D'Lo

D’Lo

As the dark kid in Hickeville, USA, I remember using my outrageous silliness as a way to deflect and distract from my queerness. I’m transgender, born with a vagina, but always aspiring to look like LL Cool J. Growing up, no one questioned my boyish swag; in fact, for the most part, I felt encouraged in it. I was funny and (thankfully) cool – though a different type of cool than the cool-white-kids at my schools – nonetheless, cool enough not to get bullied.

Moving into adulthood, I used my “funny-ness” to facilitate healing and social change. It is well known in our queer circles, how comedy plays a role in our healing. Carol Burnett said “Comedy is Tragedy mellowed by Time”. Sometimes, we queer folk come back from a family reunion where we have had to hear our blood family react/respond to us with negativity (to put it mildly). We hop in our cars and our tears blur the lane lines and the oncoming traffic headlights, but we don’t care if we get into an accident.  We arrive at our home and drink at our pity-party and hopefully, before the 3rd glass of wild turkey, we have called a friend, rather – chosen family, over to our house. We sit with them and cry again while recalling the events that broke our hearts. And by the time we’ve consummated our water-is-thicker-than-blood ritual, we’re falling over each other, laughing, taking power back by sharing sentiments over the absurdity of close-mindedness.

This humor that enables healing can go on to create space for social change–space to initiate the dialogue, and the sometimes uncomfortable conversations in which mainstream society members have to question themselves and their hetero-normativity.  The vehicle for this humor is our stories. Read the rest of this entry »

Ken and Scott Blanchard

Ken and Scott Blanchard

We knew any presentation by actors from The Second City, Chicago’s world-famous improvisation troupe, would be funny. But who knew we would walk away with key insights into creating a collaborative work environment?

Yet that’s exactly what happened after we participated in an exercise led by Second City actors Colleen Murray and Mark Sutton at our recent Client Summit. Murray and Sutton asked us and the 200 other participants to break into groups of three for an exercise that taught us a valuable lesson about the power of positive reinforcement in fostering creativity and innovation.

The exercise started off with an imagined scenario: plan a memorable company party. One person in each group was designated as the party planner. Their task? Come up with some creative party ideas. The other two members were instructed to listen to each new idea, but then reject it and explain why. The negative responses had a chilling effect on the person pitching new ideas. Even the most creative types gave up after four or five ideas. They lost their ability to come up with anything in the face of all that negativity.

Next, Murray and Sutton instructed the three-person groups to rotate roles. Now a new person pitched ideas while the other two listened. But this time, instead of rejecting the ideas outright, the listeners were instructed to use a more subtle “yes, but…” response and share why the idea wouldn’t work. Again, it was a frustrating experience for the idea givers, who quit after trying a few times and getting nowhere.

Finally, the groups were instructed to rotate roles again. This time the two listeners were to use the phrase “yes, and…” to acknowledge, affirm, and build on the idea. The “yes, and…” response made all the difference. Ideas flowed. The groups generated innovative, creative approaches that none of the individuals would have come up with on their own. The increase in energy and collaboration was palpable as the room buzzed with animated conversations, laughing, high fives, and every other behavior you would expect to see when people are genuinely engaged with each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Laughing Together

Posted by Justin Krebs On December - 5 - 2013No comments yet
Justin Krebs

Justin Krebs

Comedy can play a number of roles in promoting political change. First, many people will be open to comedy in a way they won’t be to a political speech. We turn off political ads, while turning on funny online videos all the time. Second, the best performers with a knack for manipulating nuance and crafting memorable lines have the ability to communicate about progressive ideas more clearly and powerfully than many elected officials. A third feature is the endurance of mockery. When you raise your voice at an opponent in a political argument, you can seem shrill or out of control. When you raise laughter at your opponent, the effect of making him or her the butt of your joke can stay with an audience — or a voter — for a long time. Fourth, there is the power of surprise. A good punch line catches you off-guard, just as a good argument may push someone out of an entrenched stance.

But there is another power of comedy — just as important as its ability to surprise, persuade or attack: comedy’s power to unite, give those who laugh together the sense that they belong to something larger together.

I have had the pleasure of seeing this play out through the work of Laughing Liberally, the national comedy enterprise that promotes democracy one laugh at a time.  Laughing Liberally comedians have toured the country, local Laughing Liberally Labs have sprung up in over a dozen cities, and our team has worked with non-profit and advocacy partners to mix the power of humor into their creative campaigns, communications strategies, and online initiatives.

I didn’t start Laughing Liberally (with comedian Katie Halper, innovator David Alpert, and others from the Living Liberally family) because I had a team of comedians that needed a title, but the other way around: I had an audience that needed to be inspired. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »