Across the U.S., there is movement toward including the arts in community development plans, but it’s unusual that such artistic efforts include rural communities or focus on bringing together all parts of a community, including its poor, working class, and middle class residents.
A new Roadside Theater project, Performing Our Future, addresses this omission, and will generate and share new knowledge about three related challenges facing theater artists and nonprofit performing arts organizations:
1) How can theater artists most effectively help communities tap their rich cultural assets for economic and civic development?
2) How can performing arts organizations create a sustainable economy for such work?
3) How can performing artists and arts organizations work with colleges in mutually beneficial ways to advance the effectiveness of community cultural development?
Performing Our Future is a partnership between Roadside Theater/Appalshop; Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, the national consortium of 100 higher education institutions advancing publicly engaged scholarship in the arts, humanities, and design; Lafayette College's Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project; and three communities and their local colleges.
The project partners' conviction is that culture and artistic expression are fundamental to civil society because of the way they shape individual and collective identities; bound or expand imagination; and influence micro- and macro-economic incentives and behavior. Performing Our Future resonates with the 2014-2015 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report that points to the emergent intellectual coalescence around the principle of inclusive growth as a critical pillar for achieving sustainable economic development and social justice.
The collaboration has three goals:
1) To empower community life in a manner that leads to a future that is equitable and economically sustainable for all residents;
2) To document what is learned in the process for use by the array of performing artists and performing arts organizations working in communities across the country; and
3) To elevate in the national and international discourse the role of culture and artistic expression in driving development.
Each of the project’s three national partners bring to the collaboration their expertise: Roadside Theater/Appalshop’s community cultural development methodology, honed from three decades of practice, will model how performing arts can engage an entire community in the discovery of its local assets, including the power of its traditional and folk artists. Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life provide its expertise engaging colleges in democratic community work in ways that transform both the community and the higher education institution. The economists affiliated with Lafayette College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) are skilled in community asset-mapping in the context of market exchange, as well as tracking and measuring economic impact.
Performing Our Future will include an introductory weeklong Appalshop Institute for participants to gain an immersive experience in how performing arts can promote voice and agency among individuals, and how that agency can in turn be used to advance entrepreneurial strategies for wealth creation and equitable development. Roadside Theater/Appalshop will share its artistic work and teach participants how to engage people representative of their entire community in a play creation process. Participants will then share narratives about their own community’s history, present condition, and desired future and learn how to turn these narratives into public performances.
Complementing this hands-on experience, EEGLP will introduce the theories and practices for an asset-based approach to economic development. Participants will probe the economic concept of culture hub as a means for performing artists and performing arts organizations to develop sustainable markets to support their work. As a case study, institute participants will learn about Appalshop’s current efforts in for-profit business incubation and workforce development.
At the institute’s conclusion, the three Community Teams will have developed their own community cultural development plans, which the National Team will help them implement. Each plan will include a process for gathering local stories and developing a theatrical performance.
The project’s documentation and learning will be made public as the project occurs. Roadside Theater/Appalshop’s website will be a virtual hub to share multimedia, discuss points of conflict as they arise, and vet writing and scholarship. What is learned about how performing artists and arts organizations can collaborate with colleges to develop the conditions necessary for civic and economic development will be explored at the Imagining America annual national conference in October 2016, which typically draws 400 scholars.