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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

"City Council Mtg" frames civic engagement as creative act

Welcome to Message Monday!


I’m a big live theater fan.  I once served on the board of a phenomenal theater company in Chicago called Roadworks (sadly, no longer with us). 


So I was interested when the NPR show 1A (stands for First Amendment) did a show recently called The Political Power Of Theater.  As they said: “Theater is one of the oldest art forms. It’s a story unfolding in real time. A space to commune with others face-to-face. A theatrical performance is a singular experience. It can never be recreated even with the same play, the same cast, or the same audience. It embodies the saying, “You had to be there.” And when it’s done well, it stays with you for years.”


The 1A show harked back to the halcyon days of the Depression-era WPA program Federal Theater Project,  which by 1939 had staged over 1,000 productions in 29 states, seen free or for a pittance by 30 million spectators, or roughly one in four Americans.


Today, theater audiences are shrinking.  But exciting and relevant shows are still being made!  The 1A story mentioned one that I found particularly intriguing.  It’s called City Council Meeting.  I kid you not.


The playwright, Aaron Landsman, who lives on NYC’s Lower East Side, wrote a book about the play called The City We Make Together. 

The goal was to frame civic engagement as a creative act

After being dragged to a city council meeting in Portland, Landsman was intrigued.  He began attending local government meetings, interviewing council members, staffers, activists, and other citizens.

Out of this, Landsman and director Mallory Catlett developed the participatory theatre piece. They toured it to five cities:  Houston, Tempe, New York, San Francisco, Keene NH.  Sadly, I have not been able to find any video, nor does it sound like anyone else is putting on the play.  The NYT called it "curiously compelling." I sure hope someone will get the rights and do something with it!

How The Show Worked

The makers say that “In each city, we trained a staff of local artists, organizers and other citizens to shepherd an audience through our rules-based piece, which helped frame civic engagement in a creative way.

While the first half of the performance, what we called the “Meeting,” was the same in each city, we made a local ending specific to each community, in which we asked adversaries around a specific issue to partner with us on creating something beautiful. The goal was to frame civic engagement as a creative act…

We are currently developing a curriculum for middle and high school students, with the support of the Princeton START Entrepreneurship Incubator.”

A snippet about one show

“In Keene, we worked with the Redfern Arts Center, with a staff of Waldorf school students, college administrators and a city secretary, as well as folk-singing local council members and skateboarders who advocated for a reconstructed skate park in town.”

Call me crazy, but I would KILL to see this.  I’m just happy that someone came up with a political theater piece that is not only boundlessly creative in its conception, but did in fact meet its goal, to frame civic engagement as a creative act.  Because it is! So please, get thee to a live theater show, if you haven't for awhile. Maybe you'll see one that gives you hope for democracy!

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