Progress Theatre performs The Burnin’ at ROOTS Week 2014. Photo: Melisa Cardona.
By Joe Tolbert
This article is an edited transcript of a conversation that was facilitated by Joe Tolbert on February 8, 2016 with Linda Parris-Bailey, Executive/Artistic Director of the Carpetbag Theatre, Inc. – one of Alternate ROOTS’ founding companies – and Cristal Chanelle Truscott, Artistic Director of Progress Theatre.
For the full transcript, click here.
JT: ROOTS has a history of intentionally pairing artists with community to address community needs. What is your practice around community artist partnerships?
LPB: I think our practice is diverse, because we don’t enter community with a particular formula. We enter the community with questions. We enter with the tools we have learned over the years, but our practice is to enter the community as learners and people who share a body of work.
There are particulars to communities and then there is the overarching American experience, if you will. And I think that our work in sharing those, as we call them, untold stories, it’s really about how we can help the community dig deeper into its own story. I’m always talking about what Jo [Carson] and others have called reframing. How does the story become useful? That’s very much central to our practice. If we are working in community, if we are working, even on our own ideas and issues, we have to figure out what is the reason to share a particular story in a particular time, in a particular way. That exploratory process involves the ensemble in conjunction with the community. That’s kind of the root of our practice.
CCT: Similarly, I would say the practice is diverse, because it has to be. It at least has to be open to diversity in order to make sure you really are listening and learning from the community and engaging in that call and response space with the community that you have been invited into, or you belong to.
I think my entry point into community collaboration and practice has always been one of depth over breadth and really trying to make sure that I am and we are speaking with and listening to the community before we even get there. I’m speaking particularly to the case of touring. When I was first starting out, my work had been commissioned and we were going to perform, and I realized immediately that the theater didn’t know how to get the people I wanted into the theater, into the theater. They didn’t have any way of helping me connect, and it was almost a bit like, What the hell? How does that happen? How do you not talk to the community? I didn’t understand that, so at that point our base was in New York, because we were all undergraduates at NYU, but by virtue of that, the campus community and the local community of New York, we would go somewhere,the first thing we did was reach out to our local community and say, Here is where we are going. Who do you know? Who do we need to know? Who do we need to talk to and listen to? We made sure that these conversations were starting before we even hit the ground.
That pre-residency work, for me, has always been really important. There was a staple to our performances called the Open Stage, where in every city that we toured, local artists who have been doing the work, and who were going to be doing the work after we left, would open our show, respecting them, but also requesting permission, from them, to engage with their community, to join that conversation. Then really making sure there is a call and response there. The main thing is making sure that conversation and that depth of interaction, as much as possible, is even more important than the performance. The performance, in a way, is there to enable further dialogue as opposed to the other way around. I really just want the principle of depth over breadth and that the conversation happens before anyone is handing out postcards about a show.
LPB: It’s always funny to me when people begin to name practices and move forward the discussions about breaking down “silos,” or doing the work across practice and profession. In our communities there really isn’t a theater audience. There’s an audience that wants to hear its story. The audiences come from very different parts of the community. There are very few African American companies that have season ticket holders. It’s not like people come just to be a part of the theater. People come, because this speaks to who they are, and it shares their story. You have to let them know that in so many different ways, in so many different arenas and areas, to get them to come and participate in the performance, post show discussions, and all those things. That outreach some of the larger more mainstream theaters are not accustomed to doing and having to do, has to be a part of our practice, because we know that our communities live in the silo of educational institutions, social services, and all of those components, so reaching out to the components is essential.
CCT: I love that silos is in quotes too, because it’s almost–for African Americans there is this idea of, What silo? What do you mean? The art better not only be about the art. There is an expectation of this intersectionality from the door. What are you doing? What are you talking about? Who does it appeal to? Why? What are the connections? It’s just a part of the way the community historically and aesthetically functions, because that type of cross-pollination is necessary for survival, revolution and for freedom. It can’t be done in these barricades. It has to be done with having all hands, all limbs akimbo, stretched out, so they can reach as far as possible.
