Portland!

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!

Some overdue highlights from LA

Despite the fact that I have been in the Bay area for a week now, I just loaded my most recent photos onto the computer and realized how much I never wrote about LA!  So here are some highlights from my time there, for your viewing pleasure.

Also, please take a look at the (recently updated) Directory of Organizations page to learn more about all the wonderful organizations I’ve been coming across, as well as my new Photos page, where you can see the complete collection of photos from each city I’ve visited so far.  Enjoy!

Casa 0101 - a theatre company based in Boyle Heights, started by Josefina Lopez (of Real Women Have Curves)

The wonderful Boyle Heights farmer's market, complete with a young, hip group performing traditional Mexican music. That neighborhood is really undergoing a cultural revival!

ArtShare Los Angeles - another great youth-focused arts org. They offer classes in theatre, dance, and visual arts, focused on developing youth as professional artists.

Free movie by the Echo Park Film Cooperative's Film-Mobile! We saw a great movie (Hito Hata?) Filmed partially on that very spot 30 years ago.

Rizza, my new friend from couchsurfing, and I at the free movie in Little Tokyo (and enjoying our free Pocky snacks!)

Protection, or barrier?

This past Saturday, I visited a youth program run by Teatro ChUSMA in Los Angeles.  It was a group of young teenagers who are all connected to arthritis or cancer in some way – whether they are fighting the disease themselves or a relative of theirs is.  They have spent the past 10 Saturdays together, playing theatre games and practicing creativity, learning how to make their voices heard and how to make the best use of their bodies for expression.

And yet, there were still so many of them who could not perform in an improv game without giggling – if they got up the courage to join in, in the first place.  It reminded me of how self-conscious we all are at that stage of life, how fragile our egos, and how concerned we are with every step we take, for fear that someone will see us trip. We, in our efforts to appear “cool,” walk through life with our fists up, prepared to battle off any potential offenders, or at the very least to provide a shield to protect ourselves.

In doing so, how many opportunities for discovery and wonder do we prevent ourselves from seeing?  Spoken word poet Sarah Kay addresses this topic beautifully (among many others) in this TED talk I came across yesterday, which I highly recommend that you watch.  It is so important that we help our young people take their guards down, at least a little, both so they can see the beautiful things in this world but also so that they can develop healthy modes of expression. Many of us eventually grow out of this guarded, fists-up way of navigating the world, but I have met too many – particularly young, urban men – who never learn other ways of seeing things and remain unable to express themselves truly.

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.

Girl Power!

Catfish in Balmorhea Springs Pool, my campsite in the deserts of west Texas

Dear oh deary me! It’s been almost a whole week since I last posted!  Apologies for letting time get away from me – I spent the first 2.5 days this week traveling across the desert from Austin to LA and camping along the way – needless to say I did not have internet access, let alone could I charge my computer!  Upon arriving in LA, I checked into a hostel, which, while full of lovely international peeps, was a mite bit crowded and had REEEEEEALLY slow internet.  Plus I think I was catching up on sleep lost while on the road, and adjusting to the two hour time difference.  At long last, I have found a lovely co-op which has taken me in, and am starting to get settled into life in LA.

Ok, enough with the excuses.  Time to get you all caught up!  Today I’d like to spotlight one of the very coolest organizations that I checked out while I was in Austin: Grrl Action!

Program format: Arts mentorship program.
Art form(s):
Primarily theatre, but incorporates many different art forms.
Location:
Austin, TX
Community served:
Girls roughly between the ages of 13-18.
Mission:
To help teenage girls find voice and vision through the power of performance.

Grrl Action is an awesome program that focuses on developing artistic/theatre skills in teenage girls, and in doing so helping them to find their voice.  They are a subsidiary program of the Rude Mechs professional theatre company.  Two cool things about their program: 1. It’s a very safe space for girls to come together and explore things that are important to them, and 2. They have a great mix of girls – because of their connection with Rude Mechs, they get daughters of patrons of the theatre, but they also offer full scholarships and work with public housing, so they get girls from lower income backgrounds as well.  The girls learn a lot from each other and really seem to open up and blossom in the space.

A key philosophy shared with me by co-director Madge Darlington was actress Deb Margolin’s idea that, “Your everyday lives are worthy of performance. Everyone has a story to tell.”  I really connect with what this organization is doing because it resonates so much with what theatre did for me, but it takes it to the next level.  Theatre gave me a voice, it was an outlet for me to experience the world and learn to feel comfortable in my own skin.  Yet this idea that “your everyday lives are worthy of performance” goes a step further: it encourages girls to find the value in their own lives, to examine what they have experienced, learn from it, and create something beautiful to share with the world.

Cool news: a sister branch of Grrl Action is in the works for Boston!

Spotlight: Ashe Cultural Arts Center

A performance at Ashe

Program format: Arts-focused community center offering a variety of programming to serve people of all ages, cultivating and honoring community through the arts and culture. In addition to workshops, they also serve as a presenting space.

Art form(s): All forms, but primarily performance arts such as theatre and dance.

Location: New Orleans

Community served: New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood.

Mission: During this Post Hurricane Katrina recovery phase, to serve as:

  • A community-based center for ReBuild New Orleans activities
  • A strong advocate for culture, community and justice principles in the ReBuild New Orleans effort
  • A leader in the strategy to re-populate the Central City neighborhood with it’s former residents, and other like-minded neighbors who will work with us to establish a community that respects the values of diversity, justice, cultural fabric, strong families, strong educational resources, youth development, and a robust economy available to all
  • A producer and presenter of multi-disciplinary cultural art works throughout the New Orleans Diaspora (Katrina evacuee locations) that inform and guide the consciousness of community, public policymakers, and business leaders about ReBuild New Orleans issues; and
  • Support and assistance for New Orleans artists and culture bearers in their efforts to resume their lives and careers

The Ashe Cultural Arts Center is truly a gathering place for the community they serve.  In the week that I was in New Orleans I attended an end-of-year performance by the Young Audiences youth, a bi-weekly health/dance workshop for women, and a celebration of the Freedom Riders coming to New Orleans, all in Ashe’s space.  In addition to the things I was able to attend, I missed the Kuumba Institute, Ashe’s youth arts education program that runs on Saturdays.

Not only does Ashe provide a wide diversity of programs for the community to participate in, they also have their own nationally recognized theatre troupe, which most recently created a production in partnership with Eve Ensler, of the Vagina Monologues. They maintain a very strong presence in the Central City community – they are at the table of virtually any meeting that takes place regarding their community. This enables them to both remain aware of the current issues of concern (and incorporate this into their performances and programs) but also to remain a trusted face, and to gather support for whatever they decide to work on.

Executive Director Carol Bebelle puts a strong emphasis on the role of culture in their work.  She talks about culture as the origin of art, of creativity, and the idea that every social space has a culture.  It is important to first recognize the culture of the community in which you work, and figure out how to best teach what you need to teach within that cultural environment. She brings up the difficulty of getting past the idea many people have that “artists” are these special creatures and only they can practice art.  Everyone has a creative path, and the importance of this work is in helping people to find that path.