Freedom Cafe: Everett

Organization Name: Everett: Company, Stage & School

City: Providence

Program Name: Cafés

Time of Program: Evening

Program Length: 90 minutes

Program When Elaborate: Our cafés are offered in series during our multi-year research and creation process. The model has also been used in a shortened form after performances when the company is on tour.

Goal: To offer audiences a way to engage with the company’s multi-year creation processes. To aid in our research for new work by convening scholars, activists, experts and community members around the subject of the work. To bring dance and art into conversations around critical issues of the day, and to look at those issues through a new lens.

Time of Year Offered: We run the cafés in a series during fall and spring.

Program Description:

Everett’s cafés are a public research and development model that engage audiences during the company’s multi-year creation process. They have also been used as engagement events when the company is on tour, either in advance of performances or as a post-performance forum.
A hybrid of a performance and a forum the Cafés include a short performance, often of in-progress material from the company’s new work, and two 15-minute presentations by experts in fields related to the subject matter of the new work. We reserve 45 minutes for the dialogue portion of the evening with the artists and speakers listening to responses from the audience, fielding questions and engaging in conversation.
These events create dialogues at the intersection of the arts, sciences, humanities, social justice and public policy. They are focused around the issues that the company is examining in their new work. The goal was to create a dialogue where the arts would come to the table as an equal partner and contribute to the analysis and discussion of the pressing social issues of the day. Another goal was to create opportunities for people to learn more about important issues and to prime them for purposeful action.
The café model was developed in 2011 during the creation of Everett’s Brain Storm (2012). It was very effective as a tool to draw our audience into the research and creation process. It was also an effective way to catalyze community partners, giving them a platform to share their knowledge and experiences. Finally, it was a format that brought many of our research subjects into our theater and made them available to our community. During the Brain Café series we had numerous neuroscientists present their research to our audiences. And, since an important value of these events was to engage people with direct experience of the issues, we had a scientist doing research on ADHD or PTSD in direct conversation with someone who had these conditions. It was important to include these people in order to de-stigmatize mental health issues.
We continued utilizing the café model for the company’s next work, Freedom Project (2015), with a series of Freedom Cafés that began in 2013. The outpouring of community interest in these events has been deeply gratifying. We have had formerly incarcerated poets share their experiences, public defenders sharing their frustrations and challenges, teachers, addiction coaches, therapists and more. One audience member wrote - “You managed to rally a diverse audience, around a super important topic, who maybe wouldn't have been in the same room otherwise. I saw grandparents, little kids, and teens, I saw people of all ages, genders, races and from many different neighborhoods. The little homies in the back row said things like, ‘yo, that’s real shit right there!’ and ‘damn that’s dope!’ This piece reached the right people.” This model has proven so effective that we now see it as an ongoing part of our research and creation process.

Number of Participants: We usually have an audience of around 100.

Target Audience: The café programs are designed to draw audiences from across different sectors and disciplines. The idea is to bring the arts to the table when discussing important societal issues. Since the arts are often an after thought to people in positions of power it was important for us to set our own table around the issues that the company is concerned with and place the arts at the center. The events are free which helps with drawing our low-income community. The Freedom Café series specifically attracted audiences of color because mass incarceration is an issue that disproportionately impacts those communities. The café series draws audiences who know Everett’s work and who are interested in being part of our development process because they know that the conversations we have at these events guide and alter the direction of our work. The cafés attract students and professors from the universities because they often call upon scholars from these institutions as presenters. They also draw audiences who work in the fields that the cafés are addressing. For example, with our Freedom Café series, depending on the specific issue a particular evening was examining, we would draw people from policing, education, corrections, activism, or a combination of these fields.

Is the program for kids? We have run special Youth Freedom Cafés that have been designed to attract teens. These have been out of school events. They are a combination of instruction and self-expression.

Private/Public Public

Nature of Audience Engagement: Audiences watch a dance or theater performance that relates to the evening’s subject. Inclusion of art, in what would otherwise be a straightforward forum, is the key ingredient that unlocks the audience’s emotional response and connects them on a visceral level to the discussion that follows. They then listen to two experts who briefly speak about their work on or experience with an issue. Speakers have ranged from neuroscientists to formerly incarcerated individuals and audiences always appreciate having access to and being able to engage with an expert whom they would not normally interact. After the formal presentations the artists and experts invite the audience into a dialogue that is really the core of the program. We reserve a full half of the evening for this portion of the program so that the audience and presenters can really take the time to hear each other, be stimulated by one another and respond to each other. During the discussion at one Youth Freedom Café a woman was moved to share the fact that her daughter had been murdered at a housing complex where they lived a few blocks from Everett Stage. She related that she had struggled with the desire to seek revenge for the killing but ultimately decided against it. She said that seeing all of the young people up onstage sharing their struggles through dance and theater reinforced for her that she had made the right decision, that their ability to take something negative and make something positive out of it had had a profound impact on her. This is an example of the deep conversations that can emerge when you combine art, issues, expertise, and dialogue.

