Never Stop Asking Questions, August 2018

Five years ago, I put a personal and institutional moratorium on making theatre. coLAB Arts had a massive question that had been hanging in the air for the five years since the organization first started: Why do we exist?

Why does there need to be another loosely held together group of emerging interdisciplinary artists in New Jersey making work for themselves? And why New Brunswick?

We had already seen consistent artist churn because there were better places to be making work. Places that are more affordable with greater resource access, with larger audiences and more diverse communities of artists and ideas.

I stopped making work because I couldn’t answer the question through my own project choices. I chose to support my coLAB Arts peers in dance, music, visual art and arts education, and wrap my head around the relationship between time, place and, of course, the work.

That self-imposed exile lasted for two years. Those two years were full of conversation and contemplation with my collaborators, board and community members. We produced work that was good, and work that wasn’t as good, but with the intention to audit our process. What was the secret sauce that I, and frankly our dwindling audience, couldn’t see?

As makers, we invest so much time and so much emotion into the perfection and execution of our studio practice that we actually know less about how the work reverberates within a community than those who consume it. We can be told that it’s successful or that it fails in intention, but largely we return to our studios and start the process all over again. We move on to the next project and our audiences return to their lives.

Why have we ritualized the parting of ways between artist and audience? For any place-based institution, whose stories should we be telling or challenging, if not those of our own community? How can we know those stories if we aren’t engaged in constant generative dialogue?

During those two years, the work that was most successful was that which directly connected back to the people and the physical space for whom and where we were creating work. It’s such a simple answer, but existentially elusive, and incredibly hard in practice.

After two years, we found our mission: to engage artists with social advocacy organizations and communities to create transformative new work.

coLAB Arts now practices Creative Engagement – a sustained commitment to storytelling of a specific community or advocacy organization with a transdisciplinary intention, where the ideas for the work or catalyst for any work’s creation responds to the needs of the relationship, not necessarily originating with the artist. It includes three spheres of practice: 1) studio practice – artist-led and artist-executed creative work, 2) social practice – artist-led and community-executed or engaged creative work, and 3) civic practice – artist-led and community-executed or engaged dialogue or equity intervention. A tremendous national resource I would recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about this delineation of work is the Center for Performance and Civic Practice.

I’m making theatre again. I’m making a lot of theatre with coLAB Arts. Through our Creative Engagement practice, we do an annual commission responding to homelessness advocacy and story sharing from our community with the City of New Brunswick and the Mens’ Rotating Shelter. We’re touring a new verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with individuals who committed murder as juveniles by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg called Life, Death, Life Again. I’m working on a hybrid journalism-theatre project documenting stories of working poor in New Jersey with FreePress and United Way of Northern New Jersey, and a massive state coalition called 37 Voices. And next up is a new play with Weill-Greenberg based on interviews with individuals added to the sex offender registry as juveniles.

We host choreographer residencies with Mason Gross School of the Arts – Department of Dance, embedding graduate students and professional choreographers in local organizations. Through the National Endowment for the Arts, we host artist residencies across artistic discipline in government agencies and nonprofits. My co-producer John Keller is now running our Summer Arts Institute, teaching students in middle school and high school how to create new work using our process, directly in collaboration with local nonprofit organizations, Lower Raritan Watershed PartnershipAnti-Poverty Network of New Jerseyand New Jersey Institute for Social Justice(enrollment is still available for one more week, August 20-24 at

Oh, and that new mission statement? We’ve been wearing it now for three years. It’s like breaking in new shoes – it still feels right. We’ve been able to double our budget every year since, so it feels like something’s working. There’s one word in the statement we keep thinking about – “transformative.” We’ve got some ideas about that. Hopefully, I’ll be invited back to share what we come up with.

The Archipelago. Howlround, October 2013

I worked on a project a few years ago with a group of young British designers making their New York debut. In advance of their arrival, we corresponded regularly, and would off-handedly mention things about ourselves, such as where we were from, local weather, etc. They were in London, in the hip center of the theater universe. I was in Central New Jersey working at a LORT theater and quietly trying to mobilize the local transient university community to make art through a nonprofit arts organization I co-founded called Collaborative Arts (now, coLAB Arts, or coLAB for short).

About a month later, we finally met in New York, and they were immediately let down that I wasn’t a ripped, tanned, greased hair, tank-top wearing meatball. This was 2010, and Jersey Shore was the cultural phenomenon/New Jersey ambassador to a socially globalized world. I wasn’t defensive, but knew better and acquiesced to the identity that we had allowed to develop and perpetuate itself: that the Colonies left the British Empire to down malt liquor energy drinks and fist pump (Author’s note: Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, my alma mater, paid Snooki $32,000 in 2011 to be a guest speaker, $2,000 more than that year’s commencement speaker, Toni Morrison).

I don’t open with this story to be pessimistic about arts and arts access in New Jersey, nor ironic as to our artistic exports, but to create context for the troubled story of New Jersey’s cultural identity and to look toward a positive future.

I live in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where, following my graduation from Rutgers University, I’ve been leading coLAB for almost six years, and only as of mid-August have been able to work in a more full-time capacity. Our purpose is to cultivate an emerging artist community in all artistic disciplines. Our programs include producing and presenting work, as well as facilitating arts education programs. When we started as a grassroots organization, we weren’t invited to the table and weren’t given any resources. All we had were our ideas and ambition, and we acted upon them. We were creating work at a pretty prolific pace but quickly realized that we would be more valuable creating opportunities for the hundreds of young artists and university students in our community. It’s pretty much a given that every artist who graduates out of Rutgers sets their sights on either New York or Philadelphia. We wanted to solve the resource shortages that prevented New Brunswick, and New Jersey as a whole for that matter, from turning into an artistic haven for the avant-garde. One issue, that I won’t be able to address in this article, is that there aren’t enough jobs available to support artists. The second issue, and one that I will attempt to unpack, is space, expressed as four walls or as funding. It’s the beginning and end of any discussion regarding accessibility for art making.

New Brunswick is home to Rutgers University’s main campus and the world headquarters of Johnson & Johnson. When J & J threatened to leave its New Brunswick home in the 1960s, the city responded with the promise to improve the blight conditions that followed that decade’s “white flight,” as middle class residents moved to the surrounding suburbs. A mixed public/private development agency, DevCo, was formed to usher in that transformation. One ingredient for that change was the creation of a zoned cultural center in the 1970s, which begot George Street Playhouse (a LORT theater where I worked, originally housed in a disused A&P and which later took over an abandoned YMCA), the State Theatre of New Jersey (a presenting road house that was originally a vaudeville theater, then adult movie house), and Crossroads Theatre Company (an African-American theater company that won the Tony Award for regional theater in 1999). The missing piece from New Brunswick’s development is a sustainable artistic center for its own resident community. A critical mass of artists is churned out from Rutgers University every year that have no recourse other than to leave New Brunswick following graduation. Focus is centrally placed on bringing in economic capital, as opposed to an investment in fostering its own cultural capital. CoLAB came into being to address this deficit, and create the network and open up the resources to develop a sustainable model for emerging artists.

New Jersey definitely has an infrastructure of support for the artistic establishment. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts supports institutions and projects with statewide impact, as well as providing funding to county-level commissions to support smaller projects. ArtPride, Discover Jersey Arts, and the New Jersey Theatre Alliance provide advocacy and networking opportunities to secure a continued arts movement among its principal practitioners and create audience access. New Jersey’s suburban sprawl, coupled with relative high wealth per capita has precipitated municipalities and local NGOs to independently spur arts programming within their own jurisdictions. On the local level, with county and state support, we now have a huge network of brick-and-mortar institutions, an archipelago that arbitrarily floats through the Jersey ether.

It is much harder to find support for work outside of the establishment of mainstream art. New Jersey’s artists are only able to woodshed in their own communities but largely work professionally in the polar cities of New York and Philadelphia. Across the board, local resource accessibility is inconsistent at best, dependent upon municipalities with disparate policies, economic strategies, political agendas, and development corporations. Funding for outsider work is sparse, and that which is available is highly competitive and disproportionately inflated in value due to the finite resources available within and between these pluralist markets.

