Civic Ensemble

The founding members of the Civic Ensemble: Jennifer Herzog, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., and Sarah K. Chalmers.

If Civic Ensemble has a mantra, this is it: “ Theatre is everyone’s birthright.”

Variations of it occur when you speak with each of the founding members: Artistic Director Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., Assoc. Artistic Director Jennifer Herzog, and Director of Civic Engagement Sarah K. Chalmers.

“That kind of seeps through everything we do,” said Simmons, in a recent interview in his and Chalmers’ living room. He had just finished checking on their son, and we were finally hunkering down during a rare moment these two were both free. Herzog, fresh from her wedding, chimed in later via email.

Civic is moving into their third season, and they’ve done a lot in that time. The public has enjoyed staged readings of several new plays by women and people of color, staged Eugene O’Neill’s rarely seen All God’s Chillun Got Wings in New York City, and co-produced the world premiere of Slashes of Light by Judy Tate at the Kitchen. They also staged their first community-based play, Parent Stories, had developmental labs to test out playwright’s work, put together a play about fracking for the Science Center, ran a free acting program for youth at GIAC, and brought their “Civic Origins” project into a local high school English class and to the Finger Lakes Residential Center. (Civic brings in a professional performance of Antigone, then participants explore the play’s themes and create and perform their own version.)

Over the past year, they’ve been working on Safety: Community–Police Relations. A group of ten or more local community members will enact a script sculpted out of months of gathering stories, talking to local civilians and police, and asking community members to identify the major questions they wish to see addressed.

Safety will be performed at Lehman Alternatives Community School Friday and Saturday, Sept. 19 and 20, at Cornell’s Barnes Hall on Thursday, Sept. 25, at the Latino Festival at GIAC on Saturday, Sept. 27, and Calvary Baptist Church on Sunday, Sept. 28. More info is available at civicensemble.org.

“People say ‘Why theater?’” added Chalmers. “Theater is unique in its liveness and its potential through that liveness to engage people. Theater engages both our thinking and our feeling … As a tool for dialogue theater is unique in its ability to engage people, to catch them off guard. They can be having fun, then turn right around to having a serious conversation.”

This notion of engagement is central to all of Civic’s work. “To piggyback what Sarah was talking about,” said Simmons, “at the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think that the old idea of the repertory regional theater mode—that revolution is dead, it’s done. The next revolution is the full-service theatre. By that I mean community-based theater at its essence ... The same organization not only has practitioners doing world-class plays or world-class new plays, but that theater is having the community doing it with them or its making space for them to do their own thing.”

On this level as Simmons puts it, it’s “not about the what, but the who.” What audiences are being reached, who is onstage, what stories are getting told. These issues of accessibility go to the extent of providing childcare for community volunteers so they have time to rehearse, or arranging transportation for youth.

So on the one hand Civic is about shifting the demographics of local theater. They are also about the national scene in terms of plays.

Herzog wrote, “Our commitment to producing works by underrepresented playwrights, specifically women and playwrights of color, is one of the most unique parts of our mission. Search the hashtag #parityraid on Twitter, and you’ll learn why diversity is an urgent need in our country’s theatrical landscape.”

Third, Civic is about creating work for professional theater practitioners, particularly the many Equity actors who have made Ithaca their home.

As Herzog put it, “We’re committed to hiring local theatre artists, but we’re also committed to bringing everyone—not just ‘theatre people’—into the fold. We want to change what the theatre-going, theatre-making population looks like; we believe everyone can find a way to connect to theatre. Young, old, rich, poor, black, white— theatre is everyone’s birthright.”

Civic doesn’t specifically work with a season model. “We’re developing into something a little different,” said Chalmers. “The work takes different ways to come together. We don’t need to rush a play into development. We’re just two years old; there’s time. What we get is the time to live with these projects, to take the time to hook into something while we go on teaching.”

That said, in addition to Safety, area audiences can look forward to two “new looks” at plays (a kind of peek into a play’s development) including a piece on guns in the classroom by Melanie Dreyer-Lude. In February, they will launch the Living Newspaper project, an evening of skits and improvs about current events, based on the famous work by the Federal Theatre Project back in the Great Depression. And they also will be working to explore issues of the future of extension with Cornell Community Extension. •

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