Professor Jan Cohen-Cruz started her career aged 20 as co-facilitator of a theatre workshop at Trenton State Prison as part of the NYC Street Theatre. She trained with Lee Strasberg, Kristin Linklater, and Augusto Boal, who she brought to the US in the early 1980s. With Mady Schutzman, she co‑edited Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism and A Boal Companion. At NYU (1984-2006), Jan earned a PhD in Performance Studies and developed an applied theatre program. She edited Radical Street Performance and wrote Local Acts: Community‑Based Performance in the US, also producing community‑based arts projects on community gardens and on gentrification. Jan co‑initiated HOME, New Orleans (2007) with local artists, faculty and students, community-based organizations, and others, post-Hurricane Katrina. She wrote Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response. Jan directed Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (2007-2012), at Syracuse University, and now edits Imagining America’s e-journal Public (public.imaginingamerica.org). She received the 2012 Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s Award for Leadership in Community-Based Theatre and Civic Engagement. Her most recent book is Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners (2015).
Artistic Means, Social Consequences: A Participatory Inventory
Back in July, in the US, when two more young black men were killed wantonly by white police, and a black man, in what was described as retaliation, killed five police, a colleague wrote me, “While debates about art are important to me, they seem not so important in the face of regular, persistent racially-motivated executions.” He raised the question that many of us have: What does it take for art to have consequences in the face of such events?
Participatory and community arts constitute a persuasive counter-narrative to the current dominant discourse about art in the West. But in the long view, ours is NOT the counter story; it is a persistent thread of meaning making, action, and expression that connects us to something bigger and more fundamental than our separate lives. It is crucial that we not lose sight of what has been learned about art’s social consequences in the past as we make work now.
I propose a conversation about participatory and community arts positioned to have impact vis-à-vis deep social issues that no sector can single-handedly solve. We’ll inform each other about efficacious models that have inspired us and how we develop socio-political analysis and strategies even while forwarding our aesthetic capacities, and what we hold as theories of change regarding our work.