Episode 35

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Published on:

3rd Nov 2021

Episode 35: Jan Cohen Cruz - Meeting the Moment

Jan Cohen-Cruz has given a lot to the field of arts-based community development. By that, I mean that there's a significant body of academic and community-based artwork, scholarship, teaching, and organizing that are absolutely covered with her fingerprints.

BIO

Jan Cohen-Cruz was the founding editor of Public: A Journal of Imagining America. She directed Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (2007-12), and for 28 years before that, was a professor at NYU, directing a minor in applied theatre and initiating socially-engaged projects and courses. She wrote Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response and Local Acts: Community‑Based Performance in the US. She edited Radical Street Performance and co‑edited Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism and A Boal Companion. Jan was also a University Professor at Syracuse University. In 2012, she received the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s Award for Leadership in Community-Based Theatre and Civic Engagement. Here latest book, Meeting the Moment: Socially Engaged Theater, 1965 To 2020 written with Rad Pereira will published by New Village Press in May 2022.

Notable Mentions (in order of appearance)

Augusto Boal, was a Brazilian theatre practitioner, drama theorist, and political activist. He was the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, a theatrical form originally used in radical left popular education movements. Boal served one term as a Vereador (the Brazilian equivalent of a city councillor) in Rio de Janeiro from 1993 to 1997, where he developed legislative theatre.[1]

Imagining America: “The Imagining America consortium (IA) brings together scholars, artists, designers, humanists, and organizers to imagine, study, and enact a more just and liberatory ‘America’ and world. Working across institutional, disciplinary, and community divides, IA strengthens and promotes public scholarship, cultural organizing, and campus change that inspires collective imagination, knowledge-making, and civic action on pressing public issues.”

Public: “Public is a peer-reviewed, multimedia e-journal focused on humanities, arts, and design in public life. It aspires to connect what we can imagine with what we can do. We are interested in projects, pedagogies, resources, and ideas that reflect rich engagements among diverse participants, organizations, disciplines, and sectors.”

Meeting the Moment Socially Engaged Theater, 1965 To 2020: Jan Cohen-Cruz and Rad Pereira: Curated stories from over 75 interviews and informal exchanges offer insight into the field and point out limitations due to discrimination and unequal opportunity for performance artists in the United States over the past 55 years. In this work, performers, often unknown beyond their immediate audience, articulate diverse influences.

Open Theater: The Open Theater was an experimental theatre group active from 1963 to 1973.

Franz Kafka's The Trial: The Trial is a novel written by Franz Kafka between 1914 and 1915 and published posthumously on 26 April 1925. One of his best known works, it tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader.

Paris, May 1968 Strikes and Demonstrations: Beginning in May 1968, a period of civil unrest occurred throughout France, lasting some seven weeks and punctuated by demonstrations, general strikes, as well as the occupation of universities and factories. At the height of events, which have since become known as May 68, the economy of France came to a halt.[1]

The Devil and Daniel Webster:The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1936) is a short story by American writer Stephen Vincent Benét. He tells of a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the devil and is later defended by Daniel Webster, a fictional version of the noted 19th-century American statesman, lawyer and orator.

Harvey Grossman: In this edited transcription of his remarks at the 2013 Pomona College (California) conference “Action, Scene and Voice,” Harvey Grossman elucidates the theory and practice of his two most important teachers: Edward Gordon Craig and Étienne Decroux. Grossman elucidates Craig’s much-debated comments on the “Art of the Theatre,” as well as Craig’s influence upon the French corporeal mime Étienne Decroux

Richard Levy, New York Street Theater: The New York Street Theatre Caravan (NYSTC), formerly the City Street Theater, was a New York City-based socialist theater collective. First conceived by Marketa Kimbrell and Richard Levy in 1967, the company was founded on the principle of bringing theater to underprivileged and geographically isolated communities. NYSTC performed plays, puppet shows, skits, and concerts with themes meaningful to their audiences, such as racial inequality, workers' rights, homelessness, and other sociopolitical issues.

Richard Schechner: Schechner was one of the founders of the Performance Studies department of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. He founded The Performance Group of New York in 1967 and was its artistic director until 1980, when TPG changed its name to The Wooster Group.

Liz Lerman:  Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, teacher, and speaker. She has spent the past four decades making her artistic research personal, funny, intellectually vivid, and up to the minute. A key aspect of her artistry is opening her process to everyone from shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas, resulting in both research and experiences that are participatory, relevant, urgent, and usable by others

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: Urban Bush Women: Urban Bush Women (UBW) galvanizes artists, activists, audiences and communities through performances, artist development, education and community engagement. With the ground-breaking performance ensemble at its core, and ongoing programs including the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), BOLD (Builders, Organizers & Leaders through Dance) and the Choreographic Center Initiative, UBW affects the overall ecology of the arts by promoting artistic legacies; projecting the voices of the under-heard and people of color; bringing attention to and addressing issues of equity in the dance field and throughout the United States; and by providing platforms and serving as a conduit for culturally and socially relevant experimental art makers.

