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Community-based theatre group Civic Ensemble works with local students to spark dialogue

Civic Ensemble coordinators observe performances alongside student actors at a Youth Forum Theatre Troupe workshop. Photo by Alecia Solorzano/Ithaca Week

Ithaca, N.Y. – Civic Ensemble is a nonprofit theatre organization performing in Ithaca, New York with a focus on community engagement. The organization works with local students and the broader population of Ithaca and Tompkins County to open dialogue, encourage people to ask questions and address issues occurring within the area.

The group was founded back in 2012 as Ithaca’s Public Theater. The founders Sarah K. Chalmers, Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., and Jennifer Herzog had many goals for the group. One was to explore sociopolitical and cultural issues by utilizing a community-based theatre tool.

“We know that everyone’s an artist but not everyone has had access to formal arts training or feels like they can be an artist or can participate in public or community artmaking or that art or theatre is for them,” said Julia Taylor, the Executive Director of Civic Ensemble. 

“Civic Ensemble is working to break that apart, crack that open, and create pathways that are accessible for people to engage in theatre making and doing that at a professional scale.”

The Youth Forum Theatre Troupe

The organization has three main programs: The ReEntry Theatre Program, Community-Based Plays, and Theatre in Education, which houses the Youth Theatre Forum Troupe.

Theatre in Education uses theatrical tools to allow others to explore questions and possibilities within a school setting. While this program mainly works with students, they have collaborated with teachers, administrators, and other school staff members to problem-solve hypothetical, yet often occurring and very realistic, scenarios.

“We started as kind of a smaller troupe, really looking at our sociopolitical environment here in Ithaca,” said Carley Robinson, Program Associate of Civic Ensemble. 

“Our first forum theatre play was about a young person who was coming out as nonbinary and changing their pronouns and their journey through telling their friends, their family, and how they came to be accepted or not accepted in doing that. Then we invited audience members to really interact with that play and see what could be different.”

Students are not currently working on another full-scale play. However, they are participating in a six-week workshop that focuses on skill building. They have been meeting for free from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays at the Tompkins County Public Library.

The exterior of the Tompkins County Public Library where The Youth Forum Theatre Troupe is having their six-week workshop sessions. Photo by Alecia Solorzano/Ithaca Week

Zadie Wang, a member of The Youth Forum Theatre Troupe, has previously worked with Civic Ensemble in several other productions. She praises Civic for its ability to make her feel like her voice matters and that they are making a difference in the community.

“I keep coming back just because of all the love that I feel. I also do ‘traditional theatre’ and that has brought me nowhere near as much joy as this because I feel so heard, I feel so included, and I think that my voice has more of an impact at Civic Ensemble than it does in other shows,” Wang said. 

How it works

As students put on their production, they offer the chance to audience members to add in that community-based theatre aspect and help them change the outcome of the show. They do it once without feedback and then again for a chance to change up the script.

“We restart the play from the beginning and invite the audience to say ‘stop’ when they see something on stage that they don’t like…we talk about it and then they actually get up on stage, take the place of the protagonist, and improvise…to stop the harm, to advocate for themselves, to speak up for themselves,” Taylor said.

Upcoming Events

ReEntry Theatre Program performances will begin on May 31 and continue through the first two weeks of June. The organization has a pricing system that allows the public to donate what they can afford. For more information about upcoming events log onto the organization’s Facebook or Instagram accounts or visit their website.

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