The Challenges (and Rewards) of Working with Community

By     Jul 23, 2014
Artistic Director, Ratatat Theater Group

Casey Caldwell

The Challenges (and Rewards) of Working with Community

Working with communities feels to me like sailing a little boat on a windy day. Hard work, overwhelming at times, and exhilarating.

I have dedicated myself to the exhilarating work of telling the stories and encouraging the growth of communities. But community-based work ain’t easy. How do you define a community? What are its boundaries? Who do you talk to when you “work with” a community? What are its leaders and key people? How do you know if you are authentically representing the community and communicating with it?

I would love to hear responses from some of my fellow CCF participants on this.

To speak about my own project, I am developing a multi-year theater initiative about making a home in Santa Barbara. (You can find more details about it in my first post.) Santa Barbara is not a big place, but its community networks can still feel as complicated as a nervous system. I could spend a lot of time studying neurons, and still not know how to make the feet work (for example). So how to proceed? Pick neuron, and follow it.

What we're doing: Finding nodes

I am currently reaching out to various non-profits that do work in the area of “home.” Organizations that work with the homeless, organizations that seek to foster justice in minority communities, our local housing authority, etc. I will be coming to them with the things that I’m interested in, offering the special skills that a theater artist has to offer, and asking them how I can help them, while gathering the stories I need to make our play. (You can find more specifics on what I think the special skills a theater artist can offer are, in my conversation with fellow CCFer Amanda Thompson here.)

And I’m reaching out to local schools; one, because schools represent a broad swath of the community in a contained space; two, because students can be given the time to be involved in special projects; and three, because I like kids.

Essentially, I’m trying to find little community hubs that I can tap into. (“Neural nodes” in our nervous system metaphor.) Places where communities come together, where I can find stories, meet leaders, and where people will naturally accept an invitation to come see a play based on their stories.

This is not my first community-based play, though I wouldn’t say I’m an old hand at this either. I am learning as I go, and in the spirit of that, I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned from my last project, Happy Few, which was a play based on the stories of Santa Barbara veterans. So a few lessons from my past community-based work, in no particular order:

 Some lessons from Happy Few:

  1. The rewards of this work make up for its difficulty. (For me.)
    1. Happy Few was an incredibly complicated and stressful project. But it was also the most rewarding theater project I have ever worked on. The stresses of juggling so many opinions and needs was exhausting, but the joy of telling the true of stories of people that need to be heard made it worthwhile.
  2. Anticipate low attendance, at least initially
    1. No matter how much outreach you do, you just don’t know if people are going to show up. With Happy Few, I spent a long time getting to know veterans, interviewing them, and trying to include them in the process. But we still had low veteran turnout for most of our events (though there were exceptions). The veterans I personally interviewed and got to know showed up, as did some of their friends and family, but that didn’t go very far.
    2. Some reasons for this: My hypothesis is that a lot of this has to do with the nature of this particular community. In Santa Barbara, there is a lot of bad blood in the veterans community, for reasons too complicated to go into. A lot of people don’t like each other, and they didn’t necessarily trust this new “play thing” we were doing. A lot of veterans are also either too elderly to be active, too cynical through their experiences of “the system,” or too busy going to school and working their jobs.
    3. Lessons learned from this:
      1. Working with even a limited number of people can still be valuable.
      2. Try to find strong community groups to work with.
  3. You can’t solve all the community’s problems
    1. Veterans handle a lot of problems. From what happened to them during their service, to how they were treated by the government and by citizens afterward, to their own personal struggles with work, PTSD, or what have you, there were a million thing we could have tried to deal with in our play.
    2. We couldn’t do all of them. It was just a play, just one play. We had to pick one thing to focus on, listen to the rest, and move forward.
  4. People will be disorganized. Check and double-check for confirmation.
    1. One of our performance locations was the local Veterans Memorial Building. That building went through three completely new management teams during the development of our play. An agreement I made with one management group would not carry over to the next one. We learned to get things in writing; confirm and then confirm again agreed dates, times, and conditions; be very, very patient; and pray.
  5. You will not be able to represent the whole community. Just do the best you can.
    1. We could not tell every veteran's story, or represent every angle. We did our darndest, though. We interviewed 22 different veterans, and asked each one "Who else should we talk to to make sure we're representing the veterans community?" And then we got the veterans that we had interviewed together, and asked them if we had represented where they were coming from correctly, and if we were leaving any important perspectives out. Which leads me to #6:
  6. Have lots of opportunity for feedback (see above).
  7. And finally: People really appreciate their stories being told.
    1. We struggled initially to get veterans' participation, we even dealt with some veterans' distinct suspicion, but at the end, we were thanked profusely. I found that veterans often feel forgotten, and to hear their stories told, for a wide cross-section of the community to hear, in a way that showed they were part of a larger narrative, was deeply moving for them.

It was all worth it in the end.