Kathi Bentley: Kathryn Bentley is an associate professor of theater performance, and artistic director of Southern Illinois University’s Black Theatre Workshop. A theater professional with extensive experience as an actor, director and teaching artist, she holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Theater Directing and professional training in community arts and social justice. She is a 2002 St. Louis Regional Arts Commission Community Arts Institute Fellow, and she now serves as a faculty member for the institute. She is a National Conference for Community and Justice St. Louis Certified Diversity Facilitrainer and a Certified Lessac Kinesensic Voice and Movement Practitioner. 

Love at the River’s Edge: A Shakespeare Festival St. Louis production that took place in both the streets of Pagedale, Missouri, and the farmland of Calhoun County, Illinois. Its remix of the classic play, titled “Love at the River’s Edge,” transports audience members across the Mississippi River to examine the urban and rural divide. 

Pam Korza: co-directs Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, that inspires, informs, promotes, and connects arts and culture as potent contributors to community, civic, and social change. Animating Democracy’s current work centers on building evaluation capacity of practitioners, funders, and other stakeholders to understand the impact of arts-based civic engagement and social change. Her writing and editing includes: the framework, Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change; the Continuum of Impact guide; a chapter in the book, Arts and Community Change (Routledge, 2015), and Critical Perspectives: Writings on Art & Civic Dialogue

A Blade of Grass: provides resources to artists who demonstrate artistic excellence and serve as innovative conduits for social change. We evaluate the quality of work in this evolving field by fostering an inclusive, practical discourse about the aesthetics, function, ethics and meaning of socially engaged art that resonates within and outside the contemporary art dialogue.

Animating Democracy: Animating Democracy’s current work centers on building evaluation capacity of practitioners, funders, and other stakeholders to understand the impact of arts-based civic engagement and social change.

Tom Finklepearl: is an American arts promoter, former museum director, and former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.[5] He was appointed in 2014 by the New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio,[5] and served through the end of 2019.[6]

New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Public Artists in Residence (PAIR) is a municipal residency program that embeds artists in city government to propose and implement creative solutions to pressing civic challenges. Launched in the fall of 2015, PAIR takes its inspiration and its name from the pioneering work of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the first official (unsalaried) artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), 1977 – present.

Tania Bruguera: “Tania Bruguera was born in 1968 in Havana, Cuba.[1] she is and artist and activist who focused on installation and performance artist. She lives and works between New York and Havana, and has participated in numerous international exhibitions.[2] Her work is in the permanent collections of many institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana.[2]  Bruguera's work pivots around issues of power and control, and several of her works interrogate and re-present events in Cuban history.[3][4] As a result of her art actions and activism, Bruguera has been arrested and jailed several times”.

Queens Museum: “The Queens Museum is dedicated to presenting the highest quality visual arts and educational programming for people in the New York metropolitan area, and particularly for the residents of Queens, a uniquely diverse, ethnic, cultural, and international community.”

NYC Community Gardens Program: The thirty-year saga of New York City’s community gardens shows how an EcoTipping Point can be an effective tool for urban renewal, at a fraction of the typical cost. A garden can be more than just a place to stop and smell the roses. Its spin-off effects can help to tip a neighborhood and an entire city out of a cycle of squalor.

Haja Worley: Harlem, gardens: Collaborating with Dr. Jan Cohen Cruz of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Haja was instrumental in getting NYU students from the Tisch COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS Program to develop workshops in the gardens; Haj also performed with the URBAN ENSEMBLE at Tisch, and, along with other community gardeners and drama students developed and performed “Common Green/Common Ground,” musical theatre on the community gardening situation in NYC which was under attack by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani. During those years, Haja also worked closely with documentary filmmaker Laura Beer in developing her film, “More Than Flowers,” a documentary of community gardens in NYC.

The Point Community Development Corporation is a non-profit organization dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx

Sabrina Peck: Sabrina Peck conceives, directs and choreographs original theater works infused with movement and music. She often travels to diverse communities to collaborate with professionals and local residents on visually stunning productions that reflect the history and lifeblood of those people and places.

Cornerstone Theater: For over 30 years, Cornerstone has brought together an ensemble of professional artists of the highest caliber with people who would never think of themselves as artists to produce works of excellence based on the stories, concerns and issues of a given community.

