Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States

Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States

Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States

Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States

Synopsis

An eclectic mix of art, theatre, dance, politics, experimentation, and ritual, community-based performance has become an increasingly popular art movement in the United States. Forged by the collaborative efforts of professional artists and local residents, this unique field brings performance together with a range of political, cultural, and social projects, such as community-organizing, cultural self-representation, and education. Local Acts presents a long-overdue survey of community-based performance from its early roots, through its flourishing during the politically-turbulent 1960s, to present-day popular culture. Drawing on nine case studies, including groups such as the African American Junebug Productions, the Appalachian Roadside Theater, and the Puerto Rican Teatro Pregones, Jan Cohen-Cruz provides detailed descriptions of performances and processes, first-person stories, and analysis. community identification while the aesthetic side enables local residents to transgress cultural norms, to question group habits, and to incorporate a level of craft that makes the work accessible to individuals beyond any one community. The book concludes by exploring how community-based performance transcends even national boundaries, connecting the local United States with international theater and cultural movements.

Excerpt

This book is an effort to capture the spirit and materiality of community-based performance in the United States with some markers of the past, articulation of principles and purposes in the present, and description of aesthetic diversity, primarily of that generation of practitioners who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Community-based art is a field in which artists, collaborating with people whose lives directly inform the subject matter, express collective meaning. It has a history and theoretical underpinnings and takes a range of aesthetic forms. Its immediate roots are in the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, when nationwide questioning of the status quo led to significant expansion of art vis-à-vis potential creators, sites, subjects, audiences, and funding policies. in the years since, what critic Lucy Lippard calls “the lure of the local” has grown into a veritable movement; at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is establishing itself as a field.

But this is an unwieldy field, seemingly contradictory. It spans performances committed to social change along with those whose purpose is the conservation of local cultures, sometimes both at once. Its practices range from grassroots oral storytelling to formal techniques created by professional artists. Its theories build not only on ideas about art but also on concepts from education, therapy, sociology, anthropology, the emerging field of dialogue studies, and community organizing. Clearly, such a project is both a multifaceted and highly interpretive endeavor. Moreover, because it is a collective practice, I bring in multiple voices, and because it is a field grounded in story, this text includes personal narratives along with more conventional critical writing.

Let me begin by sketching out the territory of community-based performance. I use the term performance rather than theater to include not only dance and music but also a much larger category of heightened behavior intended for public viewing. Sociologist Erving Goffman famously wrote, “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify” (1959, 72). in this field, public protests, skits at union halls, storytelling gatherings, ritual, dance, music making, and theater are all ways that people make and enact group meaning. Performance theorist Richard . . .

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