About Cleveland Public Theatre
Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) was founded in 1981 under the leadership of James Levin, who envisioned a theater that would transform its urban neighborhood. Today, CPT fulfills its mission by producing adventurous new theater, nurturing regional artists, and engaging communities in devising new works that speak to contemporary issues. In addition to its season of new plays, CPT serves 500 children, youth, and adults through its community education programs. Through its work, CPT has helped stimulate a cultural renaissance in the once-blighted Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood — now designated as an arts district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
About the Project
CPT formed Teatro Publico de Cleveland, an amateur ensemble theater company comprised of members of the Latino community. Following a series of free public workshops in play creation and acting, CPT artistic staff worked with the emerging ensemble to develop and produce a new play, Cuando Cierras Your Eyes (When You Close Your Eyes). The play was presented in conjunction with opening and closing events that included visual art, food, and music.
When CPT was founded 30 years ago, its neighborhood was a dangerous place to be. A pioneer of sorts, CPT played a central role in re-imagining the urban landscape and creating a safe space for families to enjoy the arts. Now a vibrant mixed neighborhood with a strong base of working class and middle-income residents, CPT’s community is busy and active.
Despite CPT’s solid sense of place and years of working in the neighborhood, Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan was frustrated. “There were a lot of plays I wanted to do but couldn’t, like plays that required an Arabic or Latino actor,” he says. Limited by a local acting pool that did not represent the racial or ethnic diversity of neighboring communities, CPT was missing out on engaging the shifting cultural landscape surrounding the Theatre. “What’s wrong here?” Bobgan wondered. “Why aren’t we seeing the stories on our stages that we’re seeing in our community?”
Bobgan and the CPT staff resisted falling into the trap of traditional thinking about community engagement, by choosing not to simply present works or showcase actors from a target community. Knowing that any effort to connect with a new constituency would require support from individuals in the community, CPT staff looked first to its existing strong connections with the Latino community in Cleveland. A long relationship with Hector Castellanos’ Dia de los muertos celebration and with Letitia Lopez of nearby Julia Burgos Center for the Arts seemed a natural place to start. Claiming ignorance, CPT staff reached out and said, “We are interested in creating a space where we can share stories and create theater with the Latino community. Can you give us advice?”
CPT was geographically well placed to work with the Latino community, as 30 percent of its immediate neighborhood population is Latino. Geography alone, however, would not be enough, and CPT staff looked closely at what they could bring to the table. What they knew how to do well, Bobgan says, was create original work. “We’d done it with kids and with professional artists, so we knew we had this kind of asset, this kind of intellectual property, and these skill sets,” he adds. The big question was how CPT could take this core capacity and share it with the community in an authentic way.
About Incubating Innovation
Incubating Innovation is an 11-month program of The Cleveland Foundation’s Engaging the Future initiative. In Incubating Innovation, an EmcArts facilitator works with a carefully selected innovation team comprised of key staff, artists, board leaders and stakeholders to incubate and test innovative strategies that address adaptive challenges in their organizations. The program includes group facilitation, an offsite three-day Intensive Retreat, and a variety of extended support systems specifically tailored to the organization’s needs.
The important first step was to establish a 10-person advisory committee comprised of five board and staff members, and five Latino community members. The committee — which met five times over the course of the project — helped CPT identify possible connections in the community and organize public workshops in acting and play creation. Early in the prototyping process, CPT began developing an individual brand for Teatro Publico de Cleveland.
It didn’t take long for a common theme to emerge from the workshops, says Education Associate Faye Hargate. “People told us you can’t really understand the Latino community until you’ve been to a funeral,” says Hargate. “We honored that seed idea, and a funeral became the framing structure of the play.” From the workshops, the core ensemble began to emerge.
Working with the ensemble, CPT incorporated first-person narratives from workshop participants into the play. One of them came from photographer Alejandro Rivera, whose grandfather had recently died. Rivera, who admits to being more comfortable behind the camera than under the lights, ended up performing the story he wrote as part of Cuando Cierras Your Eyes. “I’ve never done theater before,” he says, “and it’s really challenging to be in front of an audience. I use visual images, but performing stories opens another door for me to express myself.”
