(All images from I And This Mystery Here We Stand by artist Natasha Pestich. Screen prints 2014. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)
The goings on:
Our primary activities to date have been developing community engaged art installations and arts integrated curricula to both extend the theme of our mainstage productions into public and community spaces, and to create pathways from those spaces back into the theatre. Our overall goal is to increase participation among neighborhood residents and community center participants as mainstage audiences. Artists with experience in social practice were commissioned to develop installations and Pillsbury House + Theatre’s resident teaching artists developed curricula for participant groups to accompany the first two mainstage shows in the 2014 season.
Artist Allison Bolah created You’re not looking at this in the right light… a multi-media installation in response to Johnna Adams’ play Gidion’s Knot, that considered both Pillsbury House’s community and facilities as it explored young people’s experiences of miscommunication. As a former Language Arts instructor, Bolah is familiar with the diverse ways an off-hand utterance or a poem decoded in the classroom results in ripples of tension or insight. You’re not looking at this in the right light… spanned three floors of the PH+T neighborhood center. On the first floor (main lobby),video and sculpture gave voice to young people from Pillsbury House + Theatre’s After School Program. Collected texts being misunderstood were de- and re-contextualized in youth performances and in written ”assignments”, which passersby were invited to complete while sitting at school desks. On the second floor (the ‘home’ of Pillsbury House Theatre’s After School Program), was a display of photographs taken of youth as they shared their stories. On the third floor (clinic waiting area), was a desk, chair, and additional ‘assignments’ echoing the First Floor installation was installed.
Artist Natasha Pestich created I And This Mystery Here We Stand, a print-based public art installation that responded to the Spring 2014 production of Michael Milligan’s play Mercy Killers. I And This Mystery Here We Stand, recalled the personal perspectives of health care providers, volunteers and patients themselves through screen printed posters that portrayed some of the challenges and triumphs faced by regular folks. This project engaged community residents in conversation related to the current health care debate. Most of the participant interviews came from the Pillsbury House Integrated Health Care Clinic ran by Northwestern Health Sciences University. Community members’ stories and insights became the inspiration for a series of 8 original posters designed and printed by Natasha, and installed in and around PH+T and the surrounding neighborhoods. Reflecting concerns and questions about the current health care system, the aim of these posters was to make visible the personal challenges ordinary citizens face, and to make public personal expressions of empathy, care and love. Posters were visible in Pillsbury’s first floor lobby and third floor clinic waiting area. Posters are also hung in 12 local businesses and posted in public spaces (fences, telephone poles, etc.) in the four neighborhoods surrounding the theatre. The teaching artists supported Natasha’s work with clinic patients and staff by posing questions and posting information in public spaces that people could engage with outside the structure of a regular program.
We have always been a theatre with a strong community engagement focus, but the level of porousness between the organization and our constituencies (including artists, audiences, partners and funders) now is far greater than ever before. We attribute this in large degree to the work that the installation and teaching artists are doing – it is generating a web of connections that seems to encourage movement across and between shows, programs, locations and events. Their work is also helping to articulate a neighborhood identity that fundamentally includes art and creative activity. We believe as well that this frame accelerates creative activity and arts participation and will extend well beyond PH+T.
At the same time, we are aware that there is a strong perception in the neighborhood that theatre, even Pillsbury House Theatre, is cost prohibitive. We have done a lot to try to dispel this notion: free childcare and regular Pick-Your-Price performances – extended now to an entire run of at least one show annually. However, we know that it still deeply embedded. A regular patron e-mailed us recently about finding one of our show postcards in his yard with written comments about how people in the neighborhood can’t afford this kind of stuff. The card was for a show where all of the tickets were offered on a Pick-Your-Price basis. This kind of feedback is extremely useful and further convinces us that the kinds of connections that artists are making with community members through the Audience (R)Evolution project are much more powerful in terms of audience development among people who do not regularly attend theatre than any traditional marketing we could implement.
