Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, 7 Stages talks experiential education, collaborative performance, and their work to continue their founding mission: to create a space that shines light in the darkness.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
For 40 years, 7 Stages’ mission has engaged artists and audiences by focusing on the social, spiritual and political values of contemporary culture. While our founders sought to create a space that shines light in the darkness, our theatre continues as a global center for the creation of vital conversations through collaborative performance. Ultimately, we are committed to serving our artists, patrons, and students with dialogue-provoking productions and outreach programs that inspire positive social change.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
7 Stages has the kind of community that many crave: culturally diverse, young and old, educated and working class. Consistently reaching underserved minority groups, a broad LGBTQ community, and the already diverse arts audiences of metro Atlanta, our outreach programs provide opportunities for people of different walks of life to connect. We offer programming that speaks to many, reaching a diverse audience at the theatre, as well as in schools and community groups across Atlanta. Most importantly, we listen, and thus, connect their everyday life to the artistic process.
The NEA Big Read table at the Decatur Book Fest. Photo by Heidi S. Howard, courtesy of 7 Stages.
What makes/made your Big Read unique?
Our Big Read program focuses on artistic responses to literature. Anyone from the community is welcome to participate. Patrons, professional artists, and students explore values that relate to their lives through book discussions and creative workshops. Over the course of the season, books are available in our lobby, handed out at local festivals and at various events in collaboration with libraries and community groups.
Specifically, in schools the opportunity for experiential education opens the door to the world of creative expression and helps students develop multiple tools for success in professional and personal spheres. They are not simply assigned a book report on the reading, but are asked to think about their own identity and expression by connecting it to some aspect of the story. This collaborative, original process ensures that the subject matter is relevant to students’ lives, and creates an environment in which participants are invested in the experience of reading. Each residency includes a public presentation of the responses offering public speaking and performance experience. For example, a dance duo who developed a piece entitled, “My Courage is Vulnerable” performed at the Inman Theatre and had another performance as part of Curious Human Encounters, a workshop production produced by 7 Stages.
Students in the Henry W. Grady High School Residency holding up their artwork. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies is a work of historical fiction based on the lives of the Mirabal sisters, who participated in underground efforts to topple Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s three-decade-long dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic. Narrated in turn by each of the sisters, Alvarez tells the story of four girls who come of age wanting the same things most young women hope for: love, family, and freedom.
With Georgia ranking 49th in the state arts funding, we believe that we must serve as a curriculum resource to help integrate arts learning in the school setting and to provide meaningful opportunities for students to engage in creative action. We found that some of our school partners were already reading the book and were eager to coordinate curriculum with the arts. The reading coupled with arts residencies offers new and in-depth reflection on the literature, offering young people a platform to discuss their own courage and fears in living in today’s society while also inspiring professional artists to examine their own role in taking action.
The portrayal of the butterflies in In The Time of the Butterflies is devastating, yet the beautiful style in which Alvarez brought them to life offers us all hope – that to be courageous can simply be to get up and do something that feels like it is good. By using the book as a platform to respond artistically, participants explored the effects of cruelty and hatred in leadership, the plight of free thinkers, the courage of individuals, while examining their own place in society and connecting to each other through artful expression.
Artistic response by a student at Henry W. Grady High School. Photo by Heidi S. Howard, courtesy of 7 Stages.
Artistic responses on display in the 7 Stages lobby, with free books. Photo by Kacie Willis, courtesy of 7 Stages.
What aspect of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
We did so much! Working in the schools is always filled with magic moments – especially when they, the teens, surprise themselves and realize that everyone can create art.
To illustrate: one student this year in a literature class received scholarships for his work as a science student. He takes astronomy photos that are making ground-breaking discoveries in how time and light relate to our sense of understanding. He stated on our first day, “I am not an artist, I am a scientist – I don’t art.” His artistic response proved otherwise. It was a photograph of a butterfly displayed on a 3-D board merged with another picture he took of the stars (pictured above); it is stunning. He is an artist.
Additionally, one of the panels in our series with the library featured prominent women in politics from Atlanta. Liliana Bakhtiari, a Muslim gay woman who recently ran for a district seat, told stories of personal struggle and her drive to participate in politics as a means to better personal life. Her stories aligned directly with all of the novel’s sisters’ reasons for participating in the revolution – for the simple fact that we must survive and take care of the ones we love by bringing humanity to the other.
Keynote address at Decatur Library with the Georgia Center for the Book, concluding the NEA Big Read panel series. Photo by Kacie Willis, courtesy of 7 Stages.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
First and foremost we connect people. Ensuring there is a breadth and depth of diversity and inclusiveness is interconnected to 7 Stages’ programming. It is what we do. We seek to unite participants from various backgrounds, encourage critical and creative thought, and challenge participants to develop and explore multiple perspectives. By humanizing the other, compassion is created and perhaps a beloved community can be created and not just imagined.
Community member John White with poet Theresa Davis. Photo courtesy of 7 Stages.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
I think for this I must merely refer to a sound score that was made by our students:
The students featured in this sound score read the book as a class assignment, but also took a journey of listening to the world, creating a work and appreciating the diverse personalities of their classmates. Their voices were heard and the student’s were celebrated while sharing in a process of art making. They connected personally – from their experiences today – to a story from our humanities’ history.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
During the development of Curious Human Encounters, the original production that was slated to culminate the project, one of our community members was paired with a poet. John White is a man who was incarcerated for 27 years for a crime he did not commit. Upon reading the book and hearing the letters the butterflies wrote to their husbands in prison, he shared the letter that he received from the Georgia Innocence Project.
“Our stories are their stories, and through the art of literature and poetry, they connect us…Thanks to the Big Read, our programming has a platform to build upon the story of our community.”
We created a performance around his moments of courage, finding meditation and purpose in the act of leather making. The simple pounding of a tool on leather created a sound score that was not only rhythmic for the poetry that helped to tell his story, but also offered a meditative melody that resembled the text that Alvarez depicts in the novel. Our stories are their stories and through the art of literature and poetry, they connect us and are accessible.
The piece will continue to be developed for Human: A Citizens’ Encounter, one of the culminating events for our next Big Read: an artistic response to Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. As artists, we are reminded that even in our difference we are alike, and when it is needed, we can continue to build meaningful connections. This reality is compounded with the work that we are doing in our city. Thanks to the Big Read, our programming has a platform to build upon the story of our community.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
“I’m not stuck in the past, I’ve just brought it with me into the present. And the problem is not enough of us have done that. What is it that those gringos say, if you don’t study your history, you are going to repeat it.”
Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies