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Graduates of TDF's Create New York program share how the experience has enhanced their lives
When I interviewed Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner earlier this month, he lamented that "there's somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 serious theatregoers in New York who will find some way to see the shows they want to. But once you burn through them, you're into a wider circle of people who need some convincing." Although those numbers are guestimates, his point is well taken: A relatively small percentage of New Yorkers attend the performing arts on a regular basis -- everyone else needs a little persuading.
That kind of audience building is what TDF's Community Engagement Programs are all about. While many of the initiatives focus on inspiring young people to become lifelong culture mavens, Create New York (CNY) targets adults in diverse neighborhoods throughout the city. Founded in 2015, CNY brings together locals via community centers so they can attend live performances and discuss what they saw over a meal. But this isn't just social hour. Participants make a three-year commitment to meet regularly, democratically choose outings that go way beyond Broadway, and give back by collaborating on a community-based project at the end of each season.
This week, CNY graduates its inaugural group of ten at The Dream Center Harlem. After chatting with a few of the participants, it's clear the experience has changed their perspective on the importance of the performing arts in their lives.
"I recently subscribed to American Ballet Theatre," says Kimberly Felder. "That's not something I would have done before. CNY made me more conscious of prioritizing things that I enjoy as opposed to just being wrapped up in work. Seeing shows decreases the amount of stress that I have, so I need to make sure I take advantage of it."
"CNY opened me up theatrically -- there is so much out there," says Alexis Henry. "I had been lucky enough to go to a couple of Broadway musicals growing up, but not on any kind of regular basis. This program has definitely opened me up to things that are outside of that. I realized I could end up seeing something really cool that would not necessarily be very expensive."
Like most New Yorkers on a budget, Henry and Felder agree that prior to CNY, they saw price as a barrier to attending live entertainment. But they quickly learned there are lots of offerings that don't require dipping into your 401K -- via TDF, tickets to Off-Off Broadway productions are just $9 each. "When I don't have to pay a lot for a ticket, I'm willing to take risks," says Felder. "There are a few productions I went to with this group that I would have never gone to see on my own. Like this magic show In & Of Itself -- I would have never selected that. And it was amazing."
Henry says the communal nature of CNY inspired her to be more adventurous in the shows she put on her shortlist. "The great thing with this program for me has always been the discussion after and seeing how dramatically different opinions we have on what we saw and how we felt and why," she says.
Since the group is based in Harlem, many of the outings chosen were in upper Manhattan so participants could become more familiar with performing arts options in their backyard. Discussing two of those shows -- The Hip Hop Nutcracker at the United Palace and Kill Move Paradise at the National Black Theatre -- sparked a very animated discussion among Henry, Felder and Cathleen Meredith, the Creative Innovation Designer at The Dream Center Harlem, who helps facilitate the post-show discussions.
Meredith had worked with TDF on a prior audience-building program, which is why she and her organization were chosen to pilot the CNY program. "Trying to get the audience to be less of a monolithic space, that's what it's about," says the self-professed theatre nerd. "You go with a group of people to see a show, and then you spend some time talking about that show over drinks and food and hanging out. That's how you create a memory. That's how you create an experience that you want to relive. Over the course of three years, we create these connections with each other, with the community, and with theatre and performing arts in general. It starts to be something that you see as having value."
This weekend, CNY's first group says goodbye to the program with its final community-based event. Unlike its prior projects -- an empowerment conference titled H.E.R.S. - Healing Evolving Resolving Self and the Harlem art crawl MATTERS: In Search of truth, humanity -- this one is smaller in scale and by invitation only. Twenty-three high schoolers from nearby charter schools and their families will join CNY participants in a workshop led by a teaching artist about how to tell your own story.
There's something fitting about these adults passing on their expanded appreciation for live entertainment to these adolescents, reinforcing the idea that the performing arts really are for everyone. "We want to create cultural architects," Meredith says. "People who instinctively inspire other people to want to check out cool stuff in their communities and beyond." That seems to be working. "I have friends who came to our other community projects, and they were like, 'When are you going to see your next show?'" recalls Felder. "When is CNY taking more applications? Quite a few people asked me about that."
CNY is currently partnering with The Dream Center Harlem in Manhattan, Casita Maria Center For Arts & Education in the Bronx and ARTs East New York in Brooklyn. Find out more information about the program at TDF.org.
Top image: Cathleen Meredith unveiling a mural on the dome of The Dream Center Harlem during the MATTERS art gallery crawl. Photos by Allie Relihan.