More Playing In The Streets

Yesterday BikeWalk Macon sponsored an Open Streets event in town.  Open Streets is a program that started about 30 years ago in Columbia. It closes streets down and turns it over the use of the community. (There is also a Play Street program I wrote about that started in London that appears to have a similar aim.) If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know this is the type of thing I am definitely into checking out.

Fortunately for me, one of the streets they chose to shutdown was right in front of my building so I didn’t have to go far.  There were a lot of activities set up along the streets that were closed down – corn hole games, yoga classes, line dancing, skateboard obstacles, sidewalk chalk, etc.

As you might imagine, one of the biggest activities enabled by shutting down the streets was bike riding. I wasn’t sure but it appeared the local bike repair shop or someone might have brought down loaner bikes for people who didn’t have one because there was a big collection around their tent.

As I rode around, I was amazed by just how large a swath of street they ended up closing down. There was a significant section of a major northeast-southwest road that was shut down. Just when I thought I was reaching the limit, I realized I was only approaching a soft closure where cars were allowed to cross through an intersection.

Having such a long distance without vehicular traffic  was a great opportunity to get some exercise, but I almost felt like too much was closed down. As many activities and tent as there were, it couldn’t fill all the available space. As the only one ranging that far out, I felt somewhat guilty blocks upon blocks of street were being shut down for my own use.

After I got tired of riding around, I grabbed a chair from my apartment and just sat and watched people move by. The formality of creating an occasion to use a space seemed to provide an opportunity for people to get out an meet their neighbors in ways that wandering or riding your bikes downtown on a Sunday afternoon wouldn’t normally afford.

The organizers might have worked out something with the local transit company to help people who lived outside the area come downtown to play because I saw people loading their bikes on a city bus that didn’t seem to be immediately departing on a set route.

One thing I was most interested in checking out was the inclusion of Pokemon GO augmented reality in the Open Streets experience. The Knight Foundation has formed a relationship with Pokemon Go developer Niantic and partnered on a fellowship program. (Disclosure: My organization receives funding from both The Knight Foundation and Community Foundation of Central Georgia, both of which provided funding for the Open Streets event.)

After listening to what they were telling people waiting on line at the tent and speaking with the Macon fellow for 7-8 minutes about what they were trying to achieve, I was a little disappointed because it just seemed like they had set up an enhanced Pokemon GO experience where there would be more Pokemon to hunt than usual. I thought they might be doing some more along the lines of the projects in the Knight Prototype Fund where they would experimenting with new ways to use augmented reality.

But then I saw this tweet this morning that said they were using augmented reality as part of a scavenger hunt to help people become more aware of historic locations and public art.

This is the sort of application of the technology I had envisioned might be happening. I don’t know if there was some sort of miscommunication between myself and the fellow where he assumed I knew the scavenger hunt was highlighting history and art and I assumed it was about finding the Pokemon on the posters they were handing out. Had I known it was the former, I would have accepted his offer to join the hunt so I could investigate the experience.

I may have the opportunity to speak with the local Knight Foundation officer in a week or so and hope to ask her for some clarification about what people were being lead to do.

If you are interested in bringing the Open Streets program to your community, you can learn more about it on the project website where they have toolkits to help you get started.

Are Church Planting Techniques Suited To The Arts?

I was recently listening to an episode of This American Life on church planting and found it a little strange to be listening to people use venture capitalist terminology to describe efforts to build new worship communities as “target the unchurched.”

Reporter Eric Mennel mentions attending a conference where the conversation is

“…about “kingdom return on investment.” Or “evangelistic networking” is one I’ve read, or “corporate renewal dynamics.”

“Launch” is a big word that they use in both worlds. They talk about “launch Sundays” and “launch budgets” in church planting. And the framing of what they’re doing is in business terms, right?

As I continued to listen, they started to mention that these efforts were heavily bankrolled by established churches,

So a lot of the startup capital comes from the biggest denominations. The Southern Baptists– they spend tens of millions of dollars a year on church planting. But a lot of church plants actually get their funding directly from megachurches– established churches that have thousands of members.

That got me thinking that you don’t see many large arts organizations doing something similar where they provide seed funding to enable more nimble arts organizations to go out to target the un-artsed.”

It wasn’t long ago that Nina Simon made a similar point about church planting and the arts on her blog.

Perhaps I should have known there would be parallels with the arts because This American Life titled the episode, “If You Build It, Will They Come?” evoking the “Field of Dreams” mentality we have been urged to abandon.

