Arts Council of Greater Lima
Allen County Common Threads Theatre Project Case Study: Arts Council of Greater Lima [PDF]
by Sue Wood

In recent years, county officials and residents of Ohio’s Allen County have been divided by issues of race, leadership, and water resources. Lima, the county’s largest city, suffered from the loss of industrial jobs and a declining tax base, shrinking population, and downtown and neighborhood decay. In the suburbs and rural farmlands, county residents have mistrusted city officials who have exercised control over needed water resources and have made moves toward annexing the county in order to revitalize the city. Issues of race have persisted over many years between the largely white rural and suburban population and the significantly African American city population.

The Allen County Common Threads Theater Project sought to address these issues. Building upon a successful event from 2000 called Common Threads (based on a European community arts model), the Arts Council of Greater Lima, Bluffton College, and a steering committee of interested citizens together set out to develop a second Common Threads endeavor. The goal was to engage a large cross section of both city and county residents, as well as leaders in dialogue, about issues of “trust among leaders” and “respecting differences.” Over 14 months, company members from Sojourn Theater met and interviewed 400 residents. Their words and perspectives fueled Artistic Director Michael Rohd’s script for the “poetic documentary” play, Passing Glances: Mirrors and Windows in Allen County. This case study provides an in-depth view of Sojourn Theater’s intensive community-based theater process. The company’s dialogic research and creative development approach afforded an opportunity for diverse voices to be heard, building a foundation of trust and honesty for the project. The case describes the project’s broad-based community leadership—a core team of organizers and “sector leaders” who effectively linked to various constituents—as well as innovative media partnerships. The case also analyzes tensions that were constructively addressed throughout the project, including naming and framing the issue, negotiating insider/outsider concerns, as well as the collaboration between artist and dialogue consultant. Finally, the case study looks at the challenges faced by the arts council and other community leaders to sustain the important forward steps made by the Common Threads project.

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Cornerstone Theater Company
The Faith-Based Theatre Cycle Case Study: Cornerstone Theater Company[PDF]
by Lynn Jeffries, Bill Rauch, Mark Valdez, and Caron Atlas

In its Faith-Based Theater Cycle, Cornerstone Theater Company created original, community-based plays in collaboration with specific faith-based institutions and inter-faith communities to explore how faith both unites and divides American society. The project provided an opportunity for Cornerstone—in partnership with the National Conference for Community and Justice, Los Angeles region—to engage multiple communities around this powerful and often challenging theme, as well as to work in depth, over time, and with cumulative impact. The four and a half year Cycle includes several civic dialogue components occurring via community story circles that supported artistic content, weekly inter-faith dialogue sessions in various formats associated with the theater-going experience. Cornerstone created Zones—part play, part community conversation—in which characters confront the challenges of living in a religiously pluralistic city, and, as part of the play, audience members were encouraged to do the same with each other. The Faith-Based Theater Cycle included additional community collaborations in which dialogue contributed to the development of plays exploring issues of Catholic immigrants; the relationship of African American clergy with African American people infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS; and multifaith gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender participants. A bridge show in 2005 will bring together participants from each of the faith-based residencies.

The Faith-Based Theater Cycle case study, written by Cornerstone members, offers an inside look at this project and also includes further reflections by Animating Democracy liaison Caron Atlas. For a company whose work is based on tolerance and inclusion, this project began with the challenging question: “When does tolerance lead to a betrayal of one’s beliefs?”  The case examines questions about how dialogue and art can embrace strongly felt points of view without neutralizing them, as well as examining the relationship between private and public in a project focusing on faith that also touched on politics and sexuality. It explores artistic questions Cornerstone faced about balancing both community and outside artists’ visions while maintaining a high standard of artistic excellence. The case study also provides insights into the mutual growth of Cornerstone and NCCJ in their arts-based civic dialogue practice, as well as tensions that arose and were worked out in the collaboration, such as the safety/trust needed for good dialogue and the risk-taking needed for good art.

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Dell' Arte International
The Dentalium Project Case Study: Dell' Arte [PDF]
by Kathie deNobriga

Dell’ Arte International conceived The Dentalium Project in 2001, when the Blue Lake Rancheria—a sovereign native nation that abuts the small northern California town of Blue Lake—built a casino to secure its financial future. Although the Rancheria pledged significant support to the surrounding community, many Blue Lake residents took a dim view of the proposed casino, fearing an increase in traffic, crime, and noise—and, most critically, a loss of power and control over their own destiny. Dell’ Arte believed that, through its distinct aesthetic and by giving people from both communities a chance to talk with one another about their fears and visions for the future of their place, The Dentalium Project could begin to build bridges toward a healthier, whole community. The project consisted of interviews with a wide variety of residents, five community dialogues, and a live radio play set in the future on the 10th Anniversary of the casino’s opening that was inspired by the themes which emerged from the interviews and dialogues. In addition, dialogue was further stimulated by a documentary video capturing public perspectives interspersed with excerpts of the play was shown in the community.

