If you’ve been around theatre practitioners for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the word “engagement.” It conjures different meanings in different areas. What does this buzzword mean in the theatre?
“It’s just like making friends,” said Cortney McEniry, the director of community engagement at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. “You go out into the community, you meet people, you find out what they care about and are passionate about, and you figure out with the connection is with what the Rep cares about and we’re passionate about—it develops from there.”
This kind of relationship-building, and the best practices around it, were the focus of the inaugural Intersections Summit, which ran March 23-25 at Milwaukee Rep, where more than 130 theatre leaders and administrators met to discuss and share the stories of their community engagement programs. The weekend focused on parsing the how, the why, and even the what of engaging with communities.
“What do we mean by ‘community’? Who is being engaged?” asked keynote speaker Carmen Morgan, founder and director of artEquity. Attendees responded with answers ranging from partnership to collective impact, from reciprocity to empathy-building and education.
Morgan posited another query for the group: “I’m wondering if it is not community engagement that we need—I’m wondering if it is more like community justice?” she inquired.
Morgan’s speech touched on some of the more challenging implications of community engagement work, setting forth equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice firmly as the framework for the weekend’s conversations about sharing power, access, and resources. As Morgan put it, “I’m asking you to make sure that the work you are doing around community engagement is not transactional—that you’re not inviting people into your spaces trying to connect them to the things that you are doing, but instead centering them and their lives, their needs, and their issues at the core.”
The summit represented the culmination of a process the Rep began four years ago, when they changed the wording of their mission—it would be committed to creating experiences that “entertain, provoke, and inspire”—and started the MPact initiative, designed to make positive change in the community. The MPact initiative has three concentrations: strengthening and celebrating Milwaukee; equity, diversity, and inclusion; and literacy and social/emotional learning. The Rep’s MPact initiative offers more than a hundred events each year: education programs, post-show conversations, and intercultural dinners across the city. McEniry, the Rep’s community engagement director, attends events in Milwaukee year-round to gauge how the community and the company can intersect.
Conference attendees saw the Rep’s community engagement work firsthand with its Act II Program, a post-show program is a partnership with the Frank Zeidler Center for Public Discussion. After a performance of Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood on Friday night, facilitators—also called “community responders”—from the Zeidler Center led small groups in discussions about the work and about current issues affecting the group’s communities. It was a powerful way to unpack the show, a docudrama about Ferguson, Mo., in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting.
“Milwaukee in particular has been wrestling quite a bit with police brutality, police-resident relations, and with racial segregation,” said McEniry about the planning for the Act II Program.
Indeed, it wasn’t just the Rep’s burgeoning community engagement programs that made Milwaukee an apt location for this conversation. Milwaukee is in fact one of the most segregated and poorest cities in America. In addition to the Zeidler Center, many organizations and theatre companies are striving to bridge gaps of race and class by telling the city’s story to itself and engaging in civic practice.
For example, First Stage children’s theatre spoke about its commissioned work Welcome to Bronzeville by Sheri Williams Pannell, which was based on conversations with elders in the community of “Bronzeville,” the name for Milwaukee’s once-thriving African-American neighborhood. The piece was developed through a series of events including intergenerational discussions, a spoken word workshop, and a panel discussion with community police officers. The themes of the production, staged in 2017, now live on in a fold-out map featuring locations from the play, a treasure hunt, and detailed must-sees in different Milwaukee neighborhoods.
“The map is dispelling a lot of the negative perceptions about Milwaukee,” said Lucia Lozano, community engagement manager at First Stage.
Michelle Lopez-Rios, associate professor of Voice & Speech at the Theatre School at DePaul University and member of the Royal Mexican Players, spoke about a performance project that brought Milwaukee youth together with mentors. Lopez-Rios partnered with COA Youth & Family Centers to broaden the Precious Lives podcast series about gun violence, and to bring the recorded stories to the stage. The four-week workshop abstracted the young people’s personal narratives about gun violence with poetry, music, and spoken word. Pop-up performances of were showcased in the community.
“When I think about engagement with the community, I think about this [project],” said Lopez-Rios. “I think about how we can all get on board for something we want to fight passionately about and do it.”
Dismantling and Reflecting
The Saturday morning plenary session, “Dismantling Institutionalized Oppression in Regional Theatres,” brought forth the painful truths of bringing EDI work into the fold at all levels of an institution. When attendees split off into groups, they were confronted with real examples of oppression that occurred at regional theatres; my group discussed a situation in which two black patrons were singled out by an usher to show proof of purchase for their tickets at a production of Fences.
Community justice work, in other words, isn’t just about programming diverse works onstage, or building diverse audiences, or opening doors for the community to attend a performance. Values of equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice must be part of the institution as a whole, from the front of house staff to the board. After all, if marginalized groups don’t feel welcome as well as represented onstage, why would they want to engage with a theatre?
Upon reflection, Elizabeth Audley, director of community engagement at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, found the discussions about EDI work at the conference invaluable.
“It really hit home for me that you can’t do this work honestly and authentically without considering where your organization, and you yourself, stand on the spectrum of the EDI work you’ve personally engaged with,” said Audley. “I don’t want to work only with communities that look like me, but if I want to partner with communities that have been marginalized, unheard, invisible, disrespected, or have felt unwelcome in traditional theatre spaces, I need to do a lot more than simply invite them to fit into the framework I have created.”