Location: We have run cafés at our intimate stage which seats 100. We have also run them in spaces at various colleges and universities, from conference rooms to large theaters. It is always our preference that the space be intimate, accommodating 100 or fewer audience members. This allows for greater group cohesion.

How Many Staff: Depending on what dance or theater piece is being presented on a given evening we may have anywhere from 1 to 8 artists. Usually we have two experts presenting on the evenings topic. One of our two artistic directors will be on hand to facilitate the dialogue. Two staff or volunteers greet people as they arrive, hand out programs and hand out post event surveys.

Program Cost: We often use these events as part of our creative research and development process for the company’s new work, so company members could spend anywhere from 40 to 80 hours in rehearsals creating the performance piece. Depending on how many performers are involved this could cost $3,000. If we are just excerpting existing work for the event the rehearsals required are much fewer and the cost may be more like a few hundred dollars. Other expenses include stipends for presenters – approximately $200 - $400, marketing - approximately $400 to create email blast and flyers, staff time – approximately $200, tech for the performance – approximately $100.

Marketing for Program: We market this program through emails to our list, the creation of printed flyers that are distributed around town, postcards that are mailed out, and through announcements at other events. We also fill in community calendars at various media outlets and send out press releases.

Cost for Program Participants: Free

Attendance To Date: 4,000

Past Iterations: We established our café model during the development of the company’s 2012 work, Brain Storm. We held 12 Brain Cafés during this works development and touring cycle. We continued the model with the development of Freedom Project (2015) and have held 10 to date with plans for several more in the coming year. We also used the café model with our Youth Freedom Project holding 5 Youth Freedom Cafés to date.

What works? For us the important elements are the subject matter, the performance piece, and the expert presenters. It is crucial to tap into subjects that your audience will have an interest in. Or, to reach out to the audience that does have an interest in your subject if they are not your normal audience. Then, curating the event is the key, so that you get the right combustible mix of performance and presenters to generate some heat. We find it works best to meet with potential presenters before the event and conduct an interview with them to hear their story and get a sense of what they will want to talk about. It is also great if they can see the performance in advance so that they can reference it in their presentation if possible. Another important thing is to strictly enforce time limits on the initial speaking sections. We limit these to 15 minutes each so that we reserve plenty of time for the audience to be drawn into the program. Again, an intimate setting usually produces the most satisfying conversations.

What doesn't work? We find that it is best to limit the topic that can really be delved into during the allotted time. So instead of making each Freedom Café about mass incarceration in general we would choose smaller sub-topics such as the school to prison pipeline or the challenges facing former inmates as they try to re-enter society. For our Freedom Café audiences it was important that a lot of our expert presenters came from the community and that this was not a series dominated by academics. Since we were examining the impacts of incarceration on the community a lot of the knowledge and experience resided in the community and it was important to put that expertise front and center.

Performances Where Offered: We use the café model in the development of new work as a way to make our research public and draw our audience into that phase of the work. We offer cafés at select performances usually at the request of presenters when we are on tour.

Past Research on Program: We have conducted flash interviews with audience members as they are milling in the lobby before they exit. We have also done written post event surveys. We learned that audience members appreciate the combination of performance and speakers. One stated that the performance engaged the heart and she appreciated that her whole person was tended to. We learned that it is important to try to spread the discussion out among the audience and limit repeat speakers so that others got a chance to engage. We learned that it was helpful to remind the audience of the performance if the speakers had gone long and it had receded from memory.

Continuing Program? Yes we will continue this program in the future. When Everett creates new work it is usually a minimum of a two-year process. The Café model gives us a way to stay engaged with our audience during this extended development time. It also allows our audience to influence the new work through the discussions we share around the issues we are addressing. The cafés are also a great way for the company to access expertise around our subject. Presenters are often excited at the prospect of sharing their work with an audience that may know nothing about it. We make a lot of great contacts through this process that often lead to ongoing relationships.

Additional Comments:

This program has really proved popular with our audiences and as word has spread about it we have had people in the community approaching us to be included in our work. For example, during our work on Brain Storm a young woman with Tourette’s syndrome heard about what we were doing and approached us with the idea of creating a ballet out of her tics. Similarly, with Freedom Project we had numerous formerly incarcerated individuals approach us and ask us to share their stories. This has been a very gratifying and enriching aspect of the café program.

Resources & Links:

http://www.everettri.org/freedom-cafe/
This page has links to videos from our Freedom Café series.
http://www.everettri.org/brain-cafe/
This page has links to videos from our Brain Café series.