Last night I was on KPFA (about 72 minutes into the show) with Josie Lehrer discussing the Men’s Story Project. I hope to see you there. I will be readiing a letter to my father and performing with 16 other men discussing masculinity.

The first MSP performance will take place on August 17, 2008 at 7:30 PM at La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA (www.lapena.org). This performance includes a diverse group of men ages 18-67. Some topics addressed by the pieces include: expressing platonic love for other men; experience of male socialization growing up in Jamaica and the Bronx; experiences with saying no to sex with a woman; struggles with Islam, homophobia and HIV; multiracial identity; bisexuality and internalized homophobia; disability and masculinity; men’s public restroom rituals; a Latino man’s journey from domestic violence perpetration to anti-violence activism; refusal to continue intergenerational patterns of violence; a dance piece creating a rite of passage invoking African ancestry and hip-hop influences; transgender identity and gender fluidity; relationships with fathers and other family members; and giving thanks to lifelong mentors. Presenters include established local artists as well as first-time performers.

Building Strength, Creating Peace

The Men’s Story Project (MSP) will be an ongoing performance and community discussion project examining social ideas about masculinity, using the arts as a medium for community-building and social change. The purpose of the MSP is to give voice to men’s stories that are less often heard; to break silences on issues including cultural norms around sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism and violence – and ways in which these interconnect with norms around masculinity; to celebrate men’s beauty and strength; and to stimulate active discussion on what being a man today can be all about. The ultimate goal of the project is to increase the presence of genuine personal expression, peaceful relationships, and social justice in local communities through collective dialogue, honest reflection, and celebration.

Background/context

Across cultures and communities, there are social norms regarding gender roles – expectations of how boys, girls, men and women should look and behave in all areas and stages of life. In many cultures, men are taught that being a ‘real man’ requires elements such as being emotionally and physically tough; being physically sizable and able; being heterosexual; having lots of women; having dominion over their partner/spouse; not fully expressing feelings such as vulnerability, sadness or fear; and being financially successful.

Socialization regarding what it means to ‘be a man’ often contributes to real costs for both men and women. For example, many boys and men find themselves in a so-called ‘box,’ where the range of emotions they feel they can outwardly express is limited; where sexual orientations other than heterosexuality are met with rejection and violence; where men are feminized and called ‘pussies’ and ‘fags’ if they are not strong enough, tough enough, or straight enough; where violence becomes a normal and necessary means to earn respect from peers; where objectification of women is the norm and violence against women is acceptable.

Gender role norms that are established for men can therefore contribute to a variety of social problems, including male-male violence, violence against women, homophobia and transphobia, substance abuse due to insufficient emotional outlets, youth getting kicked out of their homes because they are not heterosexual and ending up on the streets, patterns of HIV/STI transmission, and taboos against men expressing platonic love for other men.

Just as social training is learned, however, it can be unlearned. Social norms around masculinity can be critically exposed and examined, positive traditions can be celebrated, and new ways of relating and being can also be taken on.

While the movement for women’s liberation and empowerment has been quite public in the U.S. for many years, the ‘men’s movement’ — helping men to critically examine their traditional social training and the positive and negative impacts of this socialization — is still in more nascent or behind-the-scenes stages.

Men’s Story Project – Description and Purpose

As a response to these realities, the Men’s Story Project (MSP) will be an ongoing public performance and community discussion series examining social/cultural ideas around masculinity, using the arts as a medium for community-building and social change. The MSP is getting started in the San Francisco Bay Area, but has potential to be replicated far and wide.

In each MSP performance, a diverse group of approximately 16 local men of all ages will share short pieces they have created about their own lives, on subjects including sexuality, romantic relationships, friendship, family, mentors and role models, rites of passage, HIV/AIDS, perpetration of and healing from violence, immigration, personal transformations, and the men they wish to be – all with a framing focus on critical examination of masculinity and men’s roles. Performances will include a range of mediums including spoken word, monologues, prose, music and dance, supported by local musicians and an emcee. Visual art may be also displayed depending on the venue. Each MSP performance will be followed by a facilitated group discussion between audience and performers. Performances will include both established artists and first-time performers.

