Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population is expected to grow by 100 million people, a phenomenon that will have a disproportionate impact on our nation’s cities. Dealing with growth issues is generally left to urban planners and other “experts,” without including those who live in the areas most affected. Especially in areas where low-income residents and people of color live, everyday citizens often are excluded from decisions that affect their neighborhoods.
But what if there were a more democratic process for engaging stakeholders in the urban planning process, a way that drew on the knowledge of local residents, the real experts in what works in their communities? The issue of equity and voice in neighborhood planning inspired Sojourn, an ensemble theatre company based in Portland, Oregon, to begin work on BUILT in 2007. BUILT is a performance/civic dialogue project that addresses the challenges of housing, infrastructure, neighborhood cohesion, and equity in our nation’s cities.
BUILT, like all of Sojourn’s work, embodies the company’s mission of bringing together strangers to collectively experience and strategize about issues that affect them.
When the members of Sojourn began work on BUILT, they knew they wanted to push the definition of “dramaturgy” to create a unique way to engage participants, not through post-event conversations or other proven strategies, but actually by being part of the theatre event, something they had never seen or experienced before.
The project centered on two questions prompted by the impending urban growth explosion: “Where will we live?” and “Who are you responsible for?”
Sojourn used these questions to make urban planning come alive, catalyzing research, dialogue from conversations, and interactions between city stakeholders, as well as the staging and performance itself.
The audience collaborative performance piece evolved through a series of workshop phases involving different cities. Phase One took place in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois (in partnership with Northwestern University), and Phase Two in Hartford, Connecticut (with site-specific performances at city hall and the state capitol in partnership with HartBeat Ensemble).
For the final phase in the company’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, a member of Soujourn’s ensemble served as a community strategist, helping to manage local partnerships and engage a diverse constituency of city residents. Sojourn ensured that there were seats set aside for community members who otherwise might not have been able to attend the production, a main draw at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's 2008 Time-Based Art Festival.
In the course of the 75-minute performance, audience/participants talked to their neighbors, master-planned cities from scratch, and delineated their own priorities through a series of critical questions too often left to a city’s planners, rather than its residents.
With its unusual theatrical approach to amplifying civic dialogue, BUILT engaged local residents, including those from areas geographically or socioeconomically underrepresented in city planning decisions, and provoked them to think about how their communities are planned, and how they might take more active roles in that process. BUILT also generated strong interest and enthusiasm among professionals from Portland’s city planning agency, who incorporated some of the strategies that the game proposed to have the public engaged in discussions about land use and resources.
Portland Mercury Article