When I was in college, I signed up for self-defense martial arts class. Part of our final exam was to have a 6-foot man attack you to see if you learned how to get out of it. Although I knew he wasn’t a real attacker, as I entered the dark room my heart raced, my blood pressure shot through the roof, my palms were incredibly sweaty — terrifying to say the least. I passed the “exam”, and then recommended it to any woman who would listen.
It was a practice. I was training for a real-life event, and having experienced the practice, I now am now more ready for a real-life event.
That’s what we do in our Gray Zones social experiment-like experiences. We put you through a practice of listening and not reacting. If we do our job well, you react anyway. And then we learn from your reaction — what was it? Why? Why that reaction over another one? How did others react? What can we learn from all of the reactions?
In our first experiment, we focused on sexual harassment. 83% of people saw sexual harassment in our first video. Here’s how they felt after viewing it:
They reacted. They watched the same script performed with the same actors, but with a completely different tone, nonverbal behavior and intent where the aggressor was portrayed as the “victim.” Sixty five (65%) saw the difference; 35% still saw sexual harassment.
The discussions were heated — some felt the man should never be forgiven because of what they heard him say. “I hated him after the first 10 seconds.” Those were my favorite to moderate — helping them see they were triggered by what they saw or heard and what they took that to mean, not the actual words that were said. These were “eye-opening” sessions for people to see their own biases.
While running these experiences, George Floyd was murdered. We had already created a forum for people to feel comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, so we created a second experience around racism, asking people to listen to voicemails between friends and identify the bias or prejudice.
Why would someone want to talk about bias when it’s so confusing or, as so many people fear, “I might have one”? We learned a lot about who Gray Zones is and is not designed for in this experience:
There were people who wanted to learn about their own biases, and this format where you listen, vote and see how your vote compared, helped them learn about what a bias sounds like without feeling foolish or defensive.
There were people who wanted to be heard. Primarily composed of our Black and brown community, this group appreciated having an honest conversation about race, and our approach of “no right or wrong in the gray zones” helped them see how things that are so clear to some who experience bias and racism can be foreign and confusing to others who have not.
And then, there were people who wanted to be right and/or above the need to have a discussion about anything where other people were confused. It was eye-opening for them to hear that their perspective, the one they formerly considered “the truth” was not the only one that mattered. These were a tougher group to please, and sometimes they spent most of their time missing the point of the experience — Gray Zones doesn’t tell you to think anything — it provides a POV and then you react with your POV, so the reflection of what you hear or see is the most interesting part of the experience, not the words said in th show. They focused on the number of voicemails being too many or how one actor way and “sounded too gay” instead of addressing any resonance the messages had with their inner voice.
Gray Zones is never about the play; it’s about what you see or hear in yourself as a result of experiencing the play. Seeing your inner monster or shadow is not fun. It’s not for everyone, just like horror movies aren’t for everyone. In both Gray Zones and horror, it’s about your reaction. Both teach you about the human experience and how to deal with monsters. Ours just happen to be a predatory Professor harassing a young female colleague or a clueless “Karen.”
Horror films are successful because they create tension, they are relevant and there’s a level of unrealism in that a monster or shark or psychopath babysitter is coming after you on a screen, and you know you’re not actually there so you can distance yourself from it. We took away a bit of that unrealism. Racism is all around us. Sexual harassment is happening, even on Zoom. It IS happening, and people heard words they’ve said repeated by actors and the audience calling those words racist or sexist. That’s not an experience everyone wants to have — to see our relationship with power, truth, good and bad, right and wrong more clearly. To go from comfortable and unaware to uncomfortable and aware is a scary road.
Those who want to experience this do so because they want to learn, grow, reflect and be a better human, global citizen and leader. You choose your entertainment because you want to see how it affects you. You want to be affected. You want your fight or flight response to be triggered — or why else would you be here? You want to prove to yourself that you’re brave and not only can you take it, you can dissect what happened and why it happened in a way that gives you pride and a sense of exhilaration in a safe way.
So who’s Gray Zones not designed for? Well, similar to horror films — there are people who would never watch one. Personally, I’m in that group — horror freaks me out. Fear and negative emotions are stored in the amygdala, so it’s not that easy to stop scenes that scare me from replaying, staying in my mind for days and making me more fearful of real life situations (like swimming in oceans) once those fears have been coded in my neurons. In other words, I don’t like that it takes away my need to control, and if you know me, you know I love my control.
Gray Zones is not for those looking to turn their brains off — in fact, a few friends have referred to it as a one of those mud run workouts for your mind. Many times I’ve felt actual nausea because I know what I’m writing about happens to real people, and that makes me feel sick. I do it because we need to talk about it — the latest one was on love and how gaslighting, manipulation and jealousy and even racism show up in relationships. These are the topics I want to understand more deeply, and the more uncomfortable I am, the more I probably have to learn.
Why do we all keep coming back? About 1000 people have joined the Gray Zones in 2020, and many of them have joined multiple shows. The discussion after the play is where the magic happens. There’s this thing called the “Excitation Transfer Process” — when your adrenaline spikes (if you are scared or just angry or annoyed), you carry those heightened emotions with you to the next experience you have, and if that second experience is positive, you’re more likely to feel the positive more, be hooked and come back again. The discussions after are moderated in a way that helps people feel heard, seen and understood. The comments have been very positive about feeling more connected and having more thought-provoking questions to ask oneself later — creating more awareness, empathy and understanding around each topic we cover.
Our next show is about the dark side of love. We covered love at the end of 2020 during the election because well, all we heard was hate. We learned a lot and felt we wanted to give the love topic a second round of conversation. This time, we focus on one couple and what is and is not love in their interaction. There is a twist, and it’s an awful one that makes you cringe when it reminds you that awful things happen in the world. Think about whether you’d like to join, if you would benefit from a practice of feeling an emotional trigger and recovering. If you join, you’ll get to practice empathy and explore confusion about lust, desire and love, helping you get your head around what you might do if these topics present themselves to you in your real life in the future. Our preview audience has already said that it’s frustrating, angering, and one they want to punch one of our characters. Just like we hoped. ;)
If you do want to join, rest assured, it’s not horror — it’s more interesting than scary. But hopefully, you’ll learn something about yourself, people, and what needs to change to bring about more unity, conversation and understanding on topics and with people who don’t think like you. If you’re not sure (or even if you are), check out our free past experiences on GrayZones.org, which is also where you’ll be able to learn about all our future shows.