Excited teenagers surrounded the complex of Life in Deep Ellum—grabbing coffee and joining an impromptu dance party at MoKAH Coffee Shop, going freely going in and out of the main performance space. In the lobby area, individual visual artists displayed their work and made new pieces live. Instead of just watching the artists at work, the students are invited to partake in their own visual art along with the professional artists. Each table contained blank sheets, unformed clay, pencils and charcoal with open seats, inviting students to create anything they wished. Seeing this environment immediately showed that DaVerse takes a collaborative approach towards students, poets and artists.
I wandered into the performance space and immediately noticed a blank chalkboard wall, with a set of colorful chalk on a table, tempting each passerby. The space was designed to create a free flowing atmosphere, just in case you wanted to explore some of the visual art in the lobby or grab a coffee during the three hour event. When I arrived, Alejandro Perez, Jr. (AP for short) riled the crowd up through a call and response mantra for the evening, with the help of the house band Melody Memory. When each poet approached the mic, the band waited with attentive ears to hear the first words spoken. Once a member of the band felt inspired by a word, rhythm, or phrase, a musician added their instrument as an emotional support for the verbal imagery. They added music intuitively, and no matter what the poem concerned, they somehow found the right tone and music for each piece. A few visual artists were on stage as well, one creating a portrait and the other creating a word collage with markers. Working with intense focus, they remained present through the entire evening, developing their work while the poets spoke.
As the emcee of the evening, Will Richey stepped up to the stage to welcome the audience to the last DaVerse Lounge of the year. He explained how the evening would roll, going through intervals of three middle school students with a professional, college, or high school poet in between. When I attended the first time, the variety of poets ranged from a fourth grader who spoke of her absent father, an eighth grader declaring her struggles with forming a wall around other people, an SMU student impersonating President Obama, a middle school girl who wanted Miley Cyrus to be a better role model, to professional poets who talked of the empowering nature of speaking your truth.
One of my own students also read a poem about her absent father. In my theatre classes, she was known for being outspoken and very expressive, but when reading her poetry for the first time in front of an audience, she spoke her creation with a quiet voice and small presence. This year, I had this student in another theatre class at Mountain View College, but had no idea she has been attending DaVerse consistently or performing new work. I had no idea that she would actually be at this event and much to my surprise her entire poetry persona had evolved. She went on stage wearing a hat and said “I’m going for the Pharell look,” working the crowd a bit. It was clear that she had grown into an audience favorite over the past year. She read a new poem about her mother with a great rhythm and emotional expression and I could not have been more proud of how her poetic voice had developed in such a short amount of time. Many of the works intersected themes, even though many of the poets came from completely different walks of life. Young girls with neglecting fathers, struggles with feeling free, and broken relationships were a few of common threads shared by many of the young poets.
It seemed most important that this environment established a “peninsula of support” as the emcee Will declared. It’s not enough to simply speak your words, but the audience has a very active relationship to receiving and affirming the work—particularly as students share their points of view to peers and adult mentors. Every participant received praise for having the courage to speak their mind and the act of releasing their pain, struggles and heartache became a cathartic one. When one participant acted reluctant after reading her piece, Will brought her back on stage to affirm that she acted with courage. He asked everyone to raise a hand in the air and say “My voice has power to speak my truth and share my light.” At that moment, I realized that many other arts programs are actually providing a disservice to youth. While other arts education programs emphasize kid-friendly plays or crafts, they do not ask the students to create from their own experiences, stifling their personal voice. Perhaps we spend too much time teaching students how to speak someone else’s words. DaVerse allows complete freedom of expression and each student becomes an equal collaborator with the musicians, artists, and audience.
I walked past the chalkboard again at the end of the night. Now it was filled with words and images written with enthusiasm and passion. This is the kind of environment we should be creating for students. The heart and insightfulness that emerged from this one evening was more than anything I had ever encountered previously. It encouraged me to go home and immediately write a poem of my own.
