On a sunny afternoon, a group of dizzy people collapse on the ground after running around in circles while screaming at the top of their lungs. They lie on their backs looking at the sky before rising to do the exercise all over again, running counterclockwise and collapsing in glee.
This activity has been happening nearly every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon on the western edge of Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park since mid-March. If it all looks like child’s play — where, but at an amusement park or a horror show, do adults have license to scream with such abandon in public? — it’s because it’s meant to be fun. But it also has serious purpose.
“It’s for physical and psychological relief and release,” said Harry Waters Jr., a theater artist and Macalester College professor who started and hosts this unique combination of laughing yoga and theater exercises. “We live in strange times with the pandemic and the uprising against systemic racism. People are stuck in front of Zoom or feel they don’t have an outlet. This is something that’s needed.”
That “something” is Outside Voices, an activity that offers an outlet in a time of worries and troubles. The communal screaming at the sun is the culmination of a ritual process that can last 10 to 15 minutes. It involves an introduction of everyone in the circle, the telling of gibberish jokes and lots of laughter. In fact, laughter is a through-line for most of the activities, including the sharing of some dire, even tragic things.
In some cultures, people write down things that ail or terrify them and then burn the pieces of paper. In Powderhorn Park, they laugh at such things.
The 10 or so people who gathered in the circle on a recent Saturday gave voice to a series of distressing personal news — a single person said she feared dying alone, another threw out that she has no way to make a living in August, and a third shared news that a relative was back on meth.
After each of those depressing shares, the circle erupted in hearty laughter.
“I feel so relieved, especially by the laughing at tragedies,” Laura Esping, an actor, said. “There’s something so powerful about expelling all this macabre stuff. It’s goofy fun and absolutely cathartic, especially doing it en masse.”
Esping knew about Outside Voices because Waters is a friend. But Chika Okafor, who did not know anyone in the circle, was just walking with a friend in her favorite park before heeding Waters’ invitation to join.
“I feel like transformative is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but let’s go ahead and use it,” Okafor said. “It’s such good energy. You get to stand with people, which we haven’t done much of. And given everything that’s happening, this is a moment to commune with other people and to take a pin to the balloon of whatever pressure is building inside of you.”
Socially distant loudness
Outside Voices began organically.
After the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown of schools, theaters and cultural life in mid-March, Waters, 67, who originated the role of Belize in Tony Kushner’s landmark drama “Angels in America” and who played the “Teen Angel” singer alongside Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future,” was walking in the park after being cooped up at home. He saw a friend, Katie Burgess, across the lake.
“We just started screaming at each other,” said Burgess, an actor and co-founder of Open Flame Theatre. “Harry laughs loud and I’m loud, and we just had this joy and excitement.”
The two friends, who had worked in the same experimental, edge-pushing theater environment, decided to meet in the park so that they could commune and be loud while being properly socially distant. They let others know about their reunions, and they also were open to anyone passing by. Pretty soon the word was out, especially in the performing arts community.
Esther Ouray, a performer and certified laughter yoga teacher, showed up early on and contributed an exercise to the ritual. It was to tell a joke in gibberish, using the cadence of stand-up but in a totally made-up language.
“That way no one is offended,” Ouray said. “Then we laugh our tails off.”
On a recent Saturday, Waters’ joke had a staccato cadence resolved in naughtiness: rata ta rata ta-tah, pada pa-ra-da-dah, pooh.
“We’re laughing not because of the words in the jokes itself but because of the kind of ridiculousness of the situation,” said Sonja Kuftinec, a theater professor at the University of Minnesota. “And even if the laughter starts out fake, it becomes real because it does something to your body to change your mood.”
Although it has attracted performers, Outside Voices is not theater. At least, not exactly.
“True, it’s not telling stories or using dramatic persona but it’s doing some of the things that are theater-adjacent without having the stories or impersonation that we think about conventional theater,” Kuftinec said. “All you do is take a moment of natural connection, put a little ritual and structure to it, and that’s performance.”
Although started as an antidote to COVID-19, Outside Voices has been extended to offer a kind of healing ministry in the post-George Floyd era. In fact, the park is just eight blocks from where officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck.
The sessions took on a different tone, starting with one held just two days after Floyd’s death.
“Everybody was still in shock,” Waters said. “There were seven of us there who were just present with each other. We didn’t have to solve anything, just recharge, release and get back out there, whether to march or to Zoom.”
It’s also relevant that the sessions take place in Powderhorn Park, which now has hundreds of tents sheltering residents, many of them left homeless by the unrest that followed Floyd’s death. The fact that Waters leads Outside Voices and is a Black man is literally and metaphorically apt, intimated Kuftinec, who has taken her grade school-age son to the circle several times.
“This is not just about Black lives but Black liberation and Black joy,” Kuftinec said. “It shows the importance of Black bodies in public spaces laughing and living. It’s important for Black bodies to be out here experiencing and expressing joy and calling out to people, saying, ‘I’m inviting you into this circle, and you don’t have to fear this Black stranger.’ ”
For his part, Waters loves the mix of different elements of the ritual, including theater and yoga.
“If people use yoga to get in touch with their inner core, this is something for relief, release and recharge,” he said. “Everybody’s holding tight right now. It’s 20 minutes of your life that allows you to be outside and let go. And you have permission to say hello to people just walking by.”