“What do you need?” Sarah Bellamy asks the awed group of students from Twin Cities’ high schools gathered in a circle on Penumbra’s main stage. The stage where children have been born, where actors have grown up, where families have been built, where artists have confronted history. “What do you need?”
In less than a week these students will perform an ensemble style original work spun from their stories. Schooled nine to five, the students live and breath theatre for five weeks. Each day they participate in classes ranging across African-based movement, writing, critical race theory, acting, and the social critique of Augusto Boal. In just five days all their hard work meets the beautiful and nerve-wracking test of the paying audience. However, it is not anxiety that hovers in the air now; it’s trust.
I’m new to this. Twenty-two years young with training like a splatter painting. I’m a BA in theatre studies studying at Emerson College, I’ve racked myself through acting, directing, stage-managing, producing, and nonprofit startups. I’ve studied different theatrical models with arts management guru Julie Hennrikus, and interned with small to mid-sized theatres in Minneapolis. In Penumbra though, I find something I’ve never experienced in the arts world: a model reaching for the sky by developing its roots.
A Life Changing Moment at Caribou
As stated on the theatre’s website, Penumbra Theatre was founded in 1976 to create a forum for African American voices in the Twin Cities' well respected theatre community. My own experience in Penumbra started when I was fifteen and had a life-changing coffee with Lou Bellamy, the founder of Penumbra and a giant of African American theatre. I’d met him through one of my neighbors, and after telling him I was interested in pursuing theatre as a career, he agreed to talk with me.
Mr. Bellamy is an intimidating figure at first glance. A Minnesotan through and through, he entered Caribou Coffee wearing sunglasses and an imposing scowl. After ten minutes of talk, though, I immediately felt at ease with him and started to open up about my aspirations.
He told me a lot during that conversation, and one bit that stuck with me over the years: “I don’t cast actors who have nothing in their heads. Don’t step on the stage unless you’ve got something to say.” This was to be my guiding principle for the next seven years.
An Ambitious Undertaking
Today, his daughter Sarah Bellamy is carrying on the family tradition of inspiring young artists. She, however, has chosen a different angle. Sarah Bellamy, a Sarah Lawrence grad holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. She has built the Summer Institute at Penumbra upon the notion that the art can create social change. The Institute endeavors to create the next generation of artist activists.
The Summer Institute is ambitious, to say the least. It seeks to give a full traditional summer camp experience, but with a quirk: acting, audition prep, playmaking, and a heavy grounding in theory. When I say theory here, I mean Hegel. I mean Fanon. I mean full-on Judith Butler style analysis of images and representation. The students are held to high standards. The pedagogy is radical and the answers are not expected to come from the teacher. I remember Ms. Bellamy guiding a fourteen-year-old through the dynamics of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. I marveled at the fact that Ms. Bellamy assisted the student to push beyond their comfort zone and find the answers herself.
The theory, however, does not stand alone. Rather it is actively absorbed through the praxis of theatre, another cornerstone of the Institute. Theory is meant to be actualized. Therefore, in that same space where the group learns the ideal, they are asked to pursue it. The teachers are artists with years of experience. With the aid of Theater of the Oppressed techniques the students create living scenarios in which to explore combative cultural tactics.
Theatre on the Street
Example: Guerrilla theatre excursion. The group had decided to focus on the issues of homelessness and identity. They wanted to bring attention to the issue, but weren’t sure how to do it without appearing patronizing or ignorant. Problems arose. The issue seemed too big, too general. Proposed actions were either impractical or ineffective. In short, we were wrestling with the traditional feelings of young people interested in denouncing social injustice.
Then an idea. We would create signs with messages and choose an area of the city in which to gather. The messages included “What’s my value?” “You tell me what to say.” “Why do you ignore me?” “How human am I?” We hoped the signs would prompt conversations and generate a dialogue. Students were nervous, but ready to engage. They had created an idea about something that mattered to them. Now they were invested.
Before long we were out and in the city. We choose a busy intersection and set up on all corners. Penumbra personnel positioned themselves strategically to monitor the scene.
The results were mixed. Some people cheered us on. Others shook their heads. One student shouted, “Oh my God, that’s my Dad!” at a passing car. At the end of the forty-five minutes, the students were revved. They wanted to do more. They wanted a busier street corner. New ideas how to expand the project were generated. A dialogue was being born.
The Beginning of a Movement
And this is what I find so important about Penumbra. This is a summer camp with the intent of building a community’s future. On good days, when the campers are tearing apart Boal’s conception of Aristotle and famed teachers like Harry Waters Jr. (originator of the role of Belize from Angels in America) are pushing the students to “make big ass choices,” it feels like there is family forming.
HowlRound is part of a movement. From my experience, it is not just a movement to discuss our work but to build it: to build frameworks, canvases, and scaffolding to support each other. The arts world can be stifling and introverted. The need to reach out feels key. But it has to start young. It has to come from below.
Penumbra is helping to build that momentum. The next generation of activist artists are creating themselves and the discussion. How do we make this happen? How can our art make a change? What will take your art further? How can my art benefit the group? These are the questions that are being asked by these young cultural warriors.
The Final Night
On the final night of the Institute, students present an original work to a paying audience. The piece is developed from an organic synthesis of all the work that’s been done over the past weeks. Each student is asked to bring a social justice issue to the table and then combine this with the movement, dance, and acting training which drives them. The issues come from a place of truth and are occasionally traumatic. The stage is seen as a cathartic arena where the students are able to confront and conquer their fears. Topics range from the injustice of international trade, to self-harm, to the passing of a parent. The formation of the piece is like riding a bull. Emotions are high, passions are ignited, but the group comes together and forces something true into the space.
I’ll never forget the final moment of the performance. Each student slammed and danced their own rhythm on the worn floorboards. One student starting the call and response: “I’m free!” The words echoing through the space as each student takes up the song and moves center stage. Haunting, immediate, and reaching, the disparate rhythms join, becoming one gorgeous invocation: “We’re free. We’re free!”
The final performance was listed by Minnesota Public Radio’s Art Hounds as a Highlight of 2012. The kids were thrilled and I couldn’t have been more proud. Looking back, though, it was not the performance that defined the students as creators. It was the week that followed.
Penumbra set up a Facebook page for the alumni; the students used it aggressively. Day to day activities, words of affirmation, news about Penumbra, news about upcoming opportunities for young students—all of these and more bounced around the cyberscape. Penumbra had created a place for these young artists to say, “Here I am. Where are you? How can we do this together?” It had built real connections.
There is an urgency now to this growing community. These are young people tied by mission. My friend and fellow intern Natalie Clifford summed it up best when she said, “The question you always have to ask is ‘what is it towards?’ In a very real way the outcome of the issues facing our country, facing our earth is very dependent on having the kind of people like the students at Penumbra who can push back and believe in the possibility of something different.”
I’m heading back this summer. I can’t stay away. The model Penumbra is building is the future of theatre. It’s a big claim, but even at this stage in my career I know one thing is certain. Anywhere that theatre is causing people to shed boundaries, to redefine themselves—where students become actively invested in the local community and the local community responds—that’s right. That’s holy. What do you need? I believe we need Penumbra.