There is incredible power in the spoken word.
Finally a year later, I had a chance to chat with Will Richey about the creation and methodology behind DaVerse Lounge. Here's the interview:
Shelby Allison-Hibbs: How did DaVerse get started?
Will Richey: I started an event in 2004 called Artist’s Night Out, [a combination of visual artists, music and poets]. The idea was: “Let’s bring in artists without having the pressure of having to perform for an audience.” At some point a couple of people from Dallas Theater Center came out to one and said: “Whoa this was awesome!” And they wanted to do something for high school kids. It started for the first four years as a quarterly show in between their plays. We did it up in Frank’s Place at the Kalita Humphreys and we would squeeze 150 to 200 people in there. Big Thought then came in and program managed. [With the transition of spaces] the event almost died because the demographic changed. The organic following we had, literally had kids coming on their own to the Kalita Humphreys, it shifted. So that fifth year started off strong but it almost withered away. The sixth year we came over to Life in Deep Ellum, and in 2011 they gave us the MoKah coffee shop. We had two events there because it quickly got too big.
The eighth year we turned a corner. When we had the eighth anniversary we decided to do 4 shows again. Margie Reese at Big Thought got behind it and said “This is amazing, we’ve got to keep an eye on this thing, let’s get two shows in the fall and two shows in the spring.” We did this big eighth anniversary show and it was almost like a reunion. Everyone was like “Holy cow it’s still alive!”
As we go into our ninth year last year, we were invited to do a TED Talk and so when we did the Ted Talk, that was the first time where the city got a glimpse of who we are. We’re in our tenth year now, hitting all cylinders, almost 500 people a show, in one show we had 43 different campuses represented, college, to high school, to middle school to elementary. Spoken word is poetry but it’s also music and storytelling and so I think that’s what we showed on the TedX stage. I don’t think poetry is taught well.
How do your create this supportive atmosphere for creative freedom? Do you have a major philosophy in the work?
I have a desire to impact culture, so DaVerse has three tenets that we all abide by in our workshops and the performances. They are: No political propaganda, No religious elitism, and no formalized competition. I embody that, AP embodies that, and the band embodies that.
Spoken Word can be pigeonholed into “Slam Poetry” or HBO Def Poetry Jam. I don’t want to speak down on any of those things, but Spoken Word is when you are forced to compete with your words. When you take those things away, that forced idea that “I gotta talk about religion, politics and I gotta win,” you’re left with the essence of the kid, the essence of the person. They’re free to talk about whatever they want, they’re gonna talk about lettuce, their dad left, love, the Dallas Cowboys, how they lived in a car—you’re free to talk about anything on the spectrum.
One of our mottos is: “When you share your joy, you multiply your happiness. When you share your pain, you divide your sadness.” When we are free to share our joy and our pain, this is how we come to a sense of peace with our life.
Poetry is something that seems to be introduced to students in a very technical, dull manner, in an English class. It’s not necessarily taught as a thing to be performed or even as a creative expression. How are you training these students to enjoy creating these poems and performing them?
I think that schools misrepresent poetry. I don’t care what group you’re talking to, unless you’re talking to the gifted and talented writer’s class, if you say “Who likes writing?” you’re not gonna get more than 10-15 percent of kids to raise their hand. Think of how we first teach writing and poetry to kids, on the first day we’re talking about sonnets and haikus and the structure built in. Within a week , the teacher is trying to teach us how to distinguish rhythm and meter.
I’d like to talk about how Spoken Word relates to a sport. Ice Hockey is one of the few sports where you have to have a learned skill before you can play the game, you have to learn how to skate. Spoken word is like ice hockey because the structure is the game, the skating is how to express yourself. When you teach someone how to skate, without telling them how to play the game, you find that some of them just want to skate, they want to go backwards and forwards and on the pond, maybe they don’t want to play the game. So I don’t fault Slam Poetry, but I know that a lot of teachers who start to do spoken word jump immediately into Slam Poetry. And they show videos and most of these performances are dynamic and shouty and the kids are sitting there like “I just want to talk about my skateboard.”
