Lab Report: Artist-Investigator Program Gets Rolling

By Rebecca Novick

Last month we launched a new round of our Artist-Investigator program, in which four distinguished artists partnered with four non-profit organizations to see how theater artists can help meet community needs.  (Read more about the artists and their partners here.)  We’ll be sharing regular “lab reports” on the progress of these experiments, as we find out what happens when the powerful skills of artists are deployed outside the rehearsal room.

Our early meetings have unearthed some exciting possibilities, like the conversation we had with the chaplain at Berkeley Food and Housing Project about creating theater-based rituals to help homeless vets struggling with “moral injury.” Or the proposal from Causa Justa::Just Cause—that their artist Paul Flores work with their clients to help them tell their compelling stories to decision-makers like government officials and funders.

Earlier this week, all of the artists and their partners came together for a day-long training with the dynamic Michael Rohd, whose Center for Performance and Civic Practice has pioneered a lot of the methodology we’re using.  He asked everyone to name assets that artists bring to the partnerships—not just in the “product” we might create, but in how artistic skills influences the process of the collaboration. Here is a portion of the inspiring list the artists generated:

What we bring to the table as artists:

  • my writer self
  • ability to collaborate
  • understanding when communication has not occurred
  • basing work in the body
  • making things happen, moving a process from A to B
  • seeing when things are stuck
  • seeing from multiple points of view
  • listening
  • getting people to tell their story
  • imaginative problem-solving
  • spirit-based work
  • using humor as a tool
  • articulating something for collective interrogation
  • fearlessly naming the elephant in the room
  • asking good questions at the right time
  • witnessing
  • surfacing emotional undercurrents
  • inspiring risks
  • making space for transgression

As exciting as artistic collaboration is, we’ve had to remind ourselves to hold off and be mindful of moving too fast. Our process asks artists and organizations to work off each other; but, speedy implementation is not always fruitful. As Dr. Ayodele Nzinga shared, “I always have a map, but I’m learning to make space for the emergent.”

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The Triangle Lab: What’s in a Name?

A report on the naming of our partnership with Intersection, courtesy of Partnership Project Director Rebecca Novick.

Rebecca NovickLast August, I was invited by Jonathan Moscone and Deborah Cullinan (executive director of Intersection for the Arts) to help develop the partnership they had formed. After a successful collaboration some years ago on Hamlet: Blood in the Brain, Cal Shakes and Intersection wanted to work together on something larger than creating one new play;  with a generous grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation in-hand, the staff from both organizations had been meeting for some time to determine what this partnership would look like. They had some goals and projects in mind but it was proving harder than they had expected to get started: The two organizations worked in very different ways, both staffs were tremendously busy with their regular work, and little things like different calendar systems and big things like different approaches to season planning were all adding up to insurmountable.

With so much conviction from the leaders of both organizations, and so much talent on the two staffs, I knew it wouldn’t take much to unlock the potential of this partnership, but one thing was puzzling me: I didn’t know what to call the project. What started out as a minor administrative question—what should I write on my file folder? What should I name the folder in my computer?—quickly emerged as a key issue we needed to address. As Shakespeare can tell you, the names of things matter very much, and if you can’t name something, you may not know yet what it is.

Many meetings later, while deep in discussion of the kind of community relationships we wanted to create, I found myself drawing a triangle, showing the connections between a theater, artists, and community members. “That’s it!,”  Jonathan exclaimed. “That’s the name!”  Thus was born the Triangle Lab. A lab (because we’re experimenting) and a triangle because we are examining the triangular relationship between artists, institutions, and communities. We want to find ways to strengthen each side of the triangle and to make sure we are putting equal value on each of the corners. This name proposes that we always consider the community that a play might engage as much as we consider what artists we’re working with, and that we carefully work to connect artists to communities at every stage of the process.

The goal of the Triangle Lab—now a program run jointly by Cal Shakes and Intersection for the Arts—is to learn how to “make new plays together,” that is to say, how to make new plays with theater institutions, artists, and community members working in close collaboration, as equal partners. We’re aiming to expand who participates in theater-making and how they participate.

Our first experiments will invite people, in many different ways, to tell the stories of their places (their homes, the places they come from, the journeys that have brought them to the place they now call home). These experiments will surround and enrich two productions of work by artists who deeply explore place. Spunk (the second show in Cal Shakes’ 2012 season) showcases Zora Neale Hurston’s intricate stories of African-American life during the Harlem Renaissance while Allelulia (to be produced at Intersection in 2013 with Jonathan Moscone directing), by distinguished playwright Luis Alfaro, traces a journey up Highway 99 from Disneyland to San Francisco. Though these plays are stories by renowned artists, in the Triangle Lab we believe that everyone is a storyteller—we want to invite as many people as we can to tell stories about their places. Stay tuned for more information on how you can participate in this exploration.

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