The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

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)