Humor Me Some Social Change

Posted by Jamil Khoury On December - 5 - 2013No comments yet
Jamil Khoury

Jamil Khoury

My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the political utility of art. Too general. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the diplomatic efficacy of theatre. Too ambiguous. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the dialectics of storytelling and social change. Too academic. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the empathic functions of humor. Whatever.

Now that I’ve introduced myself, and established my “scholarly” credentials, how about indulging me a few terrorist attacks?  Specifically, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.That Mother of all Terrorist Attacks. Gut-busting, sidesplitting, rip-roaring funny, right? Not even remotely. But a catalyst. And a damn good one. When me and my husband, Malik Gillani, set out to create Silk Road Rising, we envisioned a theatre company that could articulate a “proactive, artistic response” to 9/11. Our destiny was to become 9/11 second responders, responding both to the hatred and fanaticism that fueled the attacks and to the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Brown people backlash that quickly ensued. First Al Qaeda hijacked Islam, then public anger hijacked our citizenship.

From the get-go, our activist logic maintained that although our work would be serious and political, humor would be an integral ingredient, the fermenter of provocative ideas. The plays we’d produce would employ humor as a point of clarity and connection. Not to make light of a situation, but to deepen our understanding of it. Which means the humor would be organic to the stories we’d tell, neither gratuitous nor diversionary. A company birthed in trauma cries out for empathy, and empathy manifests viscerally. We knew instinctively that the laughter that transcends barriers is the substance of social change. Unpacking a clash of ignorance masquerading as a “Clash of Civilizations” demands irony and satire and parody and sarcasm.  For when the world gets divided into monolithic, historically fossilized, spatially demarcated “civilizations” forever at war with each other, it’s time to call in the humorists! Read the rest of this entry »

Humor is Hope

Posted by Ellen Callas On December - 4 - 2013No comments yet
Ellen Callas

Ellen Callas

At the San Francisco Mime Troupe, we have been using humor as a method of presenting serious socio/political topics to our audiences for over 54 years. Our intent is to engage and activate them and offer a sense of solidarity with their fellow viewers. It’s not a new concept.

Broadly drawn, easily recognizable characters are the basis of all forms of Popular Theater from Ancient Greece to the Commedia dell’arte of Renaissance Italy to American Melodrama. Be it Kabuki or Jatra, the basic archetypes are present onstage, demonstrating the commonality of humanity’s struggle with itself. The lines are easily drawn; heroes and villains, bosses and workers, landlords and tenants all evidence of the ongoing class struggle that is our collective history. It was (and is) humor that allowed the servants to laugh publicly at their masters as they were often portrayed onstage as vain and idiotic. It was a liberation of their spirit as audiences delighted in the undoing of the patricians at the hands of a clever underling.

Whether we are tackling GMO’s, corporate personhood, workers rights, C.I.A. backed wars or oil companies, our methodology is the same. Like Mary Poppins’ “spoonful of sugar,” we have found that facts and evidence stick with folks if the information is delivered through physical comedy and witty songs. People who might routinely disagree with our point of view are more receptive to alternative ideas when laughing. Often the humor acts as a time release pill of realization when an audience member sees in real life what we illustrated onstage.

Our call for activism is usually manifested onstage by our “every person” character, who is typically called upon to make a conscious choice between their own self interest and the common good. Often that character’s sense of disempowerment mirrors that of the audience. In “Social Work”, Sharon Lockwood played Phoebe, an overworked social worker whose ability to help her clients was hamstrung by budget cuts.  Driven by frustration, she dons a disguise and as The Lady in Red,   and in a comic Grand Guignol eliminates her foils in elaborate murders. Clearly we were not advocating murder, but the over-the-top style provided a catharsis for the audience as they cheered Phoebe on.  Often audience members recognize themselves onstage in a way that might affect their choices in the future, as in the portrayal of the disillusioned and disengaged activist. Humor can provide a wake-up call. Read the rest of this entry »

Comedy as a Tantrum of Truth

Posted by Lee Camp On December - 4 - 2013No comments yet
Lee Camp

Lee Camp

I’ve been making my 4-minute comedic political rant videos twice a week for close to 3 years. They’re called “Moment of Clarity,” and there are now 280 of them online as well as a book by the same name. (I’ve also been a full-time stand-up comedian for 15 years.) While I could go on for hours about the use of comedy to affect change, I want to talk about one specific area where I feel my comedy is successful at informing people.

