The Public Humanist

Double Take Fringe Festival and Reclaimed Spaces

These days we hear a lot of talk out there about “place making” and “creative economies.” So what exactly is “place making?” I didn’t know either, though when I saw it happening I recognized it as deeply important and knew I wanted to jump in. The recognition happened at the Brick and Mortar Festival in downtown Greenfield, MA two years ago.

Brick and Mortar is an event that opens the doors of vacant buildings and fills them with video installations that have been beautifully curated. It was the open doors that really grabbed me. All of those lost spaces, filled with history and possibility and calling for more. I had blindly walked by their closed doors a thousand times and I hadn’t thought about them. I had no idea there were so many of them. It was like a crowd of unnoticed ghosts simultaneously opening their eyes and suddenly all looking into mine for the first time. I thought that a fringe theater festival would be amazing in them. Fringe festivals are traditionally big city ticket items, but why? Couldn’t they work in a small city, too?

As a creator, director, producer and sometime presenter of theater arts, my intention is to work with artists and “civilian” partners to engage art with audiences to lift our communities. So my first thought was to connect with the folks at the video festival and to talk with my performing friends and see if we could put something together. The result was the first Double Take Fringe Festival that featured 11 different shows in 11 different venues all within walking distance in downtown Greenfield, MA that took place last November.

I knew from the moment I brought it up with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and with developer, Mark Zaccheo that Double Take was a project that had a mind of it’s own. It had clearly decided that it wanted to flourish and hundreds of folks enjoyed it last year. This year Double Take Fringe Festival will return and will feature 8 shows and perform them twice a night in response to people’s yearning to see them all on November 9 and 10, 2012. Everyone is excited about it. But that’s just the beginning, I think. I see a much wider reach for Double Take if we go back to this notion of “place making.”

Here is what the NEA came up with to describe it in 2010 in their White Paper for the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, “In creative place making, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative place making animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.”

So let’s start there and think about the thousands of struggling rurban (rural/urban) small cities around the country. These small cities have lost their manufacturing base and, as Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida have documented in their work, are now home to artists who have sought them out for cheap housing and studio space. What if these artists were brought together to perform and collaborate in Double Take Fringe Festivals of their own making? The simple invitation of place to audiences and artists makes a new and exciting relationship for all. Restaurants and bars have a new influx of patrons, new people come to town, and the renewal of life in our small cities has another cheerleader.

With enough inspiration and connection, these cities become more desirable and more creatives are drawn to live in them. As Kip Bergstrom wrote in his piece “Humanities and Economic Development” for The Public Humanist, “It is based on the idea that mobile, young talent, the life blood of innovative companies, like to live in cool places, and that art is one of the cheapest and fastest ways to create cool places.”

So we’re trying out this idea of sharing Double Take Fringe Festival with other communities and look forward to sharing it with many more. Our first shot is with Brattleboro, VT. Thirty minutes from us in Greenfield, Brattleboro has had more than its share of bad luck in the last couple of years. Between a huge downtown fire and Hurricane Irene, Brattleboro could use a dose of something good. It’s a town filled with creatives and too many blighted spaces. So a committee of locals has begun working with us to look into locations and performers for their own Double Take Fringe Festival.

But it’s not about giving a person a fish, as the saying goes, it’s more about teaching her to fish. The idea is not to tell folks what to do in their communities, not to bring our art to them, but to share what we have learned about creating Double Take Fringe Festival, to point out logistical needs, to give them the infrastructure (website, mapmaking software, marketing tools, signage, technical equipment like portable LED lights) and then let them do it in whatever way is organic to their community. Thus, for Brattleboro, evolves into www.double–take. org/brattleboro. And wouldn’t Holyoke be a great place for Double Take? And Pittsfield? And Springfield? Let’s think together of the struggling small cities across the nation who would benefit from learning to fish. It’s not that hard, really, and it’s hugely fun. And we all could use more of that. There’s lots of delicious food to be found in this creative ocean. So, here’s to the feast!

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