In August, Triangle Lab invited Michael Rohd, artistic director of Sojourn Theatre, and a small group of artistic directors and other theatre leaders at Intersection for the Arts to meet and discuss new ideas and practices in “community-engaged theatre.” This unwieldy term is just one of many currently in use, like “social practice” or “civic practice,” for approaches to theatre that emphasize the relationship between artists and the community, especially those that interrogate or intentionally blur that division, or seek to leverage the artist-community relationship to enable action outside of the theatre experience. The August gathering was one of a number of events that Triangle Lab, the collaboration begun in 2011 between Cal Shakes and Intersection for the Arts, has begun to host in order to foster dialogue between Bay Area companies on this rapidly growing field of interest. According to Rebecca Novick, director of the Triangle Lab, the purpose of convenings like this is “to bring together artists who want to create new work in new models and who work with communities as part of their process. We are interested in building a community of artists who want to learn from each other, share resources, and new ways of working and help us in the big project of getting more people to participate in theatre-making in more different ways.”
Theatres working with community members is not a new phenomenon; Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, for example, has been working this way for more than 25 years. Community engagement is gaining momentum in the field, however, as larger theatres fighting irrelevance and grassroots theatres fighting invisibility increasingly take to the streets to cultivate relationships with individuals and groups who share their neighborhoods. The success of many of these projects has called attention to the huge social as well as artistic potential of this approach to theatre making, and major granting bodies, seeing a way to address pressing social concerns, are responding with targeted grants to encourage community-centered work.
At the August meeting, Rohd shared his ideas on what he calls “civic practice” and how it can create productive coalitions between artists and community organizations (read his recent HowlRound posts here and here). Afterward, the handful of attendees brought their experiences, questions and observations about working with communities to the group—exactly the sort of conversation that Triangle Lab director Rebecca Novick had in mind when designing the event. This gathering, says Novick, “was an opportunity to kick off something we've been wanting to do for a while, which is try to incubate/host/form a group of artists and arts organizations who are working in an area that's rather difficult to name.”
Other Triangle Lab efforts to open the conversation about this difficult-to-name mode of work, both nationally and locally, have included a session at the 2011 TCG conference, a series of audience events ancillary to the recent Cal Shakes production of “Spunk,” a reception introducing TCG executive director Teresa Eyring to Bay Area theatre makers doing community-based work, and its new Artist-Investigator project which received a TCG “A-Ha” grant to fund ten artists to develop experimental performances exploring social practice. And a number of new projects and events are on the way: a trip to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, which is experimenting with models of participation in the context of a museum, and the “Califas” project, which, according to the Triangle Lab website, will unfold in tandem with the world premiere of Luis Alfaro’s “Alleluia, the Road,” taking the shape of “a series of explorations around journeys, home and faith that will take us up and down the state investigating communities along Highway 99 from Los Angeles north to San Francisco.”
Interested in joining the conversation? Visit thetrianglelab.org.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.