As most of us know it’s largely not “cool” for America’s youth to care about the world – and by “youth” I mean anyone under 30 and sometimes up to 40. The cooler attitude nowadays is apathy or ironic detachment. Comedy, music, and some other art forms have a unique ability to get past the wall of ironic detachment that blankets the younger people in our culture. Most of this population would never listen to a speech by Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges, but they might watch one of my comedy videos about that speech and forward it to a friend. Freud talked about using humor to mask true intent or meaning, and in that way I am able to somewhat mask the desire to educate and inform. I don’t mean to say that it’s not evident, but when something is funny, the education factor is not as front and center. Humor can be a backdoor into people’s brains, and once that door is open, I just have to hope that the seed of information I leave one day blossoms into a full-on tantrum of truth. …Wait, can a seed grow into a tantrum? Perhaps I should’ve said “Rhododendron of truth?”

Giving Thanks

Posted by Stephanie Milling On December - 4 - 2013No comments yet
Stephanie Milling

Stephanie Milling

Perhaps the holidays have made me somewhat sentimental this year. As I pondered what to write for this blog post, I kept returning to how thankful I am to have had a career in the arts. I have been able to make a living doing what I love to do, share that passion with my students, and encourage them to pursue a career that will provide artistic and intellectual stimulation as well as a possible lifetime of inspiration. Of course, my professional achievements would never have been possible without influential role models and access to the arts from a young age.

Therefore, I try to pay it forward by acknowledging my mentors and the opportunities I was afforded. Giving back by participation and service in initiatives and projects that help sustain the quality of the arts and arts education for future generations is my duty. This week, I offer a list of how to give thanks for how the arts have enriched our lives. For most of us reading this blog, this practice would be commonplace. Therefore, consider it one individual’s humble attempt to spread awareness of the many ways we can support the arts and the beginning of a larger conversation that illustrates the priceless benefits that accompany such efforts. I encourage you to add additional ideas to this preliminary list and share them with your community. Perhaps some ideas of different ways to become involved in the arts will help create new spectators, volunteers, and donors. Read the rest of this entry »

Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

“What’s pissing you off right now?” That question—that liberating license to tap into our anger—serves as a point of departure for the satirical projects created by Fulana, the Latina arts collective I co-founded with Andrea Thome, Lisandra María Ramos, and Cristina Ibarra in 2000. It was our colmo-reaching ire at the incessant talk of “illegal aliens,” combined with our love for our grandmothers’ plastic-covered furniture, which led us to create our first piece: a mock commercial we shared with friends at a barbecue in Queens, hi-tech style, by popping a cassette into a VCR, aka the Y2K version of posting on social media. (Bonus: beer!)

Three of us had recently moved from to NYC from San Francisco, where we’d collaborated with artists like Latina Theatre Lab, Culture Clash, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Cherríe Moraga, and later, Guillermo Gómez-Peña—so a California humor aesthetic was running through our veins. For the past 13 years, our work as Fulana has focused on popular culture, using parody and satire as critical tools to respond to the ways ideologies and identities are sold to us—and how we sell ourselves—through the mass media. Our projects explore themes relevant to Latina/os in the U.S., experimenting with strategies to make visible what we’re so often made to read between the lines. We’ve tackled issues such as U.S. historical amnesia, post-9/11 politics of fear, President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the so-called “Hispanic Paradox.Read the rest of this entry »

Nancy Goldman

Nancy Goldman

When coming out in the early ‘90s, I began promoting live comedy shows featuring gay and lesbian comedians for gay and lesbian audiences.  At the time it was uncommon to be out at work or to see gay depictions in media.  These performers were doing much more than telling jokes and making us laugh; they were making us feel normal, validating our experiences and shaping our identities.  Coming together for these comedy shows gave us a time and place to discuss the issues impacting our lives and to socialize, and solidified our sense of community.

So, you might ask, what were these comedians doing in states like Texas, Arkansas and Kansas, performing in clubs filled with straight audiences that were easily surpassing their two-drink minimums? I’d suggest that they were planting seeds of social change.