Development of performers’ pieces will be supported by local artists through a series of group workshops preceding each performance. These workshops will also serve as an opportunity for the presenters to get to know each another, hear each other’s stories, share their motivations for participating in the project, and develop a sense of community and solidarity within the group; this promises to be a growthful and powerful experience in of itself.

The purpose of the MSP is thus to give voice to men’s stories that are less often heard; to break silences on issues including cultural norms around sexism, racism, heterosexism and violence – and ways in which these interplay with norms around masculinity; to celebrate men’s beauty and strength; and to stimulate active discussion among participants and audience members on what being a man can be all about. The ultimate aim of the project is to increase the presence of genuine personal expression, peaceful relationships, and social justice in local communities through collective dialogue, honest reflection, and celebration. We believe this will be a groundbreaking and influential performance/discussion series, and are also excited about the possibility of it being replicated far and wide as a performance model.

First MSP Performance

The first MSP performance will take place on August 17, 2008 at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, a 200-seat venue. The performance lineup includes a diverse group of men ranging in age from 22-60. Some of the topics addressed include experiences with expressing platonic love for other men; experience of male socialization growing up in Jamaica and the Bronx; learning that it is ok to say no to sex with a woman; desire to transcend the ‘player’ image and be in a committed relationship; transgender identity; one man’s experience of being kicked out of his Muslim home because he was gay and subsequently contracting HIV on the streets; an African American pastor’s letter to his son; a Latino man’s experiences with machismo, perpetration of domestic violence, and subsequent anti-violence activism; a young man’s realization that he is both bisexual and homophobic; a dance piece invoking African ancestry and hip-hop influences to create a rite of passage; and a spoken word piece where a man thanks his father, who had polio, for all he taught him about what it means to be a man. The performance will be followed by a facilitated audience/performer discussion.

Potential for replication/expansion

We have searched through Bay Area and California performance projects and nothing along the lines of the MSP seems to be taking place here, so we seem to be filling a new niche with this project. The MSP has clear potential to expand to become a non-profit organization that facilitates the development of awareness-raising/discussion-provoking performances in California and beyond, in a variety of contexts — including language-specific performances, performances that focus on specific issues such as healing from violence, and performances focusing on men within specific cultural or spiritual communities. We may also aim to do at least one performance that includes well-known men - to expand project reach and visibility, and increase social discussion around these topics.

Men’s Story Project Website

The MSP website will be include: a) texts of performance pieces and links to videos from MSP performances; b) information on how to organize a local MSP performance; and c) space for people to post about local Men’s Story Project performances they are initiating. The website will have links to other men’s movement and anti-oppression work websites.

Men’s Story Project Publications

The MSP will create a chapbook for each performance, which will include the written pieces that are presented and additional pieces written by the performers. These books will be sold at the performances to raise funds for the MSP and contribute to its sustainability. Larger book projects may also be developed.

Excitement!

In summary, the Men’s Story Project is an independent project in its initial stages. It has been consistently met with excitement by the men and women with whom we have shared the idea, and submissions for the first performance have been steadily rolling in by word of mouth and personal recruitment efforts – we already have an overflow of submissions which will be used in the second performance. We believe that are onto something timely and powerful with this project, and that it has genuine potential to become a widespread “performance movement” contributing to social discussion and progress in California, the U.S., and beyond. Artists, activists and others in Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Santa Fe, Spain and Chile have already expressed interest in replicating the project.

MSP Funding Needs

Each MSP performance will require approximately $5000 to pay performers, producer, director, and writing workshop facilitators, as well as to cover space rental, stage tech, and publicity. The fiscal sponsor for the MSP is YES! (www.yesworld.org), an amazing and long-standing nonprofit organization that supports visionary youth activists and leaders from around the world. Tax-deductible donations, made out to YES!/Men’s Story Project, can be sent to YES!, c/o Men’s Story Project, at 420 Bronco Rd., Soquel, CA 95703.

For more information, please contact Josie Lehrer: josie@mensstoryproject.org