24-hour online performance art marathon rallies support for city arts funding

Quiara Alegría Hudes

Quiara Alegría Hudes (Photo by Anthony Bregman)

Quiara Alegría Hudes grew up in Philadelphia, and has been living for many years in New York’s Washington Heights, the setting of her most popular musical, “In the Heights,” which she co-created with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

She still considers herself a Philadelphia artist. Most of the plays by the Pulitzer-winning playwright are set in Philadelphia.

“The arts in this city are unparalleled in terms of making it a world class city. [It’s] also a city that still has a lot of reckonings to come, in terms of its equality and its inequality,” said Hudes.

Hudes is one of many artists participating in a 24-hour digital rally for Philadelphia arts, #SavePhillyArtsandCulture. The marathon rally, with guest presenters rotating about every 30 minutes, is organized in part by theater producer James Jackson, founder of Light Thief Productions, and Power Street Theater, a community arts organization based in North Philadelphia.

“I think they are national leaders in terms of doing the work of community art,” said Hudes. “I think of it as noble and extraordinary, and they are actually doing it. A lot of organizations pay lip service. Power Street is building a house of art in the community. I love them for that.”

This will be the second online marathon rally. The first happened last June in response to a city budget proposal that eliminated arts funding. That first rally was organized very quickly, about three weeks from concept to production.

“With the first digital rally, it was really urgent and necessary,” said Gabriela Sanchez, co-founder of Power Street Theater. “We did a lot of free labor, done on the strength of just love. There was a lot of burnout.”

Then, in October, the organizers started talking with each other about a second rally, to influence the next city budget for fiscal year 2022, the first draft of which is normally presented in March.

Gabriela Sanchez (Photo by Gene Smirnov)

“We wanted to time the digital rally with the traditional release of the Mayor’s proposed budget, so he can hear from the constituents he represents, and hear why arts funding is so important in 2021 and going forward,” said Jackson.

When they started to reach out to possible participants, coordinate schedules, advertise the rally, and set up the technology, the organizers knew the second time had to be different.

“I can never put myself through that again. It was not OK for my mental health. I’ve been there so many times: After a production I’m in the hospital,” said Sanchez. She said she often runs herself into the ground as a community-based theater producer.

“I’ve been hospitalized for dehydration. Like most artists, you’re wearing so many hats. You forget to drink water. Caring for myself means saying no to people, so I can have lunch. So I can be my best self,” she said.

To imagine an arts sector where the city and funders take better care of artists, Sanchez and the other protest organizers realized they had to walk the walk. They took more time to organize it and shared the creative burden with the event’s participants.

And everyone will get paid.

“We’re advocating for artists to get paid, so if we want to do this again we have to go after the resources,” said Sanchez. “We’re carrying out the values which we want the city to hold.”

Bolstered by a grant from the Bread and Roses Community Fund, each participant in the digital marathon rally will be paid $50 for a 30-minute time slot. The organizers are also paying themselves.

The long list of participants includes LaNeshe Miller-White of co-founder of Theatre in the X and director of Theatre Philadelphia, Argentine choreographer Silvana Cardell, neo-soul singer Jahwula Seapoe, comedian Nicole Phoenix, and South Indian classical singer Sunita V.

Some time slots are geared toward artists. Hudes will use her time to invite writers to talk about the process of rewriting. Others target audiences outside the creative fields, such as actress Anjoli Santiago’s “Chat with non-artists.”

James Jackson (Courtesy of James Jackson)

“We have one of the most diverse arts scenes in the world, as far as I’ve seen. It’s an accessible art scene, but there is a segment that tries to maintain a status quo that isn’t representative of the city anymore,” said Jackson, who started the production company Light Thief in 2012.

“I’m very vocal about equal opportunities and representation in all aspects of the arts: front office, technical, actors, designers. To turn around and hear, ‘Where do I find a producer of color?’ Well, we’ve been around. Take a glance at the list of organizations participating in this rally and you’ll find a few that maybe you should know about.”

Unlike typical street demonstrations, this digital rally from Tuesday through Wednesday will not be 24 hours of messaging and speeches urging the city to fund the arts. There will be that, of course, but the programs also include theater and dance performances, professional development (there’s a full hour devoted to “Financial Resources for Artists”), and several DJ time slots.

Sanchez says the rally will be easier than the one last summer.

“I think of myself as a leader in the arts community. Pushing that wellness is really important,” she said. “We have to center our humanity while doing this work, because that is part of the work.”

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