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15th January 2019 Verity Sanderson

To build a bridge you have to start on both shores

“I am writing to thank you and everyone at CPT for giving us a chance to see ourselves through Dream of Home. It was the first time in my life that I saw people who looked like me, spoke in a language I hear at home, and danced to music I danced to growing up, performing our stories on a stage. Representation matters!”

This quote is from an email to Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) following our premiere performance of the Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi project, and I cannot fully understand it.

Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director, explains…

It’s not the first time I’ve received such an email, but this one struck me so deeply. I knew this emailer was in the audience the night before they hit the send button. They were there as applause burst out during the opening scene when the cast, standing in a single line, simply turned to face the audience — that simple act of standing on stage was enough. I was there and I was one of the creators of the play, but I can only imagine what the writer of this email experienced. Years before, I remember watching an audience member in tears in the first minutes of a play. After the show, I asked him about his experience and he said, “It’s the language, just hearing it.” “But don’t you hear it every day?” “Yes, but to hear it on stage!”

I grew up with theatre. I saw hundreds of plays before I ever saw a play NOT in English. I was in Romania participating in an international festival and saw an Italian play for children about mortality! I felt I understood. I was thrilled by the performance and invigorated by the effort I had to make to listen in so many other ways. This curiosity, this desire to work on artistic bridge-building is at the core of the process that can result in an email like the above and lay the foundation for a long path.

Cleveland Public Theatre

The mission of Cleveland Public Theatre is to nurture compassion and raise consciousness through groundbreaking performance and life-changing education programmes. Beyond launching new works by local and national writers, featuring a majority of works by women and playwrights of colour, we decided to undertake an effort to build culturally specific theatres under our umbrella. Our first efforts resulted in Teatro Público de Cleveland, now six years old, which has produced four original, devised plays in Spanish and English, four regional premieres of Spanish language plays, and many short performances and staged readings. Three years ago, we began the community organising work that ultimately led to the launch of Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi. Each of these projects has sold out houses from an expansive demographic. Many of the audience members do not go to the theatre, and a few have never been to the theatre as adults. Both Teatro Público de Cleveland and Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi include seasoned and first-time actors – artists taking the stage together at various levels of experience sharing personal stories with packed houses.

Diverse audiences

This work has accomplished what many arts organisations talk about — larger and more diverse audiences — but if we had set out solely with this end in mind, we would not have been successful. And we have seen this across the country: theatres doing specific work to connect to audiences for specific plays that sprout relationships but have no real trajectory. They present at conferences and get media attention, but when you come back three years later, are they fundamentally changed? Where are those relationships now? How have they grown? (Isn’t that a big part of why we started this endeavor of art, to be transformed?) Cleveland Public Theatre could have easily presented a theatre group that speaks Arabic, but we would not have been changed, and the results would have been short-term and relatively shallow. We also could have presented parties and concerts with the Latino community, which is what many suggested, but the community would not have been changed, and we would not have given a gift we value. It’s a two-way street, this bridge we build.

For us, we were not just doing something to attract audiences or even to serve our community (a sentiment that is both noble and disquieting). We were also doing this from a natural artistic drive — a yearning to connect in real and lasting ways. We were not doing this purely to further our agenda and the art we were already making. We were doing this with an essential intent of being changed — having our art changed, our agenda changed. And every time our aesthetic notion of “artistic excellence” has been challenged! Not because of a lack of quality but because of different values. We have learned authenticity can outweigh articulation. We learned some moments we thought were “too sentimental” or “ridiculously fakey” actually resonated deeply. We also were affirmed that storytelling can bring out new truths even for the teller and that our own craft can stand up cross-culturally. And I am reminded that in my growth as a professional I must cling to my amateurishness — the desire to do it for the love. And why is that word “love” used so little in discussions of our passionate craft? And can we speak with ambition about the spirit and the spiritual and interconnectedness that hooked our hearts and dragged us along in our pursuit of great art?

I asked Faye Hargate, my CPT collaborator on both Teatro Público and Masrah Al-Arabi and Director of Community Ensembles, about how this work has changed her art. She said, “How do you measure how your life is changed when you meet someone new and a year later you have become close friends, or when your friend has a baby, or when your heart is opened by someone sharing a secret?” Yes, they are with you as you move on to new projects because you know you will be with them tomorrow.

Attracting theatre to new people

We are building a bridge and for every moment of “community organising” we undertake, there is also a step forward, a leaning in to listen and be changed. Yes, this is about attracting new people to the theatre, but it is also about attracting theatre to new people. This is about fundamental change — a bridge across. And we must bring ourselves to this work, our whole selves. We must bring our best artistry to this work. Audience engagement, audience building, diversity, inclusion… these stock phrases… for me it all ultimately leads to one thing. It all leads back to the practice of our craft, to the fundamentals of our art, a return to those things that set us on this journey and have inspired us along the way. It is a return to our mission of compassion and consciousness. This is hard work, filled with doubt and challenge and mistrust, but it is also joyful work with affirmation and awakening and new depths of trust. And gratitude.

Gratitude: I cannot say it enough — my thanks and praise and honour to the incredible artists who have made this journey, who took a risk and built this bridge, these intertwined bridges that are still growing and multiplying and branching off. We cannot build bridges alone and the purpose of any bridge is to traverse — and the gift of any bridge is not just to cross but to walk it with eyes wide and an openness to the worlds.

Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director, Cleveland Public Theatre will be speaking at the AMA’s Inclusivity and Audiences Symposium on 11 February in Birmingham.

 

There are many resources on AMAculturehive designed to build your knowledge of current research on keeping inclusion – in its broadest sense – at the heart of your work. You’ll find practical guides, case studies and videos offering a range of perspectives on how working inclusively can enhance your organisation.

 

Image: Raymond Bobgan by Laura Ruth Bidwell

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