Waterbury, CT

Contact Name
Rebecca Brown
Project Dates
April 2013- present
Where many cities fall short, Waterbury’s well-defined neighborhood structure is one of its most enviable resources. By acknowledging and developing this resource within our community, residents participating in this project gain understanding and appreciation of their city. The art implicit to the project becomes a pertinent, enjoyable and fulfilling part of their lives. Shakesperience, in turn, remains relevant for successive generations of Waterbury citizens. The project takes advantage of the unique resources to provide our citizens with the tools, outlook, perspective, and confidence to engage with their neighbors in a positive way and to nurture a strong and creative community built on pride of place.
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:
Shakesperience is deeply concerned that today’s youth are often marginalized and demeaned, evidenced by entertainment options offered to them, via mass and social media. Many such options are neither wholesome nor beneficial to any but the commercial enterprises which sponsor them. We are also aware that today’s non-profit arts organizations are faced with the rapid “graying” of their audiences, making it imperative for the organizations’ survival to develop new artists, relevant and innovative products to broaden audience appeal. The Brass City contains the framework to address both these issues. Where many cities fall short, one of Waterbury’s resources is its well-defined neighborhood structure. By recognizing, developing, and directing this resource toward our youth, our young citizens participating in this project gain understanding and appreciation of their city, via the incorporation of art as a pertinent and fulfilling part of their lives. Shakesperience, in turn, can encourage urban vitality, strengthen and be strengthened by neighborhood distinctiveness and pride of place, and remain relevant for successive generations of Waterbury citizens. The project provides our young citizens with the tools, outlook, perspective, and confidence to engage with their neighbors in a positive way and to develop into active and productive citizens within a strong and creative community. The outcome is to create a program, with potential to become a regional and national model, that will be sustained permanently in Waterbury to inspire children, engender an increased feeling of pride within a community, open up the arts to families within the Waterbury community through cultural resources (their neighborhoods, history and future) and improve attitudes about safety and livability in the city.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Over time our tactics to reaching the goals have evolved but our core mission of using theatre to explore our city’s past and present to create a stronger future is ever present. The first year of the program we saw our students truly excel in the art department and chose to deepen those roles in the following years. The art department now integrates math and science skills into their work and they analyze the scripts to see how their work fits in to the larger picture. We also collaborated with Oil Drum Art, through this program the students painted recycled oil drums to be used as trash cans in the parks that we performed in as part of our theme last year; Waterbury, Keep it Clean! Students who are returning to the program take on leadership roles within the ensemble as well which leads to expanded opportunities to grow and be involved both formally and informally. A returning student used his break time to run lines with a student who was struggling with a part the returning student had last year. The students who helped create the original choreography taught it to new students and collaborated on changes.
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):
Shakesperience Productions, Inc.’s artistic director and founder, Emily Mattina first envisioned this project. The Police Activities League has been incredibly important partner and program site. Students have also been recruited through Waterbury Public School Family Resource Centers. We are planning on expanding the project to have an additional two sites this coming spring; the Mattatuck Museum and the Palace Theatre. Through its development, we have collaborated with the Waterbury Neighborhood Council as well individual neighborhood associations and Waterbury’s historian, the Mattatuck Museum, and the Silas Bronson Library. Oil Drum Art came on as a partner last year and through their collaboration the art department expanded and flourished, as mentioned above. The performances are also invigorating to the neighborhoods themselves and many take place during festivals in the community such as Shakespeare in Library Park, the Tulip Festival, the Gathering, and Connecticut Trail Day at Fulton Park. This coming year we are planning to expand performances sites to include the Mattatuck Museum and BRASS Senior Centers in Waterbury. Durham Busing has been a great partner in helping ensure that students get to and from performances. Advanced Lighting and Sounds Solutions works with us to be sure that the performers are heard at the larger outdoor performances. An interactive workshop about the neighborhoods is also being performed at the Mattatuck Museum for Waterbury Public School students.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
This program utilizes the strong framework of the neighborhoods to spread information and instill pride of place in residents of Waterbury of all ages. Shakesperience also works with Bridge to Success which is a cradle to career collection of non-profit agencies striving to better our community through the development of the 40 developmental assets in our young people. Founded on the principal that we are strongest when working together, Shakesperience and Bridge to Success share a common mission. Because of the hard work of all the agencies in the community, Waterbury has been named one of the 100 Best Communities for Young People for three consecutive years by the American Promise Alliance.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
Our work on this project is deeply rooted in the Shakesperience Approach which was developed by Emily Mattina. Whether teaching children, or rehearsing to perform for our diverse audience, the Shakesperience Approach focuses on creating thought provoking, socially aware, and artistically excellent productions celebrating and using language to create action while developing a positive ensemble. Individual performers develop a defined sense of self through the creation of and interaction with a strong ensemble. Both actor and audience utilize their unique relationship to experience a heightened sense of reflection on the performance. Shakesperience Productions' professional artists create curriculum-based programming rooted in classical literature while celebrating, examining, and experiencing humanity and human experience. Continuously, we strive to work alongside educators to answer the social and academic needs of today's student.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