Peggy Pettit: The centerpiece of Pettitt's theater career is a unique style of solo performance rooted in African-American storytelling. She developed this form to portray a spectrum of characters. Related by blood and circumstance, these characters shed light on the multifaceted history of African American men and women.

Rick Lowe: Rick Lowe is an artist who resides in Houston, Texas. His formal training is in the visual arts. Over the past twenty years he has worked both inside and outside of art world institutions by participating in exhibitions and developing community based art projects. In 1993, Rick founded Project Row Houses, an arts and cultural community located in a historically significant and culturally charged neighborhood in Houston, Texas.

 Project Row Houses: Project Row Houses is a community platform that enriches lives through art with an emphasis on cultural identity and its impact on the urban landscape. We engage neighbors, artists, and enterprises in collective creative action to help materialize sustainable opportunities in marginalized communities.

Marshall Ganz, Story of Me, We, Now:  Obama’s 2008 campaign volunteers would attend a gathering called Camp Obama. One of the things they learned there was a leadership-development practice called Public Narrative. The practice was developed by Marshall Ganz—a former longtime United Farm Workers organizer and now Harvard professor—and used as a template by the Obama campaign.

Martin Buber, I and thou: One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber's view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou. Martin Buber said that every time someone says Thou, they are indirectly addressing God.

Rabbi Hillel was born according to tradition in Babylon c. 110 BCE, died 10 CE[3] in Jerusalem) was a Jewish religious leader, sage and scholar associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud and the founder of the House of Hillel school of tannaim.

Arts in Corrections Program: AIC was established in 1981 in a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and the nonprofit William James Association. Its purpose was to provide arts education experiences to incarcerated men and women to advance creative learning, human dignity and health for its participants.. Within ten years had become fully established within the Department was operating in all of the CDC’s, then 32 correctional institutions. AIC ceased operation in 2007-2008. In 2015 the program,(California Arts in Corrections) was re-instituted in a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Arts Council.

Keryl McCord is founder and CEO of EQ, The Equity Quotient, a national training and organizational development firm dedicated to supporting arts and culture non profits interested in becoming more just and equitable community partners, with equity, diversity, and inclusion as outcomes of their work.

Rad Pereira:” I am a multi-spirit mixed Black, Indigenous Brazilian, Jewish (im)migrant artist currently based in Lenapehoking (Brooklyn). My creative practices range from social sculpture, to popular theatrical and TV/film performance, to participatory liberatory artmaking and healing that weaves together an Afro-futurist longing for transformative justice and queer (re)Indigenization of culture.” With Jan Cohen Cruz, they are a co-author of  Meeting the Moment Socially Engaged Theater, 1965 To 2020

New Village Press: “The mission of New Village Press is to promote and enrich public discussion and understanding of issues vital to the development of healthy, creative, and socially just communities. To that end, New Village publishes transdisciplinary books that animate emerging movements in societal transformation. In conjunction, the Press also sponsors lectures, forums, and exhibitions for the public, especially for those communities that are underserved.”

Transcript

Jan Cohen-Cruz

BC:

Like I said, she's done a lot. To my mind though, the place where her fingerprints have probably made the most indelible impressions has been on the hearts and minds of the thousands of undergrad and graduate students who have been fortunate enough to learn and work with her. Now I say, learn “with her”, not “from her”, because that has always been the thrust of her work. Knowing that in a collaborative, creative practice based on give and take, sharing the wealth, and collective discovery the curtain really never falls.

nt: socially engaged theater,:

This is Change the Story, Change the World. My name is Bill Cleveland.

Part One: Learning the Ropes

BC:

JC-C 00:02:02 Yeah. my practice has evolved into writing, and that's at the heart of my practice. It happened because, you know, I began like many of us do as, an actor practitioner. I wanted to act, and because I was from this little teeny town, I left home very young, 15, and, I found places where I could train and see what was going on in the world, and the more I traveled, the more I saw how limited my own sense of what one can do with art was. So increasingly, I was building up this sense of a need to write about, talk about, communicate all the things art was doing in the world that I had no idea of. [However] it took me ‘till, teaching in a university and I had to publish or perish to actually do that writing. I think it had been building up for a long time, that’s been what I could contribute to this field is just be one of those who chronicles and says, this is important. Look at this, look at what this means. Look at the fact that I went into Trenton State Prison with the New York City Street Theater, we were doing this workshop, that was nice, but it wasn't that. Tt was my God. I carried prejudices about people in prison I didn't even know it. It allowed me to connect with people in every situation, and I didn't know another way to do that on a deep level. [Now] I see art doing that for many people, I think that's an enormous need, and so my piece of that is to write about it, and teach about it, and say, look at this. Look at what you look, what you could do with art. Look, what people are doing. Look at what this one is doing, and that one is doing. And, it's just larger than I think most of us ever knew.

