Most people who have seen contemporary performance work in downtown Manhattan have at the very least heard of Abrons Arts Center
and the organization that gave rise to it—Henry Street Settlement. But fewer people are aware of the organization that came to the Lower East Side before Henry Street—University Settlement
—or of the new series of public performances that's been growing there over the past three years.
Inspired by a desire to recapture some of the radical impulses that gave rise to settlement houses in the US at the end of the 1800s, Alison Fleminger, the curator of the Performance Project at University Settlement
, is hoping not only to build a new platform for artists, but also to find concrete ways to reestablish and articulate the importance of the arts within not only the education system, but also the community at large. I spoke with her by phone about University Settlement's past, present, and future relationships with the arts, as well as her own.
The L: Tell me a little bit about the history of the University Settlement.
University Settlement was the first settlement house in the United States and the second in the world. The first settlement house was in England, in London. Stanton Coit, the guy who started University Settlement, actually spent some time there [at Toynbee Hall
, London's first settlement house]. The idea was that these very Romantic-minded, progressive thinkers looked around towards the end of the [19th] century and said "here we are, running around saying how life is so beautiful, but maybe we need to take in the fact there are people living in unprecedented squalor as a result of the Industrial Revolution."
The radical concept of the settlement house movement was that people who were struggling weren't struggling because of some deficit or because they were born to struggle, they simply weren't getting the access to the resources that they needed to be able to make their lives better. The idea of the settlement house was that people who had access to all the cultural capital would come and settle into struggling communities and be that resource. It's very literal—the settlement. The idea was to bring the best of university life to the people who needed it the most.
University Settlement's headquarters on Eldridge Street was built a few years after the settlement was established, so it was really designed as a building where volunteers who were university-educated would come and live for about a year or two to do their service.
The arts, from the beginning, were always central to the model because community and the arts are so intimately entangled. It's hard to imagine what people would do to engage a group of people that doesn't involve some form of art, whether it be storytelling, singing, dancing. So University Settlement was built with this beautiful theater space [Speyer Hall] because that was part of the values of the movement—bring people of different walks of life together to celebrate themselves, to understand that it was important to have aesthetic values, as well as to understand the social function of art.
University Settlement is celebrating a major anniversary this year, right?
AF: 125 years.
Tell me a little bit about the birth and development of the Performance Project at University Settlement—the program you now curate and manage. You mentioned that arts have been a part of the organization since the beginning, so what need does this new project fill?
I think what happened with the arts at University Settlement is very typical of all the other settlement houses and social service agencies in the city. There was a transition when funding started coming more from the government and less from individual donors or private foundations. We really appreciate the government funding but it does require a lot of work to quantify and, as we know, the arts are hard to measure. So, the arts got a little lost for a period of time. They were still happening within a couple of programs, but not in a centralized way.
I think what happened was the Lower East Side started to change. Over the last ten years gentrification has been super rapid. After the neighborhood resisted for a number of years it sort of caught up quick. It's really important that the settlement house be rooted in its community and we needed programs that were going to bring in old neighbors and new neighbors. So, we saw this arts program as a bridge program, as a way to let the community who may not need our essential services know that we are in the community. It's a way to say, "Hey, we're here and we still believe in our initial mission, which is that it's necessary to bring people from different walks of life together."
In terms of that notion of the community, what exactly is University Settlement's community? Is it the Lower East Side? Does it include Chinatown? What are the borders of the community you serve?
We have about 21 different locations. We've really grown a lot in the past decade. The vast majority of those sites are on the Lower East Side and I guess you could also say a little bit of Chinatown. But we also run after-school programs in a lot of different schools and we have a weekend program on East 12th Street. We've also expanded to Harlem and we have now 4 sites in Brooklyn—we just opened an Ingersoll Community Center
on Myrtle Avenue. We also have a new early childhood program in East New York and then we are also affiliates with The Door
And this is all mainly because when you've been around for 125 years you've really demonstrated that you know how to run programs, so a lot of these communities beyond the Lower East Side have actually come to us and said, "can you come in and help us run quality programming?"
