Mission Commitment

One of the most basic elements of effective community engagement is commitment to community well-being at the mission level. Without this, virtually all other efforts will be marginal at best or counter-productive at worst. The nature of this commitment can be expressed in whatever way is most authentic to the organization and its communities. The generic template I sometimes suggest can be found here. It’s so general, it’s more of a sentiment than an actual statement to emulate.

In December I had the opportunity to attend a production of the Strawberry Theatre Workshop in Seattle. In the program I found a mission statement that was remarkable for its awareness of and commitment to the communities in which it operates. (The complete statement can be found here.) It noted the connection between what happened on stage and subsequent conversations “at coffee shops, bus stops, classrooms, and play fields.” It held that the company’s ensemble included not only the administrative and artistic staff but also the audience and the neighborhood, seeing itself as one part of something much larger. Finally, it identified itself as wanting to be a “good neighbor” saying that meant it needed to be “a relevant neighbor, a responsible neighbor, and a vocal neighbor.

No mission statement should be the template for another organization (that’s very nearly a truism for us in the nonprofit world), but being able to see commitment to engagement in the mission is a pre-requisite for effectiveness. Is it obvious in yours?



Post-Racial? Puhleeze!

I recently attended a production of Our Town presented by Triad Stage, a professional theater company based in Greensboro, NC. It had been decades since I had seen the play but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for it. I thought it was very well done, but this is not a review.

What this is is an observation that resulted from the casting. Triad Stage has for years made an effort to diversify its casting and their Our Town was no exception. Set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire–as lily white a region in our national geography as one can find-this production featured African-Americans playing a number of principal roles, including George who, with Emily, are the core of the story. I applaud the casting and think it worked quite well. What I came away with, however, was a reminder that, while no one commented on the casting–including the reviewer–there could have been no one in the audience who was not aware of the fact that a number of the actors were African-American. To be clear, I’d be surprised if anyone in attendance was troubled by it; but everyone would have noticed and pondered it to one degree or another throughout the performance.

My point is that for all the comments about America being “post-racial” (although such thinking has receded substantially over the last eighteen months) and the tiring exclamation “I don’t see color,” this was an experience to knock that thinking flat. Everybody (OK, virtually everybody) sees, notices, considers color–inside the theater and out.

The only (OK, virtually the only) people who claim not to see color or who bought into the post-racial idea after the election of Barack Obama were white people. People of color know/knew better.

For almost all of us, seeing color is unavoidable and claiming not to see it is disingenuous. (Claiming not to see color also diminishes the color-dependent experience of non-whites. But that’s a topic for another day.) It also gets in the way of understanding and dialogue, both of which are essential for successful community engagement. So, for my white readers, acknowledge that you do indeed “see color.” That’s an essential first step.



Photo by VanderVeen Photographers. Source: http://triadstage.org/assets/photos/fullsize/George-Emily-crop.jpg

Community Understanding through Theater

EM’s List Member
Community Understanding through Theater
[This post is by EM’s List Editor/Curator, Stephanie Moore]

Cornerstone Theater

http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2488/4058798695_27487ef112.jpgCornerstone Theater, a Los Angeles based theater company, collaborates with rural and urban communities to tell community stories through theater. Since its inception in 1986 the core artistic ensemble has worked side-by-side with local communities to write or adapt, direct and produce plays related to social issues. Before settling in Los Angeles in 1992 Cornerstone worked primarily in rural communities throughout the US adapting classic works to address the unique history of each place. Cornerstone still partners with theater companies in communities across the US, but their main focus is on the exploration of urban communities found in Los Angeles, CA.

Cornerstone’s mission focuses on building bridges both between and within communities in Los Angeles and around the US. They believe that aesthetic practice is social justice, artistic expression is civic engagement and access to a creative forum is essential to a healthy quality of life for a community. For over 25 years Cornerstone’s multi-ethnic, ensemble-based theater company has brought together high-caliber professional artists and community members to create works based on individual stories and issues from diverse communities. Community members join Cornerstone artists on stage and behind-the-scenes. These plays are then performed within a community space that might have never been thought of as a performance hall ensuring that individuals with little or no experience with theater have a chance to see their stories come alive.

In Los Angeles Cornerstone has established cycles of community residencies lasting from two to six years that address community identity and diverse social issues. Each cycle concludes with a “Bridge Show” that brings together the people and stories from all of the communities touched throughout the cycle into one play. The first cycle was based on three different ways to define community: age, geography and culture. This two-year cycle started to address how community can be defined and what it means to place yourself within a specific community. Cornerstone has since moved to a longer cycle format commissioning new plays around specific social issues: faith, justice and hunger. The current six-year Hunger Cycle is exploring our relationship to hunger from food equity to food addiction and reaching into communities of migrant workers, farmers and food justice activists among many others. The nine world premiere plays will be created through intensive residencies in diverse Los Angeles communities. This cycle also includes pre- and post-performance Creative Seeds events that are free to the public and encourage further discussion about our relationships with food and hunger.

Along with the cycles of community residencies Cornerstone also offers Institute Summer Residencies. These residencies immerse artists and institute students in a small community for one month and have them collaborate with local residents to create a community theater production. This institute is one way Cornerstone teaches its methodology for creating community-engaged theater. Through classroom and hands-on experiences institute students experience Cornerstone’s methodology first-hand and can then apply that knowledge to their future endeavors. These residencies help build and sustain the knowledge of community-engaged theater and teach new generations of artists and activists how to effectively collaborate and create.

From story circles to individual interviews Cornerstone is continually listening and giving a voice to communities in Los Angeles and around the US. Through their cycles of community residencies, Institute Summer Residencies and other projects Cornerstone is an example of the power of community-engaged theater to build connections between and within communities.


