Civic Dramaturgy: bridging the gap between art and people

by Isaac Gomez

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

Chicago, IL – As part of Victory Gardens Theater’s initiatives to bridge the gap between our plays, our audiences, and the world outside these productions, we produce an event series for each show called “Public Programs.” These varied events, though complex in nature, center on large recurring themes that are then deconstructed through town halls, pre-show performances, and post-show discussions.

The following is an anonymous response from a patron who left about halfway through a performance of the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s The Gospel of Lovingkindness, directed by artistic director Chay Yew – a play stemming from gun violence in the south side of Chicago:

“Dearest cast and team,

The performance, set, and well, everything was just spectacular. I live in the chaos you have portrayed, and have experienced two murders due to gun violence in the last 36 days. Sorry I walked out… but it was just too much. Continue being brilliant. This story is vital. Black and brown bodies need this hope. Our stories will not vanish.”

From a Town Hall on gun violence to a spoken word performance by youth in the South Side community, our audiences responded to this play with personal stories of loss, anger, resilience, and hope in a time where gun violence is a day-to-day experience for many residents in Chicago. Many have burst into tears asking “why” and “how” – questions without easy answers. As a theater committed to bridging the gap between our audiences and our productions, we offer the opportunity to talk about these issues as a collective, finding ways to move forward as a community.

For The Gospel of Lovingkindness, we held post-show conversations after each performance where an average of sixty patrons would stick around and openly share their experiences. Each night, there was at least one patron who lost someone to gun violence, and it was common to hear shouting, cursing, and rambles of confusion as we tried to sort through these thoughts in hopes of identifying ways of moving forward:

“How can I make a difference in these kids when I’m experiencing the same kind of systemic discrimination as an educator for being a fucking lesbian?!” shouted one patron.

“But what is the community going to do about …those boys with their pants below their waist?” asked another.

“And when the story of my son’s murder hit the news, and I read the comments that said ‘thank goodness’, ‘good riddance’, ‘another thug off the street’, and ‘where is his mother’, I thought to myself – she is sitting right here and she raised him to be better than that.” shared another.

Usually, I would follow up on these statements by asking:

“You just bore witness to this piece of theatre. And as you leave this building – what are you going to do? What are you going to take away with you from this moment? What small change can you make tonight or tomorrow to start the uphill climb towards the fight against gun violence?”

Some audience members couldn’t think of anything. Others said they would talk to their kids because it’s important to know the history of their city before attempting to write a new one. Regardless of their responses, our audiences left the theater thinking deeply about this issue continuing the dialogue on the train, in their cars, and in the days following their experience.

This is civic dramaturgy – a community’s response to the work as it relates to their everyday lives, inspired and buoyed by the art they experienced as a collective. When practicing theatre for social change, post-show conversations have to function differently than they do for other shows. The conversation becomes less about the work as an artistic entity, and acts more as a call-to-action. This was definitely an adjustment for patrons who anticipated hearing artistic choices from the director, playwright, and designers. But for our audiences who choose to stay for our “Afterwords” conversations, we strive to provide a safe space to have an open dialogue about these complicated issues in hopes that our audiences leave with a sense of responsibility to make greater change in ways they never anticipated – theatre acting as a motor for social change.

Moving forward with Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman, a play stemming from political torture in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship and an issue still present among many communities today, we will look to our audiences for solution building. We will look to our audiences for the same answers they seek from us: What is true justice? Will reparations for torture survivors ever be enough?

The main goal of our public programs has always been to engage our audiences to think a little deeper about themselves and the world around them when they see a show at the historic Biograph Theater. Because now is the time. And we are the change.

Isaac Gomez is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin (BA, Theatre and Dance), and a recipient of the University of Texas George H. Mitchell Award for Academic Excellence. As a young Latino Playwright, his most recent works include The Women of Juarez (Cohen New Works Festival), an ethnographic piece centered on the mass murder of women in Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. The Women of Juarez was additionally presented as a Lunada table reading with Chicago’s Teatro Luna, and is the recipient of the Austin Critics Table David Mark Cohen New Play Award for 2013. Upon moving to Chicago, Isaac completed a Literary/Dramaturgy internship at the Goodman Theatre, to which his dramaturgy credits include Cheryl West’s Pullman Porter Blues, Martin Zimmerman’s The Solid Sand Below, and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale. Currently, Isaac is the Literary Manager at Victory Gardens Theater, where he is the resident dramaturg as well as the curator of their Public Programs event series. He is also an administrative associate at the Alliance of Latino Theatre Artists (ALTA) in Chicago and an active member of the national Latina/o Theater Commons.

  • Coco Elysses

    Wow…great work all that are involved. I would love to see your next work. I was married to a Chilean and am friends with so many Chilean artist who had family members who have died by the hands of Pinochet and others. Make sure you reach out to the small Chilean community in Chicago.

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