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Why Should We Support Grassroots Theater

The article was first published by Theatre Communications Group in Diversity & Inclusion Online Salon

Lenka Belkova

Art can serve as a poignant example of crossing cultural boundaries, as an offering space for personal transformation. It is a moment of deeper recognition of the other, an insight into different cultural expressions and mutual emotional connections. Let’s say that art has the power to build bridges across communities and facilitate dialogue across cultures. In fact, art has become a tool for cross-cultural communication. For that matter, art as a medium to bring together a diverse community was realized in Cleveland’s strategy to transform a blighted neighborhood into a thriving community.  Engaging with a disadvantaged population and local artists, the now known Gordon Square Arts District was incubated in the successful collaboration between Cleveland Public Theater, the City, and other local nonprofits, showing how community participation can make a difference.

Considering the above, it would seem to be evident that all theater companies would mirror the vision of cultural responsiveness within their own organizational structures. But often, the ideals of art’s meaning appear to be under represented within the organizational ranks. While art’s mission promises to act as an intermediary between diverse cultures toward integration, the organizational structure should be the breeding ground of such cultural values. It is to stress the art sector’s commitment to inclusive policies not only in its philosophical ideal, but also in everyday action. Theater, as part of the public sphere, needs to nurture the inseparable link between audience and organizational diversity. To attract new audiences, theaters need to speak their language.

The reasons why we need to nurture this ongoing dialogue about theaters’ diversity are many. Next to changing demographics and growing social awareness of theater practitioners, more sober reality looms around: shortage and unpredictability of arts funding and changing cultural production.

As Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert write in Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document the changing culture and economy are restructuring how we think of the arts. The impact of technology on the public sphere changes the relationship between audience and performer, amateur and professional, pushing the transformation of the arts field in new directions. Art can be practiced virtually anywhere and by anyone. The pendulum of duality between low and high art has burst into thematically specific theater companies that serve niche audiences. With the changing demographics, larger arts organizations have to pay greater attention to appeal to a more diverse spectrum of theatergoers. The inclusion of minorities into the production of art has become an imperative task for all cultural organizations. Moreover, restricted funding resources have impacted medium sized theater companies that keep fighting with chronic financial instability and still, regional theaters are not able to escape their association with white upper-middle class representation of dominant social values.

How can we ensure greater arts participation?

Sole top-down policies cannot be the only means of defining art organizations’ strategic plans for new audience engagement. For that matter, top-down policies often stir controversies when bare statistics are the only means of measurement, as in the case of Portland’s arts initiative, which seeks that arts groups be asked to increase the ethnic makeup of their staff, boards, and contractors. In order to meet greater diversity within cultural organizations, Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams and city Commissioner Amanda Fritz proposed to utilize a quota system within the arts in 2012. It is worthwhile to consider whether Portland’s strategy to implement a diversity quota for art and cultural organizations in order to be eligible for public funding is a good step. Criticism and questions that have been voiced regarding the initiative address the lack of resources smaller arts organizations have to perform assessments and to track numbers, as well as the claim that the initiative overlooks the greater systemic flaws of our society; that the imposed quota only displaces onto the arts organizations the real problem seeded in early education opportunities and socio-economic inequality that limits the access to art in the first place. And finally that quality of art production should not be compromised by the obligation to meet diversity quotas first.

On the other hand, a possible argument in favor of quota measures was presented at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s theater diversity symposiums organized by Theater Bay Area in 2012, where theater practitioners and art advocates gathered to discuss successful practices in achieving organizational and audience diversity. Representatives from large and small sized theaters gathered with founders of community and independent theaters to share their experiences. During a lively discussion, a theater school teacher working in an underserved community expressed disappointment when describing her unsuccessful attempts to collaborate with local theaters and connect some of her exceptional actors with them. If quotas were in place, would companies be more active in responding to her call?

Be that as it may, strictly speaking of diversity in quantitative measures might come out as culturally insensitive. Documenting engagement with metrics leaves out the different cultural experiences that inform our identities. Hard numbers lack the witness to the intrinsic value of cultural exchange between agents: a two way street cognition. A successful integration of a new member into an existing community depends on how we facilitate a mutual dialogue. Number checking does not challenge institutional status quo, nor transform social consciousness by picking a few diverse members to satisfy a quota measure.

