An Arts Activist's Summer Vacation

There is the romantic notion, the American nostalgia for (and fantasy of) isolated and collective genius, the creator’s dream: a group of artists go off into the woods, or maybe a farm, for a summer or longer. They train and explore together, challenge each other, create aesthetically revolutionary art, and stun the world when they re-emerge and engage again with society. Of course there are dramas, rises to power, internal struggles, even splits and divisions. But teachers are born, new methodologies and aesthetics, sometimes entirely different schools or approaches to creation … or new organizations, performance companies, even stars. This is part of our theater mythology, and history, evoking legendary names such as Stanislavsky, Grotowski, the Group Theater of the 1930s (with Strasberg, Adler, Clurman and Meisner). Other companies and directors have tried it since, and some are still at it . . . .

Then there’s the activist notion, the socio-political change agents, the belief in the power of art to transform individuals and society, the cultural organizer’s dream: a group of artists, activists and educators come together, often in an urban or economically devastated environment, decide to be and create the change they want to see in the world. They dialogue into the night, envision futures, plan their role in the revolution, sing together, sometimes dance, or gather stories from people in struggle and stun communities with the power of their own realities reflected for all to see, feel, and understand. Yes, there are dramas, power struggles, re-enacted oppressions, even splits and divisions. But movements are born, mentors, true leaders emerge with the power of the people behind them, sometimes entirely new approaches to pedagogy, leadership, and creation … or, new networks, performance companies, even heroes. This is part of our activist theater history, and mythology, evoking legendary names such as Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal, John O’Neal (particularly in relation to the Free Southern Theater’s role in the Civil Rights Movement), Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenyan novelist and playwright exiled for his community-based theater work), or the Market Theater in South Africa. And yes, many are still at it . . . .

Perhaps these names are only legendary if you’re a theater artist or cultural organizer who’s had access to university or professional training, or to intergenerational exchanges where these stories are told, these histories passed down (theater, after all, is an oral tradition, at its roots and in its pedagogy) . . . or maybe you’ve managed to read a handful of books about the history of contemporary theater, or community cultural development and activist performance . . . or discovered the Community Arts Network’s incredible on-line archive. Maybe our stars and heroes aren’t exulted by the mainstream, and maybe our mythologies are not the stuff of dreams for most. Maybe there aren’t enough women in the list of theater movement leaders, and maybe we should examine why that is; maybe we should pay attention to the predominance of European and white American names in the isolated, “aesthetic revolution” scenario, and the prevalence of people of color in the activist, political revolution scenario, and examine what privilege has to do with the art we’re called to create, and the contexts we work in. Yes, I believe we should all pay attention to these things.

For the moment, what I’m curious about is how these idealized creative and revolution-oriented images and (his)stories are present for so many of us, in some way, in our dreams and desires for our life’s work. I’ll share just a few examples from my own experiences this summer—in artist exchanges, intensives and retreats—and the various forms they took. How the mythos of our field resonate with these endeavors shall undoubtedly reveal itself.

The Creativity Lab: Artists in an Ocean of Change

In June 2010, the second historical U.S. Social Forum was held over six days in Detroit, MI. Over 10,000 people registered, and many more just came, or participated in various associated events, making the estimated total participation between 15 and 20,000. I was a co-organizer of a large open space for artists (working in all disciplines) and allies to converge, exchange, connect or create. We called it the Creativity Lab, and planned several associated workshops, led by a host of wonderful activist artists and facilitators, that shared or modeled various approaches to cultural organizing – from exploring the movement in movement-building with Stephanie McKee, to bilingual Border Crossings with Dora Arreola, to Creative Organizing with Ricardo Levins Morales, to growing a global Hip Hop cypher with Terry Marshall, to art as change with Anasa Troutman, and more.

The partnering and supporting organizations included the Arts & Democracy Project, Movement Strategy Center/Art is Change, Alternate ROOTS, Art2Action, Matrix Theater, MAG-Net, Leftist Lounge/Culture Clash, and Animating Democracy (if you’re not familiar with these orgs, I highly suggest looking them up). We were able to document 500 participants that signed-in at the Creativity Lab, and it’s certain that many, many more came through. The Creativity Lab was a space of arts-based practice and exchange within the context of a global and national movement toward progressive change and multi-issue solidarity. It was utilized as a space of rejuvenation and reflection, of youth engagement, of active preparations for street marches and demonstrations taking place in Detroit throughout the Social Forum. In many ways, it was a beginning, a dream of what it could be, a chance to model an alternative vision of change-making, and a gesture toward (to paraphrase Arundhati Roy) this other world that is possible, that is coming, that we (especially artists) can hear breathing . . . .

