When conducting a Community Cultural Development residency, an important agreement among the partners is "the project will strive to be inclusive in its producing practices. The work will be made in partnership with community organizations. Activities will be held in meeting places where the entire community feels welcome. Any tickets will be affordable."

Something one might guess to be relatively simple to pull off --  performances will be held in meeting places where the entire community feels welcome -- can, in fact, be a challenge. Most communities have no public performance space where everyone feels welcome. This can lead directly into the aesthetic nightmare of the caf-a-gym-a-torium, which is where we were headed in one community when we learned that our sometimes stand-by, the churches, were contested spaces. 

Then someone suggested the small public park with its amphitheater, and everyone quickly agreed. About two weeks before the performances, the project’s Native American partners informed everyone that the park had been built on top of their ancestral burial ground. There was only one thing to do: ask for their permission to perform there, which they formally gave with a traditional blessing ceremony after the audience had gathered and before the performances began.

The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o has observed that in post-colonial Africa, the censorship of his plays was not aimed at his text but at how he wanted the plays produced. There was an insistence on maintaining colonial production protocols: The struggle may take the form of the state’s intervention in the content of the artist’s work – what goes on by the name of censorship – but the main arena of struggle is the performance space: its definition, delimitation and regulation. In CCD practice, one can count on confronting such protocols, and it is useful to remember that the moment one blinks, a dominant protocol will reassert itself. 

In 1998 as part of Arizona State University’s three-year CCD project, Untold Stories, Roadside created a performance that brought together two groups of Native American dancers (Zuni and Pima), a popular Chicano solo artist, and Roadside. The performance was in Scottsdale’s Kerr Cultural Center, which had been built as a private concert hall for Mrs. Kerr and was now owned by Arizona State University. 

An issue with the comp tickets was the first warning sign. The box office was getting uptight, which was perplexing because there was going to be plenty of room for everyone. About an hour before the performance, we noticed there were ten or so people waiting outside in the cold, and when we tried to invite them into the lobby, Kerr’s management said that was strictly forbidden for another 30 minutes. 

We recognized many of those waiting outside from the popular play we had made with Arizona State University’s “classified” employees – maintenance personnel, kitchen staff, secretaries, and receptionists. (The play was titled, Highly Classified, and was supported by the workers’ union that arranged with the university’s administration for compensatory work time for its members to participate in its creation and performances.) 

Unsure of Kerr etiquette, the “highly classified” had arrived more than an hour early in case “adjustments” needed to be made. Even as the time arrived to open the doors, management refused until one of the performers tuning his banjo cleared the stage. Unconcerned with a fourth wall, Roadside often chooses to tune instruments and banter with the audience before the performance commences. 

We next noticed that the foster care kids from the Boys and Girls Club, who had been part of the Untold Stories project from its inception and who arrived excited and all dressed up, were being directed to bleachers in the far back, furthest from the stage. Kerr management said this was a strategy to quickly eject them should they act-up. 

In Appalachian, Native American, and Chicano cultures, the elderly and the children are given places of honor in the front, but at Kerr, the best seats were reserved for the patrons with the season tickets. They were down on floor level in an odd reversal of what would have been the pit in Shakespearean times. None of the other audience was allowed down there with them. 

As the hour struck for the performance to begin, the theater was alive as the 120 Latino, Native American, and other newcomers to the Kerr Cultural Arts Center hugged each other and exchanged news. It was indeed a happening. Five minutes after the appointed performance hour, a Kerr staff member ordered the play to begin immediately, and when I replied that it already had, I could tell she thought I was making fun of her. 

And so the evening played itself out as a contest between the majority of the audience in league with the performers, and the patrons in league with the Kerr management. The performance ended with a traditional southwestern Native American “Split Circle” dance. As the boys and girls from the bleachers rushed down to participate and were joined by most everyone else, the Kerr patrons remained seated. 

The joyous dance swirled around them. With their refusal to join the fun, the patrons seemed to be saying, “We feel excluded, and we own this space and it is not right for us to feel excluded in our own home.” They didn’t comprehend they were in a public university’s public space and that the purpose of the Untold Stories Festival was to bring different people together to share their common humanity.

Cite This

“A Story About Performance Space & Why It Matters.” https://roadside.org. September 28, 2015. https://roadside.org/asset/story-about-performance-space-why-it-matters.

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