In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire poses the question, “Who are better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society?” For the past 50 years, stand-up comedy has provided an outlet for marginalized populations, and an opportunity to dispel stereotypes and reclaim lost power. Immigrants, most especially Jews in the 1950s, then Blacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and women in the ‘70s, have used the stage to hold a mirror to society, both reflecting and retracting social norms. These performers were invested in promoting positive examples of their communities, and were determined to increase tolerance by raising awareness and social consciousness.  Above all, they must have believed that we should all be doing better as a race and society and that improvement was possible.  Freire (2000) thought this is essential to effecting change. “In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation, which they can transform.”  For me, these comedians were not only catalysts of change, but agents of hope. Read the rest of this entry »

Laura Cunningham

Laura Cunningham

I have always used humor to get through life’s personal challenges. But as a playwright, I discovered that humor can also help communities come together to talk about contentious topics and/or deal with difficult topics. I will share with you two examples: fracking and aging.

I happen to live above one the largest natural gas deposits in the world – the Marcellus Shale Formation. This was not news to me, because I spent much of my childhood on my grandfather’s farm on the banks of the Chenango River. It was a lot of fun. Especially when Grandpa lit the tap water on fire. As a little kid, I thought: wow! This is really cool. We can actually light our water on fire. It didn’t occur to me that we were also drinking that same water. Maybe that’s why I turned out the way I did. A bit on the wonky side.

So we always knew there was gas. Like lots of farmers, my grandfather leased his property to gas companies for pennies an acre. But nobody ever drilled any wells because it was located in pockets of shale and couldn’t be extracted at a profit. Fast forward fifty years and south of the border, in Pennsylvania, wells are being drilled for that same shale gas. What has changed? Fracking.

At the moment, there’s a moratorium on fracking in New York. But there’s no moratorium on the debate about fracking. It’s a highly polarizing topic, predicting either economic boom or environmental doom. A lot is at stake but it’s impossible to move past talking points and shouting matches to a civil discussion of the issues.

Then I had a “what if” moment. What if I could write a comedy about fracking that didn’t take sides? You see, I believe that humor can connect people in a way that lawn signs and bumper stickers cannot. So I wrote a play about fracking. The title was a no-brainer: Frack You!. My first two characters flung themselves into my laptop: Frick and Frack. I was fearless – had no clue what the story would be – didn’t even have an ending – but how could I go wrong with Frick, Frack, and a catchy title? Read the rest of this entry »

Negin Farsad

Negin Farsad

It’s the future, bitches. And the future needs figuring out. It needs parsing and unpacking because it’s…ugh… so complicated and booooring. Where there used to be two dudes at a table having a conversation, there are now algorithms spitting out preferences. Where once upon a time we could count on social responsibility and public good, we now count on public shaming and seemingly irrefutable made-up factiness.

Where do we develop a sense of social justice in a climate like this? How can we see things for the bags of dog pooh that they might actually be? The journalists, they have a heckuva job because they’re supposed to understand everything and type it out in palatable but non-partisan high-traffic news posts. The commentators have to churn out really narrow talking points, so they’re booked. The prose writers have to save novels from vanishing. The philosophers are trying to get paid more than their adjunct teaching jobs so they can focus on philosophizing. The poets never made any sense. So who’s left?? Who’s going to help us FIGURE IT OUT? Read the rest of this entry »

Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

When I talk to friends who are not in the arts, or show them my creative work, the most common response by far is some variation on: I could never do that. I’m not artistic. I’m so not creative. Which, of course, cannot be true. Mostly because my career is predicated on the belief that participation and access to the arts and creative outlets are both a human right and also a basic need. However, when I hang out with my friend who does stand up or anyone with a talent for the perfectly timed punch line, I empathize with my (so-called) non-artistic friends. In the same way that Michelangelo’s work was deemed mysteriously divine, so comedy has this unattainable quality to it (divine comedy, anyone?) that makes its power to poke fun and change perception equally hard to pin down. Although I think of comedy and art in parallel, in many of the circumstances where humor is used for social commentary and as an agent of change, humor also IS a form of art.

