Can collective creation change settled world views?
I mean, there are a couple of Mexican families in Brussels. They're no black folks. So, I would always kid that I was like, you know, that's a cute little house, and if I bought that, I'd be okay. Like, yeah. You know, for some of those students, this was prayerfully life changing in how they see folks and communities that are different than them and for our students from Normandy.
Can we build lasting bridges between communities separated by race and culture?
You’ve got to have people love each other. You’ve got to have people like, "Can't wait to see you at rehearsal."... because then on stage, I got your back ... that experience it was so affirming to me about the power of just having people just talk to each other, you know, so they fell in love with each other. I fell in love with them.
What kind of leadership grows community ownership and accountability?
I'm humbled by the whole experience. You know, because often people don't know or really care who the director is, and that's okay. That's my goal. So, it's nice to just be on the ferry and nobody know what my roll was in it and hear people like, this is so cool. Oh my gosh, I can't believe we're doing this.
CHIPS Health: Community Health-In-Partnership Services (d/b/a CHIPS Health and Wellness Center) is the place where uninsured and underserved people in the St. Louis metropolitan area can receive free primary and preventive health care services.
Bread and Roses Missouri An organization with the mission of organizing arts and humanities projects about workers and their families.
Margaret Mischeaux Next week is a very big week. It will not only be the 24:1 festival, but it will also be the premiere of Shakespeare in the Street, Love at the River's Edge, a rendition of As You Like It with a little bit of a twist. We are combining the counties of Brussels and St. Louis's 24:1. So basically, we talk about the divides into two communities; our similarities, our differences, our very unique ways of living.
Bill Cleveland: From the Center for the Study of Art and Community This is Change the Story, Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. I'm Bill Cleveland:.
The voice you heard at the beginning of this week's episode was Margaret Mischeaux. A student and actress from Normandy High School, near St. Louis, who was one of the dozens of people touched by the story we are about to tell. We call this week's episode of Change the Story, Change the World, Love at the River's Edge. In it, we hear from actor, director, dancer and educator Kathi Bentley, whose life's journey has taken her from St. Louis, to the Freat White Way, and back again to the home of the Gateway Arch. Along the way, we learn how an aspiring young thespian grows to become a respected theatre professional, anti-racism activist, and recipient of the 2020 St. Louis Visionary Award.
This tale of two cities segues nicely into another powerful story of two extremely different places: the very rural Brussels, Illinois, and the St. Louis ring city of Pagedale, Missouri whose citizens are brought together by way of the unlikely interlocutor of William Shakespeare's, As you Like It in the fall of 2019. Kathi's direction of this ambitious collaboration initiated by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis's Shakespeare in the Streets Program involved hundreds of community members from both towns, as well as the Normandy School’s Collaborative, Brussels High School, and Beyond Housing, a regional community development organization. The yearlong undertaking produced a performance that not only took audiences and actors from both towns across the Mississippi River to stages in each community, but it forever changed the story of both places. My conversation with Kathi took place on May 27th, just 38 hours after George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Part One, Love Hate.
BC: How are you Kathi?
Kathi Bentley: Um, I think I'm okay. I thought I was doing good, and then I made the mistak, of getting on social media and looking at stuff and I'm just you know, I mean I already knew about the killing in Minnesota and that mixed with man in Central Park, people dying of Coronavirus. It's just a lot. So today you know, so I you know how you wake up? I'm like, Oh, I'm doing good. And then I'm then I'm just yeah.
BC: I mean, it's really weird. We're isolated, but we're bombarded.
Yeah. Kathi, hopefully this conversation will be different because I want you to tell a story which of all the people in the world you know best, because it's yours. I'd like to begin by asking you to reflect that you're sitting across the table from your colleagues, and you're sharing with them what it is you do in the world. What's your work, what's your mission?
KB: Okay! My mission is to bring people to together to create a space where we can jointly create, excavate, build, nurture, and activate stories from our shared experiences, or maybe not shared experiences, where we can have space for each other's unique experiences, and places where our experiences intersect. My work is about leading people to that place of self-discovery and affirmation that helps them to see themselves in a different way as storytellers, as members of a collective group of people. My work is to hold space for people who may not feel like they have a place or space to be who they are
BC: What was the path that led you to that mission? What's the story of how you came to that work?
