AMERICAN THEATRE | Taking It to the Streets
Las Imaginistas’ first Dream Parade, 2018. Participants attended dreaming workshops prior to the event and made signage for their visions of a future, more equitable, decolonized city of Brownsville, Texas. (Photo by Veronica Cardenas, courtesy of Las Imaginistas)
Following are edited excerpts from the new book Meeting the Moment: Socially Engaged Performance, 1965–2020, by Those Who Lived It (New Village Press, 2022).
In January 2020, Jan was sitting at the New York Reserve Bank of New York, in an audience of 400 people, for a three-hour presentation on “Transforming Community Development Through Arts and Culture.” Being there was uncanny, as someone who has been on the ground with socially engaged art practitioners, scholars, and teachers for over half a century. For Jan was struck by how little people knew about what each other had accomplished.
Jan was motivated to write this book to connect instances of socially engaged theatre and performance during the period that she has been following it, 1965–2020, exploring parallel concerns and interrogating differences through the reflections of practitioners who have lived it. While there have always been artists working directly in relationship to their communities, the great social movements that galvanized the country around first African American and then other groups’ civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and the nuclear threat set the performance ecosystem, since the mid-1960s, spinning.
Around 30 interviews in, Jan realized that she could not write the book alone. She had been at a distance from the making of performance in recent years and did not know whom to approach, particularly from the past 10 years. She sought an artist/thinker who could complement her effort, but from the perspective of a much younger generation, and grounded in different cultural markers. She found that in Rad Pereira, whose work with The Lost Collective for the Administration of Children and Family Services in New York City Jan had followed.
The term socially engaged performance is imperfect—performance by definition is conceived with at least one actor and one spectator, and usually well more, so how can it not be socially engaged? Nonetheless, this working definition has served as our guide point:
Socially engaged performance involves expressive behavior that is overtly positioned both inside and outside of art contexts. It is distinguished by expansive ideas of (1) who makes it: artists involving others in their projects for what they know or are part of rather than only for their art skills per se; (2) why it is being made: taking place for reasons related to participants’ social conditions, celebrations, or struggles rather than strictly to realize an individual artist’s vision; (3) what is made: using artistic tools to shape something that may or may not look like a conventional performance product (e.g., a play or dance composition) in response to a communal desire; and (4) whom it is for: an active relationship to its desired public/community, usually happening at a place that a broad range of people will feel comfortable attending, whether or not it is in a specially designated performance space.
In his foreword, Carlton Turner offers:
This book intentionally complicates attempts to narrowly define socially engaged performance. It centers the voices of practitioners to understand more about their pedagogy, experiences, values, and work. Those voices emanate from the manuscript to create space for a dialogue across the various ways of practice, from which emerges a more complete picture of how this field grows and why the work of these artists is shaping the next iteration of stories and influences.
Jill Dolan reminds the reader:
The performance work Meeting the Moment recounts offers strategies for face-to-face interaction born in curiosity and creativity, respect and joy. These artists make performance in communities where their commitments run deep; their art determines to make a difference within the specifics of place in ways that extend profitably elsewhere. We need these exemplary stagings of argument and disagreement, alignment and accord. We need live performance to show us how to embrace the possible. Performance allows us to imagine the potential of the future, even as we debate the best way forward, standing beside one another, engaging one another’s palpable humanity.
The book is organized thematically. The interviews led us to this choice, as we heard how artists from different generations have dealt with similar issues. We found these recurring issues more engaging than a straightforward chronology. The thematic structure signals that the book is in no way all-encompassing but, rather, delves into selected issues that have remained relevant to socially engaged artists over these 55 years. We sequenced the chapters as follows:
PART I, “(Re)Grounding,” is about where socially engaged performance makers are coming from in three senses—historically, philosophically, and pedagogically.
Chapter 1, “Legacies,” is a compilation of individually significant markers from the history of socially engaged performance, from the perspective of artists in the United States whom we spoke with who have lived it; the tellingly diverse historical influences that have inspired and set a direction for the work they have done at some time in the past 55 years.
Chapter 2, “Commitments,” identifies what all the performance makers in this book share: the equal pull to art making and engagement with particular communities beyond the immediate experience of the performance. Many of the artists we spoke with have often felt perceived as either art makers or social activists, as if they could not be both.
