Strength in Numbers
Taking Collective Action in New Orleans Theater
This essay is part of a series related to the upcoming National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture.
I learned about symbiotic relationships between organisms as an environmental studies major. Observing how living things adapt to create interdependent relationships that benefit the whole ecosystem must have influenced how I create theater; I’m not interested in the Darwinian view of survival for an arts organization. I am much more interested in collaborating with others to achieve a greater impact.
“Business as usual” and corporate-models for arts and culture organizations are becoming outdated; new and radical systems must be developed. For the past six years in Louisiana—a red state that continues to slash arts funding every year—according to an American Press report, our governor has cut arts funding by more than 170 percent, from $5.2 million to $1.9 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Arts organizations can no longer solely depend on traditional means of fiscal support such as federal money, grants, or corporate sponsorship, and must look to more innovative and adaptive approaches. My theater company Cripple Creek Theatre partners with other organizations because taking collective action helps us develop artistically and administratively, increasing the sustainability and impact of our work.
At ArtsFwd, we are constantly talking about how arts organizations all over the country are creating new ways of working, thinking, and fulfilling their missions in order to increase public value. At the National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture in Denver this October (HowlRound is a partner on the Virtual Summit), one theme will be “Taking Collective Action,” with a focus on stories about partnering, collaboration, and merging to achieve a greater impact together. Small-scale art organizations in New Orleans are already exploring innovative ways to fund and sustain their work by investing in people power.
Possum Kingdom as a Critique of Louisiana’s Petro-Chemical Industry
These inventive approaches are partly due to lack of funding and partly due to New Orleans strong cultural resilience and tradition of community organizing. Cripple Creek is going into its eighth year producing politically and socially relevant plays to spark positive social action. Our company is intimately rooted to this land and the communities that call it home, and the work we do is a result of that responsibility.
This fall (October 18th-November 23rd) we are premiering our fourth original production Possum Kingdom, a story inspired by the ongoing environmental ruination and societal crises in south Louisiana. Artistic Director and co-founder Andrew Vaught began writing the play during the BP oil spill as a way to channel his anger towards the petro-chemical industry’s sweeping negligence toward the communities and ecosystems they are destroying.
The struggle continues four years later; the Gulf South loses wetlands at the rate of a football field every hour. This past July, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East filed a historic lawsuit against 97 major oil companies, demanding that they pay to repair about 2,000 square miles of damaged, coastal wetlands. Possum Kingdom seeks to increase knowledge and debate on these ongoing struggles of communities directly affected by the oil industry. We knew we couldn’t accomplish these goals alone.
Cripple Creek and Louisiana Bucket Brigade’s Collective Action
For Possum Kingdom we partnered with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB), an environmental health and justice organization. LABB supports grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution. The partnership is in relation to LABB’s project Down by the River, an interactive web site, bike tour and performance series that explores the history of resistance movements and plantation-to-plant patterns in Cancer Alley communities affected by the petrochemical industry along the Mississippi River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
I’m not interested in the Darwinian view of survival for an arts organization. I am much more interested in collaborating with others to achieve a greater impact.
Our partnership is in four stages: a LABB art installation about Down By the River at our performance space, a public bike tour led by LABB and sponsored by Cripple Creek along the Mississippi River Road levee, conversations with the audience and artistic team featuring LABB, and an original performance piece by a Down by the River member, Lexus Jordan, which will be performed as a prelude to Possum Kingdom.
Jordan will create a performance based on research from the Down by the River project with the assistance of LABB and Cripple Creek Company members. LABB will also provide resources for our audience on how they can stay informed and tap into political and social actions in regard to the continuous environmental struggles in Louisiana.
Symbiotic Relationships in Innovative Art Organizations
In exchange for Cripple Creek’s assistance in creating the Down by the River performance and providing a venue for LABB, our company receives monetary assistance for Possum Kingdom, access to new audiences, and resources to inform and shape our artistic work. Most importantly, the relationships that have grown between LABB and Cripple Creek have significantly shaped how and what we create. Taking collective action and symbiotic relationships allow arts and culture organizations across sectors to increase social capital, share resources, build innovative engagement opportunities, and nurture transformative relationships.
To find out more about the radical and innovative ways arts and culture organizations are taking collective action, register for the Virtual Summit, which allows free access to all the talks and events that will take place at the National Innovation Summit and Virtual Summit.
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This article does a great job of highlighting potential new directions for collaborative work, but the numbers from the American Press report are misleading:
"our governor has cut arts funding by more than 170 percent, from $5.2 million to $1.9 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year."
The 170% error appears in the original American Press report itself. It would be more accurate to say that funding was cut by 63%.