Adventures in Local Organizing: Making Connections and Re-discovering a Region By Amrita Ramana

Having joined Double Edge Theatre in May of 2013, I found myself a few years later still feeling the duality of being a relatively new transplant and outsider to western Massachusetts. Throughout my life, I had city-hopped from the southwest to the nation’s capital and grown accustomed to the luxury of encountering ensembles, artists, and practitioners. The theaters I was working for at the time provided an abundance of opportunities to see work by other companies, network, participate in affinity groups, and dialogue about issues and challenges facing the field. There was a certain ease and access in how I engaged with various artistic circles and became a participant in the cultural and creative economy. Western Massachusetts was a completely different story.

My region was both appealing and daunting to me for the same reasons. Double Edge Theatre is located in Ashfield, MA – a rural town in the western MA hilltowns with a population of under 2,000. Over the years, a number of farmers, agriculturalists, professors, and artists have been drawn to Ashfield’s natural beauty and enjoyed the serenity and intimacy of the area. It was a gift to me to reconnect with nature and understand its importance in my artistic practice, but moving to Ashfield also made me feel uneasy in figuring out how I would build a community within a community that was established, tight-knit, and unknown.

Though one could consider Ashfield isolated from the rest of the world, its geography is unique in that a number of neighboring towns – Amherst, Northampton, Springfield, Holyoke, Williamstown, North Adams – are within a 30-45 minute drive. Once discovering this, I found myself frequently travelling to these towns in the hopes of connecting with other community members, artists, and creatives. In my few encounters across the area with the artists and creatives Double Edge had introduced me too, I realized that all of them were experiencing similar questions and challenges. They were all newcomers to the area and unsure about how to connect with their communities in their individual towns and the region of western MA. Despite our physical proximity to one another, we all felt that the distinctiveness and competitiveness of our towns and harsh weather conditions of the region prevented us from seeing each other as frequently as we would like and thus created silos in our work. Existing networking events were often too formal and not marketed well enough. Particularly within ensembles, generative artists, and collectives that shared the principles of ensemble-based work, we felt ignorant about who else was part of our affinity group in the area, felt disconnected from the field at large, and were seeking a forum to talk more about our work, practice, and resources.

That’s why when the opportunity to become a NET Local Organizer came along, I jumped at the chance. Having gotten to know NET more intimately through Double Edge’s Co-Artistic Director and former NET board member Matthew Glassman, I’m a huge fan of NET’s ability to celebrate the ethos of ensemble-based practice and share a wide array of resources – such as convenings, gatherings, exchange and travel grants, online newsletters, and blogs – with the ensemble community throughout the nation. I realized that the practices of NET could have a large and meaningful impact on my regional community and being a local organizer would allow me first-hand to tackle the questions and challenges we were encountering.

My first foray into NET local organizing began with an orientation session in Los Angeles that included local organizers Leah Marche (Phoenix, AZ) and Leilani Chan with mentee Olivia Espinosa (Los Angeles). Through the guidance of the amazing NET staff and consultant Rachel Rosner, the orientation session provided a wonderful foundation for peer-to-peer exchange and gave me the tools to embark on my local organizing journey in western MA over the course of five months. By learning more about NET’s existing programs and ways in which I could listen, encounter, and engage with ensembles and artists in my new community, I identified my desire to explore western MA and build connections with ensembles, generative artists, and collectives through a variation of intimate, one-on-one meetings and group gatherings.

Inspired by NET’s incredible “It’s On Us” program (where ensembles and co-creators who want to get to know each other go on a “NET date” and NET picks up the beverage tab), I decided to begin with the simple, yet revolutionary experiment of going on a NET date tour in western MA. I received a list of current and former NET members within my region (not surprisingly, I didn’t know many of them based on the challenges listed in the five paragraphs above) and invited them individually to hang out either in their hometown or a midway point between our areas. I told them that my key desire for reaching out to them was to meet them, get to know what they do and what interests them, and listen.

From November 2015 – February 2016, I enjoyed eight NET dates across western MA with ensemble members, artists, and members of collectives. The intimacy of our dates gave us the freedom to speak openly and explore what it means to build a connection. Many of us joked that we’ve seen each other through Facebook or other forms of social media religiously, so the actual face time felt novel! Nearly all of the dates ended with a desire to maintain the dialogue and make it a point to get together every couple of months.

From Left to Right Amrita on #NETdates with Katy Moonan, Sabrina Hamilton, and Sheryl Stoodley

On one of my NET dates with Seth Lepore (co-founder of the Easthampton Co. Lab, generative artist, and entrepreneur), our conversation about our work and curiosity of how we can deepen the intersectionality of ensembles, artists, and collectives in our region grew into a discussion of what might be ways in which we could collaborate to tackle this. Drawing from NET’s values of co-leadership, I invited Seth to co-curate a gathering with me that would explore community building and organizing through a deep, provocative, in your face discussion and work session about our siloes, issues, dreams, and aspirations for the work we’re making independently and in conjunction with others in our neighborhood. Having recently returned from a residency at AS220 in Providence, RI, Seth and I decided to frame the gathering by presenting the practices and models of NET and AS220 and examining different topics within our region through exercises and breakout group activities in an interactive, workshop-style that applied our findings, discoveries, and questions into a larger conversation with our regional community. Playfully titled “Giving a s**t,” the gathering was exactly that – how can those of us who give a s**t about exchange and resource sharing for ensembles, artists, and collectives in our area work together to go beyond our complaints and create a positive and lasting impact?

After five brainstorming meetings, Seth and I additionally decided to further infuse our gathering with the principles of ensemble-based collaboration and co-leadership by inviting a group of co-facilitators who could each lead the break-out groups in their activities and Easthampton Co. Lab member to be a sounding board and live scriber for us. We also agreed to hold the gathering at the Flywheel in Easthampton, a spacious meeting ground that was accessible for community members across our region.

The gathering took place on February 21, 2016 with 45 attendees featuring folks from theater and movement collectives, arts revitalization project managers, local colleges and universities, service organizations like MASSCreative, and the simply curious. Following our presentations of NET and AS220, our break out groups focused on four main topics – vision, values, purpose, and community – through the lens their current work in the western MA region. Each group received two framing questions to respond to and then participated in a full gathering shareback of their discoveries. From there, Seth and I asked each breakout group to reflect on the challenges, assumptions, and unintended consequences of their work and share those with the group as well. The remarkable parallels from group to group were fascinating and fostered a deepened sense of connection across towns, disciplines, and practices beyond what we could have hoped for. I left the gathering with the feeling that change is happening and the possibilities are endless.

In terms of what’s next on my end, the NET date tour is still going strong (with another one scheduled for tomorrow)! Through a combination of our enjoyment working together and the feedback we received, Seth and I are embarking on a new project to maintain the spirit of relationship-building, peer-to-peer resource sharing and exchange, and regional connection in our community with a tentative launch date of October 2016. I remain grateful to the Network of Ensemble Theaters for this opportunity to be a local organizer and look forward to seeing what the future holds.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

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