“We are laying the groundwork for a structure that holds open an affirmative space for many voices to be heard and many practices to develop side by side,” explained Chris Givens, a master’s student in the Department of Theatre and Dance, when speaking about a new art space he co-founded this year in New Orleans.
Givens is participating in the Mellon Graduate Program in Community-Engaged Scholarship, an initiative of Tulane’s Office of the Provost and School of Liberal Arts. Through the Mellon Program, graduate students take their regular coursework while developing a community-engaged project that resonates with their scholarship. As Givens describes, “I originally wanted to create a new performance that brought together members of different communities in New Orleans. I spent a year looking for a community group or partner organization that might fit what I wanted to do, but in hindsight I wasn’t really approaching it correctly. It was a very ‘top-down’ way of thinking, bringing a fleshed out project and asking if anyone is interested.” Working with his faculty advisor Holly Flora, a professor in the Newcomb Art Department, and community fellow Lauren E. Turner in the Mellon Program, his vision shifted. “The more I learned about engaging in community-based work, the more I saw you really can’t enter with too many firm ideas. You’ve got to be flexible and able to adapt to the needs of that community. Unless you can actively listen and then build on the existing assets rather than asserting your own, you might end up creating something no one actually wants or needs.”
Soon after beginning the Mellon Program, Givens met David Williams, whose family had been working to restore an old building in downtown New Orleans. Williams had begun the Beaubourg Theatre Company a few years prior as an ensemble of performers that produced plays throughout the city. After many conversations, Givens and Williams began working together to bring the organization to not-for-profit status and create robust programming for an experimental art space with a goal of welcoming artists and community members of all backgrounds and interests. In its newest iteration, the two describe the Beaubourg Theatre as a “public arts space and arts organization that fosters creative projects, hosts engaging performances, presents new works in the live arts, and offers a range of educational opportunities.”
The organization plans to house four main programs: The Beaubourg School, an artist in residence program, a works in progress program, and a festival. Under the rubric of The Beaubourg School, individuals are paid to teach classes to community members who attend for free. Givens estimates that different practitioners will offer 12-24 classes each season, with about 12-15 students enrolled in each class. This fall, The Beaubourg School offered courses such as “Freeing the Natural Voice,” “Get It Written: Creative Writing,” “Explorations in Walking with Qingong,” and many others.
Among the various programs Beaubourg is planning, it also hosted three plays this fall by local theatre companies Nola NOW and No Dream Deferred. Turner, who founded No Dream Deferred, continues to work with Givens since becoming his community fellow advisor. "Working with Chris as my mentee, colleague, and collaborator has been a true gift. His heart and vision for equitable, radically inclusive art-making in the city mirrors my own. Not only has he facilitated No Dream Deferred's residency at Beaubourg, I also believe The Beaubourg School is a true testament to the expansiveness of his vision and his potential to create a lasting impact on the local art and cultural landscape, and therefore on the Greater New Orleans community at large,” said Turner.
“As an artist, my work is often collaborative and through working on many shows, plays, and films with lots of different people, I’ve experienced that the process is by far more meaningful than the product, every time. With community-engaged work the process is the product,” said Givens. After just launching programming this fall, Beaubourg has welcomed more than 250 community members for programs and events, and Givens looks forward to partnerships and involvement continuing to grow. “I would like to see Beaubourg become an arts organization that can push society forward and create a more compassionate, inclusive, equitable world.”
For more information on programs and events at the Beaubourg Theatre, visit https://www.beaub.org/.