Like adults, we don’t know how to express ourselves, people can’t even say “hi” when they walk down the street, can’t make eye contact. I mean, awkwardness all the time. I’m the kind of guy, I like to say “hi” to everyone when they walk by and get my feelings hurt all the time. One student I talk about all the time is Amanda Jackson. As a sixth grader, she gulped when she spoke. She wouldn’t want to share out loud but after a few weeks I made a deal with her where she would bring me her pieces and I got to read them afterwards and whoa she was a crazy writer! At the last show of her sixth grade year she came up to me and said “Don’t tell anybody but I want to read.” And I said, “Oh! Absolutely! Let’s make this happen!” Her school goes bananas, like she’s Miley Cyrus or something, and poem was called “Wild Card” and she threw a card at the end to the crowd. All the way through high school she starts mentoring other kids and then her senior year she got a Scholastic award for arts and letters and received a medal at Carnegie Hall. She still comes back to read at DaVerse.
When you take away that competition, or we can say there are a lot of normal things that we could be talking about.
Can you talk a bit about your working relationship with AP (Alejandro Perez)?
AP and I are like the heart and soul of DaVerse Lounge, we don’t sit down and strategize, we’ve organically groomed this whole thing. AP’s method of education—from teenie weenies to high school—is called the Melody Memory method. How to share Melodies and Mantras both orally and aurally you can pick up vocabulary and then turn that into the application that allows little children to speak early, read early. What’s amazing about this cat and his vision is that he scaffolds that same approach. DaVerse Lounge would not be what it is without AP’s influence in the Melody Memory area. You walk in at the start of the show and you’ve got a call and response song, like “My voice has power to speak my truth and share my light.” That’s his mantra that he came up with.
How does a workshop with students work, what are some elements you always emphasize in the process?
AP and I have identified three things, we do mantras, like “I want to see you, I want to hear you” and we break it down into three parts, breathing, rhythm and movement. When we start workshops, people expect to be writing. But then AP just starts off with his breathing and rhythm, the kids are at like “What is going on?” So we come through the side door to introduce them to poetry.
When it’s time to present, most often kids do two or three things for the first time— they read fast, or low (quiet), or they are twiddling their hair the whole time. So we tell them, “Remember when we did that breathing and clapping? That’s what it was for.” Public speaking is the biggest fear that we have as people. Remember to breathe. When you’re reading your piece, you don’t have to force rhymes, but have some rhythm. The last one is movement. Your first step is not watching a three-minute clip on YouTube of someone who is ultra dynamic, it’s small steps in movement while holding your paper and then letting go of the paper and then adding more to your performance.
What is it about the overall interactive creative experience? How did you decide to include music, poetry and visual art together or did that evolve over time?
I like to call it “creative explosion.” While it was at Dallas Theater Center, it was a mic-focused, mic-centric event, and that’s how they wanted it, that’s how we wanted it. But it was also filled only with kids who really wanted to be there. We actually did not have a live painter at the time. When we started our first year and we would have like 12 kids reading two or three poems a piece, now our poet list is like, I think we had 60-70 people signed up last time.
When we transitioned to Big Thought, you know it’s a multi-disciplinary arts organization and Big Thought also said we are going to bus out groups from schools, like 20-30 kids from each school but we have to have an experience that all the kids will enjoy.
If you go to a Slam, you are hanging around like-minded individuals. But when you’re outside of your people, it’s intense. My philosophy has always been what will make the audience most comfortable. The first thing we added was the music, the second thing we added was the painter, the third thing we added was the scribe, now we have slides projected too. It’s almost like ADD heaven.
I definitely agree with that.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director and performer. Each month in TheaterJones, she'll write about a different North Texas organization that teaches some aspect of theater and the craft to students of all ages. Below is a list of previous columns: