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  • Farms and Fables:Cultivating Difference in Community-based Theatre
  • Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly (bio)

“I followed behind the shovel pulling hard red tubers out of loose soil and tried to explain this project. Farmers, actors, giant puppets. You know, community-based theater.”

—Jennie Hahn1

Created in collaboration with family farmers and farmworkers, Farms and Fables (2011) was a community-based theatre project about local agriculture, developed through a process of embodied research. The project, produced by Open Waters Theater Company of Portland, Maine, put artists to work on farms and engaged farmworkers in storytelling and acting. Throughout its process, Open Waters wrestled with the challenge of representing a local Maine farming community while also negotiating difference, both as occupational outsiders and within the local farming community.

Drawing from what company members learned during their time working on the farms and in dialogue with farmers and farmworkers, the theatre company set out to address issues relevant to small farmers who are dealing with the struggle to hold onto their farms in the face of an uncertain future for farming in Maine. The play tells the story of two farms, one belonging to a family who has been farming in the state for generations, and the other to a family that is new to both farming and Maine. One farmer grapples with questions of how to sustain his family farm in the face of rising debt, as his new neighbors struggle to adapt to a new way of life. Throughout, two farmworkers represent the repetitive, enduring labor of a farm, as well as some of the issues faced by Puerto Rican migrant farmworkers in Maine. The farmers’ storylines are interspersed with group movement pieces that depict the labor of the farm (planting seeds and harvesting vegetables). Staged in Camp Ketcha’s historic barn in Scarborough, Maine, the group of performers was a mix of professional actors and members of the local farming community (fig. 1).

A twelfth-generation Mainer, Jennie Hahn (the artistic director of Open Waters) set out to create a community-based performance rooted in her “relationship to place and to the state of Maine” (Hahn 2010a). Hahn’s objective echoes Jan Cohen-Cruz’s definition of community-based performance: “theater that stays close to its origins in terms of place, ethnicity or circumstances” (2006, 3). Drawing on the ecological implications of the term grassroots theater, Cohen-Cruz calls on farmer, author, and cultural critic Wendell Berry’s linkage of culture and agriculture: “The traditions, new ideas and interactions that generate systems of human meaning-making are like the particular soil, amount of rainfall and growing season that determine the particularities of plant life” (ibid.). In essence, Cohen-Cruz argues that community-based theatre must be as committed to the particular ecology of place as a farmer. Indeed, community-based performances are often collaboratively created, process-based, and committed to localism and/or site-specificity. Farms and Fables extends and makes literal Cohen-Cruz’s metaphor by siting the project on farms and emphasizing localism as central to its project.

Due to this emphasis on localism, community-engaged artists like Open Waters Theater Company struggle with definitions of community that rely upon commonalties and universalities. [End Page 283]

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Fig 1.

Farms and Fables performance poster. Poster design by Nashbox. (Photo: John Bliss.)

In Lucy Lippard’s seminal text The Lure of the Local, she identifies the importance of a deep sense of place for all people, and especially for artists creating site-specific or community-engaged work. For Lippard, a sense of place is an essential component for all human interaction, and especially so for community-engaged art practice. However, this focus on the local also has its critics. Applied theatre scholar Helen Nicholson writes that “drama projects that focus on straightforward constructions of local identity, shared histories and ideological unity to the exclusion of difference and diversity, are likely to reinforce the more conservative images of ‘otherness’ sometimes associated with localism” (84). Given these concerns about the problematic aspects of the local, how might artists create work with and about communities that stays true to the community’s particular ecology...


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pp. 283-293
Launched on MUSE
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