The Power of Community: Goodman Helps NOURISH Chicago

Participants in the 2017 NOURISH program. Photo by Anna Gelman.

This summer, NOURISH, a groundbreaking new program conceived and led by Willa J. Taylor, Goodman Theatre’s Walter Director of Education and Engagement, and Michael Rohd, director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP), took place in the Alice Rapoport Center. Over the course of four days, intensives were tailored for executive directors, staff members of community-based organizations, educators and teachers, as well as independent activists and artists. There, participants were trained in “civic practice”—arts-based partnership work developed in service of the needs of organizations or agencies that do not have an arts-centered mission. Taylor and Rohd speak about this experience and the future of NOURISH—a product of the Goodman’s formal partnership with CPCP—as a program that ensures arts and culture contribute to civic life.

Michael Mellini: How did the NOURISH program come about, and what are its aims and goals?

Michael Rohd: Willa and I became friends, and seemed to have a real simpatico between the ways we worked. I was interested in how the Goodman moves beyond traditional notions of how artists can work in communities—beyond classrooms and schools. The Goodman views artists not just as people who deliver art products, but also as collaborators, partners and resources who can help communities define their own needs, interests and challenges. With these workshops, we hope to see a growing, diverse body of artists and facilitators in the Chicagoland area who can put their creative practice to use in justice-aimed work.

Willa Taylor: Michael and I had also been in conversation about the lack of people of color doing the type of work he does and what that means in terms of indigenous community solutions. He’s had these conversations around the country through his work with CPCP, but there are always solutions in your own backyard that get overlooked. We talked about facilitating creative problem solving at a local level, and how we could then replicate that training ground across the country. It’s sometimes difficult to find people with the skills needed within the communities we hope to engage—so the idea has been, if we can’t find them, we’ll build them.

MM: What makes artists uniquely qualified to serve as engines to bring change in communities?

WT: Theater artists are flexible in the way they delve into a character or do script analysis. That makes actors and storytellers very good at critical thinking. It’s something anyone can learn, but because we do it on a regular basis, we can help people see their ability to think more critically in their own lives.

MR: When thinking about an organization, neighborhood, city, state or nation, we are in dire need of several things: healthy collaboration, imaginative problem solving, coalition building and envisioning inclusive and equitable futures. Artists are not only trained to do all those things, but they must envision what is not yet in existence and bring people together. That imaginative and collaborative potential hasn’t really been tapped to its fullest extent, and at this moment, when towns, cities and states in the nation struggle with decision-making and shared visions, artists can be a meaningful piece of the puzzle at local and larger levels.

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Participants in the 2017 NOURISH program. Photo by Anna Gelman.

MM: Why do you enjoy working with each other so much, and why is the Goodman the perfect place to put this work to practice?

WT: When you ask Michael a question, the answer is almost always yes, and then he starts thinking about how what you’ve proposed can be achieved. He really understands the power of the arts to make palpable change in society. Theater at its core is people coming together to tell a story that allows us, both the storytellers and audience, to look at our world and understand our relationship to and place in it. Our ability to do that translates beyond the stage. If our mission is to hold a mirror to our world, then everybody, regardless of whether they are physically at the Goodman, has the right to access that. We see ourselves as an artistic and cultural institution that works not only to build the best production of the shows we produce, but to expand the life of that production beyond just the hundreds of people who see it at the theater each night. We want to understand and define how that work reverberates in the lives of the people in the city of which we are citizens.

MR: Willa is a visionary because she loves theater through and through. She loves its power to tell stories and change people through those stories, but also in how people can change by participating in the act of making theater. She’s come into one of the country’s largest, most credible theaters in a big, complicated city and focused on the work not just on stage, but away from the building, taking the resources of this civic jewel and making them matter to people to who they’ve never before mattered.

MM: What’s next for the NOURISH program?

WT: These initial workshops were really seed days. We now have applications out for a NOURISH cohort, an invitation for people to receive regularly-scheduled professional development opportunities over the next year from Goodman artists. Participants will help us make choices about what networks in the Chicagoland area need to be engaged and they will bring their arts space practice into their communities.

To learn more about the program or submit an application for NOURISH, please visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Education