The class felt like a very safe space and was well boundaried. Kristy approached the clown learning with enthusiasm, kindness and care.”
“As an activist, the world can appear to be in a dismal state and this can lead to a heavy heart (and quick burnout). But Benz reminded me that clown logic finds solutions everywhere. Take this workshop if you want to harness your clown’s superpowers for activist endeavours—your heart will be grateful that you did!”
“This was the first clowning class that I’ve been exposed to. Kristy really knocked it out of the park with her ability to bring a diverse audience together, work within and make the most of our virtual meeting environment and make clowning accessible to activists. I learned a lot about how and why clowns/clowning can be used to positive effect in addressing serious concerns like climate change. Kristy is a generous and gifted clown, facilitator, and teacher. I look forward to following her pursuits as she shines her light on the world.”
“Kristy’s Clown for the Climate Workshop was a brilliant package of frolic and reflection. I’m no actor and expected to be intimidated, but the exercises brought out my inner clown, and Kristy’s expert facilitation had all us strangers laughing and sharing our vulnerabilities. At times the sessions were serious as we shared our climate fears, but we also explored and discovered our clown intuition, which for me was the greatest outcome of the course. Clowns perceive and respond to serious situations with kindness, humility and lightness, breaking the tension – our world needs more of this.”
From Will Weigler:
“I have become a better mentor because of my experience with Kristy. At each meeting we practiced what it means to step away from a traditional teacher-student model of teaching and learning and actively developed a relationship of learning from each other as we both learned more about the ideas we were exploring together. I know that as I continue to mentor emerging artists, both formally and informally, I will carry with me what I have learned from this work with Kristy.”
ICASC wishes to thank the Ontario Clean Air Alliance for this collaboration and hosting Kristy Benz’s artist-in-residency. FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Kristy’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the McConnell Foundation, Judith Marcuse Projects, the Government of Canada’s Emergency Community Support Fund and Community Foundations of Canada.