BC:

JC-C 00:04:26 Totally

BC:

JC-C 00:04:53 Oh, it's a hundred percent true. At the time, I had loved the open theater. They were just, my favorite experimental company, and it's deep, beautiful work, and I had reached the point where they had invited me to stage manage a show they were touring to Europe, which was like to me, like this major thing. But the work in the prison, where one of the guys had the idea of adapting Kafka's The Trial and writing about how, instead of Joseph K. waking up, and he's arrested, and he doesn't know why. He's a sociologist. He goes into a prison to apply for a job, and he's given simulated treatment. They lock him in a cell, but then the warden goes on holiday. And so he's telling people, “wait a minute, I don't belong here”, and they say, “oh yeah, that's what they all say.”And so this whole cast of characters, like you surely met in the correctional institutions, you see how much they're more invested in keeping someone in because that's their job, then helping them out.

This terrible closed system… So that was the play that, Kwese Balogun suggested and Gil Castello wrote based on our improvs. And I didn't go to Europe to work with the Open Theater. I wanted to be just exactly where I was, and that was also just an amazing thing that how, what I thought I wanted shifted once I was out in the real world, and it actually led to my pedagogical approach, having done a lot of my work in higher ed, which is field work for actors that whenever possible, there's some little component of my classes where they're out in the world, actually having some experience that I'm hoping will open in them, through the students, through the contact, with this kind of work. And that all goes back to the prison.

BC:

JC-C: 00:07:10 Yeah, it leads so directly to the practice of developing work in collaboration, because I've been privileged to get to learn some things about form and techniques and exercises, but these stories, it's their stories, and that's so basic in the work of the, that we've both been doing, and, it's just so interesting how we each sort of learn it.

Of course you shouldn't appropriate something of someone's, but it's a way you learn that I trust more because it comes out of experience, and [is] reinforced by ideas and theory.

BC:

Now, you started talking about the journey that you took to get to where you are. Are there other places in that journey that were seminal for you and forming the body of your practice, and didn't you spend some time in France during the period of student uprisings and strikes?

JC-C:

I really had very early experiences that, that taught me, that those things were important. I was in this touring theater company in New England, when I was 18. [This was also in 1969], and we had this federal grant and, the way it worked is the federal grant would pay half the expense and anybody who invited us to perform, they would pay the other half. And there was this community group in this little town, in the white mountains of New Hampshire. They wanted us to come perform, but they didn't have the money, but they said they knew how to get the money. That was easy. All they had to do is do a community potluck, everybody came out, it was the best meal, everyone paid five bucks and then we'd do the show.

And it was so amazing how first sitting down, breaking bread, how the agency of the people to want the play, and they knew they had something of value to get it. It was worth so much more than just if they had all kicked in five bucks. The whole thing of what they did, it just changed the whole temperature of the room, and that really taught me something about how [to] set up these events, so people can really come together in some kind common ground, mutual respect and recognition. And that was an early experience that, I've since realized really was profound for me.

BC:

JCC 00:10:27 The play was The Devil and Daniel Webster, which of course made sense, Daniel Webster being the favorite son of New Hampshire. Harvey Grossman was a lovely human being, and he adapted it and directed it. I thought it was very well thought out that if you want to perform places where theater isn't part of everyday life, what is it that you're going to bring that people are going to want to see?

BC:

JC-C 00:11:14 I know the whole evening everyone was very engaged. Everyone was really glad to be there. People really enjoyed it. There was this whole thing about the great speaker that Daniel Webster was, and it mattered that he was a local boy, and it was about the value of finding powerful ways to communicate and that everyone really enjoyed.

BC:

JC-C 00:10:47 Since then I've done other touring theater. I was in the, New York City Street Theater Company a couple of years later, and that's what ended up getting me into the prison. The director of the street theater was invited to do a workshop in a prison and he asked me to come with him.

I got very involved with the company and Richard Levy, the director, we thought wouldn't it be great instead of having this tour where we try to go to as many places as we can, what if we choose the three places we felt there was the strongest connection and possibilities, and spend one third of the summer with each of those three communities so there's really time to see what this piece can be in this community though.

We didn't do that because the street theater crashed and burned. We tried to live communally, someone who was jealous, hit me over the head with a frying pan. That's why I'm still crazy after all these years. Other things happen, but that idea, I never forgot that idea. And it was an idea that was that, given that I love ideas, I love practice and I love ideas. So, when I studied with Richard Schechner, when I read his idea of the seven phases of performance. So that performance isn't just the play.

