Tossing Small Stones to Change an Entire Landscape

Posted by Kacy O'Brien, Apr 03, 2012 0 comments

Kacy O'Brien

Change starts small, right?

We have seen time and again that small pockets of people, when seized with an idea, can come together and with the right leadership, momentum, and tools can affect change.

Change often starts with one person and a vision. If we want to be part of the “cultural zeitgeist, actively addressing the social inequities in our country” and reach “exponentially greater numbers of people,” as Diane Ragsdale suggests, then we need to do it in our backyards.

That may sound counter-intuitive—“to reach more people stay close to home”—but in my experience thus far as an early-career theatre producer, it seems to be the only way we’ll stay relevant to our respective communities.

In addition, cultural institutions need to have the room to try out ideas that are related to our missions, but not bound by them. That is not a new idea, by any stretch, but I think if we’re able to consider programming—not funding (though we could use that, too!)—in terms of venture capitalism, we may see large equity returns by way of audience growth, community partnerships and social relevance.

We talk a lot about relevance to our communities in the arts sector, particularly in regional institutions, and I think that the future of arts institutions and artists would benefit greatly from pursuing high-potential, high-risk programmatic change—what I’ll dub “venture capital projects.”

The more venture capital projects in a community, the broader the reach of the arts institution, and the higher impact we can have because we belong to our audiences and community partners.

I’ve seen this happen at the theatre I work for (Passage Theatre in Trenton, NJ) due to the leadership of Executive Artistic Director June Ballinger. June’s modus operandi is to bring people of culturally diverse backgrounds together under one roof, which she does along with producing new plays.

In my tenure there, June has taken programmatic risks that many would not in a down economy. In 2010, June and our Associate Artistic Director/Resident Playwright David Lee White created an interview-based play about Trenton called, Trenton Lights.

We knew the piece couldn’t possibly have wide-spread appeal or life after Passage, but the local community buy-in was exceptional and audience attendance sky-rocketed because audiences felt ownership over the stories and Trenton.

From the interviews and audience response to Trenton Lights came a realization that the vast Latino community in Trenton was fairly isolated in their cultural experiences, attending programs that were hosted only by various Latino organizations and rarely venturing outside that sphere.

June subsequently decided to bring to Passage a bi-lingual documentary theatre piece on youth immigration and gang warfare called De Novo: Más allá de las Fronteras by Jeffrey Solomon and Houses on the Moon Theatre Company.

Political work can often be viewed as a programmatic death wish, but the response from the Latino community—and from Passage’s regular patrons—was overwhelming. Attendance was high, new patrons came through our doors, and the talkbacks were rich and emotional.

Local problem-solving entered the discourse and Latino community members made connections with politically active citizens of Trenton, which resulted in joint presentations before City Council. Houses on the Moon Theatre Company was invited to perform De Novo at both at a local high school and college within six months of their show at Passage, reaching even broader audiences.

Broadening reach can also come by harnessing the passions of employees: June learned of my passion for environmental conservation and handed me a project that bloomed into an unprecedented collaboration between Passage and seven environmental organizations across the state of New Jersey.

For three years, Passage presented an environmentally-themed work along with events from our partner organizations.

Artist workshops, school performances, panels, and community performances throughout our county and beyond helped to bring the message of conservation to life, to areas of our community that are often never exposed to environmental and social justice information of this type, and got community members in the door who never come to theatre.

Putting our resources toward programmatic risk-taking at the local level has helped Passage stay socially relevant to our community, created space for civil discourse and public/private/social sector partnerships, and we’ve extended our reach and public awareness of what we do.

Most arts institutions aren’t nationally recognized, but we don’t need to be—that would diffuse our impact. Within our communities we can be potent, viable, and beloved. Thankfully, community foundations and innovation labs such as EmcArts are making this possible.

Arts institutions won’t be able to serve all of our communities all of the time, but if the majority of arts institutions serve many parts of our community in ways that matter, together we will be tossing the small stones needed to change an entire landscape.

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