A Community of Practice: NET Learning in Place
This is the first of two essays by Gerard Stropnicky, director, writer, actor, and co-founder of the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET). Stropnicky provides a through-line across all three MicroFests, taking a focused look at the role of theater and “ensemble” practice in creative placemaking. In this first essay, he reflects on MicroFest experiences in Detroit and Appalachia. He addresses the question: Why NET and social change? He underscores the growing number of ensembles, many part of the Network of Ensemble Theaters, that include social engagement as part of their practice, brought to it by virtue of living and working in one place over time and being moved to achieve greater community understanding and to participate in meaningful action on community problems. Against this vigorous movement, Stropnicky also conveys skepticism, aesthetic concerns, and other resistance that challenge members of the theater community to fully embrace theater’s role in community development and change. Bringing decades of experience in place-based theater with Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and in Appalachia with the Higher Ground project, and others, Stropnicky’s ruminations reflect and urge a sensitivity to the unique dynamics of place, especially locations that are among “America’s hardest,” in relation to outsiders looking in. With such work comes responsibility and Stropnicky begs hard questions: What are we validating? Do we know what we’re talking about? Are we listening carefully enough? What conversations are we advancing? In the brief but immersive experience of MicroFest, he underscores the importance to see beyond preconceived notions of place, “to be open to surprise, to observe contradiction, to perceive the pattern, to engage in further research.” With this sensibility taken to his own MicroFest charge, Stropnicky’s subsequent essay following MicroFest: New Orleans will aim for a rigorous look at what makes the work work; this in order to understand how artists are contributing to the complex and interwoven processes of place-based revitalization, renewal, and reconnection.