And it's a question. There was an article
recently in The Forward
where our Executive Director, Michael Zisser, is really questioning these ideas of how big we can grow and still hold on to our original ideals. What does local mean today? But, certainly in a city that is becoming so stratified, I believe we're ripe to revisit this movement. And I think it's connected to the slow-living and green movements and all of that. It's kind of unfortunate that it's not something that people are familiar with. You tell people that you work at a settlement house and they say, "what?" It's a strange word. It's not a word that has great connotations in the contemporary world.
Right, it has a kind of colonialist connotation.
Exactly, and that's the irony. The settlement house movement kind of pioneered this idea of what it means to serve a community and that it's not about imposing one culture onto another, it's about giving people the tools and the resources they need to make their lives stronger.
And it's a really proud chapter of our country's history. Settlement houses led the whole progressive era. Because of settlement houses we have forms of government that actually support people. 125 years ago there was no welfare, there was no lunch in schools, no social services in general. If you were struggling you had very few options. You had to go to a religious organization and you had to play by their rules. So the idea of the settlement house was, all you need to do is come in and it's all here for you.
University Settlement had the first public bathhouse in New York and it was the site of the first kindergarten in the city. They even had a bank in the basement. It was a place where you could really find the support that you needed in order to be able to build a better place for yourself. I think it's so important, especially at this time, which has so many connections to when the settlement house movement first began. The Industrial Revolution was coming along and totally changing the way people lived and worked. And here we are in the Information Age and really struggling to adapt to the fact that there aren't the jobs that have traditionally been there and they are probably not coming back even when this recession is over.
I think it's something to really look at again, to think about how we can be innovative and pioneering at this time. We've gotten so used to these ideas and concepts that we don't really recognize that 125 years ago they were completely radical.
In terms of University Settlement's importance to arts in the city, I know I've heard you say in the past that Speyer Hall, at the Eldridge Street headquarters, has been important to the dance world for some time. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Well, what I do know is that the most famous person to have danced there is Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a volunteer when she was about nineteen or twenty years old. What she did was teach dance, which was really fortunate because years later when the New Deal was in effect and artists were being hired through the Works Progress Administration, the government was getting tons of criticism about why they were giving money to artists, and she said, "I know that when communities are struggling, this is what's important." That was from her direct experience.
Fast forward from there. Risa Jaroslow
had her company in residence here in the early 1990s. So she brought in a lot of great choreographers, people like Tina Croll
, a lot of members of The Construction Company
, a lot of people who were involved in the Judson Church. They quietly rented the space and performed in it. It seems to me, though I'm not a dance world person—I've had to learn a lot—that most choreographers have University Settlement on their resumes and have come through here at some point.
In my time curating our series I've really tried to keep some of the choreographers who are in their fifties and sixties who have been lovers of the space involved. And that's been wonderful. I think that the work that they've done there has been incredible and they've been really appreciative of this institution giving them a little more exposure, more than just a rental situation.
You've been with the Performance Project for three years. Did it start with you?
Yeah. It was sort of lucky timing. University Settlement has a board member named Bill Blitzer who had been on the board for over 50 years and he really wanted his legacy to be bringing the arts back to University Settlement. And my supervisor, Amy Mereson, loved the idea of having a public performance series, but still wanted it to connect to the people that we serve and wanted it to connect to the quality of arts education going on in our programs. I think I was an attractive candidate to them because I'm a theater artist, but I've also really focused on education. I've a been a preschool teacher and we run preschool programs, I've run an arts after school program and we have a lot of after school programs, I've also ran a family literacy program so I'm very familiar with adult literacy, and so I think they were confident that I would know how to tie the artists back into our programs.
And it was great. I mean, look, I don't think I ever would have expected that offer to come along in my life. But as soon as I was offered it I immediately knew what I wanted to do—bring artists who were inspired by the idea of the settlement house. I thought, okay, here's an opportunity to get back to this original concept of people coming to settle here, because artists can come be residents here.
I've also been a teaching artist all over New York City, so I really understand that lifestyle and I understand how lost your own art-making can get when you are making your living as a teaching artist, schlepping from one place to another. I have to also put this in the context of my mother, Susan Fleminger, who ran Arts Education at Henry Street Settlement for my whole life and really was a pioneer in getting the teaching artist movement going. And this is something I spend a lot of time talking to her about—what are the limits of that model, where artists are often really just perceived as teachers. I wanted to give artists who teach the opportunity to present themselves as artists.
I don't know the actual numbers but I want to say that something like 80 percent of artists in New York City, ten years ago, were making a living as teaching artists. Now we're dealing with a whole industry [of teaching artists] that is on the verge of collapse, both due to the economy and because of what's going on in education today. It's just going in a whole other direction—this whole "No Child Left Behind," high stakes testing culture makes what was just a little bit of time even less time. About three years ago there was a line taken out of New York's Department of Education budget, a designation that principals needed to spend x
amount on what was called "project arts." There was a huge drop-off in principals actually using that money to contract with arts organizations and bring artists into the school, just from that little move. There's been a lot of lobbying to re-designate it and I'm not sure where's that's at currently, but it hasn't happened. And so it means that principals can go and spend that money on whatever they need to spend it on and it doesn't have to go to the arts.
It's so important that people see these individuals who come to do fun stuff with them as professional people and to understand what it really means to be an artist. We don't have a lot of opportunities in our culture for people who aren't involved in the arts to connect with professional artists and we have a lot of misconceptions around what it means to be an artist.
I think that a lot of young people see these talent shows on television and believe that an artist is somebody who has been tapped on the shoulder by some sort of Cupid who deems you talented, and if you don't have that stamp on you, if it isn't immediately apparent that you have some virtuosic talent, then you're not an artist. I think those in the arts community know that being an artist is about having something to say and being willing to commit to the struggle to say it in a way that people can experience or understand. The idea is that it's about the commitment to the whole process and it's about knowing how to tap into the resources that are all around us. It's about being able to accept what it is we have to work with and make the most out of that instead of wishing we had things that we don't.
I think that's the first principal of creativity—accept what you have to work with. To me, this is what we need to be teaching children. Artists are just incredible project managers, in the sense that they come up with an idea and figure out how to see it through from the seed to its manifestation and it's something that then becomes shared. And I think that's really missing in our current world of education. I think the people who are really trying to reform education are saying we have to think about project learning, and that's what artists do. Artists learn by creating problems to solve, they learn by coming up with a project and executing it and the whole idea of being engaged in practice, in action, reflection, and then further action. It's an understanding that learning is really a spiral, it's not linear, you need to go around and around, you need to try things over and over again and see what happens when we create experiments and try them.
Can you give me some examples of the ways that artists you've brought in to the Performance Project have engaged the community beyond their performances as part of the series?
We just had Nerve Tank
work with a group of youth at The Door
. They came in and showed some video of their work, did a short five-minute live performance for them and then immediately engaged them in theater-making. But first we had a conversation, because here's Nerve Tank
, this very experimental theater company. I've gotten some strange looks for pairing these experimental companies with young people. They think that the kids are not going to be able to relate to that work. But I am a theater educator whose approach is based in devised techniques, because I think it teaches people not just to do theater but to make theater and to understand what the process is. It teaches them that it's not this hierarchical structure, it's about learning collaborative skills, it's about learning how to communicate your own ideas and reflect on whether or not they're getting across.
To me, these indie or experimental companies, or whatever you want to call them, these are the people working in the way I want to see young people working. So Nerve Tank was an ideal company to bring in. I think young people get this kind of theater in a way we don't give them credit for—we don't live in a linear world any more. They're getting sound bites and images, their whole world is a collage of experience, so I think they really do get this work.
What age were the kids that Nerve Tank was working with?
These were adolescents, between the ages of 15 and 20. They are kids who have demonstrated that they're really interested in developing their creative skills. The kids who come to The Door are some of the most vulnerable youth, and they couldn't be more open to this work.
After the initial workshop, Nerve Tank put on a show as part of the Performance Project series for an adult audience, right?
Actually, the following week, Nerve Tank invited the kids to the Settlement to be a part of their final dress rehearsal. And this was wonderful because a lot of these young people were performing in our space for our Share Salon, so they really got to understand how the tech stuff goes and what it feels like to have to deal with all of that and what happens when you're putting on a professional show and somebody forgets a line in the middle of the dress rehearsal. And they got to talk a lot with the performers. Nerve Tank was doing a work-in-progress show at University Settlement so those participating in The Door program will actually go to the Incubator Arts Project
when the show premieres there. Allowing them to see all the different stages that artists have to go through, to learn that it's not so instant to make a show.
Saxophonist/Performance artist Matana Roberts
who is performing in our space on December 10 and 11 is also a really incredible teaching artist. She's going to come work at The Door to do vocal composition. They will come to her performance. Then she'll come back and do workshops with them, so that they'll be able to process what they saw. Her show is about her family's lineage. She has quite an amazing story of coming from a family of slaves and slave owners and this piece that she's going to do at the Settlement is based on compositions that her great-great grandfather wrote. For a lot of our young people identity is a huge concern and to see how an artist is navigating that journey—I'm very excited about that.
Over the three years that you've been developing this public performance series, do you see much crossover with the audience that comes to see the shows and those that use some of University Settlement's other services? Have you been able to grow a new audience at all? Or is it a different audience every time?
What binds us together are the type of artists we're presenting, not the genre, which makes it challenging to brand what we are. And we've been at it a very short time. So I would say that our audiences have been predominantly the following of the artists that we're presenting.
But what I do see is that people are really excited by this idea. I am really moved by how open artists are to wanting to do this. And other partner organizations also. We've developed this really great partnership with Incubator Arts Project where now we're able to co-present. In the case of Blue Mouth Inc.
, which we're presenting in January, that's a group that Incubator was very interested in working with and they happen to be a company that is really all about connecting to the communities that they are making art within. They have a show that is an interactive theater piece called Dance-A-Thon
. They're gonna be doing workshops with our seniors, who are obsessed with ballroom dance, and with our young people, recruiting them to actually be in the show, so they will actually have the opportunity to rehearse and tech and perform with an internationally acclaimed theater company. To me that's so exciting.
That's the kind of thing that can only happen when we welcome artists into our community. I have faith that the more of these experiences we have, with artists really becoming part of the community, the more we're going to be able to clearly articulate what we're doing and why we're doing it.
Since the 1990s when there were so many government interventions in the arts and funding disappeared, it seems like the arts have had a really hard time justifying their existence. It seems that there's an intense need to articulate the importance of artistic expression within society. I know I'm often struck by the fact that the default position in the contemporary world is to justify the existence of art by leaning on children and arts education, where there is obviously a huge vacuum, but it seems like it also needs to be articulated for adults.
Well, we live in a society where there is a barrier between people who call themselves artists and those who don't perceive themselves to be. And this goes back to what I was talking about—where people view artists as talented and everybody else as untalented. When we bring artists into our programs, they're called the specialists—of course there's going to be resistance. Who are these people? They come in with all the fun and we're all so boring without them. There's this idea that artists need to be present for creativity to happen, and it's something we need to revisit.
And I think that artists have to reflect on what part they play in creating this barrier. How does it serve us; how doesn't it serve us? Because in a lot of senses we have become a real subculture and there are people who walk by those theaters in Lower Manhattan every day and never even look at what's going on and never think about walking inside. Even though it's almost cheaper than going to a movie. So what is preventing them from wanting to acknowledge this?
I think a lot of this is because we have all been so tracked by our education system and it's so ingrained in our culture—some people are this and some people are that. I think we really need to reflect on that and understand what is creating this tension and how can we chip away at it. I certainly hope that what we're doing at University Settlement will hopefully help to chip away at that.
You were part of Play-in-a-Day [an event that paired artists with young people in The Door's program to conceive, write, rehearse and perform a play over the course of a single day], which for me has been one of the most magical things that I've ever been a part of facilitating. I want to make that happen every week. And I have gotten a little bit of funding to start what I'm calling a Play Tank, which will bring together professional artists and our young staff.
