They sat in small groups called Story Circles. They told tales of their own wounding behavior and revealed moments of humiliation, admitting the pain of injustice. They listened — really listened — to one another.
They were actors, police officers, a theater executive, a board member, and founders of a renowned puppet theater. And they, along with community members, were deeply moved — and changed — by the experience of witnessing stories performed at a local high school.
A training workshop that included the Story Circles was the result of collaboration between Next Stage Arts Project, a community-based theater in Putney, and its neighbor, Sandglass Theater, an internationally recognized theater company that combines puppets with music, actors, and visual imagery.
The high school performance was part of a Voices of Community series sponsored by the two theaters, which worked closely with Race Peace, a multigenerational performance project developed by three southern theater companies.
Race Peace “seeks to create a space where people from diverse backgrounds can safely and aggressively challenge the realities and myths of racism in America” while considering “how art can engage people in noteworthy dialogue about challenging social issues” and “envision ways of moving forward together.”
“The workshop made racism tangible,” notes Eric Bass, co-founder of Sandglass Theater. “Real emotions were awakened, there was honesty, and bridges were built.”
“It was a fantastic opportunity for the Brattleboro police to be proactive on the race issue,” Bass says. “There was no judgment on either side of the discussion. We heard each other’s humanity.”
“The training was unorthodox by law-enforcement standards, but it really hit home,” Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald says.
“Police officers told their own stories of times when they suffered injustices,” Fitzgerald adds. “It was amazing what emerged when we examined personal prejudices.”
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Located in an 1841 Greek revival meetinghouse now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Next Stage Arts Project building was acquired by the Putney Historical Society before becoming home to the community-based theater in 2010.
Since then, its impact has been measurable.
In addition to diverse offerings ranging from plays performed by its resident company, the Apron Theater Co., Next Stage community-based initiatives have included social justice and other themed film series, spoken word events, various musical events, vaudeville, and more.
Among these initiatives: a cross-generational project, “Lean in Putney” that produced photographs, of children together with elders, displayed at the local library, and a songwriting project for elementary school children, “Love Is.”
Funded by the Windham Foundation, students from third through eighth grades at Putney Central School worked with a professional singer/songwriter to set their lyrics to music and perform their songs for the community, giving voice to young people who are often silent or silenced.
Another special event occurred when part-time Putney resident Arn Chorn-Pond, founder of Cambodian Living Arts, performed Cambodian songs and spoke of survival during the Khmer Rouge era before heading off to perform at New York’s Lincoln Center.
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Because of this innovative work involving the community, Next Stage Arts Project was awarded a $370,000 grant from ArtPlace America, “a collaboration of leading national and regional foundations, banks, and federal agencies committed to accelerating creative placemaking.”
One of 55 recipients out of nearly 1,300 applicants, Next Stage was recognized as fulfilling ArtPlace’s mission “to advance the field of creative placemaking, in which art and culture play an explicit and central role in shaping communities’ social, physical, and economic futures.”
Recent renovations showcase the effect of the grant.
“There is a movement among American artists to engage much more strongly with the community around social issues,” notes Eric Bass. Funders are moving in that direction too, he says.
“Arts organizations don’t live in a vacuum. They want people who can be in relationship with each other by way of meaningful performances,” Bass says.
“The consciousness of the entire community is changing around issues that are clear and threatening such as race relations, gender disparities, and climate change.
“The interconnectedness of those issues is apparent. Community-based theater helps us come together and be present with each other around these issues.”
Maria Basescu, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project, agrees.
“No matter what kind of art piece you do, there is creative expression of the human experience that is shared. We are all present for each other in the moment,” Basescu says.
“That’s what art can do and it’s extremely powerful and bonding,” she adds. “From that bond, we experience community and become inspired to recreate it in all kinds of other ways. It’s wonderful to be able to help cultivate that experience.”
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That spirit and artistic vision, coupled with community involvement, was recognized when Next Stage Art Project received its ArtPlace America grant.
“Next Stage has been instrumental in reinvigorating the cultural and economic life in Putney as well as other communities in Southern Vermont,” Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said when the grant was awarded.
In a recent article in this paper celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rockingham Arts & Museum Project (RAMP) [“Integrating art and community,” The Arts, March 2], that organization’s founder, Robert McBride, said, “I see creativity as the language of problem-solving. Art makes a difference. If we all contribute our individual creativity and passion, our communities organically become more vital, culturally and economically.”
On the evening of April 21 the Vermont Community Foundation and Next Stage Arts Project will host an invitation-only forum at the theater about philanthropy in Vermont and beyond.
One of the questions to be considered is, “What is the role of art and culture in building vital communities and healthy societies?”
What better time to consider the array of catalysts for social change?