- Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the United States
The emergence of community-based performance as a viable field in theatre and performance studies has been bolstered by the publication of a number of works documenting and theorizing the work of [End Page 367] practitioners. No one, however, has previously created a survey of community-based performance in the US that provides a holistic account of the field. Jan Cohen-Cruz, herself an experienced community-based artist, has completed just such a project with Local Acts. By analyzing the field through a number of lenses—historical, critical, theoretical, and practical—Cohen-Cruz has written an important book that takes stock of the present-day status of community-based performance and effectively positions it within the broader disciplines of theatre and performance studies.
This type of undertaking is especially challenging in a relatively new field because its disciplinary boundaries are in a somewhat protean state of flux. Indeed, the notion of community-based performance has been applied to a wide array of seemingly disparate practices. Cohen-Cruz acknowledges that it is an "unwieldy field" (1) but she proceeds to carve out the terrain through a number of theoretical frameworks. At the outset, readers will notice that Cohen-Cruz refers to her subject as "community-based performance" rather than "community-based theatre." Her preference for the term "performance" is grounded in her desire to expand the potential reach of the field "to include not only dance and music but also a much larger category of heightened behavior intended for public viewing" (1). The choice of terms is also advantageous because it helps bring together the broad range of historical and theoretical antecedents to the contemporary practices most often associated with community-based theatre. Cohen-Cruz also has a fairly open and inclusive view of the features that mark a performance as "community-based." Such a performance "is usually a response to a collectively significant issue or circumstance. It is a collaboration between an artist or ensemble and a 'community' in that the latter is a primary source of the text, possibly of performers as well, and definitely a goodly portion of the audience" (2).
Yet Cohen-Cruz narrows her focus by describing the margins and borders of community-based performance practices. For instance, she does not include psychodrama, medieval cycle plays, or amateur or community theatre in her conception of community-based performance. She finds each of these lacking in the essential principles that, she argues, define the field and thereby the scope of her study. Reasonable minds could certainly bicker over whether or not any of these practices or traditions should fall under the umbrella of community-based performance, just as we could debate the necessity of an "artist or ensemble" as a collaborator in order for a performance to be "community-based." However, Cohen-Cruz's characterization of community-based performance seems an accurate reflection of how the phrase is used in common parlance among contemporary scholars and practitioners. As a result, the book directly engages ongoing dialogues in the field, as opposed to redefining its general parameters and thereby shifting the target.
The text is laid out in three major parts, all of which are well-researched and documented. Following a valuable introduction that clarifies Cohen-Cruz's own subject position and lays out the breadth of the project, part one, "Legacies," presents a historical account of community-based performance in the US beginning in the early twentieth century. This narrative, which Cohen-Cruz refers to as a "genealogy," avoids presumptive claims of evolutionary development and instead highlights a number of significant movements and performance events from the past which can be linked to the present. These seminal moments guide the reader to the civil rights movement and the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, a time in which, Cohen-Cruz explains, most of the contemporary community-based artists featured in her study "came of age" (8...