Clearly, community engagement must start at the top. In a session titled “Engaging Leadership,” David Mallette of Management Consultants for the Arts moderated a conversation with Milwaukee Rep managing director Chad Bauman, About Face Theatre artistic director Megan Carney, and American Shakespeare Center managing director Amy Wratchford.
Carney, who took the reins of About Face Theatre in September, is working to make sure that engagement is the focus of her company.
“What I’m trying to do is bring engagement to the center of the organization, so make it part of the artistic practice,” said Carney, who spoke about the way her company’s school touring productions reach audiences in Chicago and beyond. “It is the heart, it is the beating, it is the pulse, it is where the action is—so bring it to the center in whatever that looks like, whatever the structure of the organization is.”
Before diving into his leadership role at the Rep, Bauman said, he completed a course about unlearning racism and spent time discovering more about the city of Milwaukee to better understand how the Rep could be an asset to the community.
For her part, Wratchford said that she and her colleagues at the American Shakespeare Center understand the importance of knowing the needs of the community. The staffers are involved outside of the institution, and wish to be “part of the thought leadership of the community, and not just in our building,” said Wratchford. She said she’s even currently running for the local school board.
This outward engagement can take many forms. Each year, for instance, the Rep raises $100,000 from audiences in A Christmas Carol to support the Boys & Girls Club. “If we want to have systemic change in our community, other successes are equal or even more important than your own organization’s success,” said Bauman, adding, “which is very interesting thing from a sustainability perspective for your organization.”
Education goes in tandem with community engagement, as many organizations want to welcome youth into their seats, into their programming, and into their future.
Indeed the next generation of theatre artists, community organizers, and artistic leaders was the subject of many sessions, underscored by the coincidental pro-gun control March for Our Lives event, led by young people around the world on March 24. Some conference attendees spent their lunch break joining the rally in downtown Milwaukee, and brought a renewed fervor and hope to the afternoon sessions.
In a session on “Training K-12 Teachers to Engage With Artists,” a room-size board game modeled on the game of Life divided attendees into groups of three, with teams comprising one teacher, one community organizer, and one teaching artist. Teams plotted out a hypothetical project to work on with students, and rolled a giant die to determine the next step in the creative process. Cards showed opportunities, setbacks, and shortcuts, and teams had to present their plan of how to handle the situation to the rest of the room. Votes of green and red lights determined whether or not the team would move forward. The game, which is slated to be available as an online course to teachers this fall, aims to prepare teachers and artists for the challenges and rewards of working with students.
A session titled “Radical Youth Engagement: Investing in the Visions and Voices of Young Artists” also focused on giving a platform for the young voices and bringing young people into the fold of theatres’ programming.
On Sunday, conference attendees gathered at the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret performance space for one final session. Teenagers involved in the Milwaukee theatre community sent the crowd off with words of encouragement and wishes for the future.
“I personally believe that theatre can inspire people to change their community,” said Colin Woldt, member of the First Stage Young Company. “For centuries, theatre has been the spark that lights the fire to change our country.”
“What I love about theatre is its collaborative nature—it is never a finished piece, you’re always adding something or always changing something to make it better and to fit with the times,” said Mainyia Xiong, a member of the Rep’s Professional Training Institute.
Campbell Martinez, member of the Rep’s Teen Council, added: “As young people, we crave a platform to share our stories, we crave to have our voices heard, and for our experiences to be reflected in the media we consume. We are the future of theatre, and should be a part of the equation today so we can take over tomorrow.”
In the closing plenary, director and teacher Mark Valdez reiterated that the weekend was a touchstone, a marker of where the field is at and where it needs to go in terms of effectively bringing justice to communities.
“This whole event seems like a beginning, an opening, a start of something—and that is really exciting,” said Valdez.
He was right about something beginning: Theatre Communications Group’s Audience (R)Evolution program, which supports audience engagement and community development strategies for the theatre field, partnered with Milwaukee Rep to plan the conference and held mini-convenings to help continue the work after the summit.
“TCG’s earlier New Generations Program and the current Audience (R)Evolution program, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, has helped the field to shift from primarily transactions to developing and building long-term relationships with the communities they serve” said Emilya Cachapero, TCG’s director of artistic and international programs. “This Summit shows that this approach is not a trend, but a conscious part of how a critical mass of theatres approach their work.”
Weighing the weekend’s discussions, a group of Audience (R)Evolution grantees worked together to build a toolkit for how to approach the research, evaluation, and assessment of community engagement projects through an EDI lens. The attendees also spoke about how to best create and maintain equitable partnerships between theatres of color and predominantly white organizations.
“This was an opportunity for us to be in conversations with practitioners who are thinking deeply about how equity shows up in their research assessment and evaluation practice,” said Gus Schulenberg, director of communications and community engagement at TCG.
At the final Audience (R)Evolution meeting, grantees voiced goals of bringing a more intersectional lens to their work, and to bring EDI training to their companies. Theatremaker and activist Claudia Alick suggested adding “justice” to the acronym and calling it “JEDI training.” Forget engagement: That’s a name that might catch on.