KB: Well, you know, I think as a person who's always been connected to the arts, just for my entire life, as a dancer and an actor. I moved to New York to perform, and did that, and love-hated it a lot, and got connected with an organization in Harlem that helped me to see all these other ways that I could be creative and artistic. And they had to do with working with schools or community groups, or you know, just in ways that didn't look like the traditional ‘going to an audition’, and that was really gratifying. Like, oh, I can help build a curriculum around Harlem Renaissance and how it relates to being a young boy or girl in Harlem right now, you know, or in the 90s. So that that led me to look at my creative self in a different way. As somebody who could actually instigate these kinds of stories and not solely be someone who is given a story to recreate as an actor, so it had me very excited in and like, oh, okay, I could actually help people create, help people devise work and direct other people's stories and, you know… I think that my lifelong mission of building community, it's just been part of what I've been raised to value is that community is really, really important, and the only way I know how to do it is through the arts. So that just has been the center of how I do what I do, this community building piece that's really important to me.
BC: What was that organization that you mentioned
KB: Oh, Blackberry Productions. I'm still really good friends with the founder. She's like a sister, she's like a big sister to me, and we did a play together, and I thought she is Looney Tune. This woman, you know […] Stephanie Berry, and she was just the most talented and creative person that I had met. I mean, she just, it was like, you know somebody wakes up with, like 15 ideas, her feet hit the floor. That’s how I felt about her, and we had we came up with a bunch of stuff, we, we still, every time we talk, we get something new. But that as a young performer, she was so inspiring as far as just the limitless creativity that we have as human beings. So, I got to work with Blackberry Productions after we worked together as performers. I worked with the company for maybe five years or so in different capacities, writing grants, I mean, stuff that I was like, Okay, well, yes, and creating curriculum, you know, all that. Just really directing. That's when I first started directing was with her company, and I got really excited about that.
BC: So, you ended up, you're in St. Louis. I'm in St. Louis, Missouri. What Took you from finding a new spark on the street in New York, back to St. Louis?
KB: Yeah, right […] Well, yes, I'm from here, and then right after college, I moved to New York with my high school friend, no clue. And I lived there for 10 years, you know, a lot of growth happens between the ages of 23 and 31, perform all over the place, you know, and just be an actor. A lot of that did happen, you know, in different ways. I made friends for life there, had experiences that I just could never have had any place else but New York, because there's nowhere like it, and I'm so grateful for that experience, you know, and would advise anyone to do that. If it's in your heart to move somewhere, do it, do it.
I lived there for 10 years and got married, had a baby. A couple years later got separated, I felt like I needed to be back home close to family, and so that brought me back here, and my mentor who I've known for since I was in college actually got me to finish my degree, convinced me build Scrivener. He just kept, you know, he talked me into it and he got me on SIUE (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) where I teach, I want to direct I love this and I want to do some other things with this theater stuff.
Part Two, the Golden Eagle Ferry.
BC: Kathi has a growing reputation for her social justice and undoing racism work. She's made this a central part of her practice as both an educator, and as a theater director. In part two, we explore one prominent example of how this has played out in the community.
One of the things that I would like to ask you to do is to think about one or two stories of your work that represent the kinds of things that you're trying to accomplish with your efforts in community.
KB: I feel so grateful because I feel like I put in in the path of projects that can be so fulfilling. I'm thinking of a wonderful experience that I got to have last year, at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. I got to direct their Shakespeare, in the Streets production, which is a big community involved production. It's like a yearlong prep period. I was asked to come on board, and it was going to be something unique that they hadn't done before. So, it was Love at the River's Edge, and it was an adaptation written by a phenomenal writer, Mariah Richardson, a good friend of mine, and this was going to be bringing two different communities together. A rural community and an urban community in the area separated by the river.
How do we do this? Usually a production is done over the course of a weekend, and now we have these two different communities where you have to take a bus and a ferry to get to the different communities.
BC: This sounds fairly complicated. What was it about this production that really attracted you?
KB: I love puzzles. That's the one thing about theatre that I love about directing is I get to figure out, you know, like, work with people. I love the collaboration. How do we fit all these pieces together? So, this was a true test. It was a way to really validate building community. We work with schools first. So, when you're working with a school in Brussels, Illinois, a town of 150 people I believe.
BC: Am I right that the other community was in Pagedale near St. Louis? They're not on each other's dance card typically, are they?