Misa Table: Artists on the Road to Unity

In early July, I had the great fortune of being invited to participate in a small, intimate, week-long gathering of artists – including long-time company members, and a few guests (like me) – in an old farm house, in a tiny New Hampshire town, hosted by Jim, an old friend of the artistic director, Jason Lambert, and long-time supporter of the company that has come to be known as Misa Table. The road to Unity was just down the hill from Old Stage Road, between the free public library and the playground. Each day, we had artistic exchange sessions in the empty Town Hall, next to the steeple–hours of professional play, open improvisation, idea and methodology swapping– with no particular agenda, no piece that had to get made, no deadline or grant to fulfill. Just the joy of discovery and the artist’s daily practice; just the possibility that out of our play, themes, commonalities, obsessions, and stories would arise.

And they did. It was a generous gathering organized around the conviction that something could be born and develop out of open, spontaneous, unlimited creativity among a group of human beings that might not have anything else in common, except theater. In the evenings, we had long dinners and after-hours discussions of the role of artists in community, the importance of international travel, the process of building an ensemble, our questions about the limits of artists in creating real change, and the meaning or imperative of inclusion. Some entered those discussions reluctantly and left quickly, preferring more personal or playful topics; others lingered over Jim’s immense wood table until night and sleepiness overtook us. On Friday evening, we brought food to the town pot-luck, and though we were the strange outsiders occasionally seen running around a field or heard making animal-like noises and unexpected screams in the middle of day, Misa Table was invited to share some of what the company does next year, as guests among the Potluck Players.

Urban Bush Women: Artists as Leaders, Creators of Leadership

From late July to early August, I had the honor of being part of a documentation team at Urban Bush Women’s ten-day Summer Leadership Institute held in New Orleans. Yes, it is a dance-based institute. It included wonderful daily dance classes, for professionals and community practitioners, and culminated in a fantastically powerful, joyful and moving public performance. And it is absolutely, intentionally and thoughtfully, a leadership institute–with attention to self-care, “Entering, Building & Exiting Communities,” frameworks and practices for collaboration, learning about stepping up and stepping back … Moreover, it is created through long-term, in-depth community partnership, in which community collaborators (affectionately known as “Team NOLA”) have meaningful leadership roles in the vision and implementation of the project.

A central aspect of the creative process and leadership training is a two-day workshop on undoing racism, led by the People’s Institute. This programmatic commitment stems from the belief that systemic racism is at the root of immense injustices and cannot be avoided if we are to do any meaningful work for positive change, particularly in a U.S. context; and that we cannot, in fact, do effective work that ceases to perpetuate the systems of racism unless we address, head-on, the ways we have each internalized racial inferiority or superiority. It presumes that undoing racism is key to both developing more effective leadership as change agents, AND to developing more profound, sophisticated, liberated artistry.

(Look for more extensive documentatin and writing on UBW’s Summer Leadership Institute, forthcoming in 2010-11!)

Alternate ROOTS: Artists at the Crossroads of Aesthetics and Diversity

Birthed 34 years ago at the Highlander Center in the Appalachian Mountains, Alternate ROOTS (originally “Regional Organization of Theaters South” and now a multi-disciplinary network of self-defined artist-activists) has always had the mission of undoing racism, and oppression in all forms, at the center of its identity– although the exact articulation of that commitment and what it really means in practice is a topic of on-going and annual dialogue.

If you’ve never been to a ROOTS meeting, well, you just have to go to really know. It’s not a conference or a training, or a festival, or an intensive, or a retreat, really. It is intense, it is rejuvenating, it’s a place of exchange, it’s all of those things. It is about art, it is about activism, it is about change, and it’s always re-inventing itself based on the premise that “who comes is.” Dreams, projects, companies, leaders, methodologies, networks, perhaps even movements and a few legends, have all been born and nurtured there. And yes, there has been drama, and power struggles, break-ups and divisions. But for nearly 35 years, ROOTS has been living the questions, walking the talk (sometimes falling and stumbling, sometimes dancing with grace), mentoring, singing together, discovering and teaching how artists are part of aesthetic and political revolutions: those that have been, those we may be in the midst of, and those that are yet to come.

* * * *

Over the next two years, in partnership with Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis and several national arts networks serving artists of color, and artists/cultural organizations that work in community, and with the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, I will be in the process of developing a National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation. Partnering networks include:

We are early in the visioning process, and through the networks, hope to engage broad field dialogue and input on the Institute’s development. I have many questions at this stage: How will the dreams, histories and mythos we carry as artists and leaders resonate with the creation of this new space for learning, exchange, training, and artistic development? What elements should it include? What should the balance of aesthetics and activism be? What form should it take? And how will we all grow together in the process?

Yes, I’m really asking. Please post your thoughts. I look forward to your response.

Author: Andrea Assaf

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