Keene, NH

Contact Name
Sharon Fantl
Project Dates
October 11-30, 2014 Prodcution Residency and Engagement Activities; Culminating performance on October 29, 2014
"City Council Meeting" was a culminating performance to a year-long residency with New York theatre artists Aaron Landsman, Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay. Presented by the Redfern Arts Center at Keene State College on October 29, 2014 in collaboration with the Keene Public Library, the piece itself explored empathy, civic participation, and the philosophy and practice of democracy in the form of a city council meeting. Among its strengths was its participatory nature, involving community members in its making and its presentation and empowering audiences to see and think actively about their relationships to civic engagement, other people and the political process.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
We had a few goals in mind for presenting City Council Meeting: Performed Participatory Democracy in Keene, NH. As a unique theatre piece we were interested in experimentation with form, brining a piece of work that would stretch the parameters of what many people know as theatre. The intent of CCM itself is to create a public arena where community members, city officials and leaders, secondary schools secondary school and college students can actively participate as co-creators and audience members, in a piece that is created fresh in each city where it is performed and is reflective of that place. As Keene is a community that is civically active, we wanted to marry this interest with a participatory art work that could engage numerous community members at various points of contact and through a variety of engagement activities planned during the three-week residency with the artists- artist talks, book discussions, a Student Debate Club panel, open rehearsals, a Long Table, public displays, a public debriefing following the performance. The goal of all these activities was also to link the arts and civic engagement and to explore the ideas of City Council Meeting through various platforms. Our goal was for these activities to open up space for dialogue about why people participate in their communities or not.

We also wanted to work with artists in a deeper way, over a longer period of time and through repeated site visits, and to harness the artists' interest in socially engaged practice to deepen our relationships with audience members, project partners, organizations and local officials.

We hoped our embarking on a project of this size and nature would stretch our own capacity as an arts organization to explore new ways of making art and engaging with communities. We wanted to be ambitious and we wanted this project to stand out in peoples' minds over time.

A goal of ours was to present a theatre piece that could form a bridge between the campus of Keene State College and the local community- this was both a challenge and an opportunity. Our goals was for this bridge to be conceptual and literal- for CCM to have relevance to a number of constituents and for activities to take place on campus and off. We programmed activities at the library downtown and on campus and presented the final performance at a Hall operated by the library.

The challenges to this project were that while some community members are actively involved in their community life, a large portion of students were unfamiliar with the concepts of civic participation, or were not used to equating things like community service (which KSC has a strong culture of) with being a civically involved community member.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Our goals did stay fairly consistent throughout the project and we were flexible about our projected outcomes of this project. Because we ultimately did not know how the performance itself would be received or whether the impact would be subtle, abstract or very resonant, our evolving goal with this project and working with these artists was simple to learn more throughout the process- to see what opportunities and relationships were sparked, to see what outcomes were short-lived or lasting. Halfway into the artist residency, much of the focus in our city turned to the aftermath of Pumpkinfest and to the upcoming elections. For some partners and audience members, there was a new resonance and potential for CCM to bring community and campus together for a shared experience in one space. Our goal did not so much change to think that the performance would mend relationships or fallout in our community, but there was a different tone and value to a post- Pumpkinfest, pre-Election Day CCM that we did not anticipate ahead of time
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
The strongest partnership of this project was the one formed between the Redfern and the Keene Public Library. While the Redfern had an existing relationship with the library, CCM became a strong link between our organizations, offering us the opportunity to strengthen our relationship and collaborate on joint programming. We collaborated with them on the performance of City Council Meeting and many of the engagement activities.

We partnered with local high school students from the Monadnock Waldorf School, KSC college students, a Keene City Planner, and KSC staff as "staffers" for the piece- this group was made up of six participants who acted as aides during the performance and helped run the meeting. They attended all the CCM rehearsals, became intimately involved with the making of CCM in our community and in a sense have become a coalition of intergenerational community members who have become our stakeholders through their participation in this unique project.

