Civic Practice

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.



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  1. michael rohd says

    thanks, doug, for including me in the conversation you always have going here- some thoughts-

    I actually posted a comment on a great essay about Social Practice a few days ago ( leading folks back to this post of mine. The Center I’ve started (The Center for Performance and Civic Practice) actually has this as one of three core stated intentions-
    ” build a working bridge between the growing fields of Public Interest Design (graphic, architectural, virtual) and theatre/performance-based Civic Practice. Both of these spheres are full of social practice projects engaging partners with non arts-centered missions across sectors like health, social service, and municipal government, but these artists, their practices and the vocabularies they use are woefully siloed. There is an opportunity for shared resources and knowledge, but most importantly, there is the opportunity to make new knowledge, and to make that new knowledge’s manifestation benefit our communities and fields of study in powerful ways.”
    Places where I know this investigation of potential bridges is currently underway, in one way or another-
    Animating Democracy (run out of Americans for the Arts; School for Visual Arts in NYC, and their new Design for Social Innovation program led by Cheryl Heller; Network of Ensemble Theatres, especially the micro-fests over the next year focused on performance and place. Artists like Aaron Landsman, Marty Pottenger, my frequent collaborator Shannon Scrofano and others are also in the mix.

    Also, in reference to your definition of Community Arts, and why i think civic practice is a different, though often overlapping body of work- many community arts projects are led and/or initiated by the artist’s impulse, concept or initiating act. Which is great- nothing wrong with that. And the rich tradition of community arts includes many many projects and practitioners focused on the ethical, listening-based relationship-building that I am talking about in my post. But, I am especially interested, in Civic Practice, with the projects that don’t start with an initiating expressive impulse or concept from an artist, but rather with the desire for relationship as the start. And the work of imagination, of expression- the work of artmaking- follows.

    again, thanks for the conversation.

    • says


      I’ve waited so long to respond you may not see this. However, first, thanks for entering into the discussion. Your insight is most helpful. Second, to be clear, my definition of community arts is only the first part of the work for which I advocate. (The idea that art can have community-oriented intent is new and/or disconcerting to some.) My end game though is community art coming out of community engagement. When you put my two definitions together, to my mind at least, we arrive at what you describe as social practice, work that grows out of relationships, with the relationships coming first.