A common critique heard again at the symposium held at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, CA, pointed at larger regional theaters and their often too-white organizational culture. Not that these cultural institutions would not aspire to inclusive policies, but their historical identity aligns them by default with European high art elitism. To assure social cohesion during a time of political unrest in the 1960s, the US government used arts strategy to endorse common values and norms to unite society. Top-down arts agendas legitimized the European cultural bias of high art viewing certain forms of art as more suitable for raising cultural consciousness. Government policy thus implicitly strengthened the exclusion of non-mainstream communities from art participation. As a result, regional theaters became exemplary cases of imposition of Eurocentric aesthetics and values. The earned reputation of an elite institution shaped the identity of the organization that is now hard to shake off.

The antithesis to art’s top-down approach seems to be grassroots projects. By their anti-institutional design they have a greater potential to draw new audiences and advance audience engagement. Using this approach the definition of the artist changes with it too. The artist is now interpreted in relation to social and cultural conditions, while art reflects them. Art is not above social structures, but is an expression of these very structures, thus art finds an inseparable link to communal identity. Grassroots companies are important, for they provide empowerment through the sense of place, representing the community’s social and cultural values. Projects like the San Francisco DIVAfest, which showcases new works by women, San Francisco Fringe Festival, which brings independent grassroots theater companies on stage, Bindlestiff Studio, which presents Filipino-American works, or San Francisco Theater Pub, which welcomes new audience in non-traditional spaces such as a local cafés or bars, are all examples of grassroots projects that have the power to supply the missing link in the instrumental top-down approach.

Such organically grown small theaters and projects prioritize local playwrights, support emerging artists, and focus on new audience engagement. Unburdened by historical cultural bias, they contribute to the repositioning of the arts from elitist to inclusive arts policy. Greater participation of minorities in the arts redefines what art is and for whom it is made. Grassroots Theater enforces community identity, re-establishes social networks, helps the revitalization of urban areas, and cuts across divides of class, ethnicity, generation, gender, and culture. All that is done with almost no budget at all.

Moreover, historical memory matters when building inclusive environments, and policy initiatives should account for that too. Historical memory as a “structure of feeling,” that Raymond Williams described as shared meanings and values within a particular community, comes from a place marked with emotional attachment. In this respect, the grassroots informal art spaces share with the community the “commitment to place”, which is “grounded in the local and specific”. “The makers of Grassroots Theater are part of the culture from which the work is drawn” say Haedicke & Nellhaus in Performing Democracy: International Perspectives on Urban Community-based Performance. In other words, this concept of subjective feeling forms artistic representations that have risen from the community, as opposed to being imposed on the community from above, as the regional theaters are perceived to have done. Art is a process that rises from a community and art’s meaning becomes ascribed by the community.

The work that is embedded in the local, culturally-specific environment, while respecting that heritage, encourages self-representation along with collaborative practices among community members. Such relationships must be built from the bottom up. And maybe, building an effective, inclusive community should be “focused less on institutions’ contributions and more on the interdependencies among different players” as Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert mention. This could also mean where traditionally leading institutions lack the flexibility needed for the task, other groups should take the responsibility to step in. Grassroots organizations are more flexible to respond to community needs and accommodate the changing demographics with collaborative programs.

If inclusiveness implies diversity, incentives or leading programs that culturally accommodate diverse groups of people, including race, low socio-economic status, ability, age, or cultural specificity, need to be continually supported to nurture a sense of belonging. Being represented within a dynamic community not as an anomaly but as an organic part of the local ecosystem, encourages a greater responsibility and awareness of one’s impact on the other. While top-down policies are often concerned with instrumental goals measured by quantitative data, grassroots movements tend to stress the intrinsic side of policy’s impact. Government practices need to encourage equality on all fronts of our society, but government policies need to be understood only as frameworks whose content is created within the social reality around us. Grassroots activities push for change and that change is coming from collaborative, community-oriented activities.

Preserving San Francisco’s Rich Cultural Heritage

Image courtesy examiner.com

24th Street, San Francisco. Image courtesy examiner.com

Lenka Belkova

San Francisco, CA: In June 2013 San Francisco Architectural Heritage invited the public to attend a first community summit that recognized the rich cultural diversity across neighborhoods. SFAH presented current challenges in securing this richness and suggestions for implementation of programs that will continue to cultivate these unique cultural identities in order to keep San Francisco’s history alive. SFAH is a nonprofit organization that leads in the preservation of cultural and architectural heritage in San Francisco.

