The Kelly Strayhorn Theater welcomes the community into their home

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater is a performing arts and cultural center in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. Named for two of Pittsburgh’s most celebrated talents in the last century – dancer Gene Kelly and composer Billy Strayhorn – the historic theater itself is over 100 years old and the organization has been there and actively involved in the revitalization of East Liberty since 2000.
“It’s a neighborhood has been through a lot of changes and transitions,” explains janera solomon, Executive Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. “It has been on the list of revitalizing neighborhoods for the past 50 years, [through many] cycles and changes.”
Kelly Strayhorn seeks to be the community hub, not just for the performing arts but also as a social gathering space for everyone in the community.
“[The building is] right at the heart of a major intersection,” solomon says. “It really symbolizes arts and culture in East Liberty. That’s the platform that we approach our programming. Everything we do is from the understanding that lots of people in our neighborhood look to us; we are a landmark, not just an arts destination. The place itself means so much to the neighborhood it’s really important that our programming connect to lots of people so that people in this community feel like Kelly Srayhorn is their theater.”
The programming at Kelly Strayhorn covers a wide range of performing arts including dance, theater, music, and live art, as well as cultural and educational activities through the Alloy School, artSEEDS student matinees, and artist residency programs. The organization has two buildings out of which they run more than 300 days of programming each year – massive in scale by any theater standards.
“We are a community-based arts and cultural center where we try to engage diverse communities through different kinds of programming…all with the idea of getting our neighborhood engaged with the arts,” says solomon.
But what does “engagement” really mean? It is certainly a word that gets thrown around a lot in the nonprofit world. But how does the concept of “community engagement” get translated to the real world community level?
“We see it as an ongoing relationship and exchange between us and the people who attend the programs in the neighborhood and the artists in the neighborhood,” solomon explains. “It’s really an ongoing exchange between us and the people who care about us. Because of that we don’t think of ‘engagement’ as program-specific. All of the programs are designed with the intention of connecting with people in this community.”
As she describes it, designing a community engagement program is a different thing than actually being a community engagement organization. “There are certain values that guide all of the things that we do,” she states. “When we think about engagement, it’s really in our DNA. That means we’re constantly listening to our patrons, board members, partners, and businesses on the street. We’re constantly listening to conversations about what’s happening, what people’s concerns are, what their needs are. Our goal is to be responsive to those needs, whether they are arts-related or not.”
That sort of responsiveness also extends to their programming. If someone told them that they need to have more programming for young people in the neighborhood, they’ll respond with, “Okay, what would you like to see?” or “”That sounds like a good idea, do you want to produce it?”
“We work with the people in our neighborhood so they become community producers. These are not people who do it for a living; these are people who have an idea and believe it’s important to benefit the community and we support them in it. That’s one of the many ways we interact.”
Even their artist residencies are designed with more long-term relationship building in mind.
“When we invite artists to have residencies, we are looking to them to embody the values that the organization holds dear,” solomon explains. “One of the things that is really important to us in the making of a work is that people in the community have the opportunity to participate in the making of that work. We look for artists who are interested in a process that brings people from outside the work into their work.”
Kelly Strayhorn supports the artists multiple times beyond a specific project and, unlike most one-and-done residencies, they actually want the artist to come back and participate again. “It takes about three times for people to say, ‘Oh, I’m really interested in this artist and I like what they’re doing.’ My whole thing is to produce something magical and that generally doesn’t happen on the first try. It’s ongoing, persistent practice, doing things again and again with people, with feedback, with participation. That is important in growing a community that sees themselves as part of an ecosystem. It’s magical because we’re part of a process where we’re all sharing and exchanging ideas to make this experience happen.”
For solomon, “engagement” looks a lot like hospitality. “We welcome people, like welcoming someone into your home. Hospitality is a big thing in this organization. What do these artists need when they arrive in the building? What do the patrons need? It’s a practical way of doing the kind of engagement I’m talking about.”
She continues, “Engagement is more about, ‘How will I make a connection to people who may not care anything about what I’m doing?’ A lecture or demonstration will not do that. Those activities tend to attract the people who are already interested, already engaged. Engagement is about expanding the audience, expanding the number of people who care…and facilitating a relationship between enthusiasts and those who are not. That’s where real engagement happens. That’s how I measure the success of our engagement: how many people who thought they wouldn’t care have become interested?”