What Can We Learn From “Accidental” Community Engagement?

A community-based performance by ArtSpot Productions & Mondo Bizarro prioritized relationship-building to impact transformative social change.

Cry You One, a piece by New Orleans-based ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro, developed out of dedicated relationship-building with community partners. Image: Melisa Cardona.
Cry You One, a piece by New Orleans-based ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro, developed out of dedicated relationship-building with community partners. Image: Melisa Cardona.

Theater companies often create engagement opportunities for their audience to gain a deeper understanding of a production. For example, I’ve seen many theaters host talkback sessions, bringing in an organization that does work related to the show’s themes. But what is the impact of these talkbacks? In my experience, arts organizations often opt for these traditional models of engagement to address social responsibility, but don’t get their hands dirty. If the intention of the artwork is to spark social change, how can arts organizations pave the way to truly make that happen?

These new models for engagement don’t have to be complicated or meticulously planned. Instead, prioritizing relationship-building in partnerships can prove to bring many unplanned benefits to an arts organization’s engagement efforts, including a greater overall impact on a community’s efforts to enact social change.

Focusing on partnerships in Cry You One

As a theater artist based in New Orleans, I am continuously invigorated and inspired by two local ensembles  – ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro – and how they create their devised work. This fall, they are together opening Cry You One, a piece that is rooted in the relationships they have made with partners.  In the process of developing Cry You One, ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro have reached out to scientists, policy makers, cultural workers, community organizers, artists and government officials on a city and statewide level to gain investment in the work. What has been truly transformational are the unplanned benefits of this relationship-building, or “accidental engagement.”

Sharing a work-in-progress, building relationships

Cry You One is a site-specific performance that includes a 1.5 mile procession atop the Lake Bourgne Levee system in St. Bernard Parish, located twelve miles east of New Orleans. The performance is the third installment in a series of collaborations between the two ensembles that grieves the regional loss of coastal wetlands in Southeast Louisiana – which are being destroyed at the rate of a football field every hour.

In order to introduce themselves to the St. Bernard Parish community, the team behind Cry You One set aside time early on to knock on doors and speak with local residents and business owners. Additionally, they invited the Parish Government, the Lake Bourgne Basin Levee District, the Department of Transportation, cultural centers such as Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society, and local landowners around the Levee to attend an early showing of the work while it was still in progress during last May.

That May showcase allowed them to learn what worked and what didn’t in the piece, connect with the community, and receive formal permissions from the city to continue the project. However, Nick Slie of Mondo Bizarro says the true success was not in the planned outcomes of the event, “but in the relationships that grew out of it.”

After the show’s preview, a Levee District representative asked site designer and ArtSpot team member Jeff Becker if they wanted people to flood the area and leave. Becker replied, “No, what we want is for people to discuss the issue. This conversation that you and I are having right now is what this work is about.” This led to a longer discussion and the support of that Levee District representative, who has become a champion of the Cry You One project and instrumental to its success.

What is “accidental engagement”?

This example of the many invaluable relationships developed between Cry You One artists and their partners are what Becker likes to call “accidental” community engagement. “It is not engagement in a traditional sense. It’s deep, it involves risk, [and it requires] you to be honest and build trust,” says Becker. For this kind of community engagement, an arts organization must maneuver less like a business and more like a community organizer.

“Accidental engagement” is what Michael Rohd, Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre, also calls civic practice: “an activity where a theater artist employs the assets of his/her craft in response to the needs of non-arts partners as determined through ongoing, relationship-based dialogue.” Civic practice requires more listening and dialogue between diverse, multi-disciplinary groups with an intent to cause transformation on individual, organizational, and systemic levels.

However, trying to justify the importance of relationship-based work can be a challenge. How do we translate the importance of this practice to people who quantify success in traditional monetary ways? How do we articulate civic practice as something that is valuable to other sectors, as well as funders?

Civic practice in sectors outside the arts

ArtSpot and Mondo Bizarro garnered widespread interest and cultivated strong social capital for the Cry You One project through the relationships they built, which allowed them invaluable access to shared resources and exchange of knowledge. The abilities they have as artists to make connections and communicate across diverse groups through their work are the kind of skills that other sectors outside the arts could learn.

Rohd says, “We need to demonstrate theater’s capacity as a set of potent practices that civic and legislative leaders (and organizations) can recognize as usable, applicable tools.” From this perspective, an “accidental engagement” approach centered on relationship-building links back to the basic reasons we tell stories: to make connection with others, to understand the world, to find meaning in the human experience, and to make an impact. Focusing on civic practice, or the simple act of being present to another human being through your work, can plant a seed that grows into organizational and policy level change.

I encourage you to visit the Cry You One website to learn more about the project, which will live on past its showing (from October-November 2013) as both a touring piece, and as a multimedia interactive storytelling database online.

Francesca McKenzie is a theater maker, educator, yoga teacher, and community organizer based in New Orleans. She is a company member of Cripple Creek Theater, an ensemble that produces socially and politically relevant plays to spark positive social action. She has worked with numerous theater companies in New Orleans such as Goat in the Road Productions, Southern Rep, and The NOLA Project. She is also a theater arts integration teacher through Kid SmART at several New Orleans Charter Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @CheskaMcKenzie.