This case study, written by Animating Democracy liaison Kathie DeNobriga, documents Dell’ Arte’s aesthetic considerations and processes, offering lessons about the capacity of a resident theatre to provoke community dialogue and create a space for the safe exploration of conflict. It examines issues of representation in the struggles of a primarily white theatre company to make art about issues involving Native Americans. The case study also illustrates Dell’ Arte’s capacity to make an ongoing impact on their community as a corollary of their long-term presence and their willingness to take risks.

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Flint Youth Theatre
...My Soul to Take [PDF]
by Sue Wood

The 1999 Columbine High School shooting and its aftermath motivated Bill Ward—Artistic Director of Flint Youth Theatre (FYT) in Flint, MI—to think about developing a play that would explore the issue of school violence. Over several months, the theater began to discuss just how it would translate this topic to the stage. Then, the unspeakable occurred—a fatal school shooting at a Flint Elementary School. This tragedy lent gravity to Ward’s original idea and presented further challenges to the company's efforts to treat the subject responsibly. The play, ...My Soul to Take, was produced a full year later—a multilayered, nonlinear work of art that served as the centerpiece for a larger span of activities. The project refocused attention on the causes and effects of school violence and what actions this community could take to prevent it from happening again. Multiple approaches to dialogue over eight months included Process Drama workshops that informed the play’s script; small group Study Circles to share ideas about school violence and possible solutions; and post performance dialogue and other events.

This case study, written by project director Sue Wood, recounts the evolution of this project from the inside and in the context of Flint Youth Theatre’s social issue-based work. This story shows how a cultural organization may effectively contribute to broader public discourse on a pressing issue and how it might address a community trauma so as not to exploit the incident or victims. It analyzes the particular aesthetic style of FYT’s production, and how that style evolved from and supported dialogue. Finally, Flint Youth Theatre candidly reflects on being highly effective in arts-based civic dialogue, while also questioning the degree to which it can engage in civic issues.

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Junebug Productions
The Color Line Project [PDF]
by Cheryl Yuen

This case study documents the pilot phase of Junebug Productions’ Color Line Project, a long-term national endeavor that combines performance and community story-collecting in an effort to revitalize Civil Rights Movement history as a valued and illuminating context for current issues of race. Using story circles methodology as a dialogue form, artist John O’Neal and a national organizing team worked over several months with local scholars, activists, and partner organizations to collect stories of local people's involvement in and understanding of the movement. Local artists moved the community’s stories to public presentation. These performances, along with Junebug Productions’ Jabbo Jones plays and scholar panels, provided varied opportunities for public dialogues. The case study illuminates Junebug’s evolution of a new type of “artist residency model,” aiming is to engage, educate, and organize. It analyzes challenges encountered by both presenters and Junebug Productions, including balancing local and national goals, and it raises valuable questions about who is best at the local level to lead short-term and sustained efforts—cultural organizations or other civic or activist organizations. The Color Line Project case study was written by Animating Democracy project liaison Cheryl Yuen, in close collaboration with John O’Neal and Theresa Holden, and draws upon project documentation by Stacie Walker.

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New WORLD Theater
Project 2050 Case Study: New World Theater [PDF]

New WORLD Theater’s youth initiative, Project 2050, is a multiyear exploration of the midcentury demographic shift, when it is projected that people of color will become the majority in the U.S. Addressing issues compelled by these changing demographics, the project engages youth communities, professional artists, scholars, and community activists in civic dialogue and artistic creation. The project promotes creative imagining of a near future, when it will become imperative not only to address issues such as race construction, ethnic balkanization, social inequity, and power imbalance, but to move beyond these traditionally disempowering institutional frameworks. This case study is compiled by Chris Rohmann from New WORLD Theater's reports and evaluation materials. It recaps the history and evolution of this ongoing initiative that is blurring the lines between intergenerational art, activism, politics, and culture. It explores the philosophical underpinnings of the program, the challenges of designing dialogue for and with youth, and its outcomes, including how and why Project 2050 has become a core program for New WORLD Theater and inspired the creation of a youth action community coalition.

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Perseverance Theatre
Moby Dick [PDF]
by Jeffrey Herrmann, Peter DuBois, and Susan McInnis

Since it was founded in 1979, Perseverance Theatre in Juneau has been committed to exploring classic plays and new works through a unique “Alaskan lens.” For their Animating Democracy project, Perseverance began a statewide dialogue about some of Alaska’s most divisive cultural, political, and social issues, using an Alaskan adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic work, Moby Dick, as the artistic catalyst. How could theater effectively contribute to discourse about Alaskan issues of subsistence rights and the urban/rural divide in disparate places across the state? The company tried several approaches, including Socratic dialogue in Fairbanks and Anchorage, and a culturally grounded potluck in Barrow.

