It was a warm September evening backlit by pink, blue, and gray. As the sun began to set, hundreds gathered at the corner of Page and Ferguson Avenues to watch “Love at the River’s Edge,” a new play adapted from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” to include the stories of the North St. Louis County and Calhoun County, IL neighborhoods. Attendees saw act 1 in a vacant lot transformed for this special collaboration. During intermission, they boarded buses and took the Golden Eagle Ferry across the Mississippi River to Calhoun County. Residents greeted them with excitement and homemade peach pie. The audience enjoyed act 2 with the glow of a full moon above them. Residents and visitors alike left this unique event with a shared sense of community, one rooted in the arts.
This is Shakespeare in the Streets, a grassroots theatrical experience that leads St. Louis area residents in developing an original play with themes that reflect their neighborhoods’ history and character. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis organizes the program, and the 2019 creative team included Efua Osei, a junior majoring in African American studies in the College of Arts & Sciences at Washington University.
Efua is one of three students participating in Arts as Civic Engagement, a Gephardt Institute program that supports students in a Civic and Community Arts Residency at regional arts organizations. The program launched in 2018, and this year’s cohort also includes Rob Hall, a junior majoring in design, and Claire Wiley, a senior majoring in architecture, both at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. From May to August, Efua, Rob, and Claire worked as embedded staff members of local organizations as they participated in the planning of arts-based projects created for and with community partners.
Efua worked closely with Shakespeare Festival St. Louis director Tom Ridgely and other staff to engage North St. Louis and Calhoun County residents through all aspects of the 2019 production. “I focused on building awareness about ‘In the Streets’ and gathering insights from community members,” Efua said. “I got the word out about by posting flyers and visiting schools, libraries, and other community spaces. We organized storytelling circles, and I transcribed conversations as residents shared their experiences.” Storytelling circle participants ranged in age from 11 to 70. “Through these sessions, I learned what it means to be a citizen at any age,” Efua reflected. “I also gained an awareness of geography and its important role in our collective histories.”
Rob was in residence at The Griot Museum of Black History. He worked directly with the museum’s founder and director, Lois Conley. His projects included directing the second annual Juneteenth Art Sale and Auction, organizing the museum’s systems for documentation, and developing programming for the museum’s HIV and AIDS initiative. “As we prepared for the Juneteenth event,” he recalled, “I put up the artwork and got to know participating artists. The night of, I served as host, introducing the event on stage and interacting with our guests.” Rob added that the experience has given him the chance to “make connections with people in the fields I want to continue working in as an arts administrator.”
Like Rob, Claire spent the summer in a museum setting. Her residency involved working on community engagement alongside staff at the Contemporary Art Museum. She connected with faith-based organizations, assisted living facilities, local businesses, and residents within a 1-mile radius of the museum. She also supported artist and landscape architect Eric Ellingsen on a Walkshop project. “We collected sound recordings along different routes within the 1-mile radius,” she explained, “and we shared the recordings with community members.”
In addition to working with arts organizations, Efua, Rob, and Claire met regularly as a cohort with Roseann Weiss, the Lead Educator for Arts as Civic Engagement, and Stefani Weeden-Smith, Assistant Director of Community Engagement at the Gephardt Institute. Over the summer, they came together weekly to discuss their projects and ask each other for input and advice. “The cohort experience was a powerful aspect of the program,” Rob said. “I learned a lot about how arts organizations are inherently connected to the communities they operate in from the stories Claire and Efua shared.” Claire added, “It was so interesting to see the different problems we were addressing, especially since each partner organization works at a different capacity.”
When asked how the Arts as Civic Engagement program has changed their impression of St. Louis and engagement work, Efua emphasized the importance of the language she has gained: “I’ve been practicing arts as civic engagement my entire life, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to name it before. At home, I was a part of dance and musical theater. I understand now that we were bringing community into these art forms. It’s important to have names for these experiences so we can help others recognize the intersections, as well.”
“The program has helped me to see how wide-ranging the arts community is,” Rob shared. “Beforehand, I had a rather narrow vision of ‘the arts’ and didn’t realize how all of these spaces – from museums and gallery spaces to performance arts organizations and music venues – come together to impact the St. Louis community as a whole.”
For Claire, who grew up in St. Louis, “The residency has helped me to better connect with the city and to better understand the lived experiences of its communities. The more I enter spaces, the more I find I know so little about them.” Claire summed that civic and community engagement work cannot be limited to a single summer. “I’m excited for this model to grow in time and scale, and to give as much support to St. Louis communities as possible.”
The Arts as Civic Engagement program is made possible by generous gifts from Sally Schnuck, OT ’78, and Terry Schnuck, PMBA ’80, and John Beuerlein, Trustee, MBA ’77, and Crystal Beuerlein. To learn more about the program and residents, click here.