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The Foundry Theatre

"The world gets made by us every day, however mindfully or unmindfully one participates. How are artists then engaged in making the world, and does – how does – that influence the art they make?”

Although the making of theatrical performances is a key element in its mission and activity, The Foundry Theatre defines itself more as “an ongoing performance of ideas”, to which everything contributes, from the theatre it builds and produces to the internal structure of the organisation, from the hosting of public dialogues to its various community engagement projects. The Foundry was established by Melanie Joseph in 1994 and has always had a fluid, somewhat horizontal staff structure, with a flow of artists contributing both to the running of the whole and the shaping of individual works and programmes. Based in New York City, it receives public subsidies from the City, State and Federal governments, and is largely funded by foundation grants.

Mission: an invitation to participate in remaking community

A deliberately small and “nimble” organisation, The Foundry Theatre doesn’t have a building of its own but stages performances in the venues that suit each piece of theatre: sometimes an established venue such as the Public Theater or LaMama in Manhattan, St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, a restaurant in the East Village, or on a bus travelling through the South Bronx. And for Melanie Joseph, one essential question underlines its existence and ongoing work: “Where does a stage begin and end?”

“Where does a stage begin and end?”

Joseph doesn’t simply mean that the edges of the stage might blur with the rest of the city architecture: she is thinking also about the ways in which the ideas presented within The Foundry’s public events potentially affect not only the people encountering that work but the people making it – and what then grows from that affect. She sees The Foundry as: “part of an ecology, of changing and repairing the world” – and she is precise in how she elaborates on that. “I don’t think art changes the world: I think people do. You change the world with the ways you live your everyday life. The world gets made by us every day, however mindfully or unmindfully one participates.” The question that follows for her is: “How are artists then engaged in making the world, and does – how does – that influence the art they make?”

Before establishing the company, Joseph directed and/or co-created theatre in Toronto, New York, India, Kenya and Uganda, and then left the theatre to study medicine. Her decision to return, and start The Foundry, arose from her desire to make “a theatre that I would want to stay in the theatre for. I couldn’t find a place, a theatre company or a community, where I could actually justify living my life in theatre.” It is typical of her belief in shared experience that she says: “This Foundry was not strictly my idea. It was my idea to articulate and to find its power in those who would recognise what it was proposing to be. I figured if I was looking for such a theatre, then others were too. And what is this theatre? Let’s make it.”

“I figured if I was looking for such a theatre, then others were too. And what is this theatre? Let’s make it.”

The mission “has never changed” though it is regularly reinvestigated for that possibility. Fundamental to it is a belief in the exchange of rigorous ideas and inquiry about the world we live in, and how else it might be constellated. Joseph recurrently asks herself a set of basic questions: “Where are people politically around the systemics that currently organise the worlds we live in? How are we, as artists, included as a sector? Are we even a sector? What manner of community are we? How are we situated within the fabric of our society?” In rethinking how she creates her own community – whether by working with other artists as “co-leaders” or making dialogue and engagement central to the company’s work – Joseph models a different sector, fabric and politics.

Not marketing but invitation

Since both change and community are made by people, Joseph identifies “the nature of invitation” as “one of the energetic trajectories through The Foundry – it’s like the word democracy almost. How are people invited and authorised in that invitation to participate and experience The Foundry’s works? Some people call it marketing: we don’t. Not out of protest per se, but we actually think about the nature of invitation: how are we inviting people and who are we inviting – and why would they care?” Also crucial is that: “It’s an invitation, it’s not an offer. It’s an invitation which requires consideration: to make it, to extend it, and to accept it.”

Also crucially, Joseph doesn’t see this invitation as “transactional. We’re never going to make money from selling tickets anyway.” Ideally, she would prefer not to charge for tickets at all, were it not for the requirement from funders to “show earned income”, and a social suspicion of free work. “People don’t value free tickets. They think there must be something wrong. So that’s also systemically problematic.”

“People don’t value free tickets. They think there must be something wrong. So that’s also systemically problematic.”

Increasing over the years, that invitation is extended to “grassroots communities who organise around mitigating social-justice issues, things they themselves determine need to be changed”. The way in which Joseph describes their work corresponds to how she talks about The Foundry: their concern is “system building that’s not only about protest, but about offering a ‘how else can we make this? – and let’s be quiet about it so we can figure it out.’” Joseph sees these community organisers as “’makers’ the way we are – but there’s a, not disconnect, but misconnect, between artists and social-justice practitioners. At best when artists are invited, it’s typically to decorate the rallies, and there’s also legitimate fear that we steal their stories to make our art – without them. Though this practice is becoming more rare, the suspicion lingers.” The invitation extended by The Foundry seeks to challenge that misconnect, and encourage more correspondence of ideas and approaches between these two sets of makers.

Three strands of making

Everything made by The Foundry falls into one of three broad categories:

1: Performances

One of the reasons Joseph has never wanted The Foundry to have its own building is that “we never knew what the work was going to turn into: was it site-specific, was it in a theatre, what kind of space completes it?” All work is made “from scratch: what’s different about the Foundry, in its artistic practice, is that most of the work that we do is by commission and, from the beginning, we commit to developing and producing whatever the commission will become. It’s pretty rare to say, ‘We’ve no idea what this piece is going to be but we’re going to produce it’: for me, that’s a deepening of our responsibility to and respect for artists.” Similarly, the company has never produced seasons of work, choosing instead to “follow the art. Some pieces took four years to get made, some pieces took a year.”

