A few years ago I started writing at HowlRound about my ideas for Civic Theater, which turned into my ideas for Civic Practice, which turned into the Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP). Which is now a busy space (not a physical space but a space nonetheless) where collaborators and I are working on a variety of projects. Here is the first entry in what will become a frequent updating of work, appearing here and at a few other sites that I will link to where you can, if interested, follow some of the activity in greater detail. For this new series of writing, I’ve enlisted the aid of Northwestern University Graduate Student Kati Sweaney, who is interviewing me and transcribing the text. I take the text and shape it. I find I make better sense sometimes in dialogue than monologue, so I thought I’d give this a try. I am grateful to Kati for her thoughtful questions and keen ear. Soon to come, entries on the Andrew Mellon Foundation supported CPCP Catalyst Initiative Pilot, which funds and supports with capacity-building a national learning cohort of small scale civic practice projects comprised of individual artist/small ensemble partnerships with local community partners, and new work CPCP is doing with arts councils around the country hosting workshops for artists and potential community partners focused on issues of cross sector translation and co-design. This entry starts the thread of pieces that will appear about the work I am doing with Lookingglass Theater Company on the new Civic Practice Lab.

So what is the Civic Practice Lab at Lookingglass Theater Company, and how did the idea come about?
I founded the Center for Performance and Civic Practice three years ago. Civic practice is the idea of artists working on engaged practice in community that stems from the needs of a non-arts partner, rather than a concept or project idea that artists bring out into a community. Through that work, I began thinking about a particular possibility related to existing arts institutions. So many mid- and large-scale arts organizations have departments of education. They focus on work that artists within those organizations—permanent ensembles or hired artists—can go into schools and do. As I’ve explored civic practice projects around the country, I’ve learned that these projects, these partnerships between artists and non-arts community entities, might have some structural and support similarities to teaching artist residencies. I got interested in figuring out if these mid- and large-sized institutions could have a department of civic practice, the same way they have a department of education. I feel like it would help grow different kinds of stakeholders in the organization; provide employment for artists through the organization; and most importantly make the organization more sustainable, because with stakeholders that are spread throughout the community, the institution can start to act and look like a resource, not just a presenter. The arts organization becomes valuable not just because it tells stories, but because it has assets that can be deployed in service to the larger community. To make a case for this possibility within existing arts institutions of a particular scale, I saw it as useful to partner with an arts organization of a certain stature that isn’t yet looked at as a leader in civic practice work—one that’s looked at as an acknowledged presenter of excellent, world-class art. It should also have a mission and a body of artists who would be synchronized with the values of civic practice and community-engaged work.

I approached Lookingglass Theatre about a year and a half ago and brought to their attention the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Building Demand for the Arts Grants. It was looking for ten projects around the country that matched an independent artist with an organization to work on a new demand-building strategy. The grant was framed to define building demand as getting new audiences for the arts. I knew that I was not interested in looking at civic practice as a way to sell more tickets, so I approached the Doris Duke folks and said “here’s an idea,” and they said they were open to an expansive palette of what “building demand” means. Together, Lookingglass and I came up with a proposal that articulated the needs outlined above. The Building Demand grants are three-year artist residencies, and over those years you are making a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, and evaluating that hypothesis. It’s a learning cohort whose findings are then disseminated to the field.

After a lengthy process amidst a batch of applicants, we were awarded one of ten Building Demand Arts partnership grants nationwide, and I began formally spending time with Lookingglass this past June. We have begun to build a Civic Practice Lab. I’ve been going to department meetings and board events, spending time with ensemble members, and interviewing staff to get a sense of the place. I’ve known Lookingglass since they were founded. These are old friends, I’ve collaborated with them before, and I was involved in helping them start their education program in the early 90s. There is a nice sense of circling back for them and for me as we connect on this new body of practice. They currently have a strong department of education run by the excellent Lizzie Perkins, as well as ongoing engagement and community work, and they do lots of partnering through marketing and audience development. But my work falls in a niche that is new to them (and to many arts institutions): we are now looking to develop relationships with non-arts partners in the community, listen to them, identify the needs they may have, and then go through a process of figuring out how artist assets could be deployed and conceptualized in creative ways that answer those needs.

Our plan for the first year is either building new partnerships or deepening existing ones, and then to lay the groundwork for six pilot models by June 2014. For these, we are looking at six sectors: municipal, education, health, business, social service, and a sixth to be determined. By the end of year one, we want to bring a Lookingglass affiliated artist—either an ensemble member or a teaching artist—into close co-design and practice with that non-arts community partner, and projects will start to happen. By the end of year two, the projects have occurred; they might be continuing or they might be self-contained. We will evaluate them using resources in the grant to bring in an evaluator. By year three, we’re documenting, but we’re also looking into how this kind of practice can be sustainable for the organization when this grant ends and when I am not there regularly as a guest artist. Ideally, at the end of the three years, we have a Civic Practice Lab where we’ve come up with models for projects, but which could also be looked at as a template for a small department within an institution. This means other institutions can see it’s not as high-impact as they might fear, that it has positive implications for the organization, and it has become organically tied into the organization’s mission and practice. We’re interested in what we can learn: the failures, the successes, the challenges, the opportunities.

