Cal Shakes Director of Artistic Engagement Rebecca Novick and Community Participation Coordinator Sonya Renee Taylor in conversation about our inaugural community tour.
Rebecca Novick: This community tour of Twelfth Night continues our series of Triangle Lab experiments that explore how artists can deeply integrate into community life. In taking performances to audiences who we don’t normally see at our outdoor theater in Orinda, we’re investigating how our work can matter more, to more people. Sonya’s been working for months on the tour, which has included figuring out who might be interested in hosting a performance.
Sonya Renee Taylor: Launching the Twelfth Night in Communities tour has been a powerful exploration of how Cal Shakes can better build sustainable relationships with communities that stretch beyond our Main Stage performances at the Bruns Amphitheater. It has been both challenging and tremendously enlightening, reminding us that the strongest partnerships are cultivated through time and commitment.
RN: One of my favorite parts of this work is getting to go to places that aren’t in my ordinary path. In our preparation to take this show to a wide variety of sites, we’ve been in Alameda County’s juvenile hall, the basement of an SRO hotel in the Tenderloin, a Berkeley homeless shelter, and many other places. We’ve met extraordinary people working on the front lines of our region’s most pressing social issues. As we worked with each tour site we invited our partners to talk about why they wanted to bring this performance to their community, and their answers were as diverse as they were illuminating. “Our job is to feed people’s bodies,” said Jim Huntley at Berkeley Food and Housing. “This project is an opportunity to feed people’s souls.” At Civicorps, a high school equivalency and job training site in Oakland, Tessa Nichols explained, “I want to show our youth that the arts are a viable career path that they could choose.”
SRT: One of the challenges of this project has been to bring engaging arts programming as an asset to these organizations rather than a distraction or burden on the work they are already doing. A key to navigating that was discussing how this production of Twelfth Night might supplement the work they are already doing. Through this inquiry we discovered that many organizations were already working with Shakespeare text or had aspiring artists in their programs, and that many found that the project spoke to other skills-building initiatives they were already working on. The key to these relationships has been in shifting the idea of unidirectional arts delivery: Twelfth Night in Communities challenges the “charity” paradigm by acknowledging the assets and strengths that each of these community partners brings to the table. We are not just giving them a play—they are giving us back a whole new purview by which to create and share arts programming.
RN: We’re trying to avoid language like “bringing theater to people who have no access to it,” because we’re discovering that the audiences on this tour largely have access to a wide range of artistic experiences where they live. What we’re focused on instead is what happens when we specifically bring our organization, this project (inspired by the work of director Michelle Hensley’s Ten Thousand Things company), and these audiences together. What can we make together that teaches all of us more about storytelling, theater-making, and life in the many communities that make up our neighborhood? How can we grow as artists once we can imagine the full range of humanity as the audience for our work? How can we strengthen our cities if people who would otherwise never meet come together around a performance? What do we learn by laughing and crying together over 400-year-old text that rings true for more people than we ever imagined?
SRT: My greatest takeaway from coordinating this tour is how important it is to invest in relationships that are about the quality of the partnership rather than the quantity of the partners. Gone are the days of drive-by community engagement. Organizations’ plates are full and it is often an encumbrance to have an arts program drop in for one play or event and then disappear forever. The staff is left to the fill the gaps, the clients are forgotten for the next grant focus, and we have missed the opportunity to build continued learning exchanges between the two. As with life, the relationships that are the most fulfilling are often those that are interdependent. The strongest community partnerships are the ones where we invest in deep, substantive connections that remind us that our art, our communities, and our world are better when we are making it together.