I used to think performance meant you did a play, a playwright wrote, itt happened in a theater building. That's what I thought when I was a kid in Redding, Pennsylvania. Then, I began to realize, oh my God, that's like a small part of it. Then when I read Richard who said, no, first, first there's some kind of training usually there's some kind of workshop. There's training, number one, there's workshops where you start playing with stuff. There's rehearsals once you're starting to set something. There's warmup, what happens right before you go on there's the show. Number five, right, then number six, there's cooled down. Like what happens right after, that's like you asking, was there a conversation after. And then number seven, there's aftermath, and that's more long-term and realizing you could put the emphasis on any of those, and for different events, you do put the emphasis on different ones and Schechner, like Liz Lerman he hiked the horizontal in that regard. Like he didn't assume that the play was more important than if you're using theater to rehearse a public act of, public disobedience. That's just as important that you acted out, what might happen, what do people do? That's a great use of performance if it's using the workshop component.

BC:

JC-C 00:14:45 The one at the end, I think, does fit in the model as part of after, cool down in aftermath. I think research, and, how Jawole Willa Jo Zolar (Urban Bushwomen) talks about entering community, how do you know that these people want you there and that part of research. So I think you're really right, that that phase, both the subject matter and researching a potential relationship.

BC:

When I'm sitting in a room with you, I can tell when you don't believe me, or when you're maybe a little distressed, but you're not saying anything. [When you are] sitting back in your chair, or you're engaged. And that energy is palpable, and in this environment it's way harder.

My colleague, Kathi Bentley talks about a play that she directed, between the town of Brussels, Illinois with 450 people, and Normandy in St. Louis, which is where Normandy high school is. The neighborhood of Pagedale, and where Michael Brown, who was murdered by the police, went to school. So in two different communities, bounded by a river, and a fairy, and the critical question on the table was, can we generate enough trust so that these people can even begin to work together with no assumptions at all?

Prior to this, these two communities had absolutely nothing to do with each other, but, it happened that these high school students and community members found that trust to work together, to produce as you like it in both communities with a river in between, they called it Love at the River's Edge.

Part Two: Artists, Immigrants, and Gardens

BC:

JC-C 0:17:22 For one thing I can say, I think part of why this work is so important, and why I have hope for it is it's so decentralized. There's so many ways to do it. if we just look in the realm of cross-sectoral, you have artists embedded in municipalities. You know, so agencies all across the country now willing to try a different way that's way more metaphoric, and community building using art to try to carry out immigration policy, or children and family services, or transportation problems, you know? So there are people working like that. There's all the work around, how art contributes to community building and making sure that it doesn't fall into gentrification.You know how to make sure it's equitable, there’s therapeutic direction, there’s so many ways to come at it. [There’s also] community organizing policy, people focused on how when you change the story, you might be able to communicate with different people. My observation is that because it's coming from so many directions, that it's got a chance to infiltrate embedded itself , with people in all walks of life.

BC:

JC-C 00:18:39 Yeah. having done, having worked with the wonderful Pam Korza, through A Blade of Grass and Animating Democracy on this research around artists embedded in municipalities, and then I was following the project in New York City in the cultural affairs in New York city, under Tom Finkelpearl called PAIR (Public Artists In Residence). So I got to follow seven of the artists in their relationship with the agency liaisons, and for example, the Cuban in this case, visual artist, Tania Bruguera was working with the mayor's office for immigration.

New York City is pretty progressive in terms of what it offers immigrants, refugees, whether you have legal papers or not. The problem was the level of trust is so low that there's an awful lot of people who won't use the services, and certainly given the current federal government, there's plenty good reason, but even on the city level. And so the head of that office net on any number of occasions with Bruguera to talk about what can you help devise so that more immigrants and refugees will trust that we mean it. She would come up with an idea, and they would really discuss it and take it apart, and what they ended up feeling stood the best chance, partly because it was replicable, they started in, a particular neighborhood of Queens where she had done a lot of work already because Finkelpearl used to run the Queens Museum. They had done a lot of work in the neighborhood, which was very cool.