As mentioned earlier, we have definitely seen an increase in neighborhood center participants attending mainstage plays. So far this includes parents of children in the afterschool program and staff and patients of the Integrated Health Care Clinic. Regardless of the numbers of people coming from the target groups, we know that the people who are attending are more engaged in the plays and the questions they provoke. Post show discussions, feedback on social media and survey question responses demonstrate a deeper level of consideration of the plays content – sometimes well after the productions are over, and an increased willingness to engage in dialogue. We think this is attributable largely to the extension of the plays into additional spaces, creating touch points that both create anticipation for the plays before they open and evoke images of memorable moments after closings.
The road ahead:
Our neighborhood center is experiencing a radical shift in its daily intended use and opening up to new ways of engaging audience as they interact with our common spaces. Artist installations, pop-ups, and floating performance art is becoming part of the ongoing art practice at the Pillsbury House + Theatre, and some of our willingness to explore and incorporate these forms and disciplines in our building and day-to-day operations is from learning through our Audience (R)Evolution projects. This is leading to new and exciting uses of our facility like Arts on Chicago artist David Luke’s multi-projection animations streaming through our lobby windowss Peter Haakon Thompson’s Temporary Table Tennis Trailer parked in front of the building to engage people in conversations and healthy activities, and Naked Stages artist Eric F. Avery’s WHITE [people] installation being developed for a December 2014 debut. WHITE [people] is an examination of “Blackness” through critiquing the kind of privilege that exists by simply seeming “White” and adhering to the conventions of the dominant culture. It is not an indictment of any group; it is an invitation to explore the life of someone you are not.
Our Audience (R)Evolution concludes with a project to accompany Tarell Alvin McCraney’s MARCUS; OR THE SECRET OF SWEET. We are excited to have Artist and Tactical Urbanist Sam Ero-Phillips to lead our third and final project. We engaged Sam’s project timeline for the fall show earlier than for the first two shows as a result of artist feedback. The fall show poses a particular challenge because it is being mounted in the Dowling Studio of the Guthrie Theater in Downtown Minneapolis, roughly 36 blocks from our main location. We have presented several shows in that space and have always found it difficult to retain our primary neighborhood and participant audiences for these shows, much less increase their numbers. We think that the Audience (R)Evolution activities have great potential to change this. The artist installation or intervention will likely be in the form of a mobile (and more nimble) participatory project that can literally connect the people and geographies of PH+T and the Guthrie.
Sam’s project involves multidisciplinary approaches to audience engagement including artist designed, mass-distributed interactive zines with questions and a discount code for people, who live in our target geography; a two week artist residency with students in the local high school’s Black Box Theater program to create performances at Café Southside (a safe space for LGBTQA youth) in response to the layered and complex themes of Marcus; and events at Café Southside to discuss topics in the play and hand out zines; and group bike rides to watch the play and attend the post-show discussions with Out4Good (the LGBTQA organizing body within the Minneapolis Public Schools). Sam and his community partners recognize that the play’s central characters are teens and want to seize on the opportunity to have nuanced, real conversations co-facilitated by young people in our community.
Michael Hoyt serves as the Creative Community Liaison and is a senior leader at Pillsbury House and Theatre, a center for creativity and community in Minneapolis, MN. Hoyt has been producing, managing and directing arts based community development projects, youth development programs, and placemaking for nearly 20 years.
Creating and facilitating unique shared experiences that connect diverse and often nontraditional art audiences drive his art practice. Hoyt’s work has been exhibited in traditional and nontraditional venues locally and abroad at the Seoul Olympic Museum of Art, Arts At Marks Garage in Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Art Gallery, Pillsbury House + Theatre, Soap Factory, Soo Visual Arts Center, Intermedia Arts, Franconia Sculpture Park, Art Shanty Projects, and the Walker Art Center. He has received awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board through the Cultural Collaborations and Artist initiative Grant programs as well as a Jerome Foundation Fellowship and a Northern Lights Art(ists) on the Verge Fellowship. Hoyt’s artist residencies include the Intersections Visiting Artist and Scholar Program at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, the Visiting Artist Exhibition Program at Roanoke College, the Blacklock Nature Sanctuary, and Kulture Klub Collaborative.
Hoyt has the added benefit of raising a family three blocks from the PH+T, and is honored to have the opportunity to engage local artists and community members in creative practice towards the development of a vibrant and healthy community for all of its members.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.