Detroit — Two years ago, artists and theater performers Jake Hooker and Sherrine Azab left the bustling scene of New York City and moved to Detroit. They had a vision for a new kind of interactive theater that could be taken to the people and unite neighbors through art and activity.
"We have not looked back," said Hooker.
Hooker, 38, and Azab, 34, are the couple behind "A Host of People" theater troupe. With their latest performance, called "The Harrowing," they are planning to visit community gardens across the city and host neighborhood parties as a way to unite the residents. They describe it as experimental art.
"(This is an) opportunity for us, and we could offer the neighbors something new and different," said Hooker.
The company of eight hopes to perform in at least 10 community gardens in the next two years. The first performances are on track for late summer.
Their concept has drawn a lot of attention. They received a $20,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as part of its Knight Arts Challenge in Detroit, funds they must match to get.
Toward that match, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has pledged $5,000 through its "Public Spaces, Community Places" program. The grant, in conjunction with the Michigan Municipal League, is given to groups or organizations that use and transform existing infrastructure in cities across the state.
To receive the $5,000, "A Host of People" must crowd-fund $5,000 of its own by Thursday. With just a few days left in the campaign, they've got a little more than $100 to raise.
Part of the funds will go toward paying performers, as well as for props and staging. Another part will go toward gardening supplies that will remain with the community gardens after the troupe moves on, said Azab.
"All this money will be used well. We're more than hopeful," said Azab.
MEDC grant awarded
This is the third Detroit-based project chosen to qualify for the grant from the MEDC. One project was the creation of a green alley at Selden and Second in Midtown that raised more than $52,000. The other was an effort to renovate the North Rosedale Park Community House, which raised more than $20,000.
Other projects in Marquette, Lansing, Bloomingdale, Grand Rapids, Adrian and Ironwood have also received funding through the grant program. All have relied on crowdfunding through the website Patronicity.com
"The program itself was born out of our mission: We're in the community development side of things," said Nate Scramlin, a community assistance specialist with the MEDC. "We're focused on activating public spaces in communities, really utilizing the resources, and working with the community and public in general to find interesting places where people can interact."
The theater troupe was a good fit for the grant, said Scramlin.
"Arts and culture is very important. We thought this would be a great match between the theater group and activating the public spaces, the community gardens," said Scramlin. "It creates awareness around local food and neighborhoods in general. It gets the people out and feeling good."
Uniting communities has always been the mission, long before the grants were made available, said Hooker and Azab. It's also a main reason they chose Detroit.
"A Host of People" began life in Brooklyn around 2008. Hooker and Azab went to Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts and, independently, they moved to New York City, where they established separate theater companies. Eventually, they merged them into one troupe. They also merged their own lives when they got married.
After putting on several performances, some as far away as Berlin, the couple started to become disenchanted with the Big Apple.
They looked at many locations, but they always came back to Detroit, particularly the southwest area.
"The city really spoke to us; we thought we could be more than artists, we could be engaged members of the community," added Azab.
They've been in southwest Detroit for two years and bought a fixer-upper house last March. They plan to renovate the attic as a rehearsal space.
"We're committed," said Azab. "We wanted to be in this neighborhood."
One of the things that caught their eye was the numerous existing community gardens shared by residents. They dreamed of a performance they could take to these locations and tailor to meet the interests and demands of each neighborhood. Thus, "The Harrowing" was born.
'Being there matters'
"Getting live bodies into spaces and activating them is important," said Hooker. "Being there matters. You can't do that digitally."
"We're taking it to them in a place they already feel comfortable," said Azab. "We're trying to make it like a party or potluck."
Although they are still working out the details and where the performances will be held, the goal is to volunteer at 10 community gardens, getting to know the people and their interests. Then, the performance will be tailored to those interests, working with those who maintain the gardens. At the end, there will be a community garden party, encouraging people to gather to talk through their interests and get to know each other.
"We're hoping people will show up to see some art," said Hooker, "and it can be a way to break barriers."
"Or build bridges," Azab said.
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