Urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around a village, town or city according to Wikipedia. The hope of sustainability and the desire to live in holistic community drives this movement in the United States. Generating income, providing nutrition, creating communal experiences and giving people the skills and power to provide for themselves at the table are all motivations for urban agriculture.
In contemplating its connection with theater, I thought of the Off-Off Broadway movement in New York City in the 1960’s. It began in 1958 as a rejection of the commercial theater scene. The chances of an actor, playwright, producer or director making it to Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, and having a sustainable career were few. Theater artists lacked the opportunity to make risky theater and to grow in their craft without the fear of losing their career. One of my theatrical inspirations has been Ellen Stewart who created the longest running Off-Off Broadway theatre to date, “La Mama” in the East Village of NYC. I was privileged to perform there in 2010, joining an important part of theatrical history.
Ellen Stewart began as a fashion designer in New York City, starting out simply as a porter at Saks Fifth Avenue. She had no money and no connections. She met a man one Sunday named Abraham “Papa” Diamond, owner of a shop downtown. Outside of his shop was a cart piled high with fabrics and clothing. He took notice of Stewart due to her fashion sense, but soon saw that she had no money to continue her design work. Each week “Papa” gave her fabric that she turned into a dress, wearing it the following Sunday outside his shop to advertise his goods. He said, “Everyone needs a pushcart to serve others.”
Stewart took this idea and ran with it. She got noticed at Saks simply by wearing her own designs, soon rising from a porter to a designer! Her luck changed when one of the customers found out Saks was selling the designs of a black woman and subsequently canceled their order. Meanwhile, Stewart had a foster brother in the theater where his one chance on Broadway as a playwright had failed. She decided to open her own boutique, and remembering the pushcart that Papa had provided, she took this opportunity to provide the same support for her brother. She opened the boutique’s doors at night to theater artists to perform their work in a safe, risk-free environment, giving them the freedom to create and learn without the pressures of financial success that Broadway demanded.
Now back to urban agriculture. In my research of it, I see that its principles and motivations are inspirations for any type of community development work. Sustainability is at the core of its practice, and those of us who desire to improve the lives of the community through our various artistic mediums can learn from its motivations and structure. In recognizing these common connections, we find encouragement to support each other as we work to realize our passions, cultivating community.
Elizabeth Malone is artistic director of Compass | performance collective, a theater company associated with commonGood. With theatrical experience in NYC and a passion for communal purpose from her work in Palestine, she is creating artistic, risk-taking theater in Riverside.
Photo credits to Don Hogan Charles – New York Times and Wikipedia.