In Praise of Weird Art About Tough Stuff

Ada McCartney
Wisdom Body Collective
7 min readMar 31


Notes on ‘Understanding Otherness,’ a Greybox Collective Production

Black and White photo of a person, from behind with arms extended up and very long sleeves

An hour or so before sunset on this sunny yet cool late winter afternoon, people are trickling into a bright annex on the northwest side of the Childsplay building in Tempe, AZ. There’s a counter full of refreshments from a pile of bright clementines, individually packaged allergy-conscious crunchy snacks, and hot tea with Greybox branded ceramic mugs. It’s not immediately clear who is performing and who’s here as a guest. It is a Gathering.

Performers are preparing in a small room with the door open. I appreciate that no effort is made to hide what occurs behind the scenes. Their affixing light packs to softly variegated tunics, some of which have sleeves that extend almost to the floor. The atmosphere is celebratory, with notes of a verdant spring on the approaching horizon.

The program, a postcard with a QR code, is infused with wildflower seeds, and we’re encouraged to plant it once the event is through. This is one of many considerations taken by Greybox to ensure that their work does no harm.

Understanding Otherness Program
UO program on seed paper

A small handful are masked, and beneath mine a migraine looms barely at bay. I take a seat away from the fray, near to the DJ table, under and open window. Soon, my mask comes off because the sensations of elastic pulling on my tender ear-backs and the smell of my own minty breath are becoming unbearable. I say a small prayer, and promise myself a COVID test tomorrow.

My somatic experience stretches thin simply existing in physical space with texture, sound, light, and smells. I wonder if the body’s own systems causing chaos and othering one another will feature in this show.


Our host for the evening is Hannah. Greybox events often have a host to guide the process. Another unique feature of Greybox productions are the “performance partners”. There are always professionals from La Frontera on hand to provide mental health support services. One of the things I admire most about this collective is their holistic commitment to community care around the whole process of making and circulating art.

Hannah begins the show with a Q&A:

What’s the evolution of this concept? How do the lights work? What is their purpose? What’s the message?

We learn that the costumes are conceived with the idea of exploring how clothing can constrain or extend movement. That this is a “living collage,” and that we will witness Greybox’s characteristic, “weird art about tough stuff.” The message is about the dynamics, details, dangers, and demands of otherness.

Hannah wraps up the Q&A by asking, “Any other anythings?”


My curiosity is blunted on reality, inclusive message already thump hammer-heavy. I crave a little mystery.

Brain blue light bleat bleeds beating breathe in. Fluttery lungs expand at a shallow capacity. Someone smells like something fragranced —

Undulating tattered sleeves in olive, celadon, evergreen three bodies constellate in every kind of triangle. Soft sleeves drape and weave blurring boundaries between two sets of hands clasping. Perhaps because it is a bit sheer, the gauzy textures give each body a quality of permeability as their edges seep into one another and absorb the surroundings.

Lights shift, a spectrum of pastel rainbow pulsating fro and to in Fox’s improvised soundtrack of atmospheric loops purring. It feels like going somewhere, or a precursor to the tomcat’s serenade with a bucolic beat backing.

Modulated voiceovers layer upon samples of bell hooks talking; defines and discusses Other in action and theory.

Grasp and twirl

Three people becomes six. What are the mathematics of otherness?

Slow walk circle bass drape shoulder blades oblate. Trust falls. One person’s head is cradled babe-gentle in another’s palm.

Their six arms are unconstrained, fingers lucid and articulating. Thirty digits curl to and fro in gentle ways, a sway of counting.

Individuality feels fluid, muted by green flowing linens contingent on pulsating lights that change relationally based on how near or far their bodies are from one another.

Ensemble flows moving alone and together. Holly’s costumes enhance the movement and simultaneously take on a life of their own. Soundscape in conversation with verdant fabric, light, and bodies moving.


One performer finally speaks, and I realize I’ve been waiting and waiting for this moment. This climax, twist, finalé.

They ask us, “Can you join?”

An invitation.

In the face of this heartfelt earnest gesture I freeze noticing the well of tears in my ducts. All of the performers are facing us now, some making eye contact, other’s gazing to the distance.

We are moved to move with them mostly arms and modest, curious faces, undulating into the bow.


You are knowing yourself in your body.

Immediately following this collective undulation, the whole ensemble sits on the floor facing us, and two counselors from La Frontera make their full pitch for free therapy and other pertinent resources.

Host Hannah invites statements of meaning from everyone in the room:

The gravitational pull of community —

This is a Laboratory to look at our shared and individual experiences.

You are knowing yourself in your body.

Experience beyond language is so spontaneous.

Hollywood, one of the performers whose hand are free of flowing sleeves says it all, “We share more things than we don’t.”

Are you allowing yourself to be seen? Felt?

Hannah asks, what did you learn today?

We’re invited behind the curtain of aesthetics. I learn that this show is totally organic in its construction and largely collaborative. Although there are previous iterations, this event was produced in a single rehearsal and improvised live with at least one new person performing.

She asks, Are you allowing yourself to be seen? Felt?

There’s discussion of embracing otherness, othering ourselves for our own well-being. I scribe and slide to the edges of cognition, othered brain registering throbs of pain as migraine digs its spurs deep into peppermint-massaged temples. I fight myself to remain conscientious, coherent, considerate.

The conversation is ranging far beyond the “show,” and I consider that this, too, is performance. A performance of conversation, community, and care. I consider that movement contained the seed for these more interactive portions like our programs waiting to be soil-bound and watered. Seeds containing the full spectrum of life, bloom, and death within.

And, yet, it’s all very serious. I wonder: where are you, humor?

There are no spectators at a Greybox Collective show, only what Augusto Boal calls spect-actors. Today, I am a reluctant spect-actor wishing for a more passive role in the proceedings, and a laughter release. Pressure at the brain stem just keeps building.

3,2,1 done!

Everyone is released as a class might be for recess. A low din of conversation continues. The collection of creators and attendees descend on the ample snack table, social gathering as extension of the performance.

The quality of the room has shifted considerably in the course of this work. Once strangers to one another the audience and creators now visit, cajoling like family.


Blessed Hannah approaches me and asks after my experience of the evening. Stringing words together is a struggle. I want to convey my gratitude, or at least, something intelligible and kind.

I othered myself by this open window in a gesture of self-preservation that didn’t work. Or, did my body other me? I experience a refusal, the urge to vomit, with nowhere to do it.

My somatic experience throbs video killed the radio star and bell hooks misheard. I wonder if I’ll need help getting the few miles home. I am too stubborn to ask for it. Another othering to become aware of.

Perhaps tomorrow I will allow myself to be seen and felt. Perhaps then my body will enjoy symbiosis instead of neurological warfare. I wonder at the diplomacy of cells and the healing power of choreography.

All Photos are courtesy of James Olguin Photography. @jamesolguinphoto on Instagram.

For more on Greybox Collective’s mission and ongoing work, visit them online.


Ada McCartney is a poet, performer, and teaching artist. McCartney is the author of Cunt. She hosts Poetry Theatre and other podcasts with the Femme On Collective. Connect @



Ada McCartney
Wisdom Body Collective

Poet | Cat Lover | Kalamazoo College and Naropa University Alum | Long Live the USPS