Early on, CPT staff realized that just doing a play would not enable them to make the real connections they were seeking. The performance had to be a community celebration and a shared cultural event — something bigger than a normal theater production. In response to suggestions from the advisory committee and ensemble participants, they planned a variety of music and food activities both before and after the performance of Cuando Cierras Your Eyes. Attendance was so strong that CPT added an additional performance of the play.
Shifts in Assumptions
EmcArts facilitator John Shibley says CPT’s experience illustrates an important lesson for other theaters seeking to create community-based work. “It can’t be just about listening to a community,” he says, “but rather about engaging in meaningful dialogue and co-creation.” While CPT may have known this already, staff admit they made some fundamental shifts in their expectations of how the process would work. Bobgan says that halfway through the planning process, he was being bombarded with thematic ideas and expectations from community members in workshops, and he was “trying desperately to please them.” When he took their ideas back to the committee, however, their response was surprising: “No, no, just do what you do,” they said. “We trust in the process that you already know.” Bobgan says, “It’s almost as if we’d switched viewpoints. I had been insisting we needed to follow the process, but about halfway through I was trying to please the community.” It was remarkable, he adds, that it was the community committee who refocused his attention on the process of making the play.
Like most other institutions, CPT imagined that the most effective means of connecting with the Latino community would be through the established institutions that were serving Latinos. Some of the organizations deemed critical to success never responded to CPT’s requests, and many meetings they hoped for never occurred. In the end, Shibley notes, “The most help is likely to come from individuals, not the visible established institutions representing the community.”
These individuals — like Rivera and Lopez — proved to be indispensable allies. When Bobgan began to question his own outsider role in the process, assuming that others might not trust him, they and other ensemble members debunked his assumptions. “There was a moment in which people were sharing a lot about their fears and their hopes about the project and I suddenly realized how scared I was on some level,” says Bobgan, who suspected that at any moment, someone would say, “You’re white, what can you know about our experience?” When he shared his own fear, the group told him, “No, we’ve been working together. These are our stories, and we have your back.”
Obstacles and Enablers
While CPT staff didn’t know how to proceed with this project, their strength was their certainty that they did not know. Lacking specific knowledge of the community, they were forced to rely on their ability to invite people into experiences as co-creators, an ability honed by decades of making theater. These skills, Shibley adds, “were supported by a warm, assertive curiosity about the lives of neighbors they did not know, and a respectful belief in the truth of what those neighbors told them.” CPT’s most profound institutional knowledge — the ability to turn real stories of people’s lives into art — was perhaps the primary determinant of the continuing success of Teatro Publico de Cleveland.
Although participants describe the initial response from the Latino community as “iffy,” committed individuals who championed the project were key to enlisting participation from others. Lopez, for example, brought legitimacy to the work, and Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center hosted the only offsite public workshop. CPT learned an important lesson from this experience. While it made sense to contact the institutions others suggested, making contact did not turn out to be critical. More important was earning (and deserving) the trust of the people the community trusted. CPT worked hard to institutionalize the equality of its partnership with the Latino community from the very beginning, and the effort paid off.
CPT staff add that the frequency of workshops helped create a low-bar entry that required minimum commitment, enabling people to attend multiple workshops and learn more about one another without having to make a more extensive commitment. Shibley applauds CPT’s incremental approach and its willingness to offer people the opportunity to choose a level of commitment commensurate with the commitment they were able and willing to make. By creating a continuum of involvement — from workshops to rehearsals and, finally, production — CPT ensured that participants owned the process. As Shibley says, “Over time, participants bought influence over the production, and the currency they spent was their time.”
CPT was also very careful to keep its focus clearly on producing the art rather than rushing into the role of social justice leader or community organizer. The explicit purpose of the project was not political, but rather to help a community claim an artistic identity. This played to CPT’s strengths, says Shibley, who adds, “They are pretty inexperienced community organizers, but they are seasoned theater artists with a robust, tested model for play creation.”
