Lexi Clement and Marya Sea Kaminski brainstorm ways to apply Consensus Organizing to artistic and patron processes at Seattle Rep. Photo by Seema Sueko.
Theatre is both the place and the means where I’ve come to interpret and reside in the world. When I was young and didn’t understand church, theatre was the space where I felt people come together and look up toward something greater than themselves. When my family life became too chaotic and the rest of the world seemed too calm, theatre was where I could come and feel normal in my wild ideas and big appetite for connecting to other people. It is the place where I have mended my heart and safely shared outrageous grief, where I’ve learned to empathize with my villains and celebrate my heroes, and where I’ve had the opportunity to exercise my virtue and exorcise my darkness. It is where I have always gone when no other place made sense and it has raised me to be, in the words of one of my theatre heroes, Richard E.T. White, a good “artist, citizen, and innovator."
So in 2014, when I took a step away from freelancing and toward artistic leadership as the Associate Artistic Director of Seattle Rep, I felt like I was taking a deliberate step toward better serving my city and my communities through this art form that has given me so much. I learned a long time ago that a leader isn’t someone who expects other people to follow, but is the one behind the group, making sure everyone is accounted for. And as the opportunity to serve on staff at Seattle Rep opened up to me, I wanted to do that for the emerging and accomplished artists in the Pacific Northwest, and for this entire region that I’ve come to know as home. I believe that it is a great honor to work for a regional theatre, but that it comes with a great responsibility to ask, often and with rigor, “As a regional theatre, how can we best serve our region?"
In my second week at Seattle Rep, Artistic Director Braden Abraham told me about an incredible production he’d just seen on the Delacorte in New York – a community-wide cast performing Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in one of Lear deBessonet’s Public Works productions. He used the word “exuberant” and said it felt like he was watching the entire city onstage. He suggested that we might be able to translate that model for Seattle, that we might be able to bring the many different corners of this rapidly changing city together in a single, collective moment to celebrate and sing and laugh together. What if we could create an annual tradition of launching into the beautiful Seattle autumn with the whole city on our stage?
Of course I said yes, we must. Yes. I want that. Selfishly, I want that to be the next lesson theatre teaches me – how to truly bring people together, not just savvy season subscribers and passionate artists, but all the people I’ve come to know and cherish in this city.
So I got to work.
This work has led me through an odyssey of meetings at coffee shops, city offices, and nonprofit multipurpose rooms brimming with file boxes and kids’ bicycles. I’ve sought out conversations with veterans, immigrants, folks recovering from homelessness and addiction, people working daily with the differently abled, seniors, and small kids, trying to get a strong sense of who inhabits this region and how we might create a meaningful intersection with them. This process has led me into sweet, undiscovered corners of this town and back into our Seattle Rep offices and rehearsal rooms, to ask challenging questions about racial equity, representation, core values and budget restrictions. I quickly found that I had a lot to learn, that we all did, and that creating real partnerships with real citizens is demanding. It requires dogged honesty, regular communication, patient listening, and tenacity lined with hope. I wanted to get better at this; I wanted my whole organization to learn how to grow toward this vision.
And that desire led me across the country, to the 2015 TCG Audience R(e)volutions conference in Kansas City where I heard Seema Sueko speak for the first time about the power of Consensus Organizing (and sensed the audience give a small silent gasp when she expounded about the necessity of radical transparency when working with communities) and to the Public Theater in New York City, where I had the chance to sit down with Lear deBessonet and talk about using Shakespeare as the vehicle to invite the good people of New York onto their Stages.
Through the Audience R(e)volutions Travel Grant program, my fellow staff members and I have had the chance to spend more time with each of these artists, and to bring what we learned back to our organization and wider community. Engagement starts at home, after all, and the more Seattle Rep folks who have joined me in researching these programs and methodologies, the more hearty the conversations are when we return to Seattle.
In November of 2015, Seattle Rep’s Director of Patron Experience, Lexi Clement, and I traveled to Pasadena Playhouse to spend three days with Seema Sueko, while she served as the Associate Artistic Director there, to discuss the Consensus Organizing (CO) methods she employs in her work . How Seema talks about community partnerships strikes me in two ways:
1. She speaks with heightened respect for her community partner.
There is no undertone of charity in her rhetoric, which is what I sometimes encounter when talking about community partnership in other circles. She is fully transparent, rather than overly benevolent or accidentally condescending.
2. She insists that strong community partners are necessary for her work to be “artistically excellent.”
She keeps the art at the center of the conversation, and keeps the audience at the center of the art. A primary part of artistic excellence to her is having the right people in the audience to create the right collective experience.
Representatives from across southern California gather to learn about Consensus Organizing strategies for theatre. Photo by Seema Sueko.
Seema filled our time there with inspiring one-on-one conversations with both her and her Pasadena team of “community dramaturgs,” – Victor Vazquez and Gerlie Collado. Additionally, she put together a CO Workshop with representatives from theatres and organizations from across Southern California. Here are a few of the things Lexi and I learned there:
● CO was developed by a man named Mike Eichler and works by surfacing points of mutual self-interest for the partners (“self-interest” isn’t a bad word in these conversations) and building a partnership on the expectation that everyone wins. Seema has led the charge in adapting this methodology for theatres, though many aspects of creative collaboration already fold into this sense of mutual agreement.
● As a theatre, starting these conversations, get a sense of your assets. And don’t forget that your art is your greatest asset. It is the thing you do better than anyone else, and one of the most powerful service you can offer a strong partner. Then consider what else do you do really well?
