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Participation Matters

by Jacob Galfano Sunday, Mar. 22, 2009 at 11:29 AM

Each speech President Obama has delivered since his inauguration seems to paint a picture of change that is being created on the fly. I believe that – by nature of our humanity – we are all artists, and that we can all add a spontaneous stroke here or there to this potential masterpiece. But our current circumstances, as you will read in the below Op-Ed piece, present a serendipitous opportunity for public audiences to participate in community-based theater, and through that, to collaboratively address our social problems. If President Obama continues to publicly hold us accountable for re-creating a better America, this is one proven avenue for us to respond.

After participating in a community theater project staged at a local senior center, a woman from the audience commented: “I have trouble finding my voice, and this afternoon I was able to find it. Now I believe I have a better chance manifesting it in my day-to-day life. It’s such great therapy.” Indeed, without voice, one must find it difficult to be oneself, let alone to contribute to a better society.

The intersection of community theater and social change is perhaps better understood by asking: How are the definitions of our social problems impacted by who we ask? What kinds of changes can come from those who are not policy-makers or artists by profession? What do interactions between these representatives and the public look like? This line of inquiry captures the essence of pluralism.

Rasmussen Reports recently found that 73 percent of American adults trust the judgment of their fellow citizens more than that of their elected officials. No other impetus is needed to justify applying the wisdom in this statistic to the decision-making processes that affect how our vital resources are allocated. By reframing how we view ourselves within and across these processes, we can instead collectively explore incremental, yet robust solutions to public problems dealing with infrastructure, health care, social security, education, and more – as President Obama has already laid out in his agenda.

In a recent speech, Obama said: “The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long. But I don't. I work for the American people”. The end of this statement has potential: more practical for the people (who are eager for tangible results) than any hasty overhaul of the status quo are changes generated at the margins. Unlike its politico-economic definition, marginal social change is personal as well as policy-oriented, but its impact is still individual, still local.

But how do we – so busy in our private lives – even find pathways to participate? Community artists are one group who facilitate such access. Whether or not we respond to their invitations will determine just how effective we can be at creating positive change in our own neighborhoods and, thus, in our own lives.

This article takes a step beyond the prevailing “the arts-can-stimulate-the-economy (so-give-us-more-funding)” argument deliberated upon by journalists, pundits, legislators, and professional artists … a consequence of the mainstream ideology by which we expect elected officials and professionals, as our trustees, to make decisions in the public interest. Yet, pluralism – as an alternative – is not a new concept; in fact, several ongoing movements for social change (for government oversight, restorative justice, and community media, among others) thrive on public input.

Community artists are not very different; they harness public creativity in their work as well as in their administration. Such nimbleness and resilience – cornerstones of the American Dream – lead to innovative projects and partnerships (in the face of resource adversity) that entertain as well as engage.

This approach typically produces two kinds of audience outcomes: personal transformation (as illustrated in the opening paragraph) and real policy change. Ideally, both happen. Facilitator Marc Weinblatt – of the Mandala Center for Change in Washington State – noted that the same performance led to a change in transparency of the senior center’s management.

As described above, community theater flourishes with adequate resources. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recognizes this and funds individual organizations as well as state and regional partnerships – a federal investment in the grassroots. For example, the California Arts Council – in a state forecasting a budget deficit exceeding $40 billion – received over $1 million from the NEA in 2008, and one of its programs, Creating Public Value, “is designed to promote a framework… to recognize that the resources artists, arts organizations, and others bring to a community play a key role in making a positive contribution to the individual and collective lives of all Californians”.

This top-down/bottom-up convergence can be effective, but tricky; while “others” can refer to the public, it can also alienate those who have been treated as Other in a system that has historically structurally oppressed based on identity (be it race, age, class, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or more) – hence the need for a more lateral collaboration with audiences.

The mainstream is not unimportant, though; funding at the federal level is critical to the sustainability of public arts organizations. According to Americans for the Arts, 10,000 not-for-profits could disappear in 2009. Thus, lobbyists at the 22nd annual Arts Advocacy Day (March 30-31 in Washington D.C.) are sure to celebrate the inclusion of $50 million for the NEA in Obama’s stimulus package.

Weinblatt agrees: “Funding is so important for infrastructure; with it, my actors could make living wages and better focus on the work we create together.”

This is somewhat reinforced through an informal survey of my colleagues, which found that few have been able to complete community theater projects. Obviously, this can be attributed to various reasons, but it reveals that these projects are complicated undertakings.

Community theater thus has a dialectical relationship with the arts industry, the economy, and broader society; a synthesis of their counterparts – including resources like funding, strategic partnerships, and especially audience participation – indicates their worth. It has an inherent capacity to join the economic with the political and cultural. This is more than a reflection of the possible: it means favoring the relationships between people whose ideas differ. As Obama might attest, it exemplifies a healthy balance of personal responsibility with community well-being.

Perhaps more importantly, community theater offers an opportunity for professional artists – displaced by the economic pinch – to work with their audience rather than for them; with such cooperation, the material status of the former need not be threatened by the latter.

Community theater is not a panacea; rather, it consists of a series of interdisciplinary and intergenerational synapses from the margins that can jump-start mainstream change. But to realize its potential, it relies upon participation by you, the public audience. If such an opportunity arises, we – as practitioners – ask you to think twice about participating, donating, or volunteering before dismissing it. After all, as de Gaulle said: “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”
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