This program has been successfully completed twice already and is gearing up for a third consecutive year. A great deal of research, planning, and collaboration went into the creation of the scripts, song, and curriculum that aligns with the Common Core Content Standards. We then recruited students from Waterbury schools while simultaneously lining up performance spaces which ranged from school cafetoriums to outdoor festivals. Then the program sessions were underway, and off we went hurdling toward performance as students gained a deeper appreciation for the city they inhabit. Following the program, there was reflection and feedback which we then used to further develop the program as we began the process again.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Over time, more partners have been recruited by Emily Mattina which has led to an increased amount of collaboration and need for communication. Shakesperience believes very strongly in positivity, collaboration, and the “yes, and…” attitude. “Yes, and…” is a concept borrowed from improvisation where participants say “yes” to your partner’s idea and add something constructive to the ideas being discussed. Over time and by working with many partners, this program has grown and flourished in a myriad of ways.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The two major obstacles this program has faced are funding and student attendance. As a small non-profit collaborating with other non-profits, our dreams for the program have had to be adjusted according to fundraising and grantwriting successes or shortfalls. We are very grateful for all the help and support we have received by simultaneously envision limitless additions to an already phenomenal program. Student attendance has also been a challenge because of a lack of family transportation to rehearsal and performance sites. Students have often told us how much they love coming to the program but can only come half the days because their parents have work. We’ve arranged busing to performance sites, but cannot arrange round-trip transportation from student schools to student homes within the current budget.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Emily Mattina has tirelessly applied for further grants to help make the program even more expansive. Because of her work, the program grew in the second year to include a behavior specialist and art teacher who was instrumental to the growth of the art department. Through collaboration with PAL and Durham busing we were able to have buses that brought students to performances which increased attendance dramatically.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Collaboration is key. By reaching across the street and involving other organizations and individuals it strengthens the program and the impact. Evolution needs to be encouraged, and to be sure, sought. Your program will change and grow. You will see the framework you created be filled out with gorgeous ideas and innovations from your collaborations. Finally, positivity cannot be emphasized enough. This work is taxing and difficult and it is easy assign abandonment blame, to a school, students, teachers, grant funders, board, actors, staff, the world. Instead, Shakesperience is determined to create a different philosophy. The assigning of blame is tempting. It takes strong people to cease blaming others for why a program won’t run well, and look inside themselves to avoid deflecting and proactively prevent and overcome challenges and achieve program success.
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?
In a word, this project, with its collaborations, visibility, and participant impact is the definition of creative placemaking. Waterbury citizens have a deeper understanding of how history has shaped their present circumstances. The pride in their city has grown as well as deeper understanding of our role in fixing it. Former participants in the program share their knowledge about the history of Waterbury. The community brainstorms about what we can do to grow and then our program takes an idea and makes it happen. Too often do people complain without doing anything to fix the problem. We strive to promote growth through our own work and inspiring others to make a change. We use theatre as a mirror, to paraphrase Shakespeare, and by examining the good and bad in society, we can hope to make a positive change for the future. As we sing in the song we wrote about Waterbury,
“Parts makin’ a whole
Past and present make a future
We’re all in this together
So let’s sing together
About our neighborhoods”
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The success of this program cannot be emphasized strongly enough. The majority of our participants are latch-key kids who go home to empty houses when not at our program. Through our work, they learn about the history of their home and develop emotionally and socially while gaining an understanding and appreciation for the arts and an enhanced ability to work together with others toward a common and positive goal. This program allows us to celebrate what Waterbury has done well and question how to best grow in the future. The community is strongly involved in our work and is very excited to see this program grow as it continues to flourish.
How did you measure this success or progress?
Student growth was assessed in prior years by pre- and post- program assessments. This coming year, it will also be assessed by a survey about the developmental assets through our collaboration with Bridge to Success. In the past, we have seen significant growth in student informally as well as through the assessments. There has also been significant support from the community as witnessed by our growth in partners and the audience sizes at events. We also have seen a good return rate on students coming to the program as well as trying other programs offered at Shakesperience such as our Saturday Acting Intensives.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
When Emily Mattina created this program we expected to see gains in audience size, appreciation for the arts, knowledge of local history, and civic engagement. What has been surprising is seeing how the community has truly embraced this program. After a performance an audience member who had been called up to act in a scene, approached the staff and told them about how his grandfather had been a factory owner and would be rolling in his grave to have seen his son play a strike leader, but it gave him a new perspective. Through all our work, Shakesperience strives to create empathy or the ability to see the world from another perspective and allophilia which is a respect for all groups, particularly those different from your own. This program has become a shining example of instilling empathy and allophilia among its many other gains.