Chapter 3, “Education,” is about how socially engaged performance makers have learned what they needed in order to do their work, and the obstacles they have faced. It emphasizes underlying values and the dialectic between formal and informal modes of learning.
PART II, “(Re)Mapping Community,” focuses on two clusters of challenges that come with the territory of U.S. socially engaged performance since the mid-1960s.
Chapter 4, “Changing Notions of Who “We” Are,” traces changing attitudes between 1965 and 2020 about what socially engaged performers may make and with whom because of their race, circumstances, class, gender/sexuality, and other identity grounders. It reflects on choices that performance makers have made around identity over these years.
Chapter 5, “Community-Centric Civic Collaborations,” explores the unfolding of creative placemaking/placekeeping—artists embedded in community-development initiatives collaborating with public agencies and the people they impact—particularly from 2010 to 2020. Featured are examples of municipal-artist collaborations and the particular challenge of devising art projects with the police.
PART III, “(Re)Generativity,” consists of two chapters about how the past and present recounted in this book lead to an aspirational future.
Chapter 6, “A (Re)Generative Life in Art,” asks how lives equally committed to art and social justice find not just support but also renewal. Springboarding from a 2003 Urban Institute report and its 2016 reaffirmation by the NEA about six elements that sustain the artist’s life, this chapter emphasizes regenerativity and aspiration within and beyond the current social and political framework.
Chapter 7, “The Year Was 2020,” traces theatre and performance makers’ responses to building pressure beginning in March 2020 with the quarantine, the threat of COVID-19, more visibility of police violence toward Black people, and efforts to find ways to meet this moment. The focus is a range of initiatives and in many cases a new sense of their work as part of the reckoning that many theatre and performance makers have engaged in during this most tumultuous of years.
One of our hopes is that through this book, more socially engaged theatre and performance people speak themselves into the archive, filling gaps in a field that is itself often marginalized in mainstream theatre accounts.
This book is grounded in interviews with some 75 Black, Native American, Asian diasporic, African American, Latine, MENASA, white, LGBTQIA2+, disabled and non-disabled, (im)migrant, Jewish, and Muslim socially engaged performance makers. What follows is an edited excerpt from Chapter 1, “Legacies,” about socially engaged theatre and performance from the past that has had the most impact on interviewees. The responses revealed a multiplicity of influences, not one unified narrative: personally meaningful artistic practices and movements aligned with their sense of themselves, and often, inclusive of and meaningful to their ancestors.
It was crucial for many interviewees to see their cultural or racial lineage represented in performances from the past. For example, nearly every artist of color with whom we spoke cited the importance to them of the Harlem Renaissance (the Harlem-centered cultural and artistic movement from the end of World War I through the mid-1930s) and the Black Arts movement (a group of politically engaged Black poets, artists, theatremakers, musicians, and writers between 1965 and 1975 who emerged out of the Black Power movement).
For artists situated in small towns or rural expanses, it was critical to recognize culture outside large cities. The value of regionally based expression and the notion of grassroots arts that grows out of the place they are situated, as articulated in the 1940s by Robert Gard and others, was raised up and remains a source of meaning.
Some interviewees found aesthetic inspiration in practices that were not from their personal heritage or even fully in tune with their politics. For example, a number of artists were smitten by scale, as in the early-20th-century U.S. pageantry movement, engaging scores of longtime residents and new arrivals in the enactment of a town’s history. They were nonetheless critical of a dominant idea of that movement—that immigrants leave behind their ancestral cultures to assimilate into a national identity, expressed in some instances by literally changing from traditional wear to American clothes before a performance’s end.
Some who favor the production of plays equally or more than process-oriented activities were heartened by the Group Theatre, a collective based in New York City and formed in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. The Group Theatre straddled a commitment to especially new dramatic literature and support for people struggling, of which there were many, it being the Great Depression. Artists influenced by the Group Theatre also tended to recognize the ensemble theatre movement in the United States in more recent years as bedrock for their own work, which has often begun with the production of plays and expanded through engagement with a local community that they have gotten to know by living there.
Some artists we spoke with moved to the U.S. from elsewhere and were inspired by practices from their homeland. Meena Natarajan and Dipankar Mukherjee, codirectors of the Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, had been part of the robust street theatre of their native India, and were influenced by leading figures there, including Badal Sarkar and Safdar Hashmi. Other artists found inspiration in companies they originally saw on tour and in some cases went on to collaborate with, such as Kathy Randels vis-à-vis Dah Teatar from the former Yugoslavia. Still others studied international theatremakers, including the Polish theorist and director Jerzy Grotowski, and did work in that spirit.