The case study is adapted from reflective analysis by Perseverance’s Executive Director Jeffrey Herrmann, former Artistic Director Peter DuBois, and Dialogue Coordinator Susan McInnis. They recount the return to their goal of bolstering a non-official level of public engagement after illuminating experiences with the “gatekeepers” of civic discourse. They describe their shift from envisioning civic dialogue in terms of large public gatherings that address policy, to valuing more intimate gatherings in which personal story is a potent motivation and a stepping stone to civic deliberation. The Moby Dick project prompted Perseverance's leaders to question not only the theater’s authority and responsibility to initiate and convene dialogue on civic issues, but also its authority to find affirmation from various stakeholders that the theater indeed has something unique to contribute as a civic player.

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San Diego REPertory Theater
Nuevo California: On the Border of Art and Civic Dialogue [PDF]
by Lynn E.Stern

In 2003, the world premiere of Nuevo California at the San Diego REPertory Theater marked the culmination of an intensive, three-year project that brought together citizens on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border in an effort to imagine their region’s binational future. The International Border Fence, a 14-mile metal wall that divides San Diego and neighboring city Tijuana, served as the project’s springboard for both a cross-border dialogue on critical regional issues as well as the new play’s theme. San Diego REPertory Theater—together with project partners San Diego Dialogue, Centro Cultural Tijuana, and an ensemble of U.S. and Mexican artists—posed a provocative civic question to Mexican and U.S. residents of the border area: “Tear down the fence or fortify it?” Their deliberations and responses gave birth to Nuevo California, a multidisciplinary multilingual theater piece of multiple voices and viewpoints that imagines border life with the fence—and without it.

The making of Nuevo California offers insights about how project partners employed community-based dialogue for the new play’s aesthetic development, and reveals how they grappled to create a theater piece that was both “multipartial” and “good art.” The project’s pairing of San Diego Repertory Theatre and San Diego Dialogue also sheds light on the potential benefits and possible pitfalls in forging effective, mutually beneficial partnerships between arts groups and dialogue-focused organizations. Finally, as one of a handful of Animating Democracy-funded projects that features a cross-cultural dimension, Nuevo California offers a window onto the rewards and challenges of conducting community-based art projects in a transnational context.

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Out North Contemporary Art House
Understanding Neighbors: Art-Inspired Dialogue Bridges Diverse Viewpoints About Same-Sex Relationships [PDF]
by Lynn E. Stern

In 2003, Understanding Neighbors brought together nearly 100 citizens in Anchorage, AK, in a month-long series of dialogues to address one of the community’s most contentious civic questions: “What is the social, moral, and legal place of same-sex couples in our society?” Understanding Neighbors, a collaborative project sponsored by Out North Contemporary Art House, in partnership with the Interfaith Council of Anchorage and Alaska Common Ground, aimed to foster respectful dialogue and mutual understanding among community members holding divergent views on this question.  Artists Peter Carpenter, Sara Felder, and Stephan Mazurek created eight performance-based video works derived from interviews with community members to serve as dialogue catalysts. Using a dialogue approach based on a Public Conversations Project model, the project trained 25 community volunteers to facilitate dialogues. To engage a mix of Alaskans with socially conservative, moderate, and liberal viewpoints on the topic, the project implemented a broad-based recruitment and media strategy.

This case study reveals project organizers’ discoveries in relation to employing art with a “point of view” in dialogues, as well as in relation to tensions between creative autonomy and civic intent in creating the artistic work. In addition, given Out North’s activist-oriented leadership and previous work, the case study also examines the benefits and pitfalls of Out North’s effort to position itself as a more neutral space in order to encourage diverse participation, and also endeavors to answer the key questions that this prompted about civic dialogue as a means to achieve Out North’s vision for social change in its community.

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Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD)
Los Angeles Poverty Department [PDF]
by Maria Rosario Jackson and John Malpede

Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) is a Skid Row-based theater organization, founded and directed by artist John Malpede. LAPD has distinguished itself by its longstanding commitment to making change in L.A.’s Skid Row community, particularly regarding the homeless, through theater-based civic engagement work. As part of Animating Democracy’s Arts & Civic Engagement Impact Initiative, LAPD and Urban Institute senior researcher Maria Rosario Jackson engaged in research to develop a foundation to recurrently identify, monitor, and assess the cultural infrastructure of the Skid Row neighborhood. The framework suggested by their research would enable Skid Row organizations and leaders who use arts and culture to see their work as part of a larger system and to create an asset-focused narrative for Skid Row that may help shift or expand the ways outsiders perceive the Skid Row community.

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