The following post was written by Faye Price, co-Artistic Director of Pillsbury House + Theatre, one of 5 neighborhood centers of Alliance member organization Pillsbury United Communities, a 21st century successor to the vision of Hull House founder Jane Addams. The publisher of an Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for New American Art by Todd London solicited this article as a contemporary response to an excerpt from Ms. Addams’ Twenty Years of Hull-House, specifically about the Hull House Players. This artistic activity is often credited by London and others with inspiring not only the neighborhood but the entire American Little Theatre movement.
My Dear Miss Addams,
Thank you for your enormous vision. Your humanitarian instincts and thoughtful determination are responsible for a not-so-minor revolution in the American theatre. I know your work was meant to help new immigrants make their way in this country, to fight inequality and end the deplorable living conditions of the poor, but thank you for recognizing that theater could be a powerful tool in your fight for social justice. You systematically insured that theatrical performance was not only available but also accessible and participatory for a population that was new to this country and struggling to thrive amid vast inequities. As a result of your work at Hull-House and the establishment of the Hull-House Players, hundreds of settlement houses across the country incorporated the arts into their programming by 1914. You were also a vocal pacifist, impassioned labor reformer, and crusading suffragette. It’s no wonder J Edgar Hoover called you “The most dangerous woman in America.”
There are still a few of us following your vision today, Miss Addams. In New York both Henry Street Settlement and University Settlement have vibrant stages that present and produce community-based art programming. Karamu House in Cleveland continues its long-standing production of African American Theatre. And in Minneapolis, Pillsbury House, a settlement that was established in 1905, continues the tradition of using the arts to improve the lives of individuals and strengthen the health of our communities. The tenements may look a little different these days. The languages have also changed; we are hearing more Spanish, Hmong and Somali languages here in Minnesota as opposed to the Polish, Italian and Greek parlance of Chicago in the early 20th century. And our traditional Settlement services have been updated to provide more culturally specific services to new Americans. But settlement houses are indeed alive, slightly reconfigured and unfortunately still necessary in this country as the economic, educational and racial disparities in this country grow wider each day.
Here in Minneapolis at Pillsbury House +Theatre, we see every day the profound effect that art has not only on individuals but on our surrounding community as well. It’s not unusual for a young adult in college to return to the center, for example, expressing great gratitude for the confidence and leadership skills that our youth theatre mentoring program, the Chicago Avenue Project, instilled in them.
Pillsbury House Theatre was established in 1992 as a professional theatre housed in a community center (Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center), committed to the Settlement House tradition of creating art in collaboration with community. In 2009, the community center and the theatre made a bold move to integrate their programs and operations under the theatre’s artistic leadership to create Pillsbury House + Theatre, an ideal living 21st century example of the principles that animated you.
Our vision is of a new kind of arts organization, a center for creativity and community that is both professional and community-driven, that is known for artistic excellence and broad accessibility, and that engages a diverse constituency which benefits individually and collectively from participation. We are integrating arts content throughout our human services programming like HIV outreach and truancy prevention, animating programs like day care and after school activities through arts learning, experience and practice. We have four Resident Teaching Artists that work alongside human service staff to develop and implement curricula that use arts activities as a core part of their programs. Days here are infused with theatre, dance, puppetry, music, painting, collage, and other art forms. Art is used not merely to complement other programming, but to support and enhance program outcomes. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this approach makes outcomes easier to achieve. People are more excited to participate and, through the practice of creativity, they grow their own capacity to succeed.
One of the other elements that make PHT particular in the world of the Settlement House arts tradition is that we are an award-winning professional theatre using Equity actors, housed in a neighborhood center, located in an urban neighborhood that intimidates some. We do community-driven work, but we also produce and commission provocative new work by some of the American Theater’s brightest playwrights. For the past 10 years, PHT has had at least one production mentioned in the “Best of the Year” lists in the local theatre media. Our work is rooted in the belief that the highest quality art is an essential part of every community.
Yet because we are situated in a neighborhood that has a bad reputation, we battle the notion that we produce amateur, lesser-quality theatre—as if choosing to be in a community equates to lower standards. Or that the privilege of paying to park your car means that your arts experience will be of the highest caliber. Or if you don’t own a car, you certainly can’t appreciate great art. We have been referred to as Pillsbury Playhouse or Pillsbury Puppet Theater by perfectly well meaning folks whose words are still condescending and diminishing.
So while your work has had massive repercussions, some things have not changed, Miss Addams. The arts are still often presented as an experience to be consumed by those with cultivated taste. While the regional theater movement that came later in the century decentralized theatre away from New York and provided training and employment to local residents, I’m afraid there was a loss of your original ideas about the value of art in the local community. This regional push for professionalism helped to stimulate the economy but also somehow has made it more difficult to see your children or your neighbors onstage in your own community. Indigenous stories once performed so proudly by the newly arrived immigrants at Hull-House have been co-opted by the non-profit American theatre and produced in a building far, far from home.
At PH+T, we are going to continue to push your ideas forward, Miss Addams, testing how much a Settlement House animated by creativity can democratize the arts and strengthen an underserved community. Inside of our theatre, the demographics of our audience certainly show that people diverse in age, income level and ethnicity can share arts experiences. We see women from shelters sitting beside well-to-do lawyers from the suburbs and Somali teenagers sitting next to Caucasian senior citizens. As we look outward, we are beginning to work with a consortium of community partners on a shared Creative Community Development plan for our community, to develop the creative assets of the four neighborhoods surrounding the theatre and increase attachment, access, engagement and upward mobility among residents. I’d like to think that we are doing you proud, investing in people, investing in neighborhoods, by restoring theatre “to its rightful place in the community”.
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