Sojourn Theatre has shared its arts-based civic dialogue methods at conferences and universities around the world. Articles and case studies have been published; larger arts organizations have asked for help in developing their own engagement strategies. Our own current investigations into civic discourse focus on how the action of theatre making can be best applied to the process of civic decision making; how creative practice can release creative collaborations and imaginative problem-solving in multi-party, cross ideological contexts.
Sojourn’s long-term Exploration of Arts-Based Engagement Practice
In 1992 in Washington, DC, Sojourn Theatre Artistic Director Michael Rohd founded Hope Is Vital, a theatre-based civic dialogue program that built coalitions and programming across Health, Legislative, Education and Culture sectors around the United States and internationally. For seven years, Rohd travelled and conducted residencies, led workshops, and built capacity with young people and adults for community events that tackled issues including HIV/AIDS policy, youth violence, diversity & inclusion practice in schools and community organizations & civic climate around divisive issues. Hosts included: Nebraska Department of Health; California chapters of National Conference on Community and Justice; Louisiana, Washington state, Ohio & Connecticut branches of Planned Parenthood; Virginia coalition of Homeless Service and Care Providers; Tuk Young Foundation in Seoul, South Korea; Helsinki School of Arts and Media, Finland; Oregon Department of Education; Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC; Asian Americans United in Philadelphia…and others. Rohd’s book about this work, Theatre for Community, Conflict & Dialogue (Heinemann Press) is used around the world in theatre-for-community settings and teaching institutions. He founded Sojourn Theatre alongside 7 collaborators in 1999.
In 2001, Sojourn Theatre and the Council for the Arts in Lima, Ohio was chosen to be one of 32 National Animating Democracy Lab Projects. For two years, Sojourn worked with Lima, Ohio’s City, County and State legislators to develop a County-wide process that engaged community members and leaders in ongoing dialogue about community identified difficulties surrounding local race and class issues. The project culminated in a production (Passing Glances), a well attended community convening and action committees that worked together for years following. Sojourn was invited back to work with County teachers and students in 2004, and in 2008, Sojourn was called by the Black Ministerial Alliance and the School Superintendent of Lima to act as first responders amidst a civil rights crisis after a police shooting left an unarmed African American woman and her child dead.
In 2002, Sojourn Theatre worked with the National Touring Anne Frank Exhibit to create and mount a production about Human Rights that focused on Oregon’s history and contemporary cultural context. Partnering with local faith and government leaders, Sojourn created Hidden, which was installed within the exhibit and used as an anchor for community conversations around the city and then, through touring, around the state.
In 2003- 2005, in partnership with the Oregon Department of Education, universities around the state, high schools in 4 towns and the Oregon Historical Society, Sojourn Theatre created Witness Our Schools, a poetic documentary about the state of public education in America, and Oregon in particular. Over 500 interviews with students, politicians, parents, teachers, liberals, conservatives, union leaders, anti-government militants and immigrant advocates were the raw material for this touring show which played every Sunday in a different Oregon town for 32 weeks. Every free performance was followed by a town hall meeting attended by audiences and local political leaders; facilitated by the company and utilizing small group discussion, improvisation and values clarification work, the sessions grew in scope and scale- by the end of the tour, the show had been invited to perform on the floor of the state legislature at the Capitol as well as share its dialogue findings. On that day, a Republican Senator said of the show on the Senate floor: “This is the clearest articulation of the state’s education crisis that I have ever seen. My friends on both sides of the aisle need to attend this event and join the conversation.”
In 2005, Sojourn Theatre became one of twelve arts organizations (and one of two Theaters) across the country named to the Exemplar Program, a program of Americans for the Arts in collaboration with the LarsonAllen Public Service Group, funded by the Ford Foundation. The Exemplar Program was established to recognize exemplary work by mid-sized and small arts organizations that serve as important and vital incubators of emerging artists' work, sites of artistic experimentation and innovation, and leaders in community and civic engagement.
In 2006, Sojourn Theatre was asked by The Mayor’s Office of Portland to help in the implementation of VisionPDX. The Mayor’s effort to develop a 25 year vision plan for the City via engagement with community members, synthesis of data and an articulation of city-wide values to guide upcoming policy decisions was massive. Sojourn created a play (One Day) about 8 Portlanders over a 24 hour period facing ethical dilemmas related to community challenges the engagement data revealed. The play toured neighborhoods around the city and concluded with a 40 minute dialogue between audience and characters, where audience members attempted to help devise policy and planning suggestions for the city that would help the play’s characters make their lives work in Portland. The Mayor’s Office was at every performance; all dialogues were transcribed and brought into weekly planning meetings at City Hall. Due to the show’s impact, Sojourn Artistic Director Michael Rohd was invited to sit on the Drafting Committee and help write the City’s Vision Plan.
In 2007-2008, Sojourn Theatre developed BUILT, a project about demographic change and housing/community sustainability in the US with three Cities and three sets of civic partners. In Evanston and Chicago IL, Sojourn partnered with a University, community organizations, a Law School and a City Council; in Hartford, CT, Sojourn partnered with a City Council, a State Legislature, a Regional Planning entity, a University and another theatre company; and in Portland, Sojourn partnered with City Hall, community organizations, a waterfront high rise realty development corporation, City Planners and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival. Sojourn ensemble members Shannon Scrofano (lead collaborator and scenic/media designer) and Liam Kaas-Lentz (Production Manager) led the development of a participatory civic planning game that audiences played (amidst a larger performance structure) in an evolving investigation of their own values of place and how those values and very personal choices relate to the community in which they reside. The strategies of discourse Sojourn developed for BUILT have since been used by us (and in consultation with us) within civic planning processes as well as academic and foundation conference events.
In 2008, Sojourn Theatre culminated 18 months of development work in collaboration with Georgetown University with a semester long residency at Georgetown and our Production of The Race, an investigation into the politics of leadership in contemporary America timed to open just before and run through the 2008 Presidential Election. A highly technical show with live and pre-constructed media, Sojourn mixed interview-based research with inquiry strategies that brought strangers to the stage via virtual distance technologies and cast them as public experts in our nightly theatricalized conversations. The Washington Post declared that the show redefined political theatre and the audience’s role in the theatre event.
In 2009-2010, Sojourn Theatre explored the urban/rural conversation in Oregon (and across the nation) by partnering with the community of Molalla, a town of seven thousand people 50 miles from Portland. Working with Molalla’s Arts Council alongside Molalla civic and business leaders, Sojourn developed half of our most ambitious project yet, On The Table. After 18 months of preparation, we opened the a show consisting of simultaneous and different First Acts (one in Portland, one in Mollala), followed by Act Two bus rides of 25 miles for each audience towards a riverside mid-point, and finally a shared Act Three consisting of a catered meal, civic discourse and the story’s conclusion. Fifty urban and fifty rural people came together each night for three weeks- they travelled on school buses to share a meal, hear a story, and build a relationship with a stranger. Bringing local leaders together alongside first time theatergoers made for a rich and surprising event. Cross bus cell phone calls on-route was one example of our ongoing effort to use technology as a tool not just for display, but for bridge-building.