Here’s where we are right now. Through the Lab, I just began leading a series of sessions for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Chicago Public Libraries and Chicago Parks and Natural Resources to help them develop a collective vision and a set of collaborative practices for arts in the city’s neighborhoods—they’ve been working together for years, but (in their own words) not with ideal co-intentionality or communication. So it’s tremendously exciting, and potentially impactful on a large scale. I’ll soon be conducting, through the Department of Cultural Affairs, a civic practice workshop for different city agencies and departments around Chicago. Out of that, we hope to identify the Lab’s municipal partner. I’m doing some work with Chicago Public Schools; we are exploring the possibility (through community-based relationship building and dialogue), for instance, that one of our six models could be a school that’s closing, and we could work with the parent and student population on pre-transition issues. Soon, Lookingglass (along with Goodman Theatre) will co-host a forum for other theatres around Chicago who have ongoing engagement work within their company practice. I’ve been doing workshops on civic practice for Lookingglass ensemble members, staff, board members, teaching artists… so I’m slowly getting engaged with the life of the company in different ways as we begin exploring these models.

Q: It sounds like many of the projects you’re developing don’t take place within the walls of the theatre.
A: None of them will. They’ll all take place onsite or in some direct relationship to the partner’s world.

Q: Do you see there being an integration, institutionally, between the art that Lookingglass presents in their space and the projects that you’ll develop?
A: These projects are not connected to the mainstage programming, content-wise. They do have to do with the main values of Lookingglass, which include ensemble, collaboration, transformation, and invention. The ways that the artists look at making theatre are the linkage between the company’s practice and the civic practice work. If we develop a partnership for a civic practice project, and a group that’s part of that has never come to see a show at Lookingglass, and they have an interest, or an interest develops, I think bringing them to see one would be great, for the company, for the partner, and for the lab. But that’s not where we start.

Q: If it’s not your goal to integrate civic practice with mainstage shows, do you feel like that fact, either now or in the future, might make your work a harder sell to institutions?
A: Someone said at a meeting the other night, “So what are the tangibles, if the goal is not to sell more tickets?” What I’ve been trying to articulate is that I think that when we limit the notion of building demand for the arts to getting people into our spaces to see our work, I think we’re limiting the potential value of our institutions to be seen as hubs and resources. Lookingglass is viewed as a cultural gem in the city. It tells stories, sometimes Chicago-focused, often not; it makes excellent art that many, including out-of-towners, come to see. But like any arts institution, there are many people throughout the city who don’t know who they are and wouldn’t consider Lookingglass shows a viable option for the way they engage with culture. Their perceptions of cost or content or context might limit or prevent their access.

To my mind, if people see an organization like Lookingglass as demonstrably caring about the stories and lives of Chicagoans who don’t choose to come to the theatre, but who live in the neighborhoods of the city, through artists trying to learn more about them—that’s a way that the organization’s name moves out into the world as aware of its civic responsibility. I also think that the relationships that the artists and teaching artists would build with community members through these various sectors would lead to a deepening of the values they can bring to the community. It’s a sustainability issue. Here’s how you build demand: you want to grow the number of people who say “I can’t imagine our city without that organization, because I’ve been impacted by them.” You want the people who are able to say this to not be limited to people who have bought tickets to the plays. The plays are this organization’s primary reason for being; but as a not-for-profit, I think there’s a responsibility and an opportunity to engage in matters of the public good beyond what happens in those four walls and in school classrooms.

Q: One more devil’s advocate question: do you feel that by deliberately not integrating community engagement projects with what’s happening on the mainstage, there’s a suggestion that what happens on the mainstage is inherently inaccessible to or “beyond” many members of the community?
A: No, because civic practice work isn’t about plays. At least, it’s not limited to plays. I don’t see the civic practice work as looking like the traditional output of the theatre. This is not a project about plays. If as theatre artists we see our only tool as a play, then that’s our hammer, and every possibility and partner need we encounter is a nail. I think that our assets are really broad. Theatre artists bring expression, collaboration and design to their non-arts partners. They can make workshops, training, installations, tours, all kinds of things that we can’t imagine in this moment, because the work is partner and situation specific. It’s not a formula. Ideally, the theatre artists that engage in civic practice projects are forced to expand their conceptual palette of what a theatrical or performative moment or event can be in order to respond to the community’s needs. I actually think it’s one of the more exciting ways to imagine making new work. My hope is that artists would have experiences of making new work in civic practice contexts that would inform the new work that’s happening on the mainstages, because they’re unlocking both their own imaginations and new formal possibilities through what they discover in those interactions.

Q: If you’re envisioning a landscape of Chicago theatre where theatre companies have a larger civic practice component, how do you imagine that will change what theatre looks like and how it is perceived here?
A: This is a theatre-loving city—for people who love theatre. It’s not necessarily a city where everybody’s saying “Wow! Theatre!” We have a great and large theatre community, but wouldn’t it be great if people who didn’t consider themselves theatregoers were able to join the chorus, saying “Theater is a wonderful asset in the city of Chicago, because I can go see plays and because theatre artists and theatre organizations are a part of the fabric of our communities’ lives, in many, many, many ways.” That certainly happens here (Free Street Theater, Redmoon, Steppenwolf’s TYA and NITT programming, Albany Park Theater Project, About Face…the list goes on), but I think it could happen more, and in different ways. Chicago is now a test ground for this possibility. The Goodman Theatre is talking about doing more engagement in the civic practice realm, and Willa Taylor already does amazing engagement work there; I did a training for a bunch of their artists and staff over the summer, and they’re looking at involving more civic practice in their community interactions. I think there are real possibilities in this theatre-loving city for the assets of theatre artists and organizations to be even more acknowledged, present, and applied.