Jan Cohen-Cruz – Notes from an Autumn Gardener: Reflections on Theater and Distance

A reflection on that distance in the autumn of my life. The form is a rejection of the tyranny of distance imposed on academics regarding the inclusion of personal aspects of our lives in our professional research.

Two photographs bookend my talk. The first, an 8×10 inch “head shot,” which actors staple to their resume and leave with casting agents, was taken when I was 18 years old. It’s as close to glamorous as I ever got, a hair piece thickening my long dark waves, my eyebrows plucked, my expression thoughtful yet coy. I believed that a life in the theater had to be New York City-centered and the only route there required conforming to particular looks and types.

The second, from 2017, is a set of blown-up portraits of diverse residents of my small hometown, projected on the main railroad station as part of an event thanking the community for 4 years of interviews there that were a source of the play SWEAT, which won the Pulitzer for Drama. These two photos mark the distance that US theater traveled over 60 years, changes in the times that its twists and turns reflect, and the unexpected journey that I and others of my generation undertook.

The content of my talk is a reflection on that distance in the autumn of my life. The form is a rejection of the tyranny of distance imposed on academics regarding the inclusion of personal aspects of our lives in our professional research.

Jan edited Radical Street Performance, co-edited, with Mady Schutzman, Playing Boal: Theatre, Therapy, Activism and A Boal Companion; and wrote Local Acts: Community-Based Performance in the US, Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response, and Remapping Performance: Common Ground, Uncommon Partners.

What follows is a selection of Cohen-Cruz’s inspiring words from the keynote…

“I have lived to see community-based theatre and socially engaged art reconnecting to those experimental and political groups in urban and rural and suburban settings. From which I learned that, like the roots of a tree, the greater part of an entity may be hidden underground -but knowing it is there opens possibilities.”

“Making a pot was a way to practice making our public selves, the outer expression of our inner aspirations. What we care most about internally could find expression in our art and life and the rim was how one crosses the border between outside and in.”

“Renewing a relationship to one’s roots and taking root in terms of geography, culture, or spirit.”

“I got interested in the culture around me not because now there were people more like me, but because I saw the richness that was already there.”

Jan Cohen-Cruz:
Jan earned a PhD at NYU Performance Studies and taught applied theater at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She produced community-based arts projects in NYC and New Orleans. She directed Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (2007-2012), supporting partnerships between artists and scholars across universities and communities, and was founding editor of their e-journal Public (public.imaginingamerica.org). Jan received the 2012 Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s Award for Leadership in CommunityBased Theatre and Civic Engagement.

Jan was evaluator of the Bronx Museum’s smARTpower (2011-13), a State Department-funded cultural diplomacy initiative supporting US artists in partnerships at ngos in 15 countries. In 2016-17, she evaluated partnerships involving artists embedded in NYC municipal agencies: Veterans Affairs, Immigrant Services, and Children Services. She is Director of Field Research for A Blade of Grass, which supports socially-engaged artists.

Tegan Arazny (Facilitator & Documenter)
Tegan is a strong advocate for the development of Theatre and the Arts in community settings and has been involved with numerous Applied Theatre programmes throughout her professional training and experience. Tegan graduated with a Master of Arts with Distinction in Applied Theatre from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She has professional experience in Community Performance that promotes Young People’s expression and engagement through Puppetry and Theatre practices. As well as collaborating and performing with ERTH Visual & Physical Inc and Welsh theatre company PuppetSoup, she has co-directed and worked alongside Shop Front Arts Co-Op Junior Ensemble of 8-14-year old’s to create the original devised production, The Unknown. Tegan is currently working as Teaching Artist for Sydney Theatre Company’s ‘School Drama’. This is a Teachers Professional Development Program designed to improve teaching and learning by modelling the use of drama-based strategies with quality children's literature.