However, what I really found fascinating was the parallels between the problems one church planter had with diversifying the demographics of church planting and those of arts organizations trying to do the same thing with their program participants.

This American Life (TAL) spoke to Watson Jones III who became really excited by the church planting model, but noticed that pretty much everyone at this church planting conferences was Caucasian. The TAL reporters confirmed that most church planting happens in gentrifying or affluent urban neighborhoods or suburbs.

Jones felt things were wide open for planting churches in urban neighborhoods for people of color.  As I referenced before,  there is some surprising infrastructure for church planters. Jones got training in budgeting, fundraising, creating a business plan and mission statement for his church, plus an 18 month residency at a church plant site. He ended up landing about $100,000/year funding for three years to support his planting efforts.

They ended up doing a lot of things arts organizations do when trying to attract new audiences– handing out flyers and candy on the streets trying to get people to attend gatherings at homes, coffee houses and other non-traditional venues.

While the non-traditional worship services at funky, cool locations are pretty much the core identity of the church planting process that helps attract new members, it had the opposite effect for communities of color.

Watson Jones

….And one lady told me– she said, you guys are a cult. You call me when you get a church. Especially, I think, among black people, the more out of the box or avant garde you are, the less likely you are to be trusted.

Theologically, we say all day long, the church is the people of God. The people in your city, in your neighborhood, does not understand church apart from a building, a preacher, a choir or a praise team, and something that looks like a church service, period.


AJ Smith

Yeah. I mean, we were going to be the people who were out there on the streets, pastors who were very much present with the people. And that’s how we’ll grow the church. That didn’t work.

As I am listening to all this, I can’t but help think about how this is literally out of Nina Simon’s TEDx Talk on the Art of Relevance.

I mean look at this still. If you can’t see the stenciled sign on the bottom of the slide she is showing, it says “House of Worship In A Den of Sin.”

Nina uses this picture to discuss how some people will see this as a welcoming  place and others will see it as scary.

These guys trying to plant a church are running into a similar situation where the lack of a formal building and familiar experience was an impediment to people’s willingness to commit to this fledgling church. (Unfortunately, even when they did get a physical place in which to hold services, they had problems attracting a consistent group.)

This podcast provides many things to think about regarding the efforts of arts organizations to diversify the groups they serve. The foremost of which may be whether the design and execution of impromptu experiences in non-traditional spaces reflect affluent Caucasian ideals about what outreach efforts to those underserved by the arts looks like and subsequently serve to largely appeal to a similar demographic.

Sometimes Culture Is Preserved In Overlooked Nooks And Crannies

If you have ever doubted the contributions niche artistic & cultural practices can make to greater society, read check out this story on the BBC site recounting how puppetry helped preserve the Czech language.

…intellectuals, who had initially resisted the German language, followed suit. Even Czech actors began to perform in German as an official mandate.


[wood carvers]…started making puppets for the actors of Bohemia soon after Ferdinand II came to power, as puppets were the only remaining entities that had the right to speak Czech in public places. While the rest of the country and its people adhered to the newly imposed German language, wandering actors and puppet-masters spoke through the puppets in their native Slavic tongue.

It might seem unlikely that a few hundred puppets and puppet-masters could safeguard a language, especially through a loophole, but the people’s last remaining legacy to their past was tied to the puppet’s strings.

It’s easy to see why these marionettes have found a home in Czech hearts, and why the magic of puppets continues to permeate the city.

It is often the case that a dominant culture tries to undermine, perhaps with the intent of forced assimilation,  the identity of other cultures by outlawing popular practices. Occasionally niche cultural practices are tolerated because they are not taken seriously or because they don’t appear to have broad impact.

Something similar happened in Hawaii (as well as other places, I am sure), where there was a strong bias against speaking the language and close to an outright prohibition against hula, with which chant is inexorably bound. It was only due to individuals performing and practicing in private that cultural practices were preserved until public practice was allowed. Even still, a lot had been lost and is still in the process of being reinvigorated in the shadow of influential pop culture.

Indeed, currently reclaiming and participating in traditional practice is increasingly valued. Some of it is certainly motivated by the prestige of being associated with “bespoke” craftsmanship. But that desire drives a demand for people to actually master the skills to produce quality sought after goods, services and experiences.

They Started Roling Out These Performances Sooner Than I Expected

When I wrote about using roleplaying games as the basis for character and plot development back in June, I never imagined I would see the basic concept manifest so quickly.

Apparently ideas like this occur and are developed somewhat in parallel because for the last two weekends, the theater department here at Mercer University has been using the basic framework of Dungeons and Dragons to create a heroic saga with the participation of audience members.

