Expanding Where, Why, How, and With Whom Artists in the United States Work
Invitation for Participatory Research
How do we live through these times? Surely, as Nick Slie of Mondo Bizarro Productions in New Orleans commented to me, making digital theatre is not the only response. For many of us, this is also a time for reflection, to contemplate what we do with our little span on Earth and think about our avocation. As a scholar of art that is described as “cross-sector,” “community-based,” “socially engaged,” etc., I’ve been using this time to talk with artists in the United States (yes, mostly over Zoom) who, at any time since the mid 1960s, have expanded where, why, how, and with whom they work. I mean all of these together—the “why” determining “with whom,” “where,” and “how”—and all linked to a passion for social justice.
I’m inviting those of you who resonate with this kind of artmaking to participate in the research, which I hope is also an opportunity for you to reflect. By sharing your experiences, questions, and thoughts on the subject, you will be contributing to a more nuanced, multifaceted, and lived understanding of expansive art aligned with social justice. You can go straight to the research questions at the end of the piece or continue reading for a brief background and a taste of what I’ve been hearing from artists so far.
In January 2020, I attended a three-hour presentation called “Transforming Communities through Art and Culture.” Startlingly, it was held at the New York Reserve Bank. As I listened to bankers, community development specialists, municipal leaders, funders, and—thankfully—artists who partner with them, it occurred to me how many versions of “socially engaged art” I have witnessed since the mid 1960s. So I began interviewing socially engaged artists to find out what they do and do not have in common, what practices and principles they adhere to, with whom and where they work, their historical legacies, and some of their pressing questions.
Many of the artists agreed that broad participation is made possible by an emphasis on process and creative, critical thinking. Choreographer Liz Lerman described facilitating an all-day workshop for the Department of Justice Personal Integrity Division. The woman serving as liaison called Lerman the day before and asked again what she was going to do. Lerman said, “We’ll start in a circle.” The liaison said, “Stop right there. We don’t do circles. Our professional staff is white male; our support staff is black female.” Lerman got off the phone and thought, Wow, circles are a thing. Resistance to this kind of activity is information. On the day of the workshop, because she had that information, Lerman went in and chatted with the participants where they had gathered by the coffee table. She asked if they could stand in a circle. She didn’t move everyone to the center of the space but asked them to make sure they could see one other. Being in a circle, a practice she had taken for granted, can quietly challenge hierarchy in other sectors. Lerman realized that processes like the circle are themselves products—palpable contributions that artists make.
New York–based Superhero Clubhouse typically involves scientists, artists, and other people impacted by the issue on which they are focusing. Co-director Lanxing Fu explained, “Our process includes multitudes of perspectives that should be present in a thriving society and are not always.” Fu gave the example of people involved in climate change who “talk about the idea of apocalypse, a pretty privileged position to take: that there’s inevitable doom coming, nothing to do about it, disregarding that so much is already happening to people around the world and so many groups have been thriving in the face of it.” The company often turns to people who’ve been surviving and resilient for what they’ve learned, taking their lessons “as possibilities and hope.”
I’m inviting those of you who resonate with this kind of artmaking to participate in the research, which I hope is also an opportunity for you to reflect.
“For Roadside Theater [in central Appalachia],” recounted Ben Fink, lead organizer in the company’s Performing Our Future initiative, “the script is for the first act and the community story circles and dialogues after the play are the second act. It’s not the play and then this extra thing; this is part of the play.”
Marty Pottenger, longtime artist and director of Art At Work, now in Portland, Maine, invited New York City Department of Environmental Protection geologists, engineers, and sandhogs to join story circles and share photographs, revealing an inherent creativity that they themselves were surprised by. “My ‘aha’ moment in terms of creating work where participation is an essential element came during the Abundance project,” Pottenger said. “Hundreds of people around the country answered the question, ‘What would change in your life if you knew that everyone everywhere would always have enough?’” At least 75 percent answered, without knowing what anyone else had said, that they would make art: learn the clarinet, write poetry, take singing lessons, join a chorus. “I knew then that figuring out ways for people to creatively engage was not only deepening connections and challenging inequities,” she said, “but helping awaken imaginations, a potent element in struggles for justice historically.”
