Michael Rohd, the Founding Director of Portland (OR)’s Sojourn Theatre has recently posted an extremely thoughtful reflection on community engagement and theatre: The New Work of Building Civic Practice. As I’ve said before, I am aware of the danger of echo-chambering in the blog world, especially in this case since the things he says sound so much like my rants. But, as in the past, I simply can’t help myself.
Mr. Rohd identifies the central issue I have with most efforts at audience engagement. They are “developed to implement programming that surrounds mainstage productions” and “operate in a mode of discourse closer to a monologue than a dialogue.” (See One Way) Partnerships developed for these purposes are often (usually) not on-going. They are resuscitated when a similarly themed work again appears on the arts organization’s schedule. (In other words, when it is in the arts organization’s interest to do so.) A point that he does not make is that the non-arts partner is crystal clear that the effort is self-serving for the arts organization and won’t invest much in the relationship. This is one example of why those outside the arts community are sometimes leery of or even antagonistic to the arts. They’ve been burned.
Successful civic practice is first focused on the relationship, not the art. Mr. Rohd highlights a key skill for engagement that good arts ensembles have in abundance, the capacity to listen. If this skill is applied to relationship-building, the quality of the engagement can be quite stunning.
Civic practice is a concept and area of endeavor very much like what some in the visual arts world refer to as social practice–roughly, the application of art to community concerns. Mr. Rohd defines this as “activity where a theater artist employs the assets of his/her craft in response to the needs of non-arts partners as determined through ongoing, relationship-based dialogue.” The language in this field is not standardized within arts disciplines and certainly not across the arts, but his definition sounds very much like my definition of community arts: “arts-based projects intentionally designed to address community issues.” I then go on to define community engagement as “A process whereby institutions enter into mutually beneficial relationships with other organizations, informal community groups, or individuals. . . .[T]his normally implies arts organizations developing relationships outside of the arts community.”
Mr. Rohd’s essay contains a great framework and rationale for–along with good examples of–civic practice in theatre. I am thrilled to have this addition to the discussion of the arts and civic engagement.