Art for Change

The artists who lived in Portsmouth in the 1970s can’t afford to live here anymore.

Russ Grazier, Co-Founder and CEO of Portsmouth Music & Arts Center, went on to elaborate on this cyclical phenomenon: artists are attracted to depressed areas they can afford; they invest in these communities through their art; the communities become attractive to affluent people; and the artists — who built the community — become priced out. 

Artists can no longer afford to live in the city that is treasured as the seacoast hub of the arts. It doesn’t quite seem fair, does it? Aren’t these precisely the folks we want to keep in our neighborhoods? 

A theme that continues to emerge from conversations with creative people (on and off Creative Guts) is the idea of the arts as a vehicle for social change. In today’s housing crisis, artists are among the victims of the injustice. Many are content to move on and revitalize the next depressed community over, but others are realizing they can use their art as a catalyst for change. And it isn’t just housing. Artists are using their craft to revitalize their communities and to facilitate difficult conversations. 

 Take for example this mural, on the corner of Union and North Main Streets in downtown Rochester, NH. Manchester-based artist Rachel Carpenter was commissioned by Jess Clay, founder of Make Rochester Great, to create this piece featuring honeycomb and lilac. Carpenter was quoted in the paper saying, “I want to show that awareness of reaching out and helping your neighbor and working together to make the world a better place.”

I talked with Zac Little, the creative voice  behind “The Last Podcast”; Beth Wittenberg, a Rochester-based artist; and Catherine Stewart, Associate Artistic Director of the NH Theatre Project about how they use their craft to communicate local issues. 

“Housing for Everyone” quilt by Stephanye Schuyler, 2008.

Zac, who famously delivered several hilarious housing-related jokes during his valedictorian speech when the Leadership Seacoast Class of 2019 graduated, has followed up on what he learned in Leadership Seacoast by interviewing several speakers and classmates (including me). During an episode of “The Last Podcast” titled, “The Weight (First Verse)” Zac shared the below with his listeners. 

It is occurring to me now that my platform and my creative abilities are really and truly a way that I can help. A way that I can have value.

Zac was also the star of Episode 10 of the podcast, “Creative Guts”, where he talked more about using his platform for good. 

I was more aware of the things I didn’t know than ever before. I thought about how people younger than me – and just by virtue of the fact that I was popular on YouTube ten years ago, people who listen to my podcast are mostly younger than me – and I thought ‘how can I explain this stuff to me ten years ago in a way I would have found interesting.’

In the very next episode of “Creative Guts”, political/protest artist Beth Wittenberg talks about using art to protest injustice, and the aftermath of her piece, Black Lives Matter.  

It was being spoken about in many realms and I felt like, as a political artist, I felt like ‘yes, I did my job’, but there are always things that are burning and I want to make art that challenges people. 

Zac and Beth aren’t the only creatives using their craft to influence social policy. I sat down with Catherine Stewart (the inspiration that set this piece in motion months ago and a former Stay Work Play blogger herself). Beyond her role at the NH Theatre Project, Catherine is also a playwright and director. She uses documentary theatre to excite social and political change. “When we interact with theater, we’re faced with ourselves. Theater is a safe place to talk about things we may not want to face,” Catherine told me over coffee at White Heron.

Interestingly, I first met Catherine at a housing dialogue hosted by Portsmouth Listens, so I knew that housing affordability in Portsmouth is on her mind. I asked Catherine for her thoughts about what Russ had said a few months back. Her response was, “Why aren’t artists being paid more?” Excellent point, right? The statewide conversation about housing affordability intersects with the conversation about wages. 

Catherine shared how the NH Theatre Project is bringing local issues to center stage. The Elephant-in-the-Room series presents playreadings and community conversations about tough subjects, while other productions do so in a more subtle way. For example, Catherine realized during a run of It’s a Wonderful Life that the show is about affordable housing. I’ll let this quote from this piece by City Lab explain:

Wonderful Life is a paean not only to the small-town virtues of family and community but to actual small towns, or at least their design principles. With its compact, walkable downtown and abundance of well-kept porchfront homes, Bedford Falls is a showcase of enlightened mixed-use planning, the kind of city Jane Jacobs would have asked Santa for.

Photo courtesy of the NH Theatre Project’s Instagram! Find and follow them here. Photo credit to Dan Derby.

Using the power of performance, Catherine intends on continuing the mission of the NH Theatre Project to bring local policy issues and social change to the stage in overt and subtle ways.

It’s not a new thing that we use theatre for social justice. That’s always been the goal. Sit in a room, or in an amphitheater, or around a fire and tell a story. Why? In order to understand someone else, or yourself, or the society you live in. It’s not that I, or my colleagues who work this way, added a special twist – theatre is a mirror to society. How else can we know who we were, are, and will be.

How can you use art as a vehicle for talking about housing affordability and the other issues that impact your community?

PSST… The NH Theatre Project engages young people through their program, RUSH40! If you’re under the age of 40, you can buy a half-price ticket for all Main Stage shows thirty minutes before the curtain (8 PM on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 PM on Sundays).

Stay tuned to the NH Theatre Project and the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast this holiday season. We’ll be talking about housing in conjunction with showings of It’s A Wonderful Life!

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