Martin Noyes of Savannah College of Art and Design had experimented with the idea on a smaller scale in the classroom, but this was the first time he employed the concept as a full production that unfolded across seven nights.

The experience was very intriguing to me because it both required creating a sophisticated framework of rules and allowing the performers (and audience) a lot of freedom to introduce unpredictable elements into the performance.

The technicians supporting the performance had to be prepared to create the appropriate ambience on the fly. In many cases, they had to be just as inventive and resourceful as the actors. It was quite telling that Noyes would often be surprised that they found an appropriate image to project or sound effect to use as part of the action. He wasn’t completely aware of what they had available in their repertoire.

In addition, there was a musician on violin accompanying the performance creating a soundscape on the fly as well.

The performance, called Vengeance and Veritas, was presented in a blackbox space. The set looked something like this:

As you might imagine, flexibility and imagination were employed more frequently than realistic set pieces.

The cast consisted of four main characters, plus four others that took on various roles and helped with some of the mechanics of the performance. Noyes acted as the game master and portrayed many of the allies and antagonists, providing direction or challenges to the main characters. Audience members were pulled up to be ancillary characters and with a few whispered notes from Noyes, were called upon to make decisions to either thwart or assist the central characters in their goals.

By the finale, there were about 12 audience members up on stage alongside the actors either manipulating the rudimentary puppets of one of two dragons or depicting female warrior-monks.

If that wasn’t enough uncertainty added to the proceedings, the 20 sided dice so iconic to Dungeons and Dragons were used to determine the outcomes of many decisions. Oversized dice were distributed throughout the audience. When called upon, they threw the dice into the performing area. Often multiple dice were thrown simultaneously forcing Noyes to indicate which die would rule as it skittered across the floor.

There was a lot I loved about the design of this production.

First, I loved that it developed into something larger than expected. Noyes apparently didn’t think things would develop as far as they did, forcing him to create more narrative guidelines between performance nights. In the heat of the action, he would often forget where on stage he put his notebook down, providing an amusing delay while he retrieved it to consult his notes.

The actors were free to make decisions about their involvement within the confines of the narrative. Noyes had a couple of out of character exclamations of “oh shit” when the actor portraying a vampire turned up deciding to be the hero, thwarting the plans of the villainous character Noyes was portraying.

At the same time the nigh unkillable vampire kept becoming a liability to his allies as the dice roll incited his bloodlust to attack wounded allies.

There were also times where well-reasoned character development and choices by the actor was allowed to trump the dice roll.

While a performance built within the framework of a game like Dungeons and Dragons does require you to have some degree of insider knowledge, unlike many arts experiences, the audience was often more knowledgeable than the creators. Noyes had to admonish the audience to silence as it became clear the actor portraying the vampire was about to make a decision that would benefit a regular person but is deadly to vampires.

This particular approach to creating dramatic narrative answers many of the objections people make about performing arts – it is never the same performance each night, the outcome is unpredictable, the audience is actively engaged and doesn’t have to be cajoled into participating.

Another great thing was that the episodic nature of the performance induced people to return to see the show again. (Anyone who performed got a little gift at the end of the night too) Where they may not have participated on the first night, a lot of people were ready to jump up and take part on subsequent nights.

Because the cast didn’t know how the performance would unfold every night, no one knew when the show would end each night either. Noyes had to judge a good cliffhanger point to stop at.

One conversation we had (my staff provides the ticketing for the performance) is that if this type of show is ever done again, we need to offer special multiple performance pricing to make it easier for people to attend as many nights as they like.

The process also provides artists and technicians with the opportunity to explore new approaches to story creation; become nimble and resourceful in executing complex tasks on the fly and evaluate what does and doesn’t work. There may be a number of practices in common with comedy improv performances, but there are a lot more moving parts involved.

Because of the performance environment, the unintentional pauses, rough edges and problems in the shows I attended only served to provide a greater sense of intimacy and connection for the audience. (How often do you see a director exclaim his pleasure when something is unfolding well or preface a performance by telling an audience how his ultimate goal is to destroy a good portion of what he labored so hard to create?)

In a different physical spaces, the expectations might be for a more polished product. In that case, the performers might have to run through a scenario a couple times before an audience encounters it—but still introduce a mechanism of unpredictability to keep things feeling exciting and fresh.

Since I didn’t expect to see roleplay driven storytelling manifest so quickly and in such a way, I am obviously excited to see what else might emerge.

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