Director Bill Rauch has led performing arts initiatives in three different contexts, with consistent underlying values. The community-based Cornerstone Theatre (now in Los Angeles) began out of “curiosity about who actually lived in this country and a hunch we could be better artists if we made work responsive to people who didn’t usually go to theatre;” it usually took place in spaces that were not arts-specific. Rauch moved to Oregon Shakespeare Festival “in the hopes that we could foreground values of equity, diversity, and inclusion and to do more aesthetically radical work at a large-budget institution with a long history.” He was “actively curious” about how much they could contribute to the field through an organization working on a vastly different scale than Cornerstone.
Now Rauch is the inaugural artistic director of Perelman Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center, a location that has experienced “successive waves of trauma: from Dutch colonizers massacring Lenape to making the African burial grounds outside city limits, through waves of immigrants, to the architect of the Twin Towers articulating a vision of world peace when it opened in the early seventies, and then the trauma of 9/11.” He believes there’s much promise in what that land could be and will try to create work that “has an impact, brings people together, cuts across performing arts disciplines, connects people across cultural difference, and brings people from all walks of life into the building.”
While the Greeks emphasized the notion of the “good, beautiful, and true,” Lumbee philosopher Bryan Brayboy specifies aesthetics as what a people think is good, beautiful, and true. Cristal Chanelle Truscott, a playwright and the founder and artistic director of Progress Theatre in Houston, Texas, extends that idea to arts education. “Every culture has traditions of training, arts and cultural practice, and community engagement that could be of service,” she said. “Particularly because we’re in a country with access to so many identities, ancestries, and lineages, university training spaces need to offer more methodological possibilities.”
Aesthetics are closely aligned to principles. The Road Company, which Bob Leonard co-founded in Upper East Tennessee and which closed in the late 1990s, spent years moving steel bases and light poles to the outdoor venues where they performed because having light they could control was essential to their idea of “good theatre.” Then Leonard witnessed a Zambian storyteller, Mapopa Mtonga, say to an audience, “Close your eyes slowly so that you see me but you’re not sure what’s around me. Let your eyes close a little bit more until it is dark for you.” Mtonga was giving the audience a light cue. Leonard saw that it was a wonderful moment of theatre without all the apparatus that he had thought necessary.
Sipp Culture in Utica, Mississippi is grounded in cultural production. Carlton Turner, director and lead artist, explained that Sipp is “working to shift our community mode from consumption to production—producing the culture we want reflected in the stories, food, systems, communities, and art we create.” The Sipp staff recognize an “integral connection between the artist’s voice and our community health and wellness.”
What skills/practices has socially engaged/cross-sector art called you to deepen or acquire anew?
Scholar-performer Paul Bonin-Rodriguez sees aesthetics as an expression of pleasure. “Pleasure holds behind it a lot of particulars of identity, experience, and tradition. Even for difficult things, there’s release or pleasure in being able to shape it and share it in some way,” he avowed. “It speaks to a history of experience that you want to re-manifest.”
Audiences change aesthetics. Linda Parris-Bailey, longtime director of the Carpetbag Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, studied Grotowski at SUNY New Paltz and Stanislavski at Howard University but for the community of largely disenfranchised people she got involved with through Carpetbag, their own stories were what was most meaningful. Parris-Bailey cites playwright Jo Carson as encapsulating the core ideas—“reveal, reclaim, and reframe”—underlying Carpetbag’s work.
For Michael Rohd, artistic director of Sojourn Theatre and of the Center for Performance as Civic Practice, both of which work nationally, two values underpin his aesthetics: 1) Dialogue not monologue. “Before I was aware of colonial practice in my work and the fields I’m a part of,” he said, “Boal and Friere, and the ideas of exchange and reciprocity, helped me find direction to understand this current conversation.” 2) The power of ensemble, circles of accountability, and advisory circles that bring different voices within systems.
I asked artists to name individuals and historical movements on whose shoulders they stand, to get a snapshot of socially engaged art over time. As cultural organizer Caron Atlas asserted, “You can’t sum up this history in one connected line. It is made up of multiple and diverse movements, some of which intersect and some of which are specific to their places and contexts.” Renegade artist Rad Pereira aligns themself with a pre-colonial history before art ever separated itself from community life. Writer Todd London praised late nineteenth/early twentieth century settlement houses, where people in stable circumstances lived among the urban poor, many of them immigrants, providing economic, health-related, and educational support, and helping keep alive artistic traditions that newcomers brought with them. Turner emphasized the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement.
