Radical Outreach Report: People’s Light

by Zak Berkman

in Audience & Community Engagement,National Conference

Post image for Radical Outreach Report: People’s Light

(This post is report out from participants in the Radical Outreach: New Directions for Activating Underserved Audiences, a breakout session at the 2014 TCG National Conference. This post was curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton.)

I was hugely impressed with how Alison prepared the panel prior to our breakout sessions, and then prepared the attendees of each session. Our presentations encompassed such a wide range of programs and focuses, at budget scales that span the spectrum, I was wary in total it would feel either scattered or overwhelming. Instead, Alison constructed a framework of mutual appreciation, an acknowledgement of the context of ”place,” and a multi-dimensional definition of diversity that was dynamic and rigorous, which allowed all of us to fit our specific examples into this inclusive narrative. We felt part of one mosaic rather than scattered, disconnected initiatives, and as a result, Alison demonstrated a methodology of community engagement from which all of us in the room could learn.

I began each presentation by suggesting the title “radical outreach” is not a match for the New Play Frontiers program at People’s Light.  Not because the program isn’t significant or doesn’t mark a seismic strategic shift in our theatre’s approach towards our future. It does. I say this rather because New Play Frontiers emerges from a series of recent experiments regarding reciprocal relationships with cross-sector partners, and represents more a re-commitment ceremony to the original community-connected impulses of our 40 year old theatre. Our 7-acre campus sits at the intersection of suburban, rural, and urban neighborhoods in Chester Country, PA, one of the fastest growing counties in America. This program, therefore, is sparked by our recognition that it is time for our theatre to adapt to this growth, and be in greater dialogue with the many economically, racially, and religiously diverse communities in our region. Also at the core of the program is an effort to address some of the questions raised in OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: how to place playwrights at the center of a theatre’s mission and strategic plan. With New Play Frontiers, leading playwrights participate in residences where they have the opportunity to discover the history, heritage, and current stories of our area, and to be human bridges between these communities and our theatre. Thanks to the Mellon and Barra Foundations, we have now commissioned the first six playwrights to create new work inspired by these residencies.

I shared the structure of the residencies and how pleasantly surprised we’ve been at how quickly meaningful relationships developed between our writers and our community partners. I underscored the importance of reciprocity, of long term investment and commitment, of genuine care, and food food food. I highlighted the past experience of the writers, selected following an intensive interview process, as a vital ingredient in this program’s success. I also emphasized how People’s Light spent nine months establishing a cross-departmental committee to assure that we could effectively support these residencies, connect them to our broader programming, and collect data for future use.

It was very interesting to talk about New Play Frontiers in the same conversation as South Coast Rep’s similar Crossroads program. As Alison indicated in her opening, geography is at the core of both initiatives, in terms of impulse, design, and outcome. Our approaches and expectations are different, but so is the context for the establishing of these programs. SCR is much larger than People’s Light and can connect their programs to existing commissioning and New Play enterprises. The commitment of the Crossroads writers is less (in residency time), but their active reciprocity is clearer. Crossroads writers also possess some greater artistic freedom. It made me think more deeply about future rounds of New Play Frontiers, and if there are qualities from SCR’s program we might potentially integrate into ours. At the same time, hearing about our program in relation to theirs allowed me to further appreciate how much New Play Frontiers is at the core of the long term thinking at People’s Light. With far fewer resources, New Play Frontiers is already sparking real change in our organization, and planting the seeds for further evolution.

I left the two panel sessions with great admiration for my fellow panelists, the many visionaries, leaders, and deep thinkers listening and asking questions in the room, as well as a kick ass t-shirt declaring “No Guacamole For Immigrant Haters”!

Zak Berkman is a playwright, director, dramaturg, and producer. He joined People’s Light as Associate Artistic Director in September, 2011, and became Producing Director in September 2013. Zak leads the New Play Frontiers in-community residency and commission program at People’s Light. Previously, Zak was associate to Broadway producer, Margo Lion, and co-founder and Executive Director of Artistic Programming with Epic Theatre Ensemble, an OBIE, Drama League, and Lucille Lortel Award-winning artist-run company in New York City.