JT: Can you talk about how you exit a community, and how you leave them with tools so that the work can continue after the period of engagement is over?
LPB: My first and immediate answer is that it’s all about the connections you can facilitate in a community. You’re there for a short period of time. We like the week long residency, but we know that that is a temporary time period, so the event needs to facilitate interaction between the residents of the community, the people who are dealing with a particular issue, and the more you can build that connection, the longer the impact is felt in that community. That’s not to say that people aren’t impacted by the performance itself. People connect and tie into that, but what do they do with that afterward? If you can provide a space for people to do something with what they are feeling, or experiencing, then you have that longer term impact.
JT: Can you give us a story when that was at its best?
LPB: The most recent example would be the work we’ve done in Tampa, Florida. Tampa was unique in that we had a direct connection, through our director, to a university, to the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Centers (PRRCs), which enabled us to connect with PRRCs in other communities, so that connection – I’m talking about Speed Killed My Cousin now – that connection with recovery groups in Tampa and connecting those recovery groups to nursing students at the University of South Florida (USF), to Sacred Grounds Coffee House, where there continues to be a monthly Veterans Open Mic. There continues to be a connection between the PRRC and USF students. Students are by nature transient. They’re going to be there and gone, so rooting something in a four year college is really sprinkling water. That is an example of how it continues to expand. We are now working with Arts and Health in the Military, health providers, psychologists, so that the impact of our being there has multiplied and continues to expand and multiply.
CCT: I don’t know if I would embrace the word exit as a finite point of … you know, this is the end of our engagement with the community and that’s it and you’re gone, but part of the dream is that, as Linda said, you go into the community as learners, there’s an exchange as well, and we are leaving with relationships that are important for us to maintain and cultivate.
One of the things that I’ve been pleased and grateful for with Progress Theatre experiences is that most of the time, we get to go back to cities where we’ve toured, so there are cities like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, New York, Baltimore, and San Francisco that have seen our entire repertoire of work to date, so that over the course of these years, I’ll get to see someone that I’ve known for 10 years, because they were there the very first time we did PEACHES there. The relationship has been maintained.
When possible, I find it really valuable to think about creating ongoing and long term relationships with communities and really making it an intention for us to come back and visit as we grow and evolve. In some ways it is easier to do that now, because of things like social media, but I would say, back in the day, when social media was newish, there was a much deeper, more urgent effort that had to happen to make people connect.
This is why the workshop and exchange space is important, so that you’re giving your best tools and receiving the best tools of the community. The dream is that when you leave, the community is able to do that work, or to do some formation, or iteration of it, whatever their remix of what you brought into the space and vice versa, so that we can go to the next place and we can go: “Here is a song that we learned from these people, from this place, about this moment, and I’m bringing it into this space.” It is also a way of exiting and not exiting, that it becomes this circular ongoing practice.
JT: How do you see art as a tool of building community power? Cristal, you talked earlier about how art for art sake has never been a part of the black aesthetic, so how do you see art as a tool and not just art for art sake?
CCT: Joe, you sent us a quote from Augusto Boal–
JT: I can read it for you if you want me to? “Theater is a practice of (not for) the revolution.”
CCT: I think the answer lies in the semantic. One of the things that means for me is that the revolution comes first, or the desire for it, or the movement toward it, and that the art comes out of it and in response to it. The revolution necessitates the art. It makes it so that…the circumstances are so extreme that the tools used to engage them must also be extreme, and art at its best, and theater, is an extraordinary practice.
We don’t necessarily go to see theater about waking up and having dinner with the family…there’s something different about that day in order to make it…that’s the day someone gets news, or if I’m thinking historically, that’s the day the $10,000 check comes to Walter Lee and his family, that changes everything. Something is different about that day, or about the moment, so theater is born out of those extreme circumstances and the urgent responses and need for voice and for survival, and ultimately for freedom.
When the stakes are that high, there has to be something that aesthetically and viscerally rises to the occasion of those stakes and becomes the voice of what the people need and want. That’s what art is. Those things that are characteristic of effective art, those are also characteristics of revolution.