Cuando Cierras Your Eyes was unlike anything CPT had ever done, and staff faced multiple challenges. Initially, there was resistance among the organizing committee members, many of whom doubted their ability to be helpful, since they were less experienced in theater process than CPT staff. Members also had demanding day jobs, so they had to hold planning sessions in evening. The people who ultimately formed the ensemble that became Teatro Publico de Cleveland also came from varied backgrounds. Some had theater experience, some had only peripheral experience, and some had none at all. Some spoke little English. Perhaps most important, Bobgan says, is the fact that there is no real Latino community. “People who are in the ‘Latino community’ are really people from a lot of different communities, a lot of different cultures,” he says. “We didn’t want this just to be about all of our different cultures, but also about how we need to come together as a community because we have so much to share.”
By the Numbers
Fifty individuals from the Latino community participated in workshops, and twelve worked on creating Cuando Cierras Your Eyes. Five hundred audience members attended two sold-out shows, and 70 percent of them were new to CPT and to theater. Teatro Publico de Cleveland continues to meet regularly and work for the growth of the ensemble. Bobgan’s vision of the project is for actors and performers to take on leadership roles so that they lead and guide their own work. By all indications, he won’t have to wait long, as other directors are already calling him and asking, “Can you connect me to some of the actors in Teatro Publico?”
Bobgan is quick to say, however, that numbers tell only part of the story. “There are so many measures of success when you look at this project,” he says. “On the one hand, we can count numbers, and that is definitely meaningful — not because of the money in the door, but because we know we’re reaching a lot of people. But I think there is something palpable in the room when people are sharing their own stories. I don’t know how to capture that… the deep human experience.”
The positive human experience is a powerful measure of success, say all participants. Lopez says that participating in workshops was like “opening up Pandora’s box,” enabling her to share things she thought she would never express publicly. Despite her tendency to avoid the limelight, being in the show has been life-changing. “It changed my personality,” she says. “It’s a very big freedom for me and takes me out of my normal element. Now that I’m part of the ensemble, I really feel like this is part of who I am now.” Fellow participant Liz Gonzalez says that before she joined the ensemble, she was “so closed in.” During the project, she says, “I felt I was really alive. I never thought in a million years that I would do something like this.”
This kind of transformative experience was not limited to the actors. Hargate says the project changed her role in the organization. “It’s not enough to have one success and then ride on our laurels. We have to keep the project going authentically. I have a whole new family that I feel connected to.” She chuckles when she describes a time when one of the participants appeared at a workshop with his entire family, including “a very, very pregnant wife and seven-year-old daughter.” Wondering how she would handle the situation, Hargate realized that what they were doing was “deeper than artists coming in and learning lines to do a play — that there were deep connections happening inside the community. “There was something that stirred in my heart,” she says, “that just needed deeper investment. What I gained was friends and a family.”
New Pathways to Mission
CPT proves, says Shibley, “the radical assertion that all people are artists.” This is a challenge and blessing, he adds, “that comes to an organization once or twice — to radically reimagine what ‘artist’ can mean by embracing a big, messy familia of men and women whose aspirations exceed their current craft, but whose fire makes them your brothers and sisters in creating.”
While Bobgan says that Teatro Publico feels like a natural fit with CPT’s mission and work, he also says it is totally new and requires serious additional commitment from the organization. “There’s something about this project,” Bobgan says, “that is so core and is so needed in our community. We do this play and all these people show up, and suddenly they were saying to us, ‘We’ve needed this for years.’ That was just incredible. So then you are forced to make the space, and we’re doing less of some of what we normally do.” Bobgan and his staff anticipate rolling back even further — at least in the short term — to make room for more of this kind of work.
Everyone at CPT reiterates that the community-based ensemble work that began with Teatro Publico doesn’t end with Cleveland’s Latino community. Bobgan sees potential for this co-creative model to be prototyped with other communities in Cleveland whose stories are also missing from many theaters’ stages. He dreams of a time when it all would fit together seamlessly. “Wouldn’t it be awesome,” he says, “if Dante from Teatro Publico became the co-director of the first project we might do with the Vietnamese community? That’s the kind of connection we really are hoping will happen.”
Rivera agrees, saying that the project has helped find a voice for his community. “We started to make a little family by working together,” he says. “I’m blessed to be in this place. I never thought in a million years I’d actually do something this big. We are just scratching the surface. Hopefully, this is something that will continue for years. That’s what I hope.”