We partnered with KSC Communications faculty member Dr. Brian Kanouse. He facilitated the planning of the Student Debate Club event, offered context for City Council Meeting and assured student attendance at various events through his involvement in related programming like The Long Table. He incorporated these activities into his syllabi as required and/ or extra credit offerings and thus built a broader frame of reference for students and assignments that prompted reflection on their part. He helped us identify and share the inherent questions of the piece and became an important advocate for it, especially as we were making our way through the residency. He set a precedent for what a faculty partner can look like for interdisciplinary programming, and we are eager to work together again in the future.

CCM itself involved the participation of a few local council members, and while they were not our partners on the project they became important resources on Keene for our artists working in this community and also became strong allies and advocates for the piece with their colleagues and respective communities. Because of this project we were able to nurture a growing network of stakeholders, among them our local city officials.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
This project in its essence is about community engagement and development. There is an ongoing effort to improve existing relationships between the city and college. While many existing connections between the college and city are positive, there are tensions relating to the growth of the college, and the challenges that come with the transient student population, primarily their sense of responsibility for their surrounding community. City Council Meeting offered up a model of how art can raise pertinent questions about community, civil and social responsibility, and literally bring various communities/ adversaries together in one space. CCM embodied civic engagement in surprising ways, catalyzing people to consider or reconsider their perceptions of civic participation in the democratic process, and their sense of agency in issues that have meaning for them. CCM was an event that constructed space for social and self-analysis. It engaged a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, and there was a strong emphasis on student involvement with this piece. Our belief is that this project was a step towards a greater understanding of how the arts can reinforce, inform and impact civic activity.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Our residency with Aaron Landsman, Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay on City Council Meeting spanned well over a year of planning and site visits before our culminating production residency and presentation of CCM in Keene, NH. Our first discussions about this project began at the APAP conference in 2013, so we had an ample amount of time to weigh this project and consider its fit and potential impact for our community. In November 2013, we invited Aaron and Mallory to the Keene State College campus to participate in a campus symposium which explored the topic of The Commons. The artists gave an interactive presentation on CCM and spoke with a couple classes during this visit. It was their first introduction to Keene, and an opportunity for us to introduce the artists and project to our campus and city, and to lay the groundwork for their return visits.
In March 2014, the two artists returned to Keene for a few days of meetings and class visits, to get a sense of what issues were coming to the surface for them for the local ending and again to make more connections with campus and community members. During this visit we also brought the artists to Heberton Hall, a one-time Free Masons Hall attached to the Public Library, now owned and operated by the library. This was ultimately where we presented CCM in collaboration with the library. The artists loved the Hall, and in fact felt it was one of their favorite sites for CCM out of all the places where it had previously been presented. We held our first production meeting with our staff and the artists to share information about the project and clarify elements of the production itself. By the end of this visit we had a clearer sense of production needs, faculty partners, and next steps. This visit was followed by another from Mallory and Aaron in July and a brief one by Aaron in September.
With each visit the artists had a chance to more independently reach out to various contacts without relying as heavily on our role as facilitator. We held informal gatherings with the artists at each visit to continuously build interest and keep the project fresh in peoples' minds. By September the focus for the ending was confirmed. By then we had also assembled a local working group of staffers to participate in rehearsals and in CCM as aides to the general public. By the start of the production residency in October we had a solid game plan and schedule in place.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Mainly we were in constant conversation with the artists and our project partners over the months leading up to the residency. Because the performance took place offsite at Heberton Hall there was only so much preparation we could assume ahead of time in regards to the actual productions. With this kind of performance the ending also came together in the final week of the residency, requiring our tech team, the community staffers involved in the project and all partners to be flexible about the project, often right in the moment, and right up to the performance. There were a number of unknowns, in essence, for working off site and on a project of this kind.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Because City Council Meeting is different in each community we had not built up expectations based on its reception elsewhere. The project reflected the individual nature of our city. Still, it was challenging for Keene to wrap its head around CCM. CCM is an abstract piece by nature, and while our audience base appreciates theatre, many could not fully grasp what CCM was about until they actually attended the performance, and even then the effect was subtle for a good number of audience members. It was a challenge for our technical team to work offsite on a piece that continued to change until the last minute. Since CCM is inconclusive by nature we still lack a clear sense of its longstanding impact in our community.