● Next, consider your recurring artistic needs. What do you actually NEED for the work to be artistically excellent? For example, Seema brought up a show she directed that had several jokes in Spanish; she needed Spanish speakers in the audience (sitting in the front) who could understand these jokes and carry the rest of the audience along with them on their tide of enthusiasm. So what do you need to make the experience of your art better? Be specific.
● Communicate with potential partners clearly, and often, and with great respect and patience. Assume they want to say yes until you hear the word “no,” even if it takes a long time to get there. Have an agenda for your initial conversations, bring relevant materials, then be quiet and really listen for what your potential partner needs. Space? Access to resources? Publicity? Fundraising support? Then get creative about how you can help. Seema’s team keeps meticulous records about the conversations they’ve had, documenting dates, what they accomplished, and what way the partner prefers to follow-up and when.
● Then do it. Follow up. Answer emails within a few days of receiving them. Be truly respectful. Someone in the workshop posited, “If you’ve waited three weeks to respond to a potential partner’s email, you’ve already communicated to them how important they are to you.” And if you do this, you will feel the progress. “When it’s really working, when everyone is benefiting and in full agreement, this work feels easy. It feels inevitable,” Seema said at one point.
The short time Lexi and I spent in Pasadena that November has informed many of the conversations we’ve shared with Seattle Rep senior staff and leadership over the last year, about our engagement efforts moving forward and how we navigate partnerships and even group sales. More than initiating any single conversation, though, Seema’s strong point of view on healthy, mutually beneficial partnerships with community has given us a new and clearer lens to talk about engagement – not only as a means of developing our audiences, but also as a way to develop our art.
Which brings us to New York City in December 2015, when I got to travel with several other Seattle Rep staff members to the Public Theater to delve into their Public Works program, and how we might bring some of its inspiration home with us. When Public Works first blazed across the Delacorte Stage in 2013, it was a mysterious and radical event but, since then, it seems to have been adopted into the DNA of the theatre (or, perhaps, it has simply rekindled Joe Papp’s original populist inspirations).
Our Producing Director Elisabeth Farwell-Moreland, our Director of Institutional Gifts Melissa Husby, and our Casting Director Kaytlin McIntyre traveled to the Public with me to meet with the Public Works staff to learn more about the mechanics and philosophy behind the program, to attend classes with community partners and participants and, perhaps most importantly, to sit down with their counterparts at the Public to riddle through how this enormous initiative has inspired and impacted their individual work and departments.
Public Works Director Lear deBessonet on the Delacorte Stage in Central Park. Photo by Marya Sea Kaminski.
We learned a lot. I won’t indulge in too many logistical details, but there was a gold mine of information that passed between us in terms of detailed, directive steps toward realizing an artistically outstanding pageant production featuring a 200-person cast. We talked about casting calendars and how to empower non-performers to reveal their voices and talent in a room full of other auditioners. We talked about ticketing; cast comps are no small endeavor for this production, especially since it only plays over a single weekend. And how do you make each member of the community ensemble feel like a VIP? We talked about production timelines, and a muscular stage management team that oversees fittings, portraits, competing calendars, and unexpected challenges in a quick month-long process. We talked about the million pieces that are necessary to make an idea of this scale and scope come to life.
The New York Public Works cast and crew get ready for a final run-through in the rehearsal space. Photo by Marya Sea Kaminski.
That was all really helpful but more than that, we talked about why. Why set out on such an ambitious path, that resembles but also steeply departs from the regional production process we all know and practice? Why invite folks in who aren’t familiar with the refined processes and cultural mores we take for granted in the theatre? And why so many? Why must we go so far? Isn’t a more realistic effort sufficient? In many ways, this work is disruptive. It’s demanding and unpredictable. Why take it on when we are already working at capacity in so many ways?
I think folks at the Public would say that Public Works is not in addition to their goals, it is in service of them. Nobody got into the theatre because they didn’t like a challenge, or because they didn’t think connecting with people was important. This is why we do what we do: to change the world through good storytelling. And Public Works, through a system of radical inclusivity and artistic rigor, tells these stories by creating a room that encompasses their city, where everyone is invited in and and necessary to creating the greatest work. It does require a colossal effort, but seems to bring an exponential return, at least in New York so far. I’ve heard Lear deBessonet say that joy is a radical act, and that is one of the founding premises of this work: to create the joyful city we hope to realize, collaboratively and creatively, onstage.
Since attending that AudRev Conference in Kansas City, we have made a great deal of progress deepening our engagement practices at Seattle Rep. Thanks to the insights Seema and the Public staff generously shared with us, as well as TCG’s support, and incredible commitments and collaborations with our half dozen community partners, we are ten months into establishing Public Works Seattle with our first full-scale production slated for 2017. Already this work has been transformational. Beyond the benefits we are committed to providing our partner communities, we are growing ourselves, as an organization and a community in our own right. We are learning how to not only open our doors wider but how to step outside our offices and rehearsal rooms to ope ourselves wider, as artists and citizens and innovators. We are only at the beginning of this journey and we have a long road ahead, but yes, it already feels like joy.
Marya Sea Kaminski is a theatre artist living in Seattle. For the last fifteen years, she has written, directed, and performed works exploring themes of power, family and madness, and is most recently focused on the intersection between artistic virtuosity and social justice. Currently Marya serves as the Associate Artistic Director at Seattle Repertory Theatre where she leads their public Works Seattle initiative and will be directing the regional premiere of Sarah Burgess' comedy DRY POWER this spring.