What is role of artists in community?

Ten Thousands Things helps people find common ground

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Marcela Lorca is the artistic director of Ten Thousand Things (TTT), a theater company whose work has been grounded in practices of inclusion, equity, service and accessibility since in its founding in 1990.
Like many other organizations, TTT has issued an anti-racism statement in this last turbulent year. Lorca said, “At TTT, we acknowledge that every theater, including our own, has a duty to investigate and dismantle white supremacy structures.”
TTT productions have always been done without a stage; actors perform on the floor inside a circle of chairs, with minimal sets and live music. The troupe gives free performances in non-traditional theater spaces like homeless shelters, correctional facilities, low-income senior centers, after-school programs, women’s shelters, and in rural towns across Minnesota — any place where people live without easy access to the arts.
In addition, they also perform for paying audiences at locations including Open Book in Minneapolis and North Garden Theater in St. Paul.
Wherever the actors perform, all the lights in the room are left on. Lorca said, “We don’t preach easy answers to life’s problems. Having the actors and the audience see each other is crucial to the way we work. We try to transcend perceptions of class, race, education and life experience that often divide people.”
TTT actors, staff, and board members are used to this idea of seeing each other with the lights on. “Still,” Lorca said, “the pandemic and the Uprising last summer really made us take a deeper look at how we operate.”

A time of deep racial reckoning
She continued, “In particular, a letter authored by more than 250 BIPOC theater artists last June was a call to action. The letter spoke directly to the indignities and racism that BIPOC, and in particular Black theater professionals, face on a daily basis. Hundreds more names have since been added to the letter, which is called ‘We see you, White American theater.’
“The letter seemed geared toward large institutions, like Broadway houses, but it applied to everyone. Many American theater groups started to issue anti-racist statements, and to do deep racial reckoning.”
Read the full letter at https://www.weseeyouwat.com/statement.
Lorca and her colleagues at TTT embraced the challenge to go deeper. Actors, staff, and board members gathering monthly through Zoom last year to create what they call, “A living, breathing document.” It incorporates anti-racism practices including: to produce plays from a wide range of BIPOC perspectives, to engage more BIPOC artists as playwrights, composers, directors, choreographers, stage managers, designers, actors, etc., to employ intentional color-conscious casting, to center BIPOC voices and BIPOC history, and to heal.
Furthermore, they’ve agreed to continue revisiting, reviewing and revising the document and to assess their progress twice yearly. The anti-racism practices are a commitment to all of their artists, staff, board members, volunteers, community partners, and audiences.

Be brave, talk to one another
The anti-racism committee at TTT is called “On Belonging.”
Lorca said, “The exercise of writing our anti-racism statement allowed us to come together and have each person share their point of view. As we crafted the statement, we asked ourselves, ‘What does this word really mean to you?’
“It’s very important right now to have honest conversations, and to be able to ask questions. To be candid about what we do and don’t understand. Different people use different vocabularies. There are generational gaps, and there are gaps across cultural lines. It takes courage to ask questions. Enhance your sense of curiosity with kindness, in a spirit of wanting to understand another person more deeply.”

Role of artists in community
When Lorca opens a newspaper, she wishes that the Arts Section wasn’t buried in the back. She said, “I once asked a reporter at the Star Tribune, ‘Why don’t you ever put us on the front page? I feel like artists are the messengers of culture, and that their consciousness is often visionary. Artists are wrestling with the human and social issues of our times. That process has the power to lead others into real and fruitful conversations. Through art, a common ground can be found that is so needed in our world right now.
“When members of an audience watch a challenging play together and there’s a discussion afterwards, they become open to share much more than just the space.”

We need each other
Lorca continued, “We are social creatures – we need each other. A lot of people have suffered from extreme isolation during COVID-19, and the negative mental health consequences are very real.”
To counter that isolation, TTT launched a pandemic series called “Ten Thousand Voices.” They sought stories from people living in correctional and assisted living facilities: the very people who would usually be the audience became the storytellers. TTT actors read the stories; a selection was recorded on video and all were recorded in podcast form.
Of the 44 stories TTT received, Lorca said, “There wasn’t one bad piece.
“It is very meaningful for people to be listened to. It’s an essential human need to know that you matter.”
Experience the Ten Thousand Voices podcast here: https://tenthousandthings.org/season/ten-thousand-voices

Change comes
Reflecting on the challenges of running a theater company during this last year, Lorca said, “This is a difficult time, but it has invited us to learn so many new things.
“Selective history has been taught in text books and classes; whole cultures and events have been ignored. Only one version of many stories has been told, and this has caught up with us. It’s time to learn and share new and untold stories.
“The process of racial reckoning gives me so much hope.”

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