This week we will be featuring conversations with leaders working in communities. Casey Caldwell is a director, writer, actor and artistic director of Ratatat Theater Group. Amanda Thompson is the Planning Director for Decatur, Georgia and a choreographer & performer for Zoetic Dance Ensemble. Both are Creative Community Fellows. The following was co-written by them.
“An Unexpected Encounter”
A short conversation about Creative Placemaking
CASEY (curly hair, bright eyes, gets brainy-excited)
AMANDA (red hair, direct-speaking, with a mild southern accent)
NARRATOR (asks the questions. sounds like NPR)
NARRATOR: We have been brought together by National Art Strategies this afternoon to discuss “creative placemaking,” an activity that is led by “cultural entrepreneurs.” What is this? Do you two engage in this type of behavior?
AMANDA: Yes, we do! Casey and I both create through performance – Casey in theater and I in dance. We have found that cultural entrepreneurs are artists who love creating environments where communities can discover and define who they are individually and collectively.
CASEY: They foster connection, freedom of expression, and empathy with others to help communities improve themselves.
AMANDA: Creative placemaking is a nice catch-all phrase that allows artists, elected officials and residents to ask for and create a broad range of physical improvements to a space, or participate in creative activities, that make their community a more vibrant place to live.
CASEY: Communities need to have certain conversations, for example veterans returning from war who are trying to assimilate back into the community (a project I worked on last year), and our artistic practices provide tools that are uniquely effective for those conversations.
NARRATOR: Why don’t you send the veterans to one of those new outdoor malls with the synchronized light water fountain and a coupon for 30% off the Gap and a free latte? That’s a nice experience. Using dance and theater to bring people together seems complicated. Why do you work in that way?
AMANDA: [laughter] I think that has been the approach our leaders have tried in the past, but consumption is a short term solution.
CASEY: Well, yeah, it’s like I said. Our artistic practices have tools that are uniquely appropriate. Santa Barbara, where I live, has problems that are large and complicated, and they are a numbing combination of boring, controversial, and slow to change. Affordability, Homelessness, Segregation – everyone agrees that these things are problems, everyone agrees that something should be done, but few people are engaged in addressing them. Mostly because the work of dealing with an Issue tends to be at turns a dry, impersonal, draining activity, or a heated, vitriolic debate; and neither of those turns is very fun, and all of the turns go really slow. If we want more people to be involved in solving these problems, inspired enough to rehydrate the dry facts, compassionate enough to listen to the other side of the vitriolic debate, then we need to tell stories. And we need to tell stories in a way that people feel ownership of them, in a way that people feel like they can change them, and a way in which people see how they share them with the other people in their community. Which leads me to Theater.
Some things that theater does well: Theater tells stories, and stories are how we make sense of the world. Theater is synecdochic– a small thing represents something larger. Theater is present–it is only live, it exists only in the shared moment between performer and audience–so in a recorded, watch-at-your-leisure world, theater helps us to be present. Theater is communal–the audience is here, now, the actors are here, now, we are here together.
A group of people gathering together to share a story at this moment, in their city, doing big things with the small tools they have available, has powerful potential for bringing citizens together and inspiring them to act, especially if the stories they hear are local, the play is made for them, and you create space for conversation.
AMANDA: Casey is right. Live performance is powerfully engaging in a way that TV or film or yes, even shopping, will never be. I’ve found that dance tells a story as well, but in a different way. It is a physical and emotional journey instead of an intellectual one. Dance is not subject to the boundaries that we create with language and logic. It is kinesthetic and it is something we feel. With placemaking – when we move and experience emotion in a particular place – we become attached to that place, we become connected to the person that we danced with. The story of that place and that person becomes physically a part of us.
I was facilitating the creation of a dance with a group of older women in their 60’s. One woman had lost a breast to cancer and the group decided that they would like to tell her story in movement. The effect of chemo on her body was that she lost balance and would continually fall to the right. She described how she felt betrayed by her body and at the same time how dance had made her physically strong and aware of her body in space which enabled her to keep moving forward, remaining hopeful. The movements in the dance involved falling over and being caught by women in the group, a circular gesture around the chest illustrating the loss of a breast and continuing to move forward through space. Although no one else in the group had lost a breast to cancer we immediately felt a tasted of the instability, betrayal and courage that she must have experienced. It was simultaneously a very personal and universal journey.
NARRATOR: What motivates you to keep doing this type of work?
CASEY: The joy of encounter. As an actor, I love nothing more than the charge of a fully-lived encounter with another actor. As a director, I love encountering something alive bursting fresh from an actor. As a theater-maker, I love the encounter of hearing interviewees’ stories. I want to foster encounters in my community.
AMANDA: You say encounter and I say connect, but I think our motivations are the same. I experience joy when I can be part of something that helps people create and/or connect with each other. I love to live in vibrant communities, full of expression, and if I can use performance to make more of those places I will.
NARRATOR: Thanks for joining me today. I think I have a better understanding of cultural entrepreneurs and I can’t wait to see how your projects unfold.