San Francisco has many culturally distinct neighborhoods indebted to immigrants who have been settling here for centuries. Mission district is inseparably identified with Latino culture, Chinatown has been home to Chinese immigrants, Japanese settlers breathed in a particular feel to Japantown, North Beach is also know as Little Italy, Haight & Ashbury is famous for hippie subculture that grew here in the 1960s.

Throughout years accentuated by the wake of the tech boom San Francisco has been experiencing an influx of new residents and rising rents. The city’s benefits from incoming cultural as well as financial wealth do not often reach many long time residents who struggle to remain in the city and uphold a way of life that they have been building for decades. Although it is inevitable that neighborhoods and cities go through transformations, San Francisco Architectural Heritage promotes the notion of historical continuity with an eye to initiate a conversation about the pros and cons of urban changes. Retaining some of the past is worth trying to benefit everyone in the community.  The main concerns addressed at the summit included preserving family stores, culturally appropriate businesses, local cultural organizations and institutions, respecting the neighborhood’s history and architecture and creating spaces for community activities.

Highlights from the presentations:

  • Japantown speakers introduced several recommendations in order to secure the area’s cultural assets that are diminishing and correct the negative impact of 1960’s redevelopment. Among many recommendations proposed in the Japantown’s Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy was the creation of a Community Development Corporation, Community Land Trust, and Community Benefits District, along with the implementation of an Invest in Neighborhoods program. A Better Streets Plan would also contribute to a healthier Japantown community. The recommended steps were part of a solution not only to reinvest financially but also reconnect emotionally with the community’s heritage and help local specialized businesses and institutions to succeed in the ever-increasing real estate market.
  • Representatives of South of Market district, also known as SOMA, focused on the continuing displacement of the Filipino community from the area. At the moment, some of the negative impacts on the local business have been identified as the Central Subway light rail construction, diminishing affordable housing, and rising rents.
  • Panelists representing the Mission area focused on current issues surrounding Latino cultural institutions and businesses along 24th Street. This street, as the heart of the Mission, carries a significant place in Latino heritage. Unforgettably, it was the center of a Chicano movement as well as a home for Galeria de la Raza, an important cultural institution founded in 1970 that has been fostering Chicano/Latino artistic expression and enhancing the lives of Chicano community. Along the 24th Street corridor there is rich choice of ethnic eateries, Mexican bakeries, and family owned boutiques. The major identified issues in this area were commercial real estate speculators who search for soon to be expired leases to take over the spaces. Mom & Pop businesses are facing economic pressures to move out of the neighborhood since they cannot compete in the rent market. Further, displacement of long time residents causes more loss of 24th Street’s cultural identity and history. The vanishing of many murals in the area due to new developments serves as a visible example of the disappearing history. Also, a side note was made about the pressures to shut down the traditional carnival on Mission.
  • Chinatown panelists highlighted the need to build neighborhoods relevant not only to newcomers and tourists but also to consider the needs of long time residents. For example, Chinatown, as one of the densest neighborhoods, battles with the shortage of open spaces and appropriate services for its high population of seniors. Further, many buildings are old and have problems to meet varied safety codes.

Darlene Rios Drapkin, principal of Urban Transformation, related many discussed topics and concerns in preserving cultural identity and heritage to her experience while working as the Main Street manager in Fruitvale, part of the City of Oakland, where there is a strong population of Latino residents. She recognized the need for community involvement by creating culturally sensitive programs that engage local residents as partners in the community development strategies. During her management, she implemented several programs that enhanced local pride and Latino heritage, such as Dia de los Muertos Festival that features folkloric art, family friendly events, music, and ethnic food. She also launched a program to promote safe and clean streets while starting a Fruitvale Ambassador program, which, as she said, empowered local residents as the commercial neighborhood guides.

Drapkin also shared strategies in improving Temescal district in Oakland. She pointed out that the main concern for the residents was to preserve the area’s “edgy feel”, which in physical space translated into maintaining posting on poles and incorporating local arts within the built-in environment, such as designing public trash cans with culturally specific motives.

In closing, from all the presenters it was clear that a cultural heritage strategic plan is needed for each neighborhood to correct past missteps in local urban planning as well as to prevent uniformity of neighborhoods, which is threatening the artistic eclecticism found in different neighborhoods. Proposed ideas included implementing business retention strategy, city government engagement with local businesses, connecting the local community, and employing local arts and culture as a strategy to distinguish neighborhoods one from another.

What are the main issues in your city? How does your city preserve cultural and architectural heritage?  Please share your comments below. 

For more on San Francisco Architectural Heritage go to: http://www.sfheritage.org

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