How the REACH makes the public a partner in the creative process

By WP BrandStudio

When the Kennedy Center first opened in 1971, audiences were dazzled by the premiere show, Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” a production that spanned genres and touched on themes like faith, disillusionment and anti-establishment views, and included over 200 performers. Back then, audiences’ relationship to entertainment started and ended when the curtains opened and closed—and visitors were thrilled to show up, see something spectacular, then go home.

But in the years since, the way people interact with art has changed dramatically; with the rise of social media and digital tools that allow people to keep learning online, today’s showgoers crave more information about the process of putting something on stage. They want context for everything from how dancers rehearse, to what a creator’s motivations were for putting on the show.

“The performing arts themselves have become more porous and more inclusive,” said Robert van Leer, senior vice president of artistic planning for the Kennedy Center. Audiences want to be more of a part of the creative process overall, and as a result, he said, “the vision for institutions like ours has evolved.”

That metamorphosis is fully realized in the REACH, an expansion of the Kennedy Center that opens this fall. Beyond seeing the finished product, whether it’s an opera or immersive theater work, people will be able to come to the REACH and actively contribute through creative workshops, collaborative performances and thought-provoking conversations across an array of informal spaces both indoors and outdoors.

A new-millennium change for the arts

Whether it’s discovering new works through social media, collaborating with artists virtually or live-tweeting theater as it unfolds, young people in particular are becoming more actively engaged in the performing arts. Their motivations range from emotional connection to intellectual engagement, said Jennifer Novak-Leonard, director of the Leadership for Creative Enterprises program at Northwestern University.

“It could be joyous or challenging. It’s about opening up to that opportunity for captivation,” she said.

A storm of social and economic factors starting in the early 2000s also helps explain current attitudes toward art. Overall, arts attendance was not as strong between 2002 and 2008, according to a National Endowment for the Arts survey. This upheaval coincided with a diversity boom and the tech-bubble fallout, creating a new sense of urgency among cultural institutions around not just getting people in the doors, but leveraging their expertise to cultivate more creative communities, according to Novak-Leonard. At the same time, tools that have emerged over the past decade, from camera phones to open-source video-editing software, have allowed more diverse voices to express themselves and influence the cultural conversation.

The REACH sees itself as a natural next step, a “manifestation of the opportunity for our [institutional] communities to continue that process of opening up, making the work more transparent, [and] inviting more people in, while continuing to present the best work possible,” said van Leer.

Making the public a creative partner

Once they’re in the doors, audiences need to feel a sense of ownership over the meaning of their arts experience, wrote Lynn Connor in a 2015 essay entitled “Replacing Arts Appreciation with Arts Talk” in the journal of the Grantmakers in the Arts association. In other words, for people to feel invested in a venue, and become repeat visitors, they need a sense of authority that transcends sitting in the crowd or taking direction from an artist; they need to contribute.

The REACH makes that possible. The Moonshot Studio, for example, will offer hands-on workshops for young artists that relate back to live performances and rotating art exhibits, as well as space for community groups to hold meetings and workshops. Classroom spaces and open studios will welcome local and national educators who participate in the Kennedy Center’s educational offerings, as well as community groups and local artists. Additionally, whereas the Kennedy Center’s original building offers several formal proscenium stages and hidden rehearsal spaces, the REACH features smaller, adaptable spaces where artists can develop and workshop new pieces over time, as well as stage intimate performances. And many spaces feature glass walls or viewing balconies that give audiences access to watch aspiring and world-class artists at work, making it easier for the two worlds to collaborate.

“Artists don’t work in a vacuum; they reflect and respond to the world around them all the time. That’s why public engagement is so critical, and more and more, many artists are telling us that want a deeper level of engagement with audiences. It informs and influences the development of the art,” said van Leer.

Moreover, the sprawling Potomac Riverfront grounds of the REACH let people follow their creative spirits, whether that means strolling amid ginkgo trees, chatting over wine at the River Pavilion or watching a broadcast on the video wall. People tend to prefer these types of varied entertainment settings, since it makes people feel like they have control over their artistic experiences, according to Winifred Gallagher, author of “The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions.”

“What’s important is that individuals can make choices that suit them,” agreed Van Leer. “I mean that for the audiences and artists. It’s about that opportunity for people to explore in their own time, in their own way.”

What the REACH means for modern art consumption and creation 

From the outset, the Kennedy Center has strived to make the arts accessible to all, but the REACH takes that mission a step further by giving a broader range of people more agency over their arts experience. This recalls the first half of the 20th century, when “the expressive life was quite vital,” according to Novak-Leonard, and people would regularly “express their own creative voices, enact creative ideas and socialize around creative activities in houses of worship, open-air facilities and homes.” The later 20th century saw movement away from that seamless integration of the arts into everyday life, and a more siloed approach to “certain arts and where they took place.”

Now, a “breaking down [of] the barriers of an implied hierarchy around artistry and expression” is underway, said Novak-Leonard. And whereas established patrons focused on fostering and providing access to artistic excellence in the latter part of the 20th century, now the focus has shifted to facilitating “more open ecosystems where everyone can have a stake in what’s being created,” Novak-Leonard said.

That heightened awareness of the value that the public brings to the creative arts has potential benefits for audiences and artists alike. When it comes to “the life cycle of the creation of performing arts works,” the Kennedy Center has historically been involved in “the latter third of the process,” said van Leer. That has meant that the public only experienced work that had already been imagined, developed and rehearsed. But at the REACH, public feedback during a rehearsal session might change the course of an artist’s piece, or an aspiring artist might see herself reflected on stage and then share ideas with performers after the show.

And those possibilities are what make the REACH so powerful, said van Leer. “It expands our opportunities to share with the public many more phases in that process.”

Learn more about the REACH, a 21st-century arts center where the performing arts are inclusive, accessible and interactive.

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