This past Saturday evening, I arrived in Portland, OR, shortly after 8PM.  Having just spent 11 hours driving up from San Francisco, my rideshare deposited me at the Hipbone Studio, bags and all, so I could attend the Urban Tellers showcase put on by Portland Story Theater.  Despite the fact that I had been traveling since 8:30AM and was pretty tired, I was whisked into the darkness of the theater and spent the next two hours listening intently to the true stories unfolding before me.

Portland Story Theater is like a local version of The Moth (whose podcast you should subscribe to if you don’t already).  Their focus is on true stories, both personal narrative as well as historical events.  Urban Tellers is a workshop series in which “ordinary people” learn to tell their own personal narratives, and the showcase is where they get to present the results of their work.  The founders of PST, Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, share my belief that through sharing our stories and connecting on that raw, human, level, we can break down barriers and build a better community.  They strive to do this in every work they present.

Lynne and Lawrence have also been my generous hosts in Portland, having spontaneously offered me a place to stay after I emailed them about PST last week.  The last few days have been full of wonderful conversation, lots of reflection, and excitement about my next steps.  I’m learning a lot about direct, simple storytelling, and have begun to think about my own stories.  Last night I got to sit in on the final post-performance reflection for the group of Urban Tellers that just performed, and tonight I will be sitting in on the weekly workshop of the group that will be performing in a few weeks.  I’ve connected with some wonderful people, and am looking forward to the rest of my week in Portland!

Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, Oregon Coast

My store! They even spelled my name right!


Starstruck in LA…

It’s not what you think.

I’m not the kind of person who goes chasing after movie stars.  Heck – I’m in Los Angeles, and I haven’t even gone out of my way at ALL to spot famous people (well, ok, I was kind of hoping I might see someone when I went to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, but I would have gone there anyway!).  So this may sound a bit silly to the un-initiated, but today – while visiting the Cornerstone Theater Company – I think I experienced quite possibly the closest thing I get to starstruck.

You have to understand a few things in order to get an inkling of what I was feeling when I walked up to this graffiti-tagged office door in the middle of the Arts District.

First of all, Cornerstone is one of the longest-running and most well-known community-based theater companies in the country.  When I started investigating this kind of work early in college, they were one of the first names I came across and I quickly became fascinated with their work.  I spent hours poring over the pages of their website, reading about their history and current projects. The names quickly became familiar to me, and I dreamt about working with them some day.  When I did my senior project, a research investigation of the history and practices of community-based theater, it was really an excuse to learn more about this company and others like it.

Cornerstone is a company that really pulls at my heart-strings – in many ways it’s like the City Year of theater.  It was started, like City Year, by a group of young idealists with an interest in service. They wanted to bring theater to communities that didn’t have access to the arts. It was an experiment to see if it would work. They spent their first five years traveling around to rural communities, initially creating productions of well-known plays.  Soon, however, they ran into a community that wasn’t interested in Hamlet, or Our Town: “What’s in it for us?” the community members asked. “What does this have to do with US? We can’t relate to this.”  So these young idealists stopped, and listened. They heard the voice of the community, listened to their stories… and decided to re-write A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using the stories of that town.  The community was empowered, and it was a huge success.

Posters for a few of Cornerstone’s past productions

After a while they decided it was time to put down roots, and the company relocated to Los Angeles to build a home there. They have continued to create new works with and about communities all over the city and across the state.  For many years now, they have worked in cycles, focusing on a particular theme and exploring that theme with the various communities they work with.  They are in the process of starting their next cycle, in which they will focus on hunger and food issues.  They will be partnering with organizations across the city such as Homeboy Industries and food banks.  At the end of each cycle, they do a “bridge show,” bringing together all the communities they have worked with to create a culminating piece.  In this way, they allow communities to explore their own stories, as well as providing a space for different communities to interact and learn from one another.

The Cornerstone Theater Company has been building community and producing innovative theater for 25 years.  Needless to say, they have sort of grown to rock star status in my eyes.

Cornerstone, you rock my world.

A few lessons from New Orleans

Over the last week I have had the opportunity to visit, volunteer, and interact with four different community arts organizations: YA/YA, Young Audiences of Louisiana, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, and the Crossroads Project for Art, Learning and Community.  These are only a fraction of the projects that I have encountered in New Orleans! Over the next week I will be publishing spotlights on each of the organizations that I have visited, but for now please visit my Directory of Organizations page to learn more about any of the organizations that I mention.

Through my observations and the conversations with practitioners and participants at these organizations, I have begun to think about a couple key points in practicing community-based arts.  Some of them are things that seem fairly obvious (and in fact are things I have thought about before) while others surprised me – but it is helpful to put them down in one place and consider them together. Here is a summary of some of the things I have been learning:

  1. You ALWAYS need to have a community voice in every step of the process, whether the community you are working with is a neighborhood, a town, or a group of youth. This enables that community to have a sense of ownership over the project, making them more invested and willing to do what is necessary to see the project through.
  2. Every organization struggles with getting people to realize the impact of the arts, of culture – and thus of finding community support for their work.  Just as art (and music, and theatre) is always the first subject to get cut from school budgets, so is it in the community.  People just have a hard time wrapping their head around the idea that the arts can effect things like safety, the economy, and general productivity (among many other things!) in a community.
  3. Along the same struggle as the above thought is the idea that many people have in which they relegate the creation of art to a select few whom they call “artists.” In fact, everyone has the capacity to create – the Bible says that God created man in His image, did it not? If God is the ultimate Creator, then should it not follow that all mankind has the capacity to create? Art is derived from the intersection of creativity and culture. Creativity is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to prevent it from atrophying, but with regular exercise it can be wielded into a strong and powerful tool!
  4. As an Americorps member working at City Year for two years, I learned the importance of visibility in the community: it attracts funding, and makes you an easily recognizable force that people know they can trust. In the last few days however, I have added to that understanding. Not only does being a visible presence in the community help you with funding and recognition – it also helps you to keep a finger on the pulse of the community.  This enables your work to be constantly informed by and generated from the issues that are truly important to the community you are working with.  Without this important connection, any work that is done will simply lose relevance.

This is a constant learning process!  I have a million things running through my head right now, and will make a serious effort to keep updating the blog over the next week before it all slips away.  Highlights of what’s to come: impressions of New Orleans as a city, spotlights on individual organizations, 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders and participating in Sistahs Making a Change – a health-focused program offered by the Ashe Cultural Arts Center!  Stay tuned!