Supporting artmakers in our vibrant community is a priority for Walton Arts Center, and in June Artist’s Laboratory Theatre’s Southside Civic Lab received the Robert E. Gard Award for exemplary work at the intersection of the arts and community life. ALT was nominated by Laura Goodwin, VP of Walton Arts Center’s Learning & Engagement.
Founder and Artistic Director of the Artist’s Laboratory Theatre, Erika Wilhite, uses community input as a guide as she develops scripts and creates work that explores local topics through immersive performance experiences. Wilhite is also a dramaturg, writer and director for ALT. Her recent projects include South Side Civic Lab, Bango! and The New Now. She received her MFA in Theatre from University of Central Florida and BFA in Theatre from University of Central Oklahoma. She is a facilitator and consultant who uses the tools of theatre to work with communities, organizations and public service agencies in the areas of capacity-building around conflict resolution and cooperative partnerships.
“Socially engaged art is up close and personal and only works when the relationship between artist and community is authentic. The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre project impressed me because it fostered constructive community dialog and change through an art form. I wanted to shine a spotlight on the company’s work and to remind us how powerful the arts can be.”
- Laura Goodwin, VP of Walton Arts Center’s Learning & Engagement
Description of the Project:
To increase awareness and dialogue about issues of neighborhood gentrification in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Artist’s Laboratory Theatre developed the Southside Civic Lab project. Project outputs were collaboratively developed and delivered over a period of 16 months through expansive research, interviews and focus groups with local people who were experiencing food, transportation and housing insecurity in Fayetteville’s Southside neighborhood. “Listening parties” addressed topics affecting the community and offered radical hospitality including food and childcare. "Neighborhood ambassadors" identified barriers and inequities for people who rely on public transit via research driven, task-focused bus rides. A three-day community visioning festival offered workshops on citizen-led community development and civic engagement. Project events and experiences informed an original play script titled "Good Person of South Fayetteville," which was performed by ALT at site-specific venues including during public bus commutes. The project was supported by the Our Town grant through the National Endowment for the Arts.
Southside Civic Lab project generated impressive outcomes for the neighborhood, a historically low-income minority community, at a time of rapid gentrification. The project united foundational neighbors with new homeowners, city officials and community services providers to explore shared concerns and inspired transformational citizen engagement by underrepresented people.
First-time attendance at public housing planning meetings by Southside neighbors resulted in a change of meeting structure to accommodate citizen input. In addition, the project empowered neighbors to make impressive commitments to civic duties; one ran for City Council while another joined the Housing Authority Board of Directors via appointment by the city’s mayor; this marked a comprehensive change in board membership and operational staffing.
Beyond the project’s scope, neighbors used project-learned skills to implement traffic-calming solutions in a busy roadway. The project stimulated change to public bus routes when it revealed better sites for stops and the need for weather shelters; local routes were redrawn and bus stop shelters added.
Through the Southside Civic Lab project, Artist's Laboratory Theatre created necessary conditions to support a profoundly changing neighborhood to know one another better, to transform their own community, and to improve self-identified, every day needs through arts integrated strategies.
Q&A with Erika Wilhite
How did this project originate?
After moving our headquarters to South Fayetteville, we hosted several listening sessions with the residents of the neighborhood to glean insight on the kind of programs would benefit the area. ALT develops scripts based on themes through long-term community engagement, and we were beginning a new project, so we needed a new theme. We learned from our neighbors that housing insecurity and homelessness was a major concern since it was prevalent in the South Fayetteville. We continued those conversations for a year and half as we developed the script the Good Person of South Fayetteville.
What are your biggest "wins" surrounding the Southside Civic Lab - awards, experiences, conversations, etc?
We created the conditions for conversations on complex economic, social and cultural topics. We workshopped the script with audiences throughout the process, and each performance was followed by a facilitated conversation that included social welfare employees, city officials and impacted community members. Audiences were made aware of the current conditions of homelessness by hearing real stories from their neighbors living without shelter.
What is your goal for this project in relation to our community - now and moving forward?
The goal was to create a play while getting our community plugged into the issues. The last stage of this project is the production of Good Person of South Fayetteville in summer 2020. It will be staged on the Ozark Regional Transit buses in site-specific locations around South Fayetteville. Moving forward, we are using this Civic Lab model for our next topic. We will spend the next year engaging communities in NWA on the topic of employment. We will develop a script through a similar method, through listening parties, interviews and community audits, but we will expand our reach to Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville in this next project.
What are you most proud of?
In addition to sharing the script in pieces with public audiences, we did table readings of the script with the clients of Genesis and 7 Hills, who performed the play as actors and gave their feedback about script edits. I am super proud of how that process empowered them take control of the narrative.
What are your "next steps?"
Kicking off the NWA Civic Lab.