So she already had this whole network of, Ima immigrants. It was pretty much of a women's immigration organization where there were, there was all kinds of training happening. And so she hired a women from that organization, the mayor's office trained them, and here's what we actually offer the immigrants. [We say] “what are your questions? What are your worries?” They put together material, they had it really beautifully designed and translated for that neighborhood into Spanish. It would have been other languages in other neighborhoods. They got these little yellow bicycles, and these little yellow vests, and these little yellow backpacks, and these lovely women, largely brown-skinned skinned women in pairs would go to public places, parks, and, farmer's markets, and they would enter in conversation, and they passed out thousands of the statistics, because of course these things both have a quantitative and qualitative measures were really impressive for the number of people who felt that there were things that they would not accept from the city, that they wouldn't be for, because it's not just the information it's where you getting it from, and that's what Tanya was able to make happen. And then not only who you're getting it from, but how did those people learn? How to be reliable, really communicate a sense of authority without being authoritarian. So, in a way they were performing, passing along the information of which, which of course doesn't mean it wasn't true. Performance doesn't mean it isn't true, but it means there's a way that you are aware that you are trying to convince someone of something.

BC:

JC-C 00:21:52 I think there's been at least 10 agencies by now that have had artists in residence. That's why the exciting thing is if lots of people are doing it in lots of ways, then that's all the more people who get this intimate experience of it. And in the process, there's also something good socially happening that the agency can't do itself, that art has ways of doing. So that's one example.

BC:

JC-C 00:23:14 Yeah, and I think one of the things that's so powerful and interesting about that position is, for a while in the heyday of community-based theater, there was all this skepticism that if the artist isn't of the community, isn't that going to be a problem? But in fact, in what you and I are talking about right now, part of the power is that they're not part of either community

BC:

Are there some other instances of creative approaches to problems faced by public agencies?

JC-C:

I was teaching at that institution and they were students at that institution. We were implicated. We're not neutral. The rents go up and they, and certain things were lost and not available to people who had been their stewards for years because of NYU. But we still, represented the institution, whether we liked it or not.

One good thing about that project was working on how do you, have you walked that walk? How do you take responsibility for where your privileges have put you?, and yet at the same time, say, “look, this isn't monolithic. I really, I love the gardens. Let's see if there's some modest amount of community organizing through theater making we can do that might help protect more of the gardens.”

And Then there's one up in Harlem because of a guy who had actually met many, many years earlier in that prison workshop I did. Haja' now lives in Harlem, and he and his wife are stewards of several gardens up there. He was so excited, he was one of the, pillars of that workshop. And it was so exciting to meet him again and work on this with him. Then There's a garden in the Bronx. that's part of The Point , which is a very cool organization that does community equitable community development and organizing, and had helped develop this, beautiful space where anybody could take a canoe out on the Bronx River.

BC:

JC-C 00:26:10 The fourth one was the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is a public garden. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is so cool. They have something called project green thumb, and they contribute a lot to community gardens all over Brooklyn.

So the students were all affiliated with one of those four. We worked with Sabrina Peck, the director, who had been in Cornerstone Theater. She was an original member of Cornerstone, and she really knew how to do a process going into a community, and where are we going to adapt a story that existed? Where are we going to make something?

We ended up doing a process where we gathered stories. Peggy Pettit who's a wonderful community story gatherer and performer worked with students, and we gathered stories we created a piece about community gardens.

The people from the four gardens who were involved were all there were like 60 people in the piece, and we did it at the four gardens so everyone got to go to each other's gardens, and everyone got to exchange ideas about, well what are you doing? And have you ever run into this law? And did you see there's this great loophole? So, in a way we were providing a platform for people to find other people who knew a whole lot more about it than we did. But it was fun to do a play, and I think that's important. I think the pleasure of making art should never be underestimated that in the midst of these hard struggles, we need the joy. I mean Boal used to say “it's Theater of the Oppressed, not theater of the oppressive.”

We should enjoy doing this together. You know, and sometimes we should even dare to be cathartic. And so the combination of pleasure, really experiencing the combination of, being situated between community organizing and community or making, the students really learning how generous you had to be when you're working with people who aren't also going to experimental theater with you. So it's like a whole new level to what ensemble means. So that was a great experience.

BC:

JC-C 00:28:03 Yeah, so we made a piece, it was called common green common ground, and the arc of the play was from the beginning of reclaiming space. Most community gardens in New York, were these abandoned lots, and especially in the seventies, you'd find drug needles, there'd be prostitution, and there'd be rats, and garbage dump. So it was the people from Harlem. Haja' and his community. Haja is also in a gospel choir at his church, the man can sing.

And so the very first scene was about how they reclaimed the space for their main garden. It happens through song, and in the course of singing, everybody transformed this mess into a beautiful place. So that's how it began, and it just went through the whole cycle, and in the course of how it built good things had happened, bad things had happened, one of the gardens during those two years did get bulldozed. So that was in it. So it was both a kind of life cycle story of community gardens, but using particulars, alternating among these four.

