Thinking about the difference between social and civic practice

In the book about The Penelope Project, Sojourn Theatre’s Michael Rohd writes about the difference between social and civic practice in theatre. He writes:

…social practice initiates with artists’ desire to explore/create a conceptual event or series of moments they design. The design and/or execution of the performance may engage non-artists in any number of ways: it may leverage non-arts partners and community resources; it may intend to specifically impact the social or civic life of the context in which it occurs in measurable ways; or it may intend to exist as an aesthetic interruption from which impact is to be derived in an open, interpretative manner. But alongside whatever social or civic needs the project addresses, the leading impulse and guiding energy is from the artist.

Civic practice, on the other hand:

…artists use the assets of their crafts in response to the goals of non-arts partners as discovered through ongoing dialogue. The impulse of what to make comes out of the relationship, not an artist-driven proposal.

He makes no value-judgment between the two (though, on principle, it does seem he leans towards civic practice) and points out how Sojourn Theatre, particularly in The Penelope Project, works the entire gamut of the spectrum, i.e., studio1, social, and civic; “[w]e try to listen and—when appropriate, when of use—offer our assets. We work to rethink the possibilities of partnership and create more opportunities to start with a partner’s needs rather than our own programming.”

Reflecting on my own practice so far, most of the work I’ve done is of the social sort. When I was a teaching artist for an educational theatre company, we offered a number of already set programmes to public schools. Or even as a solo artist in my most recent interactive storytelling project, even though I did work closely with the pre-kindergarten regarding the material they wanted me to cover, they were still mostly the recipient of the “product” rather than its co-creators. (Having said that, re: educational theatre company, programmes that were months long, compared to those that were mere days, were a mix of social and civic practice, especially if there was a professional development component. What was important for the teacher? What did the teacher want to improve on? Because there’s more time, there’s more leeway to personalize the programme.)

Digression: In my MA in CUNY SPS, while we didn’t explicitly talk about it (except in Community Acts), we were encouraged to lean towards the civic: what does your community partner want and need? How can they have ownership of the project as well? This, as much as possible, is how I want to work. I do try to strive for it whenever I’m in the position to be able to dialogue with the community partner more, i.e., interactive storytelling (or even in something as simple as group work in a class). That said, and this I’ve noticed with public schools, not all community partners have the energy to be active participants in the process, especially when they have a lot of things on their plate already. I suppose this is a question that I want to try answering at the end of this week:

There are times that civic practice leans more towards the social not because the artist isn’t interested in working with the community partner, but rather, the community partner (or at least those with clout in the community) are busy with other matters. As much as the artist tries to bring them into the conversation, the partner just trusts the artist to “do their thing.” What does the civic-minded artist do in this situation? How can they more actively involve the community partner, but respect the boundaries the partner has set?

The week of workshops begin tomorrow and, as I’ve already written before, I’m a mixture of anxiety and excitement!

  1. Rohd doesn’t define it in this article, but studio art is the practice of art in its traditional sense. This may be a poor explanation, but roughly the entire process and product stems from the artist, i.e., a painter in his studio, a Broadway theatre staging Phantom of the Opera, and so on.