Nearly a year ago, Angela Brazil and Stephen Thorne, two members of Trinity Repertory Company’s resident acting company, met with me, the Community Engagement Coordinator, to talk about A Christmas Carol. Having acted in the show many times, they’d recently signed on to direct the 40th anniversary production, and wanted to use this Rhode Island tradition to amplify our institution’s commitment to community engagement. They dreamed of incorporating different community groups every night, connecting our audiences to work and people they might not otherwise know.
Angela explained, “This is a story about someone who's chosen to isolate himself from his community, at great cost to that community and to himself. In the end, through an act of grace, he chooses to re-enter—as painful and complicated as that decision can be. He decides to come back because being with our community is how we retain our humanity. In our current fractured landscape, the importance of community, of looking at and really seeing each other, is critical.”
After our initial conversation, Angela and Stephen made decisions: they would invite non-profits doing work they admired; each group would select their own team of 7-10 performers of any age, gender, race, or ability; each group would have two rehearsals at their space before their performance at Trinity Rep; Angela would extend the invitation, maintain the relationships, and organize the rehearsals. We created a shared spreadsheet with every non-profit we loved or heard about doing incredible work in Rhode Island, and agreed on some core principles. Invitations would be simple, honest, and transparent, clearly defining what we needed and what we had to offer. Angela would listen closely to what the community groups needed, in order to understand why they were saying yes or no. If we could offer what they needed, then we would. If we couldn’t, we'd tell them why, and end the partnership as friends. No false promises, no agreements that felt like compromises on either side.
Once Angela started reaching out to people, she didn’t have time to wonder if she knew how to build partnerships because she was too busy building them. While many people were thrilled to perform in such an iconic show, some people couldn’t afford the time it would take to organize. Even for the 18 groups who decided to participate, there was sacrifice that we, as the larger institution, needed to acknowledge and address, and so we got to work addressing them. We allocated small travel and food stipends from the Community Engagement budget; our development department offered trade they have with the parking garage; the education director stepped in as Assistant Director to help rehearse the community groups; we negotiated a limited number of comp tickets with the marketing department; and throughout the run, actors in the show self-organized to provide snacks for the community group's dressing room. All summer and fall, we worked on this one aspect of A Christmas Carol as a team of artists and administrators, ensuring that our institution could live up to our community’s needs 100% of the time.
Fast-forward to now, somewhere mid-run of an unforgettable Christmas Carol. Every three days a new community group steps into a show so full of heart it bursts off the stage. The mechanics are seamlessly executed by an incredible stage management team led by Kristen Gibbs, but the DNA of the collaborations goes much deeper. Watching the show, I am overwhelmed by the number of relationships I can track to the theater’s commitment to community: relationships born from Shakespeare en el Verano, a partnership we’ve grown with RI Latino Arts; a community group from Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships with whom our Education Department created a documentary show years ago; and grassroots organizations we’ve been talking to for years and finally found our first collaboration. This alongside our acting company—helmed by Joe Wilson Jr. as Scrooge, who has been critical in our institution’s evolution by leading projects like Every 28 Hours—plus other Providence actors, non-RI actors, and two casts of multi-talented young performers.
The story of Community Engagement at Trinity Rep is and always will be in process. Trinity Rep has been engaging some part of the community for all of its 53 years, otherwise it wouldn’t still be here. That our work fosters positive relationships within our community is not new. What is new is our current commitment to redefining and expanding who we are talking about when we talk about community; how we extend invitations; and how much we are willing to evolve the stories we tell, and how we tell them because of our commitment to evolving.
The results of this work are still uncountable, and yet the reverberations are already so easy to see. As one small example, I’ll leave you with a story from a recent performance report from A Christmas Carol:
“A dinner break story—our veterans (the community performers that day) went to the Trinity Brewhouse (a local restaurant, unconnected to Trinity Rep) for lunch between shows. A family with kids who had been at the matinee performance recognized them, and paid for their meal! They were stunned and very touched at the gesture. Thanks to the anonymous family for spreading holiday cheer to our incredible community group today!”
For a complete list of the community groups participating in A Christmas Carol, click here.
Rebecca Noon and Trinity Repertory Company are members of Americans for the Arts.