This is also why I'm so thrilled to be working with Richard Lewis
. He's been doing this for 40 years—working as a teaching artist in the schools and really focusing on helping us reconnect to our imaginative capacities. This summer a cover of Newsweek
talked about "The Creativity Crisis"
. All these studies are showing that in our culture we are really losing our ability to think divergently and make connections. Richard's approach is not to keep saying "we have to keep doing the arts because the arts do this and the arts do that," because that hasn't worked. We now know more than ever—we can hook people's brains up to machines and we can see what lights up—it's really clear that the arts are essential to learning, but it isn't happening. I think Richard Lewis' answer is that each one of us has to reconnect to our own imaginings from when we were children.
We all start off as these incredibly creative beings. Everybody was born knowing how to imagine and we all are great pretenders in our early lives and what we need to do is find our way back there. To start being able to ask questions like, "what did I pretend," "what did I imagine when I was a child," "what questions did I have," "what did I wonder about?" And I've really taken that to heart because I do a lot of staff development at University Settlement, I do a lot of after school training of the staff, and that's the approach I'm really starting to take. How can we expect our staff to provide these critically consciousness-raising experiences for young people if they haven't connected with what they're passionate about, what they want to learn about, why they're there doing this, what they believe? Anybody who works with children has some kind of idealism buried within them—what does that look like?
As bad as things are, I feel like it's an exciting moment. I can't stop having a TED
talk with breakfast every morning. I get so inspired by all these completely innovative thinkers who are finding some way around the limits.
Do you feel like the Performance Project is starting to achieve some of its goals?
I have to say it's taken the last three years to get all the parties to the table and now it's really exciting to start to see that now people are really starting to show up, from our programs and from the arts community. Just the other night we had this Share Salon, which is a curated evening. So we had this incredible night where we had a lot of youth perform and a ton of staff who are spoken word artists and dance artists and actors, we also had some professional dancers and choreographers perform. And at the end of the evening a kid from The Door came up to me and said, "Thank you for this elegant opportunity to perform."
And that's the thing that young people get out of really being able to come into a space that professional artists are actually making their art in. It elevates it—it's not just some other space that's been created for them that's not really part of the A game—this is the place that people from all walks of life are coming to, artists of all different levels. That's really what I want to see a lot of at University Settlement—young artists and emerging and established artists all co-mingling together and being inspired by each other.
It's really interesting to hear the connections to the original impulses of the settlement house movement and now see your project taking shape within that.
It's funny the way life works sometimes, you know. Here I grew up at Henry Street Settlement and Abrons Art Center, my first exposure to the art world was this place where everybody came to make art, people of all different sorts, and then I went into the real art world and I was in shock. When I went to theater school, I was like, "where is everybody?" And it was nothing I could articulate at that time. I feel really privileged that I had this out of the ordinary introduction to the art world, but it set a bar for me. It feels a little full circle, which is nice.
I even remember when I was an undergrad I wanted to know where all the theater games came from, I was just curious. And I started researching and I found out that Viola Spolin
, who is considered the mother of American improv, was a settlement house worker at Hull House
. And Jane Addams
who founded Hull House and is considered the mother of the settlement house movement, was really invested in training her workers and she brought in this woman, Neva Boyd
from Northwestern. Boyd trained the staff in game theory, telling them that when people play games there's a psychological freedom that opens up. And Viola Spolin, who was like 19 at the time she got this training, was really impacted by that. Then she was told to put on a play with children at Hull House and she said, maybe I can take these traditional games like "Red Rover"
and turn it so that they're playing a game on stage, so that they'll be more psychologically free and they won't be so self-conscious. The first place where suggestions were taken from the audience for a theater game was Hull House. Then Viola Spolin actually gave birth to Paul Sills
, who started Second City, which is where Saturday Night Live
came from. Because I was raised at Henry Street, I was like, "wow, I didn't realize how cool an organization we had."
(Full disclosure: The Performance Project presented a workshop production of one of my performances in 2008, I also participated in a program they hosted with The Door in 2009, and have attended a handful of salons there over the past couple of years.)
(photo credit: Justin Waldstein)