Animating Democracy’s December blog salon seeks to explore how artists, comedians, and other cultural commentators employ humor in the heavy work of social justice. As articulated by Dr. Nancy Goldman in her Animating Democracy trend paper about the role of humor in the work of social change, comedy – from satire to parody to slapstick – has a long history of calling attention to and commenting on the ways in which we live in the world together, socially and politically. From the days of Old Comedy in ancient Greece, and for centuries since, humor has provided a largely acceptable means by which to hold ideologies up to the light for inspection and critique. Join us as our bloggers apply their wit and irreverence to fundamental questions associated with this work: How does humor work?  When is humor a strategic choice and toward what social effects? What are examples of projects that have applied the power of “funny” to take up difficult issues and seen positive social change?  What is over the line?

You’ll hear from the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising Jamil Khoury, whose post unpacks how humor contributes to success measured in the “parallels and knowing moments;” political cartoonist Liza Donnelly on being a culture sponge; artist and co-founder/director of Fulana Marlène Ramírez-Cancio’s examination of satire as a tool for “protest with punchline;” comedian Negin Farsad  as she explains how dick jokes will change the world, and many more.

Rodney Camren

Rodney Camren

Listen closely please; do you hear those words of a famous quote from Shakespeare in your community? Look over there; do you see a young lady in a white leotard elegantly positioned on just one toe? Is your breath taken away from the musical notes and talents of the lyrical soprano singing effortlessly on stage?

Or do your spirit, mind and body travel to unknown worlds when engulfed by the combination of horns, keys and drums playing in a symphony? Do you tear up, laugh, or get angry over shades of paint arranged by brushes? Well you should, not only for cultural awareness but for real estate value as well.

When communities invest in the arts they are fueling economic growth, creating jobs, increasing property values and making their communities more attractive to young professionals who want to start a career or business, a family, and home environment. These young professionals are increasingly driven by quality of life and cultural amenities in their cities of choice. The most famous of theatre districts of course is Broadway! “Besides New York, the popularity of Broadway theatre has spread to Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities in the US. It is the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world. It is followed by West End theatre in London” stated Author David Corn. He also states that Ticket sales on Broadway exceed 1.5 billion dollars annually.

The Woodruff Arts Center’s in Downtown Atlanta is one of the nation’s largest arts institutions, and the art and education programs it creates. This year’s record campaign goal is $9.5 million, representing approximately 10% of the Woodruff Art Center’s overall operating budget. Detached Homes being sold in a one mile radius of the Woodruff Arts Center cap out at $3.5 million and when you consider those homes attached such as condo’s and townhomes well you get top dollar at $1.8 million. Read the rest of this entry »

Taking the Arts to Rural Counties

Posted by Jay Dick On November - 26 - 20131 COMMENT
Jay Dick

Jay Dick

I recently found myself in Santa Fe, NM for a meeting of the Steering Committee of the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) Rural Action Caucus (RAC). While Americans for the Arts has partnered with NACo for over two decades, this was the first time that we have taken the arts out of the NACo Arts Commission and into one of the two the larger caucuses of the association (the other being the Large Urban Caucus).

While working with the NACo Arts Commission has proven to be beneficial in promoting the arts on the county level, it has been limited in scope. Many of NACo’s members didn’t even know there was an Arts Committee. Moving the conversation to the RAC exposes the benefits of the arts on a much larger scale.  There are 3,069 counties in America. Of this number, 70% are considered rural with populations under 50,000.  As we know, in every county there is always some form of arts and culture already in existence, but people often take them for granted. For example, at the beginning of my talk, I asked the attendees who had cultural resources, most, but not all raised their hand. After my talk, one County Commissioner approached me to say she didn’t raise her hand, but as I talked, she realized that in fact she did have cultural assets. She just took them for granted and didn’t see them as economic engines.   Read the rest of this entry »

Raymond Tymas Jones

Raymond Tymas Jones

When University of Utah College of Fine Arts students asked for tools and resources to prepare them for the transition into the workforce, Dr. Liz Leckie, Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Affairs, listened.

The students’ request resonated with Dr. Leckie given that it reflected what the collective voice of more than 100,000 arts graduates from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project  (SNAAP) was saying, which is that in addition to mastering their craft, art students want more time spent on career and post-graduate advising.

