Pillsbury House Theatre breaks the ice and serves the community

What does it mean to be a “community theatre”? What does it mean to be an arts organization “for the community”?

When we talk about community, and about arts organizations with deep commitments to their local communities that make a significant impact, we could certainly point to the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis as a paragon of community-minded arts organizations.

The Pillsbury House Theatre is a hybrid organization, a professional arts organization in the Settlement House tradition of creating art in collaboration with the community and part of a larger human services organization called Pillsbury United Communities.

The Pillsbury House Theatre is housed inside a busy community center located at the intersection of four very diverse neighborhoods that services 24,000 each year. The center includes services like a healthcare clinic, HIV outreach, early childhood education and afterschool programs, summer camps, a bike shop run by homeless youth, and a variety of other resources and services. Art is integrated into all aspects of the facility so that everyone who comes through the doors has an experience with art, even if they don’t realize it.

Since 2000, Noël Raymond and Faye Price have been Co-Artistic Directors of the Theatre. In 2008 they also became Co-Center Directors of the Pillsbury House, and they have been working intentionally to fully integrate the arts component with the human services component.

One of the many ways in which they do this is through a program called Art Blocks, an opportunity for the organization to reach even deeper into the community and connect with their neighbors on a personal level through artistic activities that take the shape of neighborly social gatherings.

Through Art Blocks, 27 artists who live in the four neighborhoods surrounding the center are paid to serve as block club leaders to create arts experiences for their neighbors and connect them to other arts opportunities in the neighborhood.

“Those connections are sustainable beyond [one-time arts] interventions,” says Raymond.

Mike Hoyt, Creative Community Liaison with Pillsbury House, painted a growth chart on his fence, painting the heights of the kids in the neighborhood that shows their growth each year. He also created a gathering space in an open lot near his house with a little stage for performances and a giant smoker for neighborhood parties.

Molly Van Avery, Community Coordinator for Pillsbury, is also an Art Blocks artist, and she hosts big “Poetry and Pie” picnics for her neighborhood.

With the Art Blocks program there are events happening in the surrounding neighborhoods all the time with new ideas constantly bubbling up as a result, like the new Village of Hip Hop debuting this week that includes dance workshops, music from local DJs, a film presentation, and panel talks.

“The artists live here; we are not putting them here,” says Price. “We wanted to make sure these artists who lived in these neighborhoods didn’t have to go outside of these neighborhoods to do their work.”

Raymond adds, “A study showed that artists often left [here] to make their work; their visibility in their community and connection to neighbors suffered because they had to go outside of their community to do their work. Fostering that social connection and figuring out how to connect people to one another is part of our work in looking at how to make a community more vital. Art Blocks is not about us designing the programming, but asking how we can be a catalyst for connections that can be unleashed, then building connections that live on [with or without us].”

She says programs like Art Blocks increase access, attachment, and agency for everyone involved. “Our theory is that this kind of a structure helps create those impacts.”

The Pillsbury House Theatre is also a professional theatre company and venue, hosting three main stage plays, two youth showcases, three pieces by emerging artists, and three late night productions each season.

Kurt Kwan, Artistic Programs Associate, leads the anti-racism Breaking Ice program, creating original performances in a structured model to open up dialogue around race-related issues that are difficult for people to talk about, from the interpersonal to the institutional.

For example, Raymond says, the issue of gentrification is a pressing one in Minneapolis. “We created a show to talk about what that means and what displacement is,” she says. “We also help people talk about race [openly] in corporate environments.”

Their productions follow in the same vein, addressing issues that might make people uncomfortable, or in ways audiences are not accustomed to seeing.

“We tell stories other theatres don’t often tell, stories of experiences that are often underrepresented or misrepresented,” says Raymond.

Their most recent main stage production, Scapegoat, took place in Elaine, Arkansas just before one of the deadliest racial confrontations in American history in 1919. It juxtaposed this historical narrative with that of a present-day interracial couple who find themselves in Elaine and dealing with the effect of history in our “post-racial” society.

“It exposes a history that is not known widely – the scope and the horror of it juxtaposed with how we are now,” explains Raymond. “We did a lot of dialogue after the performance with community partners, and created installations in the building to extend the theme and dialogue of the show.”

At the heart of all of the work that the Pillsbury House Theatre does is its commitment to its community, whether that is participating in community development plans, offering microfunding grants, or organizing events like the Powderhorn PorchFest, a multi-venue event that takes place entirely on people’s front porches. Everything they do is intended to foster connections and strengthen the relationships between neighbors and build a stronger community around them, acting as an advocate for community members and engaging them directly in a multitude of meaningful ways.

“We work with folks who are often left out of the community process, so their voices are heard,” says Raymond. “Pillsbury House has a long-term history and accountability to our specific geographic community. We work with and see the same people who live in this community and have a responsibility to those 30,000 folks who live here.”