KB: Never, they didn't know each other. They had heard of each other. Well, Brussels had heard of Normandy, because Normandy in St. Louis, it's part of St. Louis County. Michael Brown went to Normandy High School who died in in Ferguson. So, Ferguson is part of that community. So, the people in Brussels their idea of what Normandy, what St. Louis is just like a lot of them, “We don't go there,” they just would not come to that part. You know, there's a lot of work that we had to do as a team as to you know, getting people together.
You had a journey where the schools came over and visited each other. A couple of the parents did not want their children coming to Normandy, so they had to miss out. You know, it was so funny when we first got them together. And you know, we had all these activities. First of all, the Brussels school is a little schoolhouse. It's a smallest one building. Normandy is huge, it looks like a college campus. Beautiful, big, beautiful school. So, when they came over here, we're like, wow, okay. This campus is huge. And, and so they were just so shocked to discover that they listen to the same radio stations, that their parents said the same kinds of things. I mean, those kinds of things that you know, we know how important that is and that it is, and yeah, we know that this is true, but to have them experience that, I'm like, oh God, please let us.
BC: This reminds me of one of the stories that we covered in my book, Art and Upheaval, called the Wedding Community Play. It's about a young Protestant and Catholic couple in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the troubles. They produced the play in both neighborhoods going from one to the other four different acts. Needless to say, it was a logistics nightmare. So were there any bumps in the road that you encountered trying to move people back and forth between Brussels and Normandy, Normandy and Brussels.
KB: When we were going over to Brussels, the river flooded, and when [that] happens, it's devastating. You cannot get to the other community. So, we didn't know what we were going to do with this production. If indeed the water rose, and we, you know, together for the year trying to like figure out how are we doing […] When we think about it now, it's like unbelievable that that got pulled off. But yeah, so we because we were trying to figure out, is it to separate casts, and I knew this was important, there has to be one cast of folks from both communities or why do this? … Why do this?
If no one other than these, I forget how many people right now 15-20 people… if they build a bond, then that's it. That's what we got. You know, so why else do this. So, I'm glad that we stuck to that, and we found a middle ground. We [could] only rehearse like two hours at night, because they'd have to get that last ferry to get back home. It was all the things that any you know, theater people are like that His disaster waiting to happen and I was like this is not this is like, phenomenal waiting to happen is what it was.
BC: At this point, I thought it might be useful to share a very brief summary of As You'd Like It. So here goes. Rosalind is a young and frisky royal who is banished to the Arden forest with her cousins Celia. While there Rosalind, who is disguised as a shepherd boy named Ganymede encounters Orlando, Rosalind’s true love, who is also in hiding and in fact pining away for her. After Orlando shares his desperation with his new unsympathetic friend Ganymede, the Wise Shepherd convinces him that he can be cured of this terrible affliction and proceeds to do so, winking and nodding all the way. In the end of course, Ganymede reveals that he, or she, is Rosalind and cutting to the chase, marries Orlando during a festive and raucous group wedding at the close of the play. In it, Shakespeare takes aim at Elizabethan beliefs of love and romance, particularly the notion that these amorous entanglements are a disease that captures the heart and wounds the souls of its victims. He also posits that, depending on the circumstances, humans are both capable of extraordinary change. And yes, quite often silly.
Getting back to our story, I asked Kathi, how this cross country to state two-step unfolded in the early fall of 2019.
KB: You know, it's exciting and nerve wracking, like I would be up at night, like, “What are we going to do? How are we going to figure this out?” I mean, hundreds of people came to see, we only did show two nights and one dress rehearsal. We had 10 busloads of people. We tried to do the bus rides so that people could get to we could build more community on the bus. That was hard. It's a school bus, not a greyhound. The ride was bumpy, it was hot, it was dark. But we had actual games that we had the actors play. So, people, they were just like, “Wow!” It was like nothing they had experienced before.
BC:: This sounds like an amazing five ring circus. Given all the moving parts, how was the play configured in a way that worked for everybody artistically and logistically?
KB:: So, people would come from Brussels to see the first act, they came to Normandy just to see Act One. We had a whole two whole sets and two whole setups. So, we had a time all this perfectly. So, there were the city folk, that was Normandy, and then they go into the forest that was in Brussels. Alot of it takes place in the forest, but we managed to have a lot of the scenes that happened in that first act with the background of Normandy … You're sitting on the parking lot of this right there in the neighborhood console outdoors, right students built this beautiful set and you can See the backup. So all of that that happened in what would be called the court in the play, and some things like we really talked about, she incorporated the flood, that actually did happen, that kept us apart