Partly due to the rise of Performance Studies since the 1980s, some recognized a broader swath of expressive activity as performance, whether they encountered it at home or abroad, such as Native American and African American rituals, that they may have hitherto thought of as anthropology or ethnography.
Other recurrent sources of inspiration were ensembles born of social movements. El Teatro Campesino was created in 1965 by Luis Valdez in conjunction with California farmworkers struggling for Chicano rights; the Free Southern Theater was founded in 1963 by John O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses as an artistic wing to African American Civil Rights. More recently, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have been sources of inspiration. Also influential is Augusto Boal and Theatre of the Oppressed, a set of techniques he first elaborated in the 1970s in Brazil, which remain a creative means for participants to become active subjects seeking solutions to social injustices they face.
For some who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the intense theatricality all around in response to Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam, and other pressing concerns manifested what performance can do in everyday life, for better or for worse. Co-author Jan Cohen-Cruz recalls:
One day when I was seven or eight years old, I was jumping on my parents’ bed, in their room on the top floor of our house in Reading, Pennsylvania. Looking out the window, I saw my neighbor Al Salette’s yard, seemingly on fire; just two doors down, a cross was burning in his yard. I finally got someone to explain that Al Salette had been part of demonstrations to integrate the lunch counter at the five-and-ten downtown. I later came to understand acts like the cross burning as public performances, intended for audiences.
They were deliberately staged in public to be seen. Their concrete impact did not disqualify them from being performances; performance did not need to be only symbolic but could also have a direct impact.
Artist-activist Ricardo Gamboa grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a Mexican American family in the 1990s. Gamboa was an activist since their adolescence and close friends with the activist children of assassinated Chicago community activist Rudy Lozano. They describe the Black Panthers, a Black political organization founded in 1966 to challenge brutality against the African American community in a way that parallels the cross burning as performance, albeit to radically different ends:
The Black Panthers were arguably doing arts activism when they dressed up [in black berets and black leather jackets] and were inspired by Amiri Baraka and Black Aesthetic theatre. There was costume: Their new type of uniform signaled their militancy. There were props—the guns, the Constitution—they would carry around. There were high theatrics.
Such performances are intentional threats, the cross burnings warning spectators of the power of the Klan and other white supremacists to attack at will, and the Black Panthers warning of repercussions if violence against the Black community persisted. Importantly, the Panthers also carried out their mission to ensure the survival of African Americans and other marginalized people through a Free Breakfast for School Children Program that fed thousands of hungry kids, as well as a popular education series that raised consciousness and awareness. The image of the panther was chosen because it is an animal that does not attack first but if attacked will respond in kind.
Boal cited Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562-1635) stating that all that drama requires is a platform, two actors, and a passion. In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the cross burning fits this description. A suburban yard became a platform to voice a very strong opinion; de Vega’s requisite two actors were the one who lit the cross and the one who saw it burn; and the passion was clear. The cross burning attested to how widespread drama is: how ubiquitous its potential platforms, the range of who might be the actors, and what might be the passion. Such dramas do not need to be contained in a theatre building and indeed can be far more powerful because of that. The makers of such performances express the perspective of a cultural group. And at the time Jan thought she was growing up in an environment with almost no performance, because she understood performance to necessarily take the form of plays written by individual playwrights and presented in theatre buildings.
The sense of performance spilling out of buildings and into the social sphere manifested differently but not less powerfully for theatre director and professor Bob Leonard. He was inspired by Shakespeare’s relationship to the city of London, which he describes as follows:
[a] transparency of civic revelation, writing at the birthing of the British Empire and revealing the arrival of the middle class and the shifting of power from the landed aristocracy to the developing capitalist market power base. He had to have been in the middle of all that, not concocting it from some backstage office, and had to be astute enough to hear it. It’s odd to think I went to Johnson City, Tennessee, out of a drive to be in the middle of people who are struggling and working and loving and hurting and alive in our time in order to be worth anything. But that seemed, to me, critically important.
