Sublime Surprises

Surprises… when no help is in sight
Photographs and stories that tell of the suffering of refugees come to us on a daily basis.  Institutions and organizations fail to act. Responsiveness seems frozen in disbelief and a sense of “what can we do?”  The facts surrounding the suffering and carnage bring to mind strong parallels with the failure of nations around the world to act in response to the Nazi horrors.
In coming months, this blog will turn our attention to surprises that come from central cultural organizations in different parts of the world.  Theaters, symphonies, and art museums now directly address needs surrounding new immigrants, those recently released from prison, veterans striving to re-enter civilian life, and refugees fleeing war and destruction of their homeland.
The Los Angeles Symphony now sponsors four youth symphony programs that bring into ensemble music children and adolescents from immigrant families.  Young musicians practice hours each week, often with their parents listening and watching.  Their parents can often attend sessions in which speakers of their own languages explain the origins, structures, and history of pieces scheduled for the next concert.
The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, located just outside Copenhagen, Denmark, includes in its busy schedule a learning project for refugee orphans.  From their housing center with the International Red Cross, the young come to the museum at intervals to observe and study exhibitions from artists around the world.   Many hold sketch pads and art tools for the first time in their lives. They can sit before works by artists from around the world:  Poul Gernes, Daniel Richter, and Louise Bourgeois.  They can wander in the museum’s garden in the midst of sculptures by Henri Moore and Alexander Calder. In spite of having no more than a smattering of English in some cases, the young learn through watching their teaching artists demonstrate and gesture and also through having ample time to study the museum’s art exhibitions.  Though it is rare to have more than a few speakers of any one language, the group joins together to create through hand and eye.
In New York City, and soon in Seattle, Washington and Dallas, Texas, top theaters include a program called PUBLIC WORKS.  Through this program, community organizations that serve disenfranchised populations, including foster children, recent immigrants, and those who work in menial jobs throughout these cities enter the world of theater as participants.  Each year, theater staff, particularly teaching artists, work on site in communities to provide classes requested by local members.  These include acting, dance and music, poetry and script reading and writing, and other aspects of what it takes to put a show on stage.  Once each year, members from all the community organizations audition for parts in a coming play, usually a work by Shakespeare, and a community ensemble is formed.  A handful of Equity Actors join the ensemble in creating the musical, putting Shakespeare’s words into an annual work of musical theater.
Originating from The Public Theater in New York City, Public Works reflects the foundational principles of Joseph Papp:  theater is of, for, by, and with everyone—not just the privileged.  The Public Theater offers free entrance to its Shakespeare in the Park productions in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater each summer.  Since 2013, the summer season in the Park has come to a close with four nights of musical theater performed by the community ensemble of 200 performers on stage with Equity Actors in a Shakespearean production.
In an era of turning aside from the suffering of displaced and disenfranchised populations, cultural organizations around the world are creating surprises for today’s world.  The goal is simple: include participants from ALL communities of a city and stretch the creative reach of directors, actors, composers, and choreographers.  Bring on stage and into audiences individuals without direct prior knowledge of the world of theater.  In earlier periods of history, the Greeks, Scandinavians, and citizens of Elizabethan England found theater in the midst of their markets days and on make-shift stages in small towns, as well as in massive theaters built to serve as many onlookers as possible.  Democracy, literacy, and citizen awareness of the rewards of participation followed.   Today’s models in symphonies, museums, and theaters will do no less, and perhaps surprise the world by becoming a strong socialization force for democracy.

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