The person commissioned might be a playwright, a poet or an artist in some other way – someone of whom Joseph can say: “I really love your work, would you like to make something with The Foundry?” The approach is never to ask an artist to make something specific, but to say: “Here are some things we’ve been thinking about, do any of those interest you? What are you thinking about? Because we know that we’re going to be together for however long it takes to make this, the idea needs to be something we both feel really passionate about, something we can be responsible to, together. So the inciting event is different from project to project.” A particularly successful example is Joseph’s collaboration with poet Claudia Rankine, on The Provenance of Beauty: An American Lyric. As a “word installationist”, Rankine was reluctant to write anything that looked like a traditional play; through discussion, she and Joseph connected over the Bronx and bus tours, and over three years shaped a performance merging both.

Members of the community are also involved in the making of performances, sometimes as performers themselves, sometimes in the development process: “they come into workshops and respond to the material”.

2: Foundry Dialogues

One of The Foundry’s very first works was a round-table dialogue on genocide: the Bosnian war was underway, “Srebrenica had just happened and none of us knew how to even think about it”. Joseph invited journalists, activists and artists to attend the discussion – and set a pattern for how The Foundry would work. Foundry Dialogue series have since taken on wide-ranging subjects such as hope, money, climate change, food, water and shelter, and prefigurative practices in health care, economics and political systems. Joseph argues that the Dialogues are essential to The Foundry’s practice, acting as “big pause buttons” allowing people to look at what is happening in the world and ask “what is this? Is this what we mean?” But looking back, she is also able to see “how many of the projects out there were inspired by the Dialogues. That’s where you sometimes find the resonance of your intersectionality, and what builds what.”

3: Community programmes

The latest iteration of The Foundry’s ongoing community programmes – which have also included the Legacy Series (conversations between older theatre practitioners), and their annual Free Range Thanksgivings (bringing artists together with food-justice organisers) – is the Audience Ambassadors programme initiated in 2001. This grew from the discovery that “although we had made theatre and dialogues with communities all across the city, people don’t come to the theatre”, not just because they felt they couldn’t afford it, but because they felt excluded from the culture of theatre-going. What makes the Audience Ambassadors programme remarkable as a solution is that the offer of a free ticket is only a small part of it: The Foundry pays community organisers to gather groups from their networks, ensures that the offer is not only to see its own work, but performances in and by other theatres and companies, and then buys all participants dinner afterwards, where they can talk with artists about the work they have just seen.

Although the numbers involved are relatively small – Joseph estimates 200-300 people per year, at an annual direct cost of approximately $6500 – the Audience Ambassadors programme has been incalculably meaningful as a way to “deepen existing relationships between artists and social-justice communities. It’s strengthened our relationship as a friend, and strengthened our currency with grassroots communities, as they come to know what it is that artists actually do with our expertise, or talents. This has also been strengthened by engaging community participants into the dramaturgical gaze of the art that we build.”

Challenging meaning

Also ongoing within The Foundry is the work of maintaining a distinctive structure: “prefiguring what an arts organisation might look like. I like to call it arts organism, and I’m not being euphemistic about that.” The work with language is in part that of challenging “the architecture of meaning that’s monopolised by free market capitalism. One of the most frustrating things for me is how much of our time is spent on having to undo meaning to be able to mean what I say.”

This is particularly the case with funders: Joseph recalls that “when we started, we had to hide all the programmes that were ‘not art’ from our funders. We were actually advised by the funders to do this, so there wouldn’t be any misunderstanding that we were indeed a theatre company.”

“When we started, we had to hide all the programmes that were ‘not art’ from our funders.”

The relationship with funders is an ongoing cause for concern for Joseph, in two ways:

1: The vagaries of fashion

Joseph is clear that “if you can think of something, it means it’s been thought of a million times already. When I started the Foundry, I knew that I wasn’t inventing the wheel. We stand on the shoulders of many.” But the recent interest of funding bodies in community-engaged practice, she argues, moves with the tides, and: “What I think is really important to consider is the depth of its roots, especially within an organisation that has to keep steering the ship in a system that looks at these things as the flavour of the month.”

2: The problem of evaluation

Rather than quantify The Foundry’s work through a system of “metrics”, Joseph suggests that the evaluation funders look for should be more dialogic. “I would prefer a conversation with somebody at the funding organisation who isn’t brand new, who knows the ongoing development of the mission, and who asks: how is this or that working? What do you wish was working better? What are your discoveries? Period. That’s how you look at the way you’re progressing.”

What next?

The Foundry is currently (at time of writing, May 2018) taking a year off from regular programme activities to build a complete archive, to be installed on its website, and to write a complementary book looking at its 24 years of inquiry across and among its intersectional programmes. These activities are providing the board, staff and Foundry community with substantive reflection on what the company has done and may do next in the expression of its mission.

Photo: Good Person in Szechwan. Courtesy of The Foundry Theatre

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