MILTON: A performance and community engagement experiment

by Lisa D'Amour, Katie Pearl and Ashley Sparks

in Audience & Community Engagement

Post image for MILTON: A performance and community engagement experiment

(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

PearlDamour has built our body of work in cities: Austin, Minneapolis, New Orleans and New York, primarily in edgy, experimental theaters under 100 seats.  Conversation about our work has circulated within a relatively small, urban network of artists, educators and theater enthusiasts who are interested in a conversation about aesthetics and form – how can theater continue to break away from linear narrative?  How can interdisciplinarity help us reinvent / reinvigorate / reimagine the theatrical event?  These rigorous conversations helped us grow our work and build a tight community of audience and collaborators.  Recently, almost accidentally, we got curious about moving outside of our “urban bubble” and developing a piece for and with rural communities.  For the past two years, we’ve been working on MILTON, a theater piece and community engagement experiment.  We’ve been visiting 5 towns named MILTON – in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Oregon –  interviewing people about their lives, towns and worldviews.  In each interview we ask: How did you get to Milton? What is your advice for future generations? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? Why do you think we are here on this earth? Slowly, we created a theater work inspired by these interviews: a 3-person, spoken and sung performance that incorporates sound collages taken from the interviews and video of the sky over each Milton.

We recently premiered the show in Milton, NC, a town of 250 people on the NC / VA border.  The journey to get the show to Milton, NC taught us incredible life lessons about the time and effort it takes to cultivate an audience and about art as a catalyst for conversation and action.  And now the process continues as we work towards performances in the other four Miltons.  Throughout all phases of the project, we —  Katie Pearl (project co-creator and director for the performance), Ashley Sparks (project co-creator and community engagement strategist/dramaturg), and Lisa D’Amour (project co-creator and playwright for the performance)– work closely and fluidly. In this article, we jointly consider our own ethics and strategies of engagement.

Meeting the Miltons: Engagement as Intimate Creative Encounter

As outsiders, we embark on a two-fold process for engagement with each Milton.  First, we do our homework as artists. As a team we articulate why we are doing the work and identify our dreams about the potential impact, engaging each other in ongoing conversations to get clarity on the intentions, motivations, and values that are critical to our process.  And second, we do our homework about and with the residents of Milton. From community asset mapping (identifying the local talent in town, which might include artists, cooks, organizers, electricians, preachers, poets, and so on) to attending church on Sundays, from afternoon hang outs at local business to attending community meetings, this type of homework values the development of personal relationships. It is grounded in curiosity, and takes as its practice deep active listening. As an outsider, it requires time to build trust with the people you’d like to invite into a creative encounter. The MILTON process is intimate and personal, and we are transparent that we are approaching each Milton as a long-term long-distance relationship. We also are transparent about our own lives, which feels like an important risk to take as, together with these towns, we actively seek an honest common ground.

SNAPSHOT:

Katie is sitting with her 89 year old host Ms. Jean Scott in the kitchen one morning. Over coffee, Katie tells Ms. Scott that she has a ‘female partner’ who will be coming to Milton to see the show. Ms. Scott nods, nonplussed. “That’s just fine,” she says in her slow, rich voice. “What you do is your business.  You are both welcome to stay here.”

Creating the Show: Engagement as Content Building

Our engagement always begins with conversation about life in Milton. We might start with the mayor, the head of the garden club, a church official, business owner, speaking with them in places where we are clearly the guest (someone’s living room or office or maybe the basement of a Baptist Church).  We begin with the four questions shared at the top of this article; the conversations inevitably wind their way towards the challenges and opportunities in that particular Milton.  These meetings provide material and content for our show, but they also plant the seeds of an exchange that continues to grow.  Individual conversations lead to organizational, municipal, and institutional partnerships, where the discussions expand to include reflections and perspectives representing different aspects of the community including their hopes and dreams for that particular Milton.

