By Dinah Zeiger

Inside Arts magazine, November/December 1999

I looked up the word "story" in the American Heritage Dictionary recently to see exactly what it meant because I remember my Grandma warning me not to tell stories - meaning fibs - about what I had been up to down in the cellar. I especially like the fact that "story" derives from a Greek work signifying a "learned man," which I also take to include learned woman, since women are most often the keepers of family histories.

I was interested because I'd just spent a weekend at Arizona State University hearing stories - stories of misunderstanding and loneliness, of longing and desire, tall tales and moral fables. Some were told by children, others by grandparents; some were danced, others sung, a few were presented on dressed sets, and some were told from a simple circle of chairs. These stories, told as part of ASU'sUntold Stories Festival: Celebrating Campus and Community, had the directness and urgency of truth, opening windows onto lives about which I knew nothing.

The three-day festival, which took place April 9-11, 1999, capped several years of planning, workshops, college classes and community productions presented by ASU's Division of Public Events and the American Festival Project.

The partners conceived the festival as a kind of border crossing, a way to explore the small traditions and personal experiences of those who inhabit the diverse communities within and outside the university in Tempe. It was planned on a grand scale, with five professional theatre companies committing two years to working with 15 community groups, culminating in a weekend story-telling extravaganza.

Why tell stories? Flash back to 1963 and the civil rights movement. Out of that turmoil sprang the Free Southern Theater, a Mississippi troupe that used stories to provoke a moral conscience. The theater slowly faded away, but the need for such stories didn't.

"It was still important to get our stories out to the people," says John O'Neal, founder and artistic director of Junebug Productions, one of the professional companies working with the festival and heir to the Free Southern Theater. "We had to keep talking, we had to keep on telling our stories. They're a means of improving the quality of life."

"Telling," says art historian Lucy Lippard, "is the process of understanding and drawing strength from one's past, one's cultural history, beliefs and values." History tells us that the 1930s to 1960s weren't easy years for African-Americans in the United States in regard to the big issues of equality and justice. But the small stories of personal experience told during the Untold Stories Festival packed a bigger wallop than a history reading. So, we winced when Laura Dungee Harris, who graduated from Carver-Phoenix Union Colored High School, class of 1936, described how she and her classmates were practically invisible to the white students at Phoenix Union High School. But this made it possible to more genuinely share Hattie Day Colbert's (class of 1954) delight at being the official "frog monitor" and her pride as the women's ROTC platoon sergeant.

Following someone else's intricate map of reality can be unsettling. Which Way Productions, three Native American women from the Gila River and Ak-Chin reservations who performed at the festival, poked fun at the "Spirit of Do-Do," that impulse to be perfect by doing more. But then they ripped our hearts out with a story, read as a letter, that grimly reminded us of the toll alcohol takes on Native populations.

This is a different - and difficult - kind of theater, one that doesn't lend itself easily to marketing campaigns and traditional audiences. It's risky business for presenting organizations, but the long-term payoff may be a whole new audience, empowered by a sense of cultural ownership and awareness.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, director of ASU Public Events, is a true believer in the power of art to transform communities. She'd seen it work in a similar collaboration between American Festival Project and Dartmouth College in 1992, and she brought the concept with her when she came to Arizona State University seven years ago. The festival was less about filling seats, although that was important, than it was about opening and continuing a dialogue. "I think that the festival is a non-elitist look at culture [rather than] art," she says.

The American Festival Project is no stranger to this kind of grassroots theater. Its members, who are professional touring companies as well as individual performers, have been traveling the country for the past 16 years using culture and the arts to foster social change. Performers work within communities, teasing out individuals and their stories and weaving them into a shared sense of history. Past projects have included residencies at Cornell University as well as at Dartmouth.

Under Jennings-Roggensack's guidance, Public Events produces some 500 events a year at three venues and through community outreach efforts. Although many of ASU's students are working adults who live in the area, town and gown don't mingle much. That's not to say the university is invisible. With 41,000 students, the university is definitely a presence in Tempe. "But it's a very big, very diverse community," Jennings-Roggensack says.

COMMUNITY

"Stories are so simple and so overlooked as a way to explore community concerns," says Dudley Cocke, director of Roadside Theater, one of the AFP member-companies participating in the festival. "A lot of people don't believe their stories any more, and there aren't as many opportunities to tell them today." The festival was a way to rectify the situation.

For ASU, the stories and the festival were a device to "bridge the language and cultural gaps" that separated it from its surrounding communities, says Jennings-Roggensack. "Our mission is to connect communities. We're good at big ritualized cultural experiences, like graduation and similar ceremonies, but we didn't have much presence in the local community."

Like many Sunbelt cities, Phoenix - and its suburbs, like Tempe - has grown phenomenally over the past decade, a magnet for retirees, blue-collar workers and young urban professional alike, drawn to its sunny climate and the prospect of high-paying jobs. But the city's roots lie deep in the past, anchored by indigenous Indian and Hispanic communities. In fact, nearly a third of Phoenix's 1.2 million residents are either Hispanic or Native American. Another 4 percent are African-American, and 1 percent are Asian-American.

During the fall semester of the festival year, Bonnie Eckard, chair of ASU's Department of Theatre, team-taught a course in grassroots theater with Theresa Holden, AFP's project director for the festival.

