The Language of Social Presencing Theater: Words That Express the Wordless

Beth Mount, Daniela Ferraz, Kobun Kaluza at Social Arts Residency with La Vaca Independiente, Mexico, 2019

Social Presencing Theater has been an integral social change practice of the Presencing Institute, developed over fifteen years, in rooms where we could see and sense each other’s embodied presence. We could put a hand on another’s shoulder. We could look out to see the shape of our collective social bodies. The pandemic opened a door for many of us to consider how best to bring our work into a zoom format. It invited us into a beginners-mind curiosity and a creative exploration. The challenge is not only that our work is body-based (certainly online yoga classes have worked very well for many people) but is also highly dependent on directly experiencing spatial relationships between bodies. We are learning so much through this process of creating Social Presencing Theater online, and I invite you into this short reflection on one aspect of our work — how we use words.

The past two years of creating Social Presencing Theater experiences on zoom, has led many of us to look more closely into the way we use words. It has invited us to distinguish more clearly between the “ceremony words” arising directly from an embodied experience and the “description words” that come from remembering and describing the experience. Social Presencing Theater practices are tiny ceremonies that acknowledge and celebrate a transition. The open space of possibility makes that transition, that movement, possible. A shift occurs from a still embodied shape that expresses the current situation (Sculpture 1) toward a shape that expresses an emerging future possibility (Sculpture 2). Words arising from stillness in Sculpture 1 and Sculpture 2 can hold insights that empower a shift from stuckness toward natural unfolding. These words can express wisdom and a sense of direction. They uncover a knowing that is under the surface of our consciousness. When others hear these words, the words ring true. They make sense, not always on a conventional level. They are evocative and hold power.

Speaking has a place in several of the Social Presencing Theater practices. We speak a word or a phrase from our embodied sculptures. We rest mindful attention on the feeling of the body. We let go of thinking, and the word arises spontaneously from stillness and a simple open attending. In the practices of group Stuck, Seed Dance, Case Clinic, and 4-D Mapping — practices in which we build collective sculptures — our awareness extends out and our feeling-sense of connection is activated. Our words arise not only from the experience of our individual physical body posture, but also from our sense of placement in the social body — where we are in relationship to other bodies in space. We see our place in the collective sculpture; we feel the quality and texture of this social space or social field. We experience ourselves as an element of a living social sculpture.

The embodied sculpture, from its place in the garden of sculptures, has a voice. We shift from ‘what I want to say’ to what the embodied sculpture says. The words arise from a non-verbal, wordless, experience. As such, they can have a power and honesty that is not fettered by conventionality. The words do not describe something. They are not a sign pointing to something else. The words can evoke images and a felt sense of something because they are the voice of the sense experience — what is felt in the body, in the social body, and in the open space of awareness. These words are like poetry. I recall the expression “first thought, best thought,” that American poet, Allen Ginsberg, often used. He was not referring to the first thing that habitually pops to mind, but words that emerged with power and truth from stillness and awareness.

However, the reflection process of Social Presencing Theater also includes “description words.” Each person’s factual description of their shapes and movements, without interpretation or projection, is important data for collective coherence. Since the spatial relationships between participants (in separate zoom tiles, for instance) are impossible to see in a digital format, these description words inform us about relational distance, directional facing, and placement in the system — elements that are not visible on zoom but would be highly visible if we were creating these maps together in a room. Each player uses a kinesthetic imagination to sense and describe where they are in the Sculpture 1 and where that have moved to embody Sculpture 2. For instance, one might say, “I moved from the periphery toward the center,” or “I am facing toward this person.” Virtual 4-D Mapping also includes a digital whiteboard to assist us in clarifying our place in the system. We visualize ourselves on a two-dimensional board while remaining grounded in our bodies.

I have participated in zoom 4-D Mapping sessions these past two years in which words arising directly and spontaneously from the sculpture get lost or forgotten as people make valiant efforts to describe where they are in the space. Particularly when too many description words are spoken, the potential magic or power drains out of the practice. It loses its ceremonial integrity. Both the uncontrived ceremony words and the accurate description words are a necessary foundation for the generative dialogue that concludes the 4-D Mapping session. My learning has been to attend with more precision to these two ways of using speech — one, to express what is non-verbal and wordless; and two, to clarify and describe experience. I invite other Social Presencing Theater practitioners to be curious about this also.

Social Presencing Theater was designed to deepen conversation that can shift the quality of the social field, uncover leverage points, and generate the action confidence needed to engage in challenging systems-change work. The embodied knowing arising from the ceremony of 4-D Mapping sets the stage for generative dialogue — deep listening and genuine speech that gets under the layers of conflict and confusion to reveal a shared layer of humanness and collective wisdom. The embodiment practices tap into deeper levels of knowing. Attending to an emerging future is organically joined to our innate care for others. The 4-D Mapping gives all the participants a shared experience and a shared language. The system is made visible through this shift from current reality (Sculpture 1) to the emerging future (Sculpture 2). The conversations that emerge from the 4-D Mapping reflect a deep sensing into the system and also allow practical next steps to emerge from the connections seen and made in the sculptures. The ceremony word and the description word bring non-verbal knowing and cognitive clarity together as we engage in creating healthy and sane social fields.

Descriptions of the Social Presencing Theater practices referred to above can be found in the book, Social Presencing Theater: The Art of Making a True Move, available at https://presencing.market/collections/frontpage/products/social-presencing-theater-the-art-of-making-a-true-move

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