SNAPSHOT:

Lisa and Katie finish a tour of the Thomas Day House, a museum dedicated to the life and work of the free black cabinetmaker Thomas Day, an important Miltonian from the early 1800’s.  Their tour guide Joe Graves stares them down through his big glasses. “Now, what you girls are wanting to do here in Milton,” he says, “could have a significant effect on this town. I really believe that. We have good, energetic people here. This could really be something.”

Catalyzing Change: Engagement as Community Development

As we listen to these reflections, we start to dream, ask more questions, offer ideas, try to suss out the information and resource gaps. The process is reciprocal: the interviews feed the artistic content for the performance, while the answers to community-based questions feed the generation of engagement ideas amongst the residents themselves about challenges they face. As an artistic team we talk about what tools we have that might be used to address those challenges and/or instigate community imagination. We’ll host informal gatherings and ask people what they want to see happen in their community.  We create catalytic space for people to come up with their own solutions and then integrate our own artistic impulses. It’s an organic collaboration that arises both because we’ve taken the time to build trust, and also because we have a real interest in having the community play with us (rather than us playing for them).

We find ourselves instigating ideas about which our local partners then make concrete decisions.  How or will these ideas be brought to life?  This combination of our open idea factory couples with strong local leadership.   We are not working in a model that is solely about the community coming up with solutions; rather,  we recognize that as outsiders and artists there is value to us bringing different impulses, ideas, and methodologies. It is a collaborative dance where we and the community are leading at different times. We wouldn’t be able to do this without a foundation of trust and openness of our community partners to try new ideas. The artistic success of this project relies on a range of voices and audience being in the room – we’ll do the work to ensure that happens in both the show and our in our engagement activities.  Along the way we share our tools and provide trainings, which will leave the community with tangible skills after we are gone.

SNAPSHOT:

Lisa and Katie sitting in the Thomas Day House in January 2013.  We’ve asked community members to gather to learn more about our show, and to explore a collaboration that could happen months before the show, to build interest, create context, and help us meet more people.  We were going to propose something like a potluck.  We pose the question to a room full of about 20 people.  Shirley Cadmus, who runs the MILTON STUDIO ART GALLERY raises her hand.  “I’d like to propose a Guild Day, where artists can do demonstrations and sell their artwork.”  Within the hour this idea grows into the First Annual Milton Street Fair, an event that would bring the whole town together to plan and make it happen.

The 1st Annual Milton Street Fair: Engagement as Community Collaboration

At the end of that first meeting, the Street Fair held the potential to be a dynamic community event that showcased the town’s assets and brought vendors, craftspeople, musicians, tourists and dispersed residents together to celebrate and experience Milton.  It felt like a risk—the town hadn’t done anything like this before—but an exciting one. PearlDamour joined the planning committee, participating across distance through email and phone calls.  We arrived several days before the Fair to help with the final prep – errands, sign and map making and so on.

The Street Fair was an enormous success, not only in building awareness about Milton in the region, but giving residents a strong sense of confidence in their abilities and pride in place.  It brought hundreds of people into their usually sleepy downtown area to eat, play games, watch art demonstrations and learn about the history of Milton and significant residents.   PearlDamour used this as a time to introduce our aesthetics to the community. We hosted two events that tied directly into our project:  a “cloud-making” workshop to introduce people to an element of our performance (in which we build a cloud in the space), and a “Milton memory sharing” conversation for local elders (which we video taped and then sent back to the town for a civic archive).  We wanted to do something that added to the spectacle and joy of the event, so—hearkening back to our New Orleans roots—we made a set of bright yellow “Street Fair Umbrellas” covered in sequins and ribbons and passed them out in the morning to be used throughout the day.  They added a great visual splash to the festivities and worked as a kind of celebratory glue, circulating throughout the fair. We also manned a table with photos and artifacts from our past performances, and chatted with people about the upcoming Milton show—capturing names and phone numbers as we went.

