Opera in Conversation: "Art for Community Connection and Resiliency" Takeaway

Oct 17, 2018

Don't miss this iconic production at Opera Omaha, Oct 19th and 21st! Tickets start at $19: https://ticketomaha.com/Productions/pagliacci

A big thank you to all who attended or spoke at the third Opera In Conversation of Pagliacci! In case you missed it, here are some takeaways from “Art for Community Connection and Resiliency":

Our third Opera in Conversation for the production of Pagliacci brought together three local artists, Courtney Cairncross, Rita Paskowitz, and Paula Wallace, to speak on how communities use art and shared experiences to build connection, community resiliency, and overcome trauma. While the relationship with Pagliacci might not at first be obvious, the production actually served as a wonderful foundation to discuss more modern outreach and the use of art in catharsis and expression. All artists, and our moderator, Lauren Medici, focus on reaching people and communities and encouraging them-- or perhaps, most importantly, providing them a safe space and granting permission-- to be creative.

Our Pagliacci production is based in Southern Italy right after World War II. The lands, and lives of its inhabitants, have been decimated. Pagliacci displays a community that seeks entertainment and is positively ecstatic at the arrival of the troupe of clowns. The truck of comics and performers unpack and provide the community with a sense of relief. Their charming theatrics offer moments of levity to those in town (even if this particular performance ends in tragedy). The double edged sword of a smile and a frown is another example of how trauma can be addressed through art.

Those in the room were introduced to three working artists’ practices and the communities which they work with. Rita considers herself a storyteller, comedian, writer, and a woman who bases much of her philosophy of outreach on a term of her Jewish heritage: Tikkun olam. It is from this concept that she believes that it is her job to repair the world. She does this by offering opportunities for participants in workshops to listen to each others’ stories in order to heal. She mentioned a group of those battling drug and alcohol problems and how every person, upon walking in the room, has a voice of equal weight and importance.

Paula focuses on how to tell a story visually. She has worked with brain and spinal trauma patients in adapting to their new normal and communicating creatively. Paula also describes how residents at Quality Living Inc. did exercises inspired by Opera Omaha’s La Boheme: they talked about characters, listened to music, put together a set, and art directed. She insists that language does not have to be a barrier, nor do physical capabilities. She mentions that it is important to improvise in such situations. She works through questions that are often too daunting, and thus ignored, by non-artistic spaces: How can a kid in a wheelchair be able to be a trapeze artist. How can we have this child fly, or do the tango?”

Courtney uses the tool of movement with those of varying physical mobility but asserts that it’s not about the dance, it’s about facilitating speaking without voice. The idea of Dance with a capital “D” often turns people off because telling stories without words can feel both intimidating and foreign. She often works with children to encourage interaction with others and a better physical understanding of themselves.

How can art heal? Courtney notes that it can be therapeutic because, while a person might feel as if they’re painting someone else’s story, they are often addressing their own. Art prompts a response, and a story builds in the minds of a viewer. Even if one doesn’t create the work themselves, Rita believes that the work has no power unto itself, it necessitates a viewer; therefore, the work belongs to whoever is looking at it. It can belong to anyone. Paula seconds this idea by saying that it takes as much creativity to view art as it does to make it.

Art inspires a physiological connection across an audience; a true human connection. No matter the physical limitations, everyone can feel live music hitting them, the wave or angst or bliss created by voices. Rita remembers with a laugh how, when the Holland Community Opera Fellows first came to a workshop, they were not taken seriously, but the moment they sang, each person in the room, no matter how cynical they’d been about the experience, felt those “magical, gigantic, volcanic voices”, as Rita put it. They expressed excitement at going to the Opera.

Intellectually and emotionally, art provides a chance of processing trauma “sideways”, says Paula. In characters in literature and on stage, people battling a variety of difficult circumstances can imagine themselves, forgive themselves, or laugh at themselves. The aspect of forgiveness is an important one, and goes hand in hand with the idea of “permission”. In a world that prizes excellence, so rarely do we have permission to draw outside of the lines, to rethink “normal” and “beautiful”, or to ignore how others have told you to live your life. Paula cites a boy in a special education class who was perfectly content to stick and unstick tape incessantly; and she let him. It was important to him, and so, rightfully, it was important to her. The idea of not having to apologize and never being wrong is practically alien. These local artists have created spaces where this dream is a reality.

You never know how deeply your connection with someone in the community goes, or how important it is: Courtney told us about a boy who refused to participate in activities but then two months later gifted Courtney with a drawing of dancers. “Some can never tell you in obvious ways, or the ways that you want or expect them to”, she says. We often miss out on those chances because those connections are never forged in the first place. Imagine how much strength people could gain if we abandon expectation? How much braver and well-adjusted each individual could be? These are spaces where limitations do not exist, where there is no failure, and that is where healing can begin.

By Lillian Snortland
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

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