“Why are you moving to the middle? Isn’t that flyover country?”
This was a frequent refrain from friends when my husband and I made the decision to move from Washington, D.C., to Milwaukee. To be honest, I didn’t know that much about Wisconsin, other than a few childhood memories of vacationing in the Wisconsin Dells. I knew probably as much as most everyone else: This is the land of good beer, great cheese, the Packers, and a big lake. Only later did I discover it has an exceptional artistic community as well.
Though I grew up in Missouri, I had spent most of my professional career till recently in mega-population centers on the coasts, and I can say that the Midwest isn’t a place that comes to mind frequently to those who don’t live there. I came to understand that for many of the country’s decision makers, the heartland is often an afterthought.
That would all change on the night of Nov. 8, 2016, as the election results took a surprising turn and the nation found itself intensely focused on flyover country. The “blue wall” stronghold states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania seemed to be in question for the first time since the 1980s, and would now be the deciding factor in who would become the leader of the free world.
We all know what happened. But regardless of the outcome, one fact was glaringly obvious: We are a nation split almost evenly down the middle if you look at the popular vote, a divide illustrated perfectly within Wisconsin, with less than a 1-percent difference between Trump and Clinton.
Just a year prior, our theatre had changed its mission statement for the first time in 60 years, pledging ourselves to creating positive change through theatrical experiences that provoke, inspire, and entertain. We had committed to certain core values: a commitment to our art and the belief that it heals divides and builds understanding, the creation of a theatre that is welcoming and inspirational to all, and the celebration of the rich diversity of our community. This commitment was about to be tested as we found ourselves on the frontlines of a battleground state with audiences that were deeply at odds, emotionally raw, and seriously concerned about the future of our country.
At the same time we changed our mission statement, we also laid the foundation of a platform that would be our primary response mechanism. We had launched a new community engagement initiative called Mpact, which was conceived to demonstrate how a regional theatre could use its artistic assets to create bridges between disparate communities, unite us in the examination of varying worldviews, and develop creative ways to address community need and maximize collective opportunity. Guided by a council of 20 community leaders representing government, foundations, social services, and various communities, key programs were designed under three programmatic pillars: Strengthening & Celebrating Milwaukee; Literacy & Social-Emotional Learning; and Diversity & Inclusion.
One of our new flagship programs, Community Conversations, had just finished a beta test in conjunction with the world premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s American Song, told from the perspective of a father whose son was the perpetrator of a mass school shooting. Few issues are as divisive in American politics as gun control, and unlike the advice typically given to us by our parents to avoid politics to keep the conversation polite, we decided to move ourselves squarely into the center of debate via a new play that clearly embraced our new mission.
Our goal was relatively simple. As the 2016 election would later demonstrate, we feared that our ability to have civil conversations as a community had atrophied as we entrenched ourselves in camps that had become echo chambers. To prove this theory, all one would need to do is look to social media, in which newsfeeds can be customized to reinforce entrenched beliefs and people that look, feel, or speak in opposition can be easily “unfriended” with the click of a mouse. We had become a victim of purposefully curated homogeneity. So we asked ourselves if our theatre could be an antidote. Could we offer a space that is welcoming while encouraging diverse opinions, dissent, and civil debate? If theatre was meant to be an exercise of empathy and understanding, could our space be a champion of active listening and courageous exchange?
I had previously pondered these questions while working at theatres on both coasts prior to coming to Milwaukee, but it was somewhat of an academic exercise then, as those communities had large majorities of like-minded people, leading one to a distinct feeling of preaching to the choir. If theatre has the power to find common ground in a divided community, the proof in the pudding would have to be tested elsewhere. And where better than in a battleground state?
To be sure, the aforementioned questions caused some uncertainty and angst among staff, board, and volunteers, but after six decades of leadership in our community, we hoped that we had earned enough street cred to make an attempt. Joanna’s American Song was structured as a single 80-minute piece, which we marketed to our audiences as Act I. It was paired with Act II, an engagement program in which a community leader gave a five-minute response after every performance, followed by facilitated small group discussions. Responders were pulled from a diverse population of thought leaders, including the mayor, superintendent of schools, state Supreme Court justices, and conservative talk radio hosts. Their job was to take a play about complex issues and give our audiences a frame through which to discuss it.
Each response was videotaped, placed on our website and social media, and distributed by local media companies, propelling the discussion outside our walls as well. The response was overwhelmingly positive from the thousands of patrons who participated.
In its infancy, Mpact had successfully learned to crawl, but the 2016 election would demonstrate that we quickly needed to learn to sprint. We rapidly scaled up our engagement staff, significantly expanded our facilitated dialogue series, and launched new initiatives such as #TalkIdentity and InterCultural Dinners. More than 20,000 people have participated in these programs from their inception, representing the broad spectrum of Wisconsinites.
Along the way, we learned some important lessons. First, we had to reorient our idea of success. All too often we look to external reinforcements as primary indicators of success. While positive press and awards may be nice, orienting an organization’s perception of success around them can be self-serving rather than mission-serving. We needed to develop assessment tools to measure mission achievement and impact, then use those as our true north.
Second, we had to embrace that high-quality productions were no longer enough in themselves to declare success. While all programs begin with the art we create, education and engagement are just as central to our mission now; they are no longer just sprinkles on the cupcake—they are the cupcake itself.
Third, we had to learn to listen better to ascertain how best to help. Sometimes arts organizations can make inaccurate and costly assumptions, leading to unnecessary programs that do not effectively address need. Whether driven by funders, artists, or educators, all with the best of intentions, these programs can become prescriptive and woefully inadequate for those on the receiving end. We learned to begin with a spirit of inquiry and a simple question: How can the assets of our theatre be leveraged in service of others, as they are told to us, not as we perceive they are?
Finally, we had to embrace that systemic change cannot be achieved through our actions alone. To be the change we wish to see, we must help strengthen others as a primary means of creating a better tomorrow.
The day after the election, our artistic director, Mark Clements, and I sent the following message to the Milwaukee Rep community. Almost a year later, it remains as timely as ever:
We have all woken to the news that we have a new President-Elect. Regardless of who you supported, it’s clear we are a divided nation. And yet we live and work side by side. Given the size and diversity of our community, I’m sure that within us, there are divides as well. As a company, we are committed to core values of citizenship and inclusion. This commitment is unwavering. Each day we bring our whole selves to work. Today is not unlike any other in that regard. However, please recognize that while some may be pleased with yesterday’s election results, others may be upset. Keep our core values in mind. Be patient and kind with each other, and keep your minds and hearts open. Our work today will continue as it usually does, maybe with a little more urgency. The nation needs its artists, perhaps now more than ever, to help us empathize with each other and build a shared vision for our country. Know that whatever you’re feeling today, our work matters. You matter. And we remain hopeful that we can build a better tomorrow together.