But you know, some scenes were just the people from one garden. It was partly so we could rehearse the damn thing. You couldn't get everyone together all the time. We do even meet with 60 people? But some was the whole cast like that very first song, which was, pretty thrilling. So yeah, that's what the play was, singing and dancing.

BC:

JC-C 00:29:32 Those four community gardens…

BC:

JC-C 00:29:37 It did a weekend at each one, it did four weekends

BC:

JC-C 00:30:10 It energized people, they felt other people cared about what they were doing. There were people in communities who cared about the garden, but they hadn't been too involved, tut the idea of being in this play and there were these NYU students and, they were going to be audiences and we'd get to go to different neighborhoods. It ended up getting more people involved in each garden. They exchanged ideas and tactics. The idea was to try to find one action in each community that would help further what they were trying to do, and so we did various things, in each one. And so it was part of a very long process of, of making those sustainable spaces that are really open to lots of people for the pleasures of getting a little bit of nature and cities.

BC:

JC-C 00:31:30 And the reason you can't bring it somewhere because the “it” is the process. What's so powerful about what we did was the whole process, and it was wonderful to have a play. Plays are special moments, but the really wonderful thing is to do the whole thing and then you want to find out what people somewhere want to do.

BC:

So, you spent your life with people who want to learn about how this works, and one of the things that's obvious to me is that you are a classic servant leader, which is that, separating your learning from their learning is impossible. But, what I would ask you is, in a brief moment for people who are hearing these stories and saying, “God, what an amazing thing to be able to do in the world”. But, what really matters in this work? what are the things that stand out to you that are not optional in making this work, have integrity and impact?

JC-C:

I like something Rick Lowe said, where he says he doesn't want to work with just any community, he wants to work with the proactive community. He gets really excited when he sees people trying to do something that seemed like such a great thing to do. And he goes, “you know, I have access to something that will help them do this. And I'm so excited for them to do this. I want to see this done. So let me add a little, what I can add.”And that comes to mind, you know, in his Project Row Houses, they're just such a great example of that. He provided that space, and people who were already doing these really cool things, what it was to do it in what's almost like this village.

So that comes to mind, which is also so listening reciprocity, this sort of dialogue. I try to think about who benefits, you know, so-called… creative placemaking, I think, gets a bad rap, and Erik Takeshita reminded me that creative placemaking really came out of the recession, and trying to figure out how can artists get money to make it through the recession? I think that's really important to remember. It made me much more sympathetic to what ended up looking so much like gentrification, oh yeah, artists can help design these town centers and then there'll be so cool, and people will want to go there and the tax base will go up. And of course, you need enough taxes to pay for the city, but the problem is who benefits and who's suffers, who's displaced because of it and there's ways to do it better and right the people who ended up moving that initiative forward, and thinking of it in the firsthand. I mean, I think they got much more deliberate about making sure that, people weren't displaced through it, and making sure that the people who benefited aren't the people who typically always benefit. So that's something I think is important to keep in mind who benefits.

I think humility is right up there. It's always learning like often if someone says something and I don't understand it, until if I really try to understand it, usually there'll be something there and I just needed them to explain it to me more, it's not like they were lacking, [but] I was lacking.

BC:

So it also reminds me of Liz's continuum, which is, if we get stuck in the dichotomies of the world. You know, the ‘I'm a good guy, I'm a bad guy kind of thing’ and we talked about multi-sector but also multivalent, which is often contradictory, which brings us to the heart of a theater [and] of art-making, which is if there's no tension, there's no drama. We're really barking up the wrong tree. Could you talk a little bit more about this me, we, now?

JC-C:

BC 00:37:04 So how do your students respond to the” we" - "me" tension intrinsic to the work?

JC-C:

BC 00:38:16 When I was, running the California State Summer School for the Arts which was six weeks at Cal Arts, 14 to 18 year olds from all over the state of California, and really an incredible faculty, wonderful artists, and I'll never forget a 15-year-old who stopped an artist in the middle of a reading of a poem, in rather abrupt way, which was not protocol obviously, but said, “why are you here?”And it was spontaneous, and it was not angry, and the conversation that took place afterward was that she said “I got scared that you're a mercenary, and I want to learn from someone who's safe, who’s pulling for me, and I was like, “whoa great question!”

Part Four: What’s Next?