New Brunswick is located in Middlesex County, in Central New Jersey, where New York City’s WNYC and Philly’s WHYY sit next to each other on the radio dial, and both come in clear as a bell. There’s a noted absence of a New Jersey-based public radio FM station. Cable news has a similar problem, where we only have New York or Pennsylvania affiliates with a few minutes dedicated to New Jersey issues in any broadcast. The only reliable press platform for New Jersey arts institutions is local news outlets. And since spheres of outreach remain limited geographically, there’s plenty of market share available for different institutions to develop all over the state. And develop they have, with patrons that are willing to travel the thirty or forty minutes from the boonies to the nearest business improvement district. New Jersey’s arts patrons are a strong, stalwart group. And as much as we may complain about that oxygen tank in the third row, we have to remember how hard it was for that gentleman to get there, and how much it meant to him that he be there. Because he remembers a time when New Jersey’s theaters didn’t exist. However, times have changed since the great American regional theater build-up of the sixties and seventies, and New Jersey’s institutions are particularly vulnerable due to major local demographic shifts, in addition to the national epidemic of a dying theater-going population.

New Brunswick serves as a great case study for this shift, and speaks to the positive energy that I’ve brought to my own producing and directing work through coLAB. In terms of urban development, cultural centers and theater districts have been viewed as economic engines, ways of attracting money from outside of a community into a city or town center, to spend those dollars on local restaurants and vendors. Now that those institutions exist and have community buy-in, the opportunity is in place to open up those resources to local artists; if not through altruism, then at least through economic imperative. New Brunswick’s demographics have changed dramatically over the last twenty years. What was once a predominantly African-American residential community is now overwhelmingly Latino. The communities that were once served by New Brunswick’s cultural center are disappearing. And new audiences won’t only be won through outreach. They need their own programming. And in New Brunswick, we are experiencing the first instances of that impact. The New Brunswick Cultural Center, which formed out of DevCo to oversee property management for the cultural center buildings, is now ambitiously engaging in creative placemaking to open up spaces and resources for smaller performance groups and individual artists. Additionally, through Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission (MCCHC) and a grant from Johnson & Johnson, Crossroads Theatre is being made available for performances to MCCHC constituent grantees (inclusive of local community organizations, and organizations from around the county).

In the case of municipal government, if they are unable to provide resources due to budget constraints, then they need to remove the barriers, bureaucracy, and zoning limitations that may prevent reclaiming unused space to allow art to happen on its own. An unfortunate by-product of economic development is that a municipality forces a market model, boxing out potentially exciting opportunities, and forcing out those businesses that don’t fit within that model. For New Brunswick, this manifested in the closure of a series of era-defining music clubs and an inability to replace them due to “cabaret laws” and zoning that restricts ticketed performance outside the downtown cultural center. New Brunswick has ended up with a long tradition of DIY art, reaching back to the Fluxus visual art movement, and continued today with the current music basement scene, where houses are identified by twee names (i.e., Meat Town USA, Princess Palace, Circuit City, etc) without home addresses, to help offset police presence. The DIY scene is an incredible example of how art can thrive under restrictive conditions. However, annual turnover is tied to student cycles, which prevents any sustainable model to help pull artists out of the basement. For theater, I haven’t yet seen a successful venue take shape as part of the basement scene. If more venues were given permission to flourish openly I believe we’d immediately set off a renaissance in the music and performance scene in New Brunswick by providing a platform for the already vibrant community of emerging artists.

Through coLAB, I’ve been able to bridge the gap between outsider artists and the artistic (and municipal) establishment by recognizing their mutual need for space and content. The best recent example would be my participation in Hub City Sounds, a new annual series of free public performances presented by the New Brunswick Cultural Center, which brought together 90.3 The Core (college radio station), Don Giovanni Records (punk rock label), and city public service and merchant sponsors. Previously, there had never been this kind of marriage between the New Brunswick DIY scene, college community, and the city establishment. We’ve legitimized our social imperative through simple tenacity and consistency, and creating strong arts education programs. This has finally led to receipt of public and foundation funding. It’s still a ways off, (hopefully not too long a ways off) but I’m incredibly optimistic that we’re going to create a sustainable model for professional community art in New Brunswick that we’ll be able to deploy around the state.

The future of artistic development in New Jersey is in partnerships and resource and space sharing. Institutions can island-hop, just like their patrons, and in the process increase their regional impact and reduce their overhead. Look past the fear of establishment survival, embrace actual public imperative, and create programming that is truly reflective of our communities. Resources are too few and time too precious to fight over foundation and state dollars. Smaller organizations with more focused missions and fewer slotted season programs have the potential for greater artistic impact and a more robust outreach. I believe in a new cultural identity for New Jersey that is characterized by artist and audience access. Where the powers that be recognize that young tech and investment firms will headquarter where there’s live music and cabaret every night of the week, and that the artists are already there, quietly producing.