And, earlier this month, the students got exactly that. By hiring and empowering student staffers, Dr. Leckie created a team that envisioned and executed the highly-anticipated first annual ArtsForce conference, a two-day, student-driven event including an array of workshops, panels, networking opportunities and a keynote presentation by the esteemed associate director of Vanderbilt University’s The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, Steven J. Tepper, PhD. Read the rest of this entry »

Greg Satell

Greg Satell

In a recent episode of Boardwalk Empire, Chalky White’s wife was angry because he took his son to play with Jazz musicians at his nightclub.  She feared that it would upset the order of his classical training. Traditionally, business executives have felt the same way. They would bring in bright young prospects and make them “organization men”—and later women as well—who would work their way up through the system and then indoctrinate the next generation.

Yet the past few decades have altered things considerably. The LBO craze in the 80’s, the PC revolution in the 90’s and the digital disruptions of the 21st century have radically changed how we need to approach business problems. Strategic planning has become less tenable and we need to adopt more adaptive approach. Jazz holds important answers.

A Struggling Artist In New York

Coming from a meager background, Carl Størmer was determined not to be a starving artist, but after graduating with two graduate degrees—a Masters degree in Music and another in Arts Administration—that’s just what he was becoming. He spent most of his time playing in clubs and improving the mastery of his craft, but making very little money.

So he started learning computer code, got a job as a database consultant at a Wall Street law firm and then started a career at IBM.  Later, he founded a startup and became Marketing Director at a Norwegian airline. Størmer had, in every conventional sense, become a successful business executive.

Yet he still continued to play and the more he did, the more he became dissatisfied with corporate life. As he thought about it, he realized that business organizations operated a lot like classical music, with structure dictating action rather than the other way around.

The thoughts turned to writing; the writing turned to consulting and even led to a Harvard Case Study. Today, his organization, Jazzcode, works with executives at some of the world’s largest corporations, such as IBM, Siemens and Novartis. Read the rest of this entry »

Theories to Prevent Chaos

Posted by Erin Gough On November - 20 - 2013No comments yet
Erin Gough

Erin Gough

Even those of us who have chosen to spend our lives in the arts rather than mathematics and the sciences have probably heard the preeminent example used to describe Chaos Theory. There is no shortage of cultural references to the so-called “Butterfly Effect,” including Jurassic Park’s claim that “a butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.”

So what does that mean for those of us who are working in the arts education field? Too often our efforts feel like lots of wing-flapping and not enough knowing where to look to measure rainfall. We flap our wings and maybe one student will become a professional artist.  We flap our wings and perhaps a performance will inspire a student. We flap our wings harder and harder and yet the next Mozart will not come out of this year’s class of students. Unfortunately, some who control the purse-strings see funding of arts education in this way.  Few people are eager to invest their resources in what they see as chaotic or unpredictable.

A funder, whether it is a private foundation, philanthropically-minded community members, state legislators, or school board members, expect their investment to spur a lot of wing-flapping, but they also want to know exactly when and where they can expect to see results.

Read the rest of this entry »

In Tribute to Their Service

Posted by Bill O'Brien On November - 18 - 2013No comments yet
Bill O'Brien

Bill O’Brien

Every November, Veterans Day comes and goes as a reminder for us to thank our American military men and women for their sacrifice and service. As our most recent conflict has transitioned into the longest war in American history, the burden of their service has become harder and harder to ignore. More and more, we are compelled to find meaningful ways to show respect.

Over the past few years, a number of  initiatives have emerged to help rally the arts in support of our troops and their families. These efforts have received a significant boost from The National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military. A broad coalition of military, government and non-profit leaders initiated by the Walter Reed National Medical Military Center and Americans for the Arts, the Initiative has staged two national summits, a national Roundtable, and has published a white paper framing an action plan to advance research, practice, and policy around the arts and the military.

As previously mentioned on this blog, the NEA has also been working with Walter Reed and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) to improve our understanding of the impact the arts can bring in efforts to heal our troops. This partnership, which initially focused support on therapeutic writing, has now expanded into a broader Creative Arts Therapy program that also includes support for research and activities related to music and visual arts-based therapies.

Read the rest of this entry »