SNAPSHOT:  

2PM, Saturday of the street fair.  Walking down the steep incline which is the main road through Milton.  On the left, in the parking lot of the shut down gas station, people are in line for fish sandwiches and sno-cones from the High Street Baptist Fish Fry, and for fresh vegetables from Donald Lea’s vegetable stand.  On the right is Milton Presbyterian Church, where local actor Fred Motley is performing his piece on Thomas Day. You walk over to the covered sidewalk outside the main businesses, stepping over whimsical artworks created this morning in the sidewalk art contest. Outside the art gallery, Shirley Cadmus has a crowd gathered as she demonstrates how to make a “face vase” on her potter’s wheel. Across the street, the cornhole tournament is in full swing. Further down on the sidewalk, owners of one of the antique shops are passing out cold slices of free watermelon, and Herman Joubert, a local resident, plays James Taylor on his guitar.  And if you keep walking, you wind up at PearlDamour’s info table, with a display about the other Mltons, and their past work. Later that night, you hear Cleota Jeffries, a 90 year old Milton native, say: “Milton is in bloom.”  

Through our participation in the Street Fair, our project became embedded in an ecosystem of arts and community together-ness that emerged from the needs of this particular community.  It was a mutually beneficial event for PearlDamour and the town, and as a result, residents began to feel more ownership over and familiarity with our MILTON project — they became our best marketers and advocates as the piece moved towards its premiere.   Our audience developed through making something with the people who would eventually come see our show — traditional marketing tools like print, radio or TV ads felt flat and uninspired in this context.  As we built the Street Fair with the town, the town built trust in us– which made it easier and more exciting to move forward together, and get the word out about the show.

Preparing for Performance:  Engagement as Marketing

In North Carolina, as we prepared for the play itself, there were two things that motivated us: first, we wanted to make a performance that reflected the host community back to themselves creatively and respectfully, without letting go of our experimental aesthetic or simplifying the complexity of our experiences (or theirs).  And second, we wanted to help the audience get to know us so they would feel curious and interested enough in what we were doing to want to come to the show; once there, we wanted them to feel welcomed and safe within what was sure to be an unfamiliar experience (one strategy was simply to keep saying “well, it’s not going to be like any play you’ve seen before!”).  Producing and bringing people to our work meant a deep and mutual getting-to-know you process.  It meant that our marketing was our engagement.

We also did all the usual marketing – we made posters and published to online media outlets. We did a radio interview on the local NPR affiliate that brought non-residents to the show.  And we used grassroots systems that included a reservation sign up sheet at the local post office, stuffing the city water bill with a show flyer, making announcements at churches and signing up audience after services, and setting up a 1-888 reservation line that personally confirmed reservations. These final marketing strategies were effective only because of the deep collaboration that had been built between PearlDamour and the town of Milton over the past year.

SNAPSHOT:

Ashley is perched a porch in Milton, returning reservation calls on her cell phone. With limited phone reception, sometimes returning phone calls is tricky. Other times people were happy to stay on the phone for a long chat. She heard one story from someone who accidentally called a different 1-888 number and ended up on a sextime hotline.

Bringing the Show: Engagement as Performance

We knew we wanted the piece to reflect our experience of ALL the Miltons, with a special focus on Milton, NC.  A tall order for a piece that we wanted to keep in the realm of 70 minutes!  How to pack that wealth of experience – all the surprise, specificity and idiosyncrasy, into one piece?  To begin, we turned to one of our documentation tools that we call a “sometimes list.”  We kept this list while on research trips– they were strings of details and images that we wanted to remember about each day. They included things like:  “sometimes you are taken out to the garage to see the pecan shelling machine,”  or “sometimes you eat Chinese Food with a Cowboy balladeer.”  We loved these lists. They felt vital, immediate, and alive to us.  As we started the scripting process, we wondered if our list could BECOME our script.  In the end, it became a frame for the script, with recordings and longer monologues about specific Miltons mixed in.  It is a pointillist approach, using bits of images and experiences to move towards an ultimately ungraspable whole. This structure also speaks to our “Milton Constellation”– an image that has guided us from the beginning (and that has become the brand for the project)– you can see it at the top of this post.  An earth-bound constellation with ‘our’ five Miltons as its points, we look towards the Milton constellation to help orient us within the vast concept of “being American.”

