One of the joys of all the traveling and speaking I am undertaking is the opportunity to find out about cool examples of engagement work going on around the country. I am going to Austin for the Texas Commission on the Arts & Texans for the Arts conference, Strategies for Success. As part of the preparation, I asked the organizers to send me examples of interesting projects. The subject of this post is one of the most fascinating I have ever seen.
The choreographer Allison Orr (her company is Forklift Danceworks) trained and worked for months with staff of Austin’s Solid Waste Services collecting trash, dead animals, and recycling. Out of that experience (and those relationships) she created a 75-minute performance in 18 sections highlighting sanitation workers’ jobs. It included “a dance for three street sweepers, a truck quartet, a solo for a bucket truck operator and his truck, [and] a grand finale for all 16 vehicles. It also featured SWS workers performing solos in arts activities they did “on the side.” One was a harmonica solo.
The piece was originally performed in 2009 (in the rain) with an audience of about 1500. It was encored in 2011 with two sold-out performances (in 100 degree heat) with around 4000 total attendees. It was named the #1 Arts Event of 2009 by The Austin American Statesman, the #1 Dance Event of 2009 by The Austin Chronicle, and winner of Most Outstanding Dance Concert by The Austin Critics Table. It has been made the subject of an award-winning documentary, Trash Dance, that will premiere at Lincoln Center in February (2/5/13) and be released in the spring.
There is a tendency to look on this kind of project as a clever gimmick. And while there is no question that it and its premise are attention grabbing for being so unusual, there is something about the way the work is described that makes me go deeper in my appreciation. This project took sanitation workers seriously, as community members and as people. 100% of the performing employees surveyed (yes, there were outcomes surveys) reported that The Trash Project improved morale and pride in their job. 94% reported that the performance improved the public’s understanding and awareness of what SWS does, and 97% agreed that it improved the image of SWS employees held by the general Austin public. Jermaine Defreeze, a Maintenance Worker Leader, said,
The piece took the day-to-day work of an unappreciated and unrecognized city department and made it into an art form that won several awards. As the men and women in collections now pick up trash, recycling, brush and bulky items, and clean the streets we have a sense of pride. The public now comes up, saying they saw The Trash Project, and asks our employees for autographs.
These “ordinary” people are important contributors to our society and important to our well-being. (Remember why Dr. King was in Memphis when he was assassinated?) For the arts to make a contribution to their sense of well-being and to the wider community’s appreciation of them is a powerful, important thing to do.
Clearly this is not a prototype example to be replicated by every arts organization. It is illustrative of the result of community awareness and a community-oriented frame of reference. The arts can become more important in our communities by being more important to them.
Youtube video by bubbaofthebubbles