- Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response Call and Response
Theatre for social change, radical performance, community-based theatre, and applied art are all names that scholars and practitioners have taken up to describe, and at times defend, the broad category of performances seeking to effect changes in society. In her latest book, Engaged Performance: Theatre as Call and Response, Jan Cohen-Cruz makes good use of the term “engaged” to describe this field of performance that is inspired by a desire for social justice and a commitment to exchange and interactivity. She lays out a range of formal and methodological [End Page 463] approaches to socially engaged performance practice, grounding her book in numerous US-based case studies, in which she was either a participant or an observer. Throughout the book, Cohen-Cruz invokes the relational model of call and response to emphasize the importance of reciprocal engagement between artist and community; she also sees a call-and-response relationship between theory and practice in this book. In it, theories and specific case studies function as the call, with workbook sections at the end of each chapter serving as the response, inviting the reader to engage those materials in an embodied, active way. A practitioner-scholar who has been writing about and producing this mode of performance for over three decades, Cohen-Cruz offers a deeply empathetic yet resolutely critical approach to the field.
The book is motivated by three key ideas. First, the author wants the work of community-based artists to receive critical respect, demonstrating that engaged performance practices can be just as aesthetically interesting as any other form of art. Second, Cohen-Cruz demonstrates that, within this category of performance, a wide range of techniques is available. In doing so, she hopes to encourage artists to think carefully about the circumstances of their work and their strategies of engagement. Finally, she wants the text to be of practical use, gearing her book toward not only performance scholars, but also practitioners and students.
Each chapter considers a different theoretical and methodological approach to creating socially engaged performance. The first two chapters provide the foundation for the book by laying out the theories of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal. Chapter 1 examines Brecht’s approach to activating spectators. Cohen-Cruz breaks with the idea that applied theatre and community-based theatre must eschew the author entirely in order to be truly engaged, offering Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Cornerstone Theater’s adaptations, such as Steelbound (adapted from Prometheus Bound) and Chalk Circle (adapted from Caucasian Chalk Circle), as examples of engaged drama. In chapter 2, the author examines Boal’s techniques for facilitating a physically engaged spectator, citing several case studies, such as choreographer Arthur Aviles’s piece for Action Lab in the Bronx titled El Yunque in the Laundromat.
Chapters 3 through 6 are grounded in close examinations of case studies. Among many other examples, Cohen-Cruz describes Marty Pottenger’s “home land security” performance project, which provides refugees and immigrants the opportunity for visibility and entrance into public conversation in Portland, Maine (chapter 3); Appalshop’s “Thousand Kites,” which links art and political organizing through a play about prisons (chapter 4); “HOME, New Orleans?,” a work that responded to the damage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (chapter 5); and multiple examples of efforts to revitalize downtown Syracuse, New York, through the use of engaged art (chapter 6). Taken together, these four chapters demonstrate the breadth of socially engaged performance, even as Cohen-Cruz illustrates the individual approaches used by these artists and discusses why they proved to be effective strategies, given their unique contexts.
Chapter 7 articulates the need for training among people seeking to create socially engaged art. In enumerating her criteria—expertise in craft, scholarship, and community engagement—Cohen-Cruz recognizes the need for practitioners to be competent in multiple disciplines, arguing that the engaged artist should be adept at a specific craft, but should also have general, community-based art skills (for example...