So while historical markers vary widely, the impulse to anchor one’s professional aspirations to something personally and culturally meaningful is evident in the legacies to which the artists we interviewed are drawn. As the authors of Theatre Histories assert, “There are no value-free histories; it is always a matter of what values, and whose, inform a particular historical work.”
The Long Tradition
Interviewing Rad for the book, Jan asked them where they draw inspiration. Rad told Jan that in their youth they thought modern history was like a flower in a vase with shallow roots, commodified. As their perspective deepened, the vase shattered, and the flower proved to have ancient, endless roots, blowing open Rad’s understanding and forming part of their general radicalization as a human.
When Rad got to New York City in 2006 for college, they wanted a Broadway career and then realized that those artists wanted to be flowers in a vase. Not for them. Rad wanted to be part of a huge tree.
Since then, Rad has been most nourished in understanding how Indigenous communities, their own ancestors included, have used art for thousands of years. It wasn’t about pedestalizing one person’s genius; it was collective storytelling and story keeping for survival. So many ancient civilizations, which are kept alive through Indigenous people, did not disassociate the philosophical, spiritual, and material realms from art or life. In Abya Yala (Latin America), there’s also no protest without artists; they are some of the biggest activists, and don’t disentangle themselves from their communities. To even have to call something “community-based art,” says Rad, is fucked up. What is the purpose of art at all?
Carlton Turner, Black artist and organizer, whose current work integrates the arts and agriculture, understands art and culture as a form of ritual, making us recognizable to others and to ourselves. Art has been around as long as human consciousness. Culture is how we recognize a people—by their rituals, dances, and songs, as they began to be in relationship to a place in a more intimate way, through the seasons, farming, their own specific foods, the solstices, making places of celebration, using visual art, all to locate themselves as a community.
Turner recognizes commonality between cultural anthropology and community-based performance, both grounded in the collective expressivity of everyday life. Cultural anthropologists and ethnographers study how people who share a common cultural system organize, shape the physical and social world around them, and are, in turn, shaped by those ideas, behaviors, and physical environments. Culture, according to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, is “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men [sic] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” Culture teases out meaning in the world and makes the world understandable. Recognition of performance’s ancient roots deeply embedded in many communities weaves through this book.
Gloria Miguel, a performer from the Kuna/Rappahannock Nations, noted that she had no historical influences for socially engaged performance because to her it always existed; she was born into such a worldview about performance. Her family sang, danced, and told stories, just as their parents and generations preceding them had. Coya Paz, founder of Teatro Luna in Chicago, recounts, “We started making work without understanding that we were actually tapping into a long legacy of people gathering in a circle to share stories to try to shift how certain populations are represented.”
Relatedly, community-based theatre director Kathie deNobriga speaks of the influence of folklorists who wrote down such stories: “Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Green, people who really listened to other people’s voices—that’s a very strong foundation” for her own very place-based work. Also running through this book is the age-old interplay of art and politics, well put by Andrew Boyd and Dave Mitchell in their book Beautiful Trouble:
Blending of art and politics is nothing new. Tactical pranks go back at least as far as the Trojan Horse. Jesus of Nazareth, overturning the tables of the money changers, mastered the craft of political theatre 2,000 years before Greenpeace. Fools, clowns, and carnivals have always played a subversive role, while art, culture and creative protest tactics have for centuries served as fuel and foundation for successful social movements.
We invite you to reflect with us on the many histories/presents/futures of socially engaged theatre and performance from 1965 to 2020 on Turtle Island, the country currently known as the United States. We are guided by community wisdom; our evidence is some of the people who have lived it, and our intention is to uplift many simultaneous realities of this field.
Rad Pereira (they/them) is a queer (im)migrant artist and cultural worker building consciousness between healing justice, system change, reindigenization, and queer futures between Lenapehoking (Brooklyn) and Haudenosaunee territory (northern Hudson Valley). Their work in performance, education and social practice has been experienced on stages, screens, stoops, fields and sidewalks all over Turtle Island through the support of many communities, institutions, and groups.
Jan Cohen-Cruz (she/her) wrote Local Acts, Engaging Performance, and Remapping Performance, edited Radical Street Performance, and, with Mady Schutzman, co-edited Playing Boal and A Boal Companion. She teaches in Touchstone Theater’s BFA, where she is also collaborating on their equitable housing project and production, The Most Beautiful Home…Maybe.
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