The breadth of engagement activities, while comprehensive in its scope, required more capacity and marketing that we had initially anticipated, not having taken on a project of this scope before. Attendance was small at a number of the threaded activities, and perhaps the quantity of activity competed with the potential impact of each one. We learned that a project of this scale requires ongoing strategy, delegation, and clarity of purpose. We now have a better sense of what to ask of ourselves and our partners at the start of a project, how to better promote activities, and how to anticipate challenges that emerge in the process of collaboration.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Often, it was our relationships with the artists, specifically Aaron Landsman, that was instrumental to overcoming these obstacles. We could not have taken on this kind of project if it weren't for Aaron himself. We were immediately impressed by Aaron in person- he is smart, enthusiastic, clear, curious and engaging. We formed a good relationship from the start. Our open line of communication, and the fact we created opportunities for debriefing after the performance, was hugely integral to the success of this project.

City Council Meeting had never been performed in a small city like ours, and everyone was excited to see how it worked in Keene. CCM felt like a relevant theater piece for us to explore as a close collaboration with an artist, and regardless of the challenges that came up during the process this remains true.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Organizational buy-in and shared intention is important and can shape your project. Know what you are trying to accomplish; know your capacity and willingness to stretch it.
2. Open communication and flexibility are key to successful working relationships.
3. Small is okay. Being ambitious is important at times, but small is beautiful too.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
I think CCM was a defining moment for us, and a memorable event for all who participated. Having been performed in larger cities, it is exciting that Keene was the smallest (and last city) to host this performance. CCM has put Keene on the map in some new ways- allowing us to attract artists with unique approaches to making work or those similarly engaged in community-involved/ participatory practices. We have nurtured relationships with our project partners and leaders and are able to leverage these deeper relationships on future projects, for example with the library again. one of the things that came from this project was some renewed discussions between the local city council and our campus leadership to encourage participation from students in city council meetings. There are planning discussions underway to move that effort further along.

In other respects though we do not yet know entirely what kind of impact CCM ahs had on our community. A discussion/ panel on this project at CCX also opens up space for reflection and brainstorming about what more can be learned or mined from this project.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
As mentioned, we had a variety of goals with this project, the chief among them was simply to experiment with a new kind of performance for our community. We knew it would not be an obvious project for everyone, but we wanted to test the waters and see what kind of curiosity people had for participatory work, and what we would need to consider to be better prepared for future efforts. We learned that our audiences were open and curious about this piece, and in being active players in it. People were willing; they showed up; they participated. CCM gave us a stronger basis of knowledge and pool of collaborators to draw from the next time we embark on ambitious projects.

Ultimately, we were open and curious ourselves. We were flexible. We knew we didn't have all the answers and leaned on our artists to offer some guidance along the way. We learned about our capacity as an organization and the amount of work involved in taking on a project of this scale. We were interested in learning more about ourselves. We wanted to demonstrate the capacity of art to open up questions and space for reflection. We also expected to stumble a little during the planning and production process- so when we did we were not surprised; we rolled with it.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We collected audience surveys (provided at the performance and through Survey Monkey after the fact). We held a public debriefing with the artist the day after the performance. Students who attended for class submitted response papers to their professors which were shared with us, and we collected anecdotal reflections after the performance. We solicited feedback during and after the performance. We also hope to revisit the impact over time-n to keep communication open with Aaron Landsman and revisit the overarching impact of this project this spring or sometime in the next year.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
We knew that the nature of this performance, and its local qualities (in that the ending was essentially the artists' response to their host city) would reflect the individual nature of our city, but we could not anticipate what that would be. The ending of the piece is intentionally inconclusive, and we had not anticipated that by extension we would too feel a bit confounded as to what to make of the entire effort and the finality of the project. CCM opened up possibility for us- but unlike smaller-scaled projects, we just have not yet hit that potential. So, CCM in a way was just an opening, and there is more yet to do, though we do not entirely know the way.