One of the classes I teach at NYU's Graduate Acting Program asks students to go out into New York City and find strangers willing to talk to them for up to an hour. When my colleague, Mark Wing-Davey, and I explain the exercise for the first time I see the panic and anxiety sweep through the room. The questions they ask after that introduction fall into two categories: How can I avoid actually doing that? How on earth will I get a stranger to even say 'hello'?
We forget that everyone we know was a stranger. My wife was a stranger for most of my life. Now that seems impossible to imagine. Of course we meet most people because of work or mutual friends or interests. Those friendships form because the circumstances present themselves and our focus is on a shared task or event rather than the meeting itself. It leaves space for greater emotional closeness to sneak up on us while we think we just happen to be sharing proximity.
As I prepare for these summer trips, I pick up the phone and cold call numbers I find online for businesses and people and organizations to try and get some sense of these places and who to meet when I visit. While I punch the numbers and listen to the ringing my stomach turns over and I force myself not to hang up. A stranger answers. I stutter out who I am, why I'm calling, and a little bit about my project. Then, to a person, they embrace the idea and take time to tell me about their town and all the things I have to see when I visit. The conversations - ten minutes, thirty minutes, sometimes an hour long - always end with a promise to meet up when I come to town. A moment later I'm back in Brooklyn.
In the planning and research of this trip I try to take the advice I give students to soothe their fears: People want to tell their stories. That helps settle my stomach as I set out to turn some strangers into something more.
As I share my plans for this trip with friends and family a few common reactions arise. Encouragingly, most people think it is a great idea and exactly the kind of dialogue we need to have. Others are baffled by the desire or misunderstand my goal as a desire to change the minds of strangers over a single meal. Still others warn me (with varying levels of ominous foreboding) to, "Be careful."
I suppose that last category of response is exactly the reason to do this project. I know many friends, colleagues, students, and collaborators who do not feel comfortable or welcome in small rural towns in the United States. They see stories on the news or video of people at rallies saying derogatory or cruel things. I see those same videos, but don't feel the same sense of danger. Certainly I'm an outsider to these communities, but I don't fit any of the categories of marginalized folks who fear that who they are makes them a target in various ways. My privilege gets me past the threshold with less fear which is exactly why I should use it to walk through the door.
Before I go, I'm looking for people here in New York City to sit down with me and talk about what they think I'll find on my trip. Do you have expectations or ideas about what these communities will be like? If so, send a message and let me hear what you think I'll see and discover.
The idea for this project began in the weeks after the 2016 Presidential election. Like many liberals living in large cities, the level of support for Donald Trump across the country mystified me. Yet he won. Clearly there were worries, needs, and values he addressed that connected with some of my fellow Americans. During and after the election I heard sweeping generalities about those who supported Trump and from Trump supporters about "liberal elites". As a vegetarian atheist theater professor from New York City, it dawned on me that I might be exactly who they meant.
I began to wonder what I could do, personally, to bridge this gap somehow. I thought about the way my own view of the world gets complicated every time I travel, meet new people, or come face to face with experiences different from my own. I found the three "reddest" states in America based on their Presidential voting in 2016 (Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming) and the counties in those states (Cimarron County, OK; Crook County, WY; and Grant County, WV) that voted in the highest percentage for Donald Trump.
My plan is to spend a week in each county this summer having every breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a different resident. I hope to hear about their lives and histories and learn a bit about how that translates into values while I share the same about me. I hope to complicate their view of me while they complicate my view of them. What comes of that (personally or theatrically) is anyone's guess.
Scott Illingworth is an Assistant Arts Professor in the Graduate Acting Program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and a freelance theatre director.