I remember being in the theater school, at a predominantly white institution, and teachers having to teach people about stuff like high stakes and urgency, and myself and the other African American and people of color in the room would look at each other like, “What is this? I can skip this day. I’m clear on high stakes.” That’s not something I need to learn as an aesthetic, because the intention behind the work already requires that I have a relationship to high stakes.
LPB: When I think about Boal, there’s this necessity to change the way people think for long-term systemic change – his practice of being able to practice different points of view and a different relationship to power – that seems to be a primary role to the practice of storytelling and the theater. When he puts people in different positions, he changes the relationship to power. Then you’re changing the way people see themselves and their role.
To say that this is a part of, not for, when I think about it, it’s like you can’t have revolution until people think differently, and to enable them to do that is a part of our practice. It is a part of reframing the story, and a part of all of the things we do to get them to look at their situation in a different way and to become empowered.
I’m old school. When you talk about what community power looks like, its control of your own resources and control of your own ability. That’s power, and how we are a part of that practice that enables people to grasp that power. When I think about what my experience has taught me about community power, it is about those things people do or don’t control. Whether it’s about economic resources, housing, or education, how do we gain the ability to say what happens where? That’s my definition of community power.
I think we are– as theater artists, we have a role in not only exposing the underlying reasoning behind certain practices, but also how do you envision a different future? Right? That’s not tied to the lack of. I think all of us try to look at how to practice this idea of abundance without leaving reality, but the reality is that we may not have the resources to do what we like, but how do we use creative practices that enable us to think differently about our communities?
CCT: I just want to echo the importance of thinking differently, and how art can cultivate and nurture that. I think Linda gave a beautiful example of that. In Boal’s practice it was all about physicalizing a different mentality, so actually putting someone in the position of power and having the physical impact the mental and emotional, even as people are witnessing it as well. It’s almost like the theater allows this holistic approach to, in the words of Bob Marley, emancipating our minds.
It’s a process where we are attacking the process of thinking differently, not only from an intellectual standpoint, because it’s easier to understand people intellectually, but translating it into action and actual belief, and something you see and feel in your body and create a memory for, that is one of the greatest gifts that the theater can give to this sustainability of creating opportunities for people to think differently, and then to never go back to thinking the other way again. That seed is planted, and there’s no going back, because now it’s a physical memory, a visual memory, an emotional memory, not just an intellectual concept.
JT: How do you see community partnerships in helping to build community power?
LPB: Partnerships provide an opportunity to service the diverse needs of our community. There aren’t enough of us to really respond to any of the challenges we face. If you can create an opportunity for people come together to just respond to one, I think you’re building power. People always talk about relationships. They are essential to any effort, and the longer term relationships you build, the better those relationships are in responding to some of those needs.
CCT: My favorite part of Linda’s answer was that the partnership guarantees that we stay engaged to the diverse needs of our communities and the diverse needs of the work. There is such a thing as getting to a space where you have your own tunnel vision and miss the opportunity to engage the multiplicity of the community or of an experience or of efforts.
My husband teases that I can only be superwoman on Halloween. I love this, because it always reminds me to collaborate, and that I can’t do it on my own, shouldn’t do it on my own. I’m just speaking on the individual level, so when I think on a larger level the principle still stands. We cannot do it alone, shouldn’t do it alone, and we’re not supposed to do it alone. If that were the case, every community and individual, for that matter, would have their own planet, but we were put here together to work it out together.
It’s a way of self care, a way of community care. Partnerships can come along with support. It can expand the reach of the work. It can expand the vision of the work. There is no scenario where I can see a downside. The evidence speaks loudly that people want – I would dare say – need connection. To do this and to make it happen, I certainly think its sustaining. It sustains each partner and each person that has been impacted by the work of the partnership or the work of the community. All of those things are necessary for power. There has to be sustainability. There has to be accountability, which partnership can do as well. There are these whole checks and balances that partnerships demand that makes power possible.