“Look at what people can be together.”

While researching my thesis on performing arts festivals as reconstructed social and political spaces a few years ago, I came across a case study of Hillside Music Festival. The Canadian festival had woven its values into its operations with a decidedly political aim: “promoting altruism, equality, environmentalism, and peacemaking in every aspect of its work.”

The study suggested that festivals could “provide opportunities for individuals to resist and rewrite the dominant cultural narratives that shape their lives” and that practicing a better social construct could permeate beyond a weekend of music and revelry.

“Look at what people can be together.”

This quote was attributed to one of the festival staff, talking about how Hillside wasn’t just telling you what it stands for, but instead showing you how these values play out. As a space for leisure, the invitation in is easy and allows festival attendees to experience and participate in their proposed structure with less hesitancy.

We live in a world filled with injustices and inequities. They’re structural and seemingly unavoidable, no matter how we protest and try to push along progress.

I was in an anti-racism workshop on the day of the Van Dyke verdict. An incredible space to be in when we received word of justice being served for Laquan McDonald. After taking some time to soak in that news, with our optimism cautiously recharged, we returned to our conversations only to be interrupted with the news that Senator Collins made her speech in support of Judge Kavanaugh, wiping away any small hope that we had for justice for Dr. Ford.

The whiplash of emotions, not just from that day but from the months, years before it, yielded exasperation over how our system could be so broken. How can it continue to fail us?

Keryl McCord, leading the workshop, offered up, “the system isn’t broken. It’s working exactly the way it was designed to. It’s keeping those in power it was meant to keep.”

Injustice, privilege, imbalance of power—they’re all in the design, in the very fabric of the world we live in and the systems that rule us.

So. What then? We protest what we are against. We make noise where we can. We organize. We vote. We talk about the swinging pendulum. These are all important and yet they’re also all living inside volatile arenas, reinforcing the polarized narrative. The charge is to build one side up to quiet the other, to bring the other down. Is there something else we can do?

Can we imagine what people can be together?

I’m consumed by this question—this idea of creating space to practice values, to build consensus around a new society. It feels electric and radical and at the same time it’s not hard to recognize that, as theater makers, the vocabulary is so familiar to us.

When you enter into a performance space, the rules change. You’ve opted into someone else’s vision of the world. Someone else has decided how close you are to the person next to you, what you will see and not see, if you’ll be invited to speak, if you’re allowed to eat, if and when you’re allowed to leave. You have an opportunity to safely explore and push the boundaries of your role in that world for the next 90 minutes or so.

The Hillside festival proposes that the structure supporting the artist’s vision is equally important in creating a lasting impact. The artist is responsible for guiding you through their world, but how you enter that world, what you see and read and experience in the lobby along the way, who you meet⏤all of those contribute to the artist’s success.

In 2014, I was lucky enough to attend a ten day workshop with, among other remarkable arts managers, the spectacular Nele Hertling. Nele is a power of art and activism. She has done everything from banding together arts leaders to force Berlin politicians into a conversation about centering culture in policymaking and practice (resulting in huge, continued civic financial investment) to presenting international work in direct conversation with local issues and revolutionizing the form of artistic exchange in Europe.

Nele sees the role of curator/producer as being of service to the artist and community. It is her responsibility to create the presenting format that will best support connection between the two. She stressed that the format needs to be continuously evaluated and improved upon to keep up with the artist’s growth and the community’s evolution. She asked the questions: What would the artist/city/region/art form gain by creating this? Is this harmful? Is this necessary? What is my social responsibility? Have the needs of this community changed? Can we grow in response?

Can we imagine what people can be together?

These inquiries aid in the reconstruction of social space, centering new values and redefining community—how it’s foraged, who gets to participate, what are they here to do.

When I look for where those spaces currently exist, I come to Links Hall. I felt it the first time I entered the space as an audience member and feel it in every part of being on the board. It begins in the producing and presenting structures—the ability and eagerness to consistently reexamine what’s working, who it’s supporting and who it’s harming, why it exists. It is the practice of striving to be a better society, of attempting to find a better way of relating and supporting one another, that is woven into everything the organization does. It all results in a warm invitation into community that sets you up to experience anything. A sort of love and kindness for the unfamiliar that is severely lacking in our outside world.

Imagine if we could approach everything we don’t know or understand with the same amount of compassion.

*Paper referenced above is by Erin K. Sharpe: Festivals and Social Change: Intersections of Pleasure and Politics at a Community Music Festival.

Photos: (1) Undergrowth with Two Figures by Vincent van Gogh (2) Hillside Festival (3) Street art, Valparaiso, Chile (4) reWilding, by Martyna Majok, my first project with the Satori Group (5) Nele Hertling at the European Festivals Association Atelier Poznan 2014, photo byMaciej Zakrzewski (6) Links Hall staff, board members and artists