As we developed the piece, we also considered carefully how to cast it.  We considered making the show for untrained actors, and hiring locals to perform. However our work often involves a complex vocal and physical score, and since so much about this project was new to us, we decided to work in ways we were most comfortable, which in this case meant in New York City, with NYC based actors.  This also gave us the opportunity to bring more people from New York to this town that had captured our hearts.

SNAPSHOT:  

Over and over again, residents said to us: “we can’t believe you all  came to little old Milton.”  There was a sense the town did not know what a special place it was.  As outside artists and devoted visitors, we could notice and celebrate things this town could not notice, or did not have time to celebrate.

Performing the Show: Engagement as Audience Interaction

One of our favorite experiences while performing in Milton, NC was watching a Miltonian recognize themselves or a friend referenced in the piece.  We arranged the 70-person audience in a loose circle:  5 groups, several rows deep, Quaker meeting style.  The actors sometimes sat with the audience, sometimes stood in the center of the space, sometimes crisscrossed to different audience banks.  Details about all the Miltons flew rapid fire, with North Carolina images peppered throughout.  It was inspiring to see a certain bank of seats light up because the person we mentioned in the script was sitting right there!   By the end of our run, the actors knew a lot of people in town, and they would know when someone from our script was in the room. An example: when the script mentioned the man in the Carhart Overalls who made earrings out of fishing lures, the actor improvised: “Taco, can you please stand up and take a bow?”  And the artist stood up and took a bow. So while the aesthetic of our show may have been unfamiliar, the text was layered with details about the town that became points of connection and entry for Miltonians. It was deeply fulfilling to have found a way to be true to our experimental roots while also providing a platform for these residents to be welcomed and seen. You can see a 5 minute trailer of the show here.

In Conclusion: Engagement as Big Picture

Making the performance of Milton and activating all the concurrent creative activities in Milton, NC as we did so were inherently collaborative acts. We often think about the gift of reflection: the town residents shared their lives with us, and then we reflected back their stories, memories, and history back to them. As outside witnesses, we saw the poetry of people’s lives and then brought the wonder of that into creating a theatrical, meditative and conversational space for those same residents to experience. In this way the show is both of and for the residents of Milton. The creative programming that went along with the project came were sparked by us by shaped by residents.  Now, with support from a local foundation we’ve been back several times since the performance occurred.  We are providing professional development training to support the planning and design for the Second Annual Street Fair and also for a new, ongoing Summer Performance Festival inspired by the presentation of our show. We are so gratified that our work can continue in this way– and also are just happy to go back and hang out with our new friends and catch up on the town news.

Working on this project in general and in tiny Milton, NC has made us understand how engagement and marketing can be the same thing. In fact, in this project, the relationship between engagement and marketing was not only possible, it was necessary–  and, to a certain extent, it was unavoidable. We still have questions – and we still have 4 more Miltons to present the show. We recognize that as a small team operating outside of large theater institutions, we can be more flexibly responsive and nimble than large organizations often can be.  But as we think about sharing what we’ve learned with the larger theater community, or taking PearlDamour’s knowledge into our next project, there are things we will all need to consider: when the work isn’t built from the voices of the community, what motivates artists towards this kind of deep relationship building with their audience?  What motivates the potential audience towards interest and curiosity in the artists?  What are the constructs that bring these two entities—artists and audiences—together?   Answers will vary, of course… but we will tell you this: if you find yourself In a small town named Milton in North Carolina, you might find the them while sitting at the breakfast counter of the Milton Tire and Grill, chatting with the Mayor, or the leader of the High Street Baptist Choir, or any number of other Miltonians who have decided to drop by that morning to find out what’s new.


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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.