This week's featured walker is Jonathan. He takes us from Hell's Kitchen to the Upper West Side behind Lincoln Center. Jonathan is an actor living in New York City. During the walk he discusses his family, the gentrification of Hell's Kitchen, the massive number of Duane Reades in NYC, and how race effects the way he walks down the street everyday. Click here to get the map. And spend a little time with Jonathan today.
On the occasion of our launch I want to take a moment and describe the impulse for this project. MileWalks is essentially a merging of my teaching, theatrical directing, and politics.
As an acting teacher I focus on observation. I ask students to observe in tremendous detail their friends, strangers, partners, specific people I assign, and ultimately themselves.
A big component of this work is helping students see that everyone constructs a logic for their version of the world that dictates the choices they make, the people they know and like, and their beliefs. The reason for their particular logic is, of course, a distillation of all of their previous experiences (and the things they are sheltered from experiencing).
It seems simple, but to take on someone else's point of view without judgement or comment - especially when it feels far from your own experience - is very challenging.
This is, however, a big part of the job of an actor.
Each year students uncover their biases about people or groups of people. They see skin color or clothing choices or a person's job or age and a flood of assumptions unwittingly enter their minds. It is only after real dialogue fueled by genuine curiosity that they see how many things about that person don't fit their expectations - or, as my co-faculty member and department Chair Mark Wing-Davey would call them, their "received notions." By meeting real people students discover their own eyes are a uniquely shaped prism.
As this work unfolds in the classroom it often reveals the struggles in my students' personal lives that built their prism. Sometimes those are unique to them - about family or traumas or a particular betrayal. Sometimes they are equally personal but a result of something more global - systemic racism, gender inequality, sexism.
As a theatre director I am drawn to the political. I often sit in an audience of my shows and others, however, and feel troubled that the theatrical form is so limited. These limitations often reduce the impact of a play's message or keeps away the very people who might most enjoy or challenge the work. I see barriers everywhere: It costs money, it happens at a prescribed time, there are explicit and hidden rules that make the uninitiated feel unwelcome or foolish, to name a few.
I started to imagine what a project would look like with as many of those barriers removed as possible. Stripping back those barriers lead to MileWalks. It is free. You can do it when you wish. Nobody is there to judge your etiquette. Some "walks" can be done with limited mobility and have no stairs. We're seeking to expand to other languages and to find ways for the hearing and vision impaired to participate. You don't need a smartphone - we'll happily loan you one. We continue to seek out barriers to participation and then remove them. If you find a barrier we might have missed, please let us know.
MileWalks is an intimate idea that houses a profoundly radical and, perhaps, optimistic point of view. I believe that if we really take the time to see the world from the point of view of another person - cultivating awareness of our own bias, judgements, history, and privilege as we listen - then step by step we produce the empathy that is required for real change in ourselves and maybe the world. Empathy certainly has limits in its ability to effect change. It isn't a replacement for political action or protest or legislation or justice. It is, however, one contribution that art can make to the cause of change.
As you select and then take your walk I humbly offer five (admittedly teacherly) prompts for your listening:
1. Why did I select this person? Why didn't I select that other person?
2. What do I suspect about their life from their picture and description? How to they meet and subvert those expectations?
3. What do they see in this mile that I might not?
4. How does their point of view excite/upset/anger/thrill/etc me?
5. Why might they see the world the way they do? What would help them see the world the way I do?
I hope you'll take many walks with us. I hope you'll record walks and contribute them. Most of all I hope that the walks encourage you to heed the oft quoted Ian Maclaren call, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Sometimes along the walk they speak of this battle. Other times it is the one thing they don't say. I hope you'll enjoy listening to their words and then hearing far beyond them.
The MileWalks Project is directed by Scott Illingworth. Scott is an Associate Arts Professor of Acting at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He writes and/or curates the posts on this blog about the experience of participating in the MileWalks Project. Participants are encouraged to write a reflection on their experience and submit it for posting.