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Passage Theatre Company

EM’s List Member
Shakespeare in the Streets of St. Louis
[This post is by EM’s List Editor/Curator, Stephanie Moore]

Passage Theatre Company: Showcasing the People of Trenton, NJ

Passage Theatre Company has been a part of the Trenton, NJ cultural scene for over 25 years. Throughout this tenure Passage Theatre has focused on developing and producing plays that challenge and engage diverse audiences. They are fully committed to the diverse communities within Trenton and demonstrate this commitment through multiple Community and Education Programs. The program highlighted here, the Community Lights Project, not only represents Trenton’s diverse communities, but is compiled of resident’s stories and histories.

The Community Lights Project commenced in 2010 with Trenton Lights, a new musical play compiled from hours upon hours of community interviews. Leading up to the World Premiere of Trenton Lights June Ballinger, Executive Artistic Director, and David White, Associate Artistic Director, met with and interviewed over 40 members of the Trenton community. These residents were made up of diverse backgrounds, ages, and religious communities including people from the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Jewish Community Center, Shiloh Baptist Church, and the Guatemalan Civic Association.

Through the course of this project Ballinger and White discovered how the community felt about Trenton, why they lived there, what made Trenton desirable, and how their perspective of Trenton has changed over the years. These thoughts needed to be shared with the entire community. Even though these interviews started as part of two different education and oral history projects, Ballinger and White brought them together to create the script for Trenton Lights. The script was compiled, often verbatim, from these interviews. After multiple stage readings and feedback sessions the script was turned into the musical play, Trenton Lights. The five actors played multiple roles as they led the audience through the story of Trenton, as told by its residents. This play crossed boundaries and allowed the community to openly discuss their history and unique identity. Understanding that this type of work is important to community identity and pride, Passage Theatre is working on the second installment of the Community Lights Project for the 2012-2013 season focused on race and identity in Trenton.

Trenton Lights helped the staff at Passage learn more about the opportunities in their community for greater connection and dialogue. Recognizing that Trenton’s Latino community did not feel welcomed in venues outside of Latino community centers, Ballinger decided to program De Novo: Más allá de las Fronteras for the 2011-2012 season. This bi-lingual documentary theatre piece created by Jeffrey Solomon and Houses on the Moon Theatre Company focuses on youth immigration and gang warfare . The production was also presented at a local high school and college after the run at Passage Theatre, reaching a larger audience and engaging students of all ages in a dialogue about immigration and gang warfare.

Ballinger has continually strengthened Passage Theatre’s commitment to the community. She believes a community-based theatre company – one that creates, rehearses, and performs in Trenton – is vital to creating a vibrant and viable community. Ballinger’s vision for Passage Theatre has opened the doors for the Community Lights Project and the ownership of the community is what keeps it thriving.


Photo: Old school light bulb by Joi Ito


Reinventing the Wheel

Community engagement. What is it? How do you do it? What will you get if you try? These are questions (or variations of questions) I get when I bring this topic to the table in most corners of the arts establishment. Some (but by no means all) elements of the big box arts infrastructure are under the impression that community engagement (developing substantive relationships with “unusual suspects” outside of any specific effort to sell tickets) is a new idea (!?) and that there are few if any precedents for such efforts.

Even discounting the fact that (so far as we can tell) the arts originally grew out of communal expression, the “this is a brand new idea” school of thought is simply wrong. Grassroots arts experiences and the organizations that produce them have been at this work for generations.

I have commented before that Appalshop’s Roadside Theater, based in Whitesburg, KY served as an early revelation to me about the possibility of connecting art and community in the U.S. They have for decades been developing and refining community engagement skills. One in particular is worthy of special note. Roadside makes extensive use of story circles both in the development of new work and in obtaining feedback on performances. In an interview included in Clayton Lord’s Counting New Beans, Mr. Cocke describes their use of story circles and the centrality of that use to their artistic mission. (A pdf of the interview is available here.)

After showing a work in progress, we like to hear more stories from the audience about the story the play is trying to tell. We have a particular storytelling methodology—it’s a formal story circle method—that we use. It provides a form, and forum, for audience members to tell their personal stories about the themes in the performance in which they have just participated as audience members. Parts of some of their stories eventually may be incorporated into the play. This process is repeated as the play develops, with the goal of deepening and bringing more nuances to the story we are telling. In that way, the play develops from these deepening iterative stories that the audience is telling around the themes.  

Since the lives and culture of the people who are their audience are principal subject matter for Roadside’s work, this is an artistically appropriate method of development. Upon “completion” of the work, Roadside continues to use story circles as part of the process of engaging with audiences.

Say we put on a play about that moment here in the coalfields when people made the change from a small subsistence farm economy to an industrial economy. That’s a theme that you can find in places around the world. After the play, rather than having a talk-back with the audience, in which someone says, “Well, why did the actor or director make this choice?” or “I like this better than that” or “I didn’t understand this”—rather than that, we go into story circles with the audience to hear their personal stories called up by the performance. As a bonus, these new stories help the actors develop their roles.  

The story circle, both in script development and in post-performance dialogue is an integral part of Roadside’s artistic process, not an engagement add-on. It is (and comes across as) authentic because, as they say, it is. It is also not a simple focus group. The responses sought are not in the “like/don’t like and why” category. The leaders are trying to draw out parallels in the participants’ life experiences to the reality presented on stage. The purposes are (in the development phase) to improve (deepen) the artistic product and (in the production phase) to draw the audience members to a greater involvement with the play and with the company.

Story circles are only one method of engagement used by a company with deep experience in connecting with community members. Other tools are available and have the advantage of years of development in practice. There is much experience and wisdom in engagement available for the copying. We don’t need to invent completely new approaches as we awaken to the wisdom of engagement. We simply need to know where to look to find the wheels that have already been invented.



Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by maugan22