BC:

JC-C 00:39:52 It really seems like a moment where we have to be both inward looking, and outward looking. One thing that I've been very moved by in reading, like Howlaround, I like how all around the, that the online theater platform and there've been a lot of pieces about theater companies taking the conversation about Black Lives Matter for example, and saying, “how do I translate that into my theater company? What would change on the board? What would change in programming? What would change in the staff? So let's manifest it in the arena where I can manifest it.” So that's number one. So then, so for me, I think, “okay, what do I have to do different in my teaching?” So for one thing, one of my guests in my class will be Carol McCord who will put us through a dismantling racism workshop. I'd never have put my theater students through a dismantling racism workshop.

So the one place we can do something is right here. So I think that's important at the same time, also in the way we began the conversation I think there's a funny way in which we can say, “okay, what is my reach? What can I do?” So there you are with this project, and here I am with this book where I'm really trying to say, okay I've been so lucky to meet so many people who inspire me, and whose life makes sense to me in how they're using art. And the are anywhere from like 25 to 80 years old, and they've done it in all different moments throughout these years. And they've done it around all different issues, in different places, and with different people, and so that's something I can bring together and I feel like it's something I can do that's outward facing. It builds on where my life has taken me, and so I think that's a good thing to think about what am I well-positioned to do in my most immediate, concrete world, there are things I need to do a heck of a lot better that this time is telling me. And then what is it because of what my road has been, that I can put out there that makes sense at this moment. And so if you just multiply that around, you know, health, economy, and race, as if that's not enough, those they're all at such breaking points.

BC:

JC-C 00:42:13 First let me say it's our book. Our being myself and Rad Perreira, who’s about 40 years younger than me. Rad was born in Brazil. Rad is gender fluid. We're very aligned in principles about socially engaged performance, but the actual practice Rad is part of a whole other generation than me. And it's at a certain point I realized that I couldn't write the book. I wanted to write by myself because I wanted this 55-year span coming from the mid-sixties, and I'm not I embedded enough in the last 10, or even 15 years, and Rad is.

BC:

JCC 00:43:09 One thing that had really struck me from being in this field for so long like you, is that there so are many people doing it under different names and often they don't know about each other. And there are people who think they've invented it, and I wanted people to know about each other.

So that's why we wanted the 55-year span, and we wanted people diverse in all kinds of ways, and the result of that is that the chapter which is about people's influences… I used to think there's certain influence, obviously, everyone in the U.S. was influenced by the federal theater project.

No. Wrong! They're very different influences, very different attitudes about things, which of course makes sense, but it feels very timely to me in that way, because I feel we've all had to get more conscious. Part of what we went through with the pandemic was also just this consciousness about what it means to be such a racialized and polarized society as we are. So it felt really good to be interviewing these people, and finding a way to have all the voices and the voices contradict each other in many ways, but they don't contradict each other in terms of principles.

For example, “who are we?” became a big question. A couple of the Native American artists I spoke with said, “why would I perform for white people? My community is other native people. We’re always misrepresented, or unrepresented. That's where I want to put my energy.” The other said that “the arts are such an opportunity for us to come together.”So there were many different opinions. It’s not written as interviews, it’s a narrative that Rad and I are telling, but it's very much driven by what we learned and the voices of the 67 people we spoke with are very present throughout.

BC:

JC-C 00:45:08 You know starting with history, and different people's historical influences we put chronologically… and it's precisely for the reason you're suggesting, which is things are situated. I mean the name of the book is Meeting the Moment. Things are situated at a particular time and place, and they're not the same at different times in places. And so yes, that's very important in the book.

BC:

JC-C 00:45:08 So it's going to come out in May, 2022. And it is, as you say, New Village Press. If you go to certainly NYU Press, because New Village is distributed by NYU Press Now, you can pre-order it now, actually. And it is indeed called Meeting the Moment: Socially Engaged Performance, 1965 to 2020, by Those Who Lived It.

BC:

JC-C 00:46:17 No, thank you, Bill. Thank you. And thank you for all the ways you've been a model for me, just a great star. Oh, back at you.

BC:

JC-C 00:46:26 Thank you. Bye.

BC:

If you're interested in Jan's writing, along with a rapidly growing treasure trove of other authors who are exploring ideas and stories about creative community building, I would encourage you to visit New Village Press at newvillagepress.org. You'll also find the New Village link in our show notes. And if you'd like what you're hearing, please do share our podcast with your network of friends and subscribe. Just a couple of clicks makes all the difference.

Change the Story, Change The World is a production of The Center for the Study of Art and Community. If you're curious about what that is, check us out at www.artandcommunity.com. The show is written and produced by yours truly, Bill Cleveland. Our theme and soundscapes are by the stupendously creative Judy Munson, our editor in chief is Andre Nnebe, and as always our inspiration rises up from the mysterious UKE 235. So, until next time stay well, make good trouble, and spread the good word.

~End~

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About the Podcast

Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
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