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What Have You Done?
Our boilerplate description of our NTP-funded project is something like this: City Council Meeting is live performance about empathy, democracy and power, which is created locally in each city where it’s presented, with activists, politicians, artists and other citizens. The performance is the culmination of numerous residency visits and workshops. It has been presented in any number of locations – theaters of many stripes, a high school gymnatorium, a historic ballroom, a courtroom, a gallery, and most recently a Masonic Hall.
The show consists of audience members performing transcripts of local government meetings in the US, with the help of community members trained as "staffers," followed by a local ending made with people who might be on opposite sides of a particular issue. So far the endings have included skateboarders and council members, church choirs, a recently homeless woman, a tourism board president, an opera-singing SRO resident, and many others.
City Council Meeting starts with several short trips to a city, and a culminating residency with a presenter, and at least one community partner. It is a beast, physically, administratively, marketing-wise and financially to get on its feet. Ask any of the awesome organizations we’ve worked with we’ve had – DiverseWorks/Sixto Wagan, University of Houston Mitchell Center, Arizona State University Gammge, HERE Arts Center (where we had a three-year HARP residency), Zspace, Keene State College.
It’s not hyperbole to say that NEFA’s National Theater Project grant made this work possible. We were also fortunate to receive funding from MAP, Jerome, LMCC and Puffin for this work. The NTP award allowed us to retain agency over the work’s development and distribution, and broaden the scale of our collaborations with community members. This grant paid for the kinds of activities that most non-profits don’t have room for in their budgets: more site visits, more time working locally, more input and expression from participants.
What Does It Mean?
Some people didn’t like the show. Others did. Some nights were kind of train wrecks; some were sublime and powerful. The piece doesn’t necessarily come to a neat point, an easily digestible nugget you can take home or to the bar with you right away. My favorite feedback has been when people tell me they couldn’t stop talking about it, for hours, afterward.
Recently, in Keene, a philosophy and humanities professor we worked with on the project pushed me to articulate something to his students that he could not, in response to the ones who were bored, confused and uncomfortable with the piece. I think I was finally able to articulate what City Council Meeting is: it’s a community-engaged performance that brings people into a room, who might not get together, and asks them to perform together. It’s also a kind of Cagean, partly-adversarial experiment, created by three artists who wanted to try and see if we could pull it off.
To the professor, I said: in an age when people are constantly told that activism and purchasing are one in the same, asked to simplify themselves for the sake of tests, jobs, teams, and other activities, it’s a valuable thing to have an experience that is complicated and unresolved. It’s good to feel frustrated and confused by something that has been crafted for you to consider.
I think it’s important to support this kind of unruly work.
What Are We Doing?
Jim Findlay, Mallory Catlett and I are adaptable. We make community-engaged, devised work because the grant funds community-engaged devised work. Which is not to say we’re lying. It’s just that "devised" is the new "ensemble"; "community-engaged" is the new "culturally-diverse." We’ve been doing this for a while, like everyone else before and with us and from now on. Funders reinvent guidelines language every so often, both to keep up with the field, and to satisfy a seemingly insatiable need to do something new. I worry about artists or collectives that don’t keep up with the jargon, and who are perhaps worthy of this funding, but just don’t read themselves in whatever the new terms are. I worry about language that ceases to mean. Ultimately, isn’t all live performance engaging a community?
As is probably evident, we share a contrarian stance. Even toward each other, sometimes. And that tension is what has made City Council Meeting successful on the good nights, and gives it potential to morph fruitfully going forward.
I would like to advocate that there be space on funding rosters, like NTP, that include contrarian, unclassifiable works, which don’t fit neatly onto festivals, and don’t fit neatly into a category. I worry we try to narrow too quickly what we do, so that funders, presenters and marketing departments ‘get it’ and get it quickly, and by doing that I fear we are leaving out room for surprise, healthy confusion and real, uncomfortable ambiguity. I know that my work has only benefited from its own slow evolution, from my career that includes both performing with groups like Elevator Repair Service and making my own shows, as well as teaching. I was told early on to get specific and do one thing, and I’m so glad I have not.
What Is It Worth?
As an artist, and this is true of organizations I know too, I am often stumped by the impact question. How should I know what the impact of this work is? I get that people want to know what their money is doing, and I get that we are trying to figure out how to advocate well for the continued flow of support, but one of the great values of art, inasmuch as it has value at all, is that it allows us to grapple with the uncertainty of the world, the unfairness, the unbranded chaos. It puts all that into a framework. It says, “we don’t know either but we’re in this together, aren’t we?” How can you measure the impact of that?
But we have to say something. So we write about the number and diversity of the audience. We write about the economic impact of the arts in general. We write about literacy and educative value. All those things are true and good. But they usually miss something I think is more profound: in an age when we are all seen as either customers, or surveillance targets, art offers a chance to be together. We are enough for each other, without having to buy something.
When we talk about impact with City Council Meeting, we try to reflect deeply rather than broadly. Two working group members, one in Tempe and one in Houston, went on to run for public office. Marcelino Quinonez is on the school board in his district; Assata Richards came in three out of nine in a very heated Houston council race in which she was outspent by almost everyone. She’s running again this year.
I like those stories because, in a grant final report it’s hard to assess the value of, "a homeless man sat on the council table, next to a frat guy, next to a queer performance artist,” which happened in Tempe, or “a lot of the audience in Houston’s Third Ward felt like we’d made art out of the activism they engage in every day, and that was affirming." Or, “it seems like people often not in the mainstream political discourse take to this piece, like eighth graders and theory-heads.”
Because what is the value of those things? I don’t know how much those people spend. I don’t know whether it changed their behavior at all. I don’t know about test scores, and property values and tourism. In fact, what we did with our show is tiny. Real community engagement would have taken months more time.
Now we are looking ahead – we’ll likely have one or two more presentations of City Council Meeting. We’re hoping to make a book and a teaching module for educators out of the project. And, like all artists, we’re moving on to next projects, together and separately; they include plays, installations, bus rides, as well as other undetermined forms.
I think most of us want the same things: communion, affirmation, relief, hope. This is a messed up world, and art provides a shelter. Even a burning shelter. But with the scarcity of resources, the competition, the incredible needs we are saddled with, we get stingy with our souls; we tell ourselves that one thing is and one thing isn’t the real thing.
So: this is an artist’s way to thank you [to the National Theater Project] for getting behind something none of us knew would work. And to urge you to keep making a space for projects that may never answer their questions, may provoke discomfort and may opt toward deep, expensive, layered work with a few people at a time.
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