In Search of Radical Openness

STREB, founded in 1979 by choreographer Elizabeth Streb, is an organization dedicated to bringing audiences and communities into the artistic process by breaking down barriers to participation and access with new approaches to creation, education and presentation. Starting out as a touring dance company, the organization has grown over the years to include classes, summer camps, and community events. These programs are grounded in Elizabeth Streb’s unique PopAction approach, which fuses aspects of dance, sports, gymnastics and circus.

STREB SLAM is the company’s creative
center and laboratory in Brooklyn.

Since 2003, the organization has made its home at the STREB Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The opening of SLAM marked a significant shift in the development of STREB as an organization. Instead of being a dance company that would do residency activities in various locations, they now had a home where they could build out programs based on their mission of deep, meaningful community engagement.

When EmcArts, with the support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, launched the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts in 2008, SLAM had been open for about five years. It was a performance space, a rehearsal space, and a learning space, but above all, it was a space that was open to the public. Anyone and everyone could come to rehearsals, take classes, take pictures, and ask questions. Leaders within STREB, however, wanted to bring even more people from more different backgrounds into their walls and into their work.

By participating in the Lab, STREB was able to dive into the work of exploring some big, complex questions:

  • Who do we want to be engaging with us and our programs who isn’t currently?
  • How do we spread word that SLAM is here as a resource for the community?
  • How do we get people to actually come check out what’s going on here?
  • What programs and activities will be meaningful to our desired audiences, and make them feel like they want to participate?

While the spirit of questioning and challenging assumptions had been central to STREB and its work from the very beginning, the Lab provided a more structured framework to engage in this work. This was particularly helpful at that time, as the organization had grown quite a bit in the previous five years, along with opening their own space. Melissa Dibble, the EmcArts facilitator who worked with STREB in the Lab, helped them bring together various stakeholders (staff, artists, board, community members) and make sure that they all had a voice in the evolution of the organization.

After exploring multiple ideas in the Lab, STREB prototyped a new weekly Teen Action Club in June 2009. For $25, teens could participate in three activities: flying trapeze, trampoline, and PopAction. The teens who showed up clearly found each evening engaging, challenging and fun, but the number and diversity of participants wasn’t quite what STREB was hoping for, the weekly schedule was too demanding, and the age range seemed too broad. In a second prototyping attempt, then, they reduced ticket prices, switched to a monthly schedule, narrowed the age range to 13–16, and lengthened the advance marketing and outreach period. Through this sort of repeated experimentation and action learning, which is critical for any adaptive change effort, they eventually found a model that was successful and sustainable. You can read the full profile of STREB’s journey through the Lab on ArtsFwd here.

Nine years later, the Teen Action Club is still going strong, as is the Neonate Action Club (for kids age 10-12) that launched in 2011. Both of these programs have become central to STREB’s work, and are part of an expanding network of programming for audiences of all ages, including school workshops and summer camps. Classes at SLAM are regularly sold out well in advance.

Beyond the success of the Teen and Neonate Action Clubs, STREB’s participation in the Lab helped institutionalize the idea of always asking questions and challenging assumptions. This approach is taken to changes and challenges of all shapes and sizes within the organization, always with an eye toward the mission. Constantly experimenting and questioning assumptions isn’t always easy, however. Even in an organization known for pushing boundaries, sometimes there’s a tension between experimentation and the limitations of staff and financial capacity. In designing their community programs, STREB is continually looking for ways to find the right balance between openness and financial stability, regularly experimenting (of course) with new ideas and new models in order to make sure that the programs are both sustainable and accessible to as many people as possible.

Another indirect legacy of the Lab is a continued focus on active participation by all stakeholders in STREB’s ongoing development. Artists, staff and board members are all involved in conversations about the health of the organization and future strategic directions. More broadly, there are lots of examples of people whose engagement with STREB has grown and evolved over time. A parent of a kid who took classes at STREB is now the treasurer of the board, as well as playing a key role in the renovation and improvement the SLAM building. Teen Action Club participants have gone on to be summer camp counselors. A former summer intern now teaches trapeze classes, as well as recruiting her friends to participate in STREB programs. These examples all underscore the message that there are many ways for someone to find their place in the STREB family.

Of course, the folks at STREB are always looking to what happens next. With the rapid gentrification of SLAM’s Williamsburg home, they are continuing to seek out ways to diversify their audiences and participants. They are also planning a new program for young adults based on the Teen Action Club model, which will launch in October.

Elizabeth Streb recently delivered a TED talk, which will be released in the fall. In her talk, she notes that there are lots of old industrial buildings like the one that houses SLAM, in New York as well as across the country. She believes that there is a great potential for more of these buildings to become spaces where people can come together to engage in movement and action, regardless of background, strength, skill, or body type. The radical openness of STREB’s programs and the SLAM space are an inspiring model, and one that may be showing up soon in an abandoned warehouse near you!


Ben Sachs-Hamilton is the External Relations Coordinator at EmcArts.