"It's extraordinary for people to hear voices that they haven't heard before, or perhaps even their own voices from their own communities," Eckard says. "I have a strong belief that theatre is important to the community at large, and that it is very possible to make [it] relevant to a large population as opposed to a select elite. On the community level, people can use this art form to make their lives and their communities better," she says.

Jennings-Roggensack began courting Tempe's various communities seven years ago, meeting with religious leaders and social activists, attending Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Asian Economic Council events, taking outreach programs into schools. "This is a long process, but we're here for the long term," she says. "It's a lot of small steps."

The first step was identifying communities, and one thing that set this festival apart was the breadth of the concept. It wasn't confined to mere geographic proximity or shared government, but included a host of qualities that make a community into a fellowship. For the Untold Stories Festival, "community" included campus student groups, like the ASU Asian Student Coalition and the Hillel Jewish Student Center, as well as ASU classified staff, which comprises campus police, janitors, secretaries, plumbers and gardeners. It included African-Americans who had attended Phoenix Union Colored High School in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as kids from area Boys and Girls Clubs and the St. Peter Indian Mission School on the Pima Reservation. One community was a senior citizens' group, calling themselves The Entertainers, who lived in the nearby retirement community of Ahwatukee.

Ultimately, some 15 "communities" were identified and paired with the five participating American Festival Project members - El Teatro de la Esperanza, based in San Francisco; Idiwanan An Chawe from Zuni Pueblo; Junebug Productions, based in New Orleans; Liz Lerman Dance Exchange from Washington, DC; and Roadside Theater of Whitesburg, KY.

AFP's emphasis is on community participation. "We're interested in an exchange with a community, not about exposure to a 'professional' performer," says Theresa Holden. "We want people in the community to think about and share what's already good about the arts."

It's a time-consuming process, where cultural traditions and stories first have to be remembered or uncovered before they can be celebrated. It was a challenge at ASU because of the sheer diversity and size of the communities. But there were other hurdles, as well.

"Higher education is perceived as an elitist institution," Holden says. "We've already said to millions of people, 'You can't be here because you don't qualify,' and the notion spreads to all aspects associated with higher education." So even when the university reaches out to communities, there's a certain wariness about why and resistance to it, she says. "That perception was the biggest barrier we had."

It was also difficult to hold community groups together long-term and long-distance. One of the groups O'Neal and Junebug worked with had a constantly rotating roster. "Every time we came back for rehearsals (five times during the 1998-99 year), it was like the first time," he says. "We need to understand that what we're really doing is more like community organizing than 'art.' That means uncovering the community's needs and wants," he says.

"If our goals don't connect with long-term community concerns, then we can't answer the question of why we're doing it in the first place."

AUDIENCE

"Audience is built one at a time," says Jennings-Roggensack. "It may take 20 years [for community interest] to take root. But I see it as a marathon, not a sprint."

The festival's true import may lie in its ability to nurture an art-going public and build audiences from previously untapped sources. But it was ASU's existing audiences that helped raise the $392,000 budgeted for the Untold Stories Festival. Each year, Public Events presents touring Broadway productions, like Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, as well as big-name dance companies and orchestras, and things like Moto-Cross and dirt shows, as well as performances by country-western singer George Strait. "They're our cash-cows," Jennings-Roggensack says. "[And] we choose to put it back into the community."

ASU, as the presenter, packaged its entire 1998-99 season around the theme of Untold Stories, wrapping the festival within its marketing materials for its offerings of Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera and the National Symphony of Mexico.

Even so, the audience on that last weekend was meager. Some of the problem rests with the venue, ASU's Gammage Auditorium, a monumental 3,000-seat space. The huge proscenium stage, suitable for grand opera, swallowed the performers and distanced the audience. "It didn't feel like an intimate visit, but more life 'culture on display,'" says Roadside's Cocke. "No one felt any ownership of the space."

ASU's decision to hold the finale at Gammage was a calculated gamble. "It was important that they come to Gammage," says Andreya Hernandez, ASU's director for the project. The festival was about finding theater within individual communities, "but it also recognizes that it can speak to you outside your culture. We saw [Gammage] as a way to expand horizons." Staging the festival in Gammage was also a way to acknowledge that community stories were as important as professional performances, she says.

But the town-gown split remained. "The assumption from the community outside the confines of the campus is that they don't think it's their place, even if they can afford to go," says Holden. "It's seen as someone else's property. And that's even more evident in new and transient communities." Marketing materials, from slick brochures and the insistence on buying a season rather than tickets to individual performances, "make it look like an insider's club," she says.

Hernandez agrees it was difficult to interest a general audience in the material. "The whole idea of stories is difficult to grasp," she says. "We're fighting a barrier. People are programmed to think that theater is Broadway, and they don't want to be grounded in reality. It's all a learning process," she says.

Jennings-Roggensack thinks one of the problems was the very diversity of the participants. "It's unrealistic in a community this large and diverse to expect them to follow a project over four days or a weekend." What appeared to happen was that people turned out to watch groups from their particular community and then left. "Why isn't someone else's story interesting?" Jennings-Roggensack asks. "How do you get past preaching to the choir? It's a big issue for us. We don't know the answer."

Cite This

Dinah Zeiger. “Telling Tales and Connecting Communities.” https://roadside.org. January 7, 2015. https://roadside.org/asset/telling-tales-and-connecting-communities.

Interested in copying, distributing, and/or adapting this work? Please view our license information.