A Culture of Possibility Podcast #11: Meeting the Moment with Jan Cohen-Cruz and Rad Pereira

NOTE: This post is to introduce you to the 11th episode of François Matarasso’s and my monthly podcast, “A Culture of Possibility.” It will be available on 19 November 2021. You can find it and all episodes at iTunes along with miaaw.net’s other podcasts by Owen Kelly, Sophie Hope, and many guests, focusing on cultural democracy and related topics. You can also listen on Soundcloud and find links to accompany the podcasts. Francois is taking a little break but will be back as cohost down the road.

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In this podcast, I talk with Jan Cohen-Cruz and Rad Pereira, co-authors of Meeting the Moment: Socially Engaged Performance, 1965-2020, from Those Who Lived It. The book comes out in the spring from New Village Press (which has also published my work), an imprint of NYU Press, and is available for pre-order here.

I’ve known Jan for quite a while, beginning when she taught drama at NYU, founding the university’s applied theater minor, and continuing through her tenure as director of Imagining America and beyond. Rad, whom I met a few years ago, has a lively cultural practice that ranges from social sculpture to popular theatrical and TV/film performances. They (Rad uses they/them pronouns) are committed to making art that involves community participation and healing, incorporating themes of transformative justice and queer re-indigenization of culture.

We started with a fascinating account of each guest’s background and how they came to this work, young Jan venturing on from small-town Pennsylvania into street theater, teaching, writing seven books and a great many other useful reflections on this work; young Rad came from Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil, (known as Pindorama by the Tupi people), with a current home base in Brooklyn, New York (known as Lenapehoking, originally a Lenape land.) Both guests described their journeys in more detail. Both discovered their paths in part by pushing off from conventional European-derived theater. I love the intersections and divergences in the stories that brought people to community-based arts work, and for these co-authors, 40 years apart in age, they are especially illuminating.

More than 75 people were interviewed or engaged in email exchanges for Meeting The Moment, collectively providing a mass of information and anecdote reflected in the book. Jan described how the idea came to her:

I was at a creative placemaking event in a New York bank auditorium. People were very enthusiastic about how art and culture contribute to transforming communities. And they were talking as if they’d invented it. They were municipal workers, bankers, people who work in public policy. There were few artists, but more I saw artists around me in the audience. And I thought, this is just wacky, how little the left hand ever knows what the right hand is doing. And I thought, you know, why did these people who identify with creative placemaking—or following the wonderful critique Roberto Bedoya gave us—creative placekeeping, why don’t they know about community based theatre, or what we used to call activist theater or social practice in the visual arts? That’s all about the social context. And I just wanted people to know about each other.

I really resonate with this, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s kind of amazing how obscure the history of this work can be. For those of us who’ve written about it, one of the most gratifying responses is the thanks we receive from people who been helped by our writing to see the work in a larger and fuller frame, and to not feel alone.

Jan realized the book should be grounded in a large and diverse body of interviews (some interviewees are mentioned in the podcast). “At one point I called Rad who I had been getting to know when they were an artist in residence for the city of New York with Children and Family Services. I said, ‘Rad, you’re so much more part of the generation during this work now, tell me who I should be interviewing.’ And then I thought I should not take Rad’s contacts and start interviewing them. I should see if Rad would do this book with me. And happily they did.”

Rad “had a lot of friends that were doing this kind of work, or were eager to do this kind of work and didn’t know there was a history of it and didn’t know that there were practices already being developed for decades and decades. That left what I call a invisibility of possibility for what they could be doing within their communities and how they could articulate their value to get funding. I was really excited to work with Jan so that we could really bolster all the folks doing this work. And that could empower a new generation to also do this kind of work.”

Jan and Rad explained that it’s not a book of interviews, but rather a conversation between themselves and the interviews.

Integral to the fact that this work is not known as it should be in the U.S. is that it is underfunded, perceived as permanently emerging, and subjected to a pervasive tendency to treat it like a way to address deficiencies, to extract quantified results from work whose value is emergence, relationship, and therefore not adequately conveyed by numbers. The work’s value easily comes clear to people to who take part, but it’s been harder to communicate it beyond that.

I liked what Rad had to say about that. “We started writing in opposition to the underfunding and the scarcity around resources. And then at one point, we were like, wait a second, what if we don’t center capitalism, and instead, write more speculatively about a present and a future where this work can exist in abundance, and where the work was baked into the fabric of these communities?” In the book’s final chapter, focusing on the future, they explore a range of new economy options such as co-ops and alternative models of financing.

Jan elaborated on their take on sustainability, which “meant you accept conditions as they are and you figure out how to work the system so you can keep going. And we wanted to look at how artists find a way for regenerativity, to try to make the world they want to do their work in. And in fact, we’ve we found that money was not high on the list. Money’s on the list, everyone needs money, but it was not high on the list. A lot of artists talked to us about embracing one’s calling as a socially engaged artist. I find that a whole beautiful direction, that it’s a calling, it’s a higher purpose, and part of why you do it is to nourish your own lively aliveness. Also where to live at different points in one’s development, breaking from an old history that you have to be in big cities, or you have to be constantly making case for why your region is an exciting place. And that that can change at different points in your life. Finding community. Sometimes that’s other artists, sometimes it’s other people with similar values from other disciplines, but people who can recognize what you’re doing and give you a kind of support, they want you to keep doing it. We heard a yearning to communicate about one’s work beyond one’s immediate circle. Having representation in relevant policy decisions. Not everyone wants to be at those tables, but they want representation.”

Later, we turned to the pandemic and the future. Rad and Jan felt it was really important to extend the book’s original timeline to hear what people had to say about this time as a portal to the future. “It felt like a lot of people were going through these really deep transformations,” Rad said. “For many folks, the pandemic allowed them to slow down in a way where they were actually able to listen to their bodies for the first time in maybe their whole lives. We talked in the book about how we created this grief spiritual portal place where people were able to remove themselves and look into their lives and see if they were actually walking their values and embodying their why of life. It felt like a lot of people were and are undergoing deep transformation of how they are treading on this earth. And that has huge repercussions in their art making.”

Tune into the podcast to hear much more about what Rad and Jan learned in their research and writing, including how many socially engaged artists became abolitionists through the uprisings of 2020; a meaty and interesting discussion about the intergenerational aspect of this work, its value and challenges; and exploration of education and training in this work and how it might change.

James Booker and Jerry Garcia, “Slowly But Surely.”

A Culture of Possibility Podcast #11: Meeting the Moment with Jan Cohen-Cruz and Rad Pereira