Arts consultant Kathie deNobriga heralded the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. Slie called the project’s director Hallie Flanagan a hero for making a large enough container for such an inclusive expression of American life. Parris-Bailey appreciated it mostly as a good model of government supporting artists. Many cited Robert Gard, author of Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America and tireless advocate for theatre by, of, and for people everywhere. Performance artist Suzanne Lacy, known for her large community-based projects, was inspired by the scale of the early twentieth century pageantry movement in the United States.
Meggan Gomez, executive director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, was among those deeply influenced by the “artistic wings” of social movements, such as the Free Southern Theater vis-a-vis civil rights and El Teatro Campesino re: Chicano rights. Some highlighted the upsurge in ensemble theatre across the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, situated between a regional theatre network that expressed less and less regional specificities and a community-based art movement committed to the local but seldom recognized as aesthetically rigorous. Director Toya Lillard of New York City’s viBe Theater Experience, composed of young African American women, emphasized Kimberlé Crenshaw’s idea of intersectionality—ie. how various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. Many interviewees cited the Wooster Group for their breathtaking experimentation and rigor.
What questions persist regarding either your work or the field in doing art aligned with social justice?
Long-standing questions about socially engaged art abound. Mark Valdez, former director of the national organization Network of Ensemble Theaters, was among respondents who asked why experimentation and social engagement are treated as mutually exclusive when so many artists do both.
Kathy Randels is director of New Orleans’ ArtSpot Productions, an experimental ensemble of artists, and co-founder of the Graduates, a theatre workshop and performance group committed to eradicating mass incarceration and composed of formerly incarcerated women. While working with other trained artists fulfills her love of craft and with the formerly incarcerated women a fierce commitment to justice, she asks, “Faced with ever more frequent catastrophes, what is the balance between the urgent pulls towards direct action and creating art?”
Given the increase in artists embedded in cross-sector partnerships—ie. relatively long-term interactions involving business, government, and/or civil society to address a social problem—some artists wondered how much these “uncommon partners” need to know about each other. Erik Takeshita, senior fellow at ArtPlace America, emphasized that it is the differences between cross-sectoral partners’ ways of working that helps them stretch each other; they just need to be open to learning from one another.
Then there’s the question of financial support. Cultural critic and artist Arlene Goldbard observed: “There’s never been a meaningful cultural policy in our country. There has been arts funding but only enough to fail, not to flourish or build.” From the perspective of Dudley Cocke, longtime director of Roadside Theater, funding for this work has gone downhill since 1981 as part of an anti-community policy generally, “with Bush following Reagan with a huge increase in the prison population and prison buildings. If prisons aren’t anti-community, what is?” Many artists who work across disciplines seek funds from the partnering sectors. But people from those sectors don’t necessarily understand art’s possibilities and so may limit artists’ role, and with it funding, rather than integrate them throughout an entire project.
I want to end with a provocation expressed by numerous interviewees: that the struggle many artists experience to be recognized for their worth is partly of their own making. As Valdez put it:
We separated ourselves from our communities and allied ourselves with wealthy individuals as a field. It’s come back to bite us. When we lost our connections to the places, problems, joys, and stories of our communities, we became irrelevant to them. Why would they invest in us? What are we doing for them?
Invitation to Participate
I ask you, readers of HowlRound who have expanded where, why, how, and with whom you make art, as aligned with social justice, to contribute to this research by responding briefly via this survey to any of these questions that draw you:
- What led you to expand with whom, beyond other artists, you make theatre/art?
- What skills/practices has socially engaged/cross-sector art called you to deepen or acquire anew?
- What terms and definitions do you associate with this work?
- What principles underlie this work for you?
- How might your expanded art practice be better supported?
- What historical periods and individuals are forebearers of your work?
- What questions persist regarding either your work or the field in doing art aligned with social justice?
- What questions or insights about your own work or art generally have come up for you during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Would you be willing to be contacted for an hour-long interview?
I’ll let you know what I find out in a future piece on HowlRound.