Blog

12.22.15

Double Edge Theatre collaborates with students in Springfield, MA

Matthew Glassman
Actor, Writer, Co-Artistic Director


This presentation of Double Edge Theatre's Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) was funded in part by the National Theater Project (NTP) Presentation Grant.

Conventional community engagement happens under the auspices of a presenter--the local anchor or fixture in its community, with vested interest to know its community as well as to be known by its community, not to mention the infrastructure and funding muscle to cover artists’ expenses, marketing, fundraising, and community outreach.

After several years of touring The Grand Parade (of the 20th Century) to a diverse and eclectic array of US and international cities, we became especially interested in breaking the norm of how we think about presenting and engaging around our work. The content of The Grand Parade is rooted in an inquiry into the 20th Century, an attempt to dream about a turbulent, accelerated epoch whose impact we are now left to grapple with. It’s kaleidoscopic and mosaic—the dialogue with the audience and the community fills gaps in the mosaic with their personal mythology.

Because of the universality of questions inside this work, because of its timeliness, because we as artists experience something vital in sharing this work with young audiences and diverse populations, because of something folk and popular in its storytelling, and even after successful outings with a diverse array of incredible presenters, it became important for us to reach a non-traditional audience, to go not only where there are traditional presenter frameworks.

Conscious or not, somehow, this could be an impetus for Double Edge’s recent tour to Springfield, MA. Springfield is located about 45 minutes south of our rural hometown of Ashfield. Its child poverty is one of the highest in the U.S. and its public education one of the lowest ranked in the Commonwealth. It’s been a city working ever so slowly through economic, social, and cultural transition.

We imagined touring The Grand Parade to Springfield and replacing this traditional institutional presenting partner with the Springfield school district. This was an ambitious yet practical plan to introduce ourselves to this community through its young people and from there, the community at large. We saw this as an opportunity to get to know this community as well and learn about it. Some of the long-term aspects of this project are co-creating work with community artists and young people, bringing urban youth population to our rural center in the future, and vice-versa, and finding out where the long-term collaboration with this community could go.

Although the end result in programmatic terms doesn’t seem grand on paper, I would say that it was a deeply meaningful step not only in this multi-year initiative between Double Edge and Springfield but also as a model at least for ourselves where rigorous artistry and real interaction with a community collide head on.  

Double Edge presented four performances of The Grand Parade over two days. The work is a flying, visual, wordless (the actors speak thru song, flying, action, and dance although the media throughout the century and show is a rich text), kinetic, hour-long dream thru iconic and personal moments of the 20th century. Two matinees were performed for about a thousand Springfield middle and high school students at no cost to the school district. Evening performances were offered to a general public with a multi-tiered outreach strategy that brought together rural and urban spectators, extending free and subsidized tickets to families of students and constituents from other community-based organizations.

What made this sort of humble two days of performances be so impactful? First, to make these performances happen, it required a process of creating a local support network within the community and across sectors. It required starting with a vision first and identifying a space second. It required developing an approach to encountering the students in the schools outside of the performance so that we were not just offering a quick, impersonal taste, but something deeper and more integrated. The Double Edge company divided and conquered. One part scouted, negotiated and mounted the production on-site, another part of the company was doing grass-roots outreach across the community, while another group of artists developed an in-class curriculum that allowed for ensemble actors to work closely- to talk and to listen- to all of the one thousand students who would later be attending the performance.

During our time in the schools, we led an interactive presentation that both introduced our work and our aesthetics while facilitating a deeper discussion around the intersections between mythology, dreams and iconography. We created a timeline between the years 1900 and 2070 and we began delving into our collective consciousness about our past. On this timeline between 1900 and 2070, students identified when they were born, usually around 1999/2000, when parents and grandparents were born, and when elders in the community were born usually going back to 1915 or so. We delved into associative iconography of the 20th century, bridging the personal to the historic and cultural. Students had to imagine themselves in the year 2070---and identify the iconic events of their times. They shifted into discussing their own aspirations for large scale or societal shifts between now and 2070. Somehow even their sense of mortality and agency found its ways into the work. By the end of the hour, together we were contemplating a near 200-year period of time, and understanding ourselves as both actors, characters, and authors of the past, present and future.

It is important to note that in many cases, the majority of the students had never attended a live performance before, so the opportunity to meet the performers in advance created great anticipation. In the words of one principal, “the fact that the performers were real people that took the opportunity to get to know the students heightened the anticipation for all.” But that the arc of this work leading to the performance built our own anticipation as well.

In the end, not only were we able to offer this work, this programming and these truly intimate - on both a small and large scale - conversations but also, we were able to subsidize tickets for family members of the schools’ students. We were also able to add a training opportunity for a large group of students to train and work on the set with our bungees and trapeze and span sets and 20th century artifacts. The evening shows ended up having full houses made up of spectators that were local to the urban areas of Springfield and Holyoke and rural audiences combined with student family members and constituents of other local community organizations.

In this light, it can be seen that the presenting needs of this project played out in the accomplishments of this project. That is to say, in order to accomplish this, we needed to build an eclectic and grass-roots base of support, in terms of funding, in terms of building an audience, in terms of engaging with young people, in terms of building community. This yielded public performances reflecting a diverse, grass-roots audience. Having a school district as a presenter brought both incredible resources (access to students, access to community partners, shared mission and vision) as well as a great need to galvanize partnerships.

These presentations of The Grand Parade were also successful in meeting our goal to introduce ourselves to the Springfield community and vice-versa. We are currently in the second phase of our Springfield initiative, where a free, public presentation of an outdoor, site-specific spectacle will be staged in the city’s downtown using a chorus of 50 high school students and local artists.


Images: Maria Baranova