Ten Thousand Things takes an approach that is both traditional and radical. Radical, in that they are breaking down forms and conventions of how theater is produced, and for whom. Traditional, in that they present existing, canonical Western plays for audiences. Ten Thousand Things makes the plays. The audience watches.
But what about projects in which the audience co-creates the content? What about projects created in partnership with communities of interest, rooted explicitly in their voices, stories, and experiences?
There are many institutions and artists co-creating cultural experiences with community members. In the context of relevance, there are two communities worth considering. First, the co-creators. What will cause the project to unlock the most meaning for the community of co-creators involved? And second, other audiences for the finished project. What will cause the project to unlock the most meaning for outside communities—audiences for the work itself?
Let’s start with the co-creators. When you work with a group to co-create a work, you build a room with them. A room filled with their stuff, their preferences, their preconceptions. But if you open that room to the public, it can shift. What started as a safe space, maybe even a hidden space, gets a garage door cut in its side. It’s exciting to open that door, but it complicates its meaning.
The Foster Youth Museum is a beautiful example of this. Jamie Lee Evans started the Foster Youth Museum as a way to empower the foster youth with whom she works to tell the stories of their lives in foster care. Jamie is an activist who works at California Youth Connection, a statewide organization supporting youth as leaders in transforming the foster care system. Jamie works with transition-age youth–16-24 year-olds–who are moving out of foster care and into adult life. To say this is a challenging transition is an understatement. 36% of foster youth age out into homelessness. 70% of California prison inmates are former foster youth. Jamie, a former foster youth herself, trains these young adults to develop curriculum about foster care for child welfare professionals, becoming leaders, teachers, and advocates for change in an often devastating world.
Jamie is always looking for ways to work with these young adults from a point of relevance and deep authenticity. One day in 2005, while working with a group of “success stories”—former foster youth in their late 20s and 30s who had built strong professional careers—Jamie invited the participants to bring in personal objects that could be used to illustrate key points in their training curriculum.
The object showcase was like a show-and-tell on fire. Jamie was struck by how many adults had kept objects from foster care. These were humble objects with painful stories to tell. A woman who was frequently locked in a seclusion room in a group home had kept the sign from the seclusion room door. She ripped it from the door when she left the home. A young man who was commercially sexually exploited as a child kept the boots he had worn when he was working the streets in Hollywood. People also brought in objects of success: diplomas, law degrees, and photographs of the families they built as adults.
The group started building a vision of a Foster Youth Museum. Their first exhibition would be called the Museum of Lost Childhoods. They juxtaposed objects from people’s toughest days as youth and triumphant moments as adults. The exhibition brought darkness to light. In many cases, these objects spoke to experiences their owners had never shared. Things people had locked in a deep place and never talked about.
What’s the right form for something like the Foster Youth Museum? The Museum started as a precious room for the people who created it. When the Museum first started, the objects, like the stories they represented, were vulnerable. The group held mini-exhibition showings at policy summits and foster youth events. Artifacts sat on shoeboxes on tables. The museum was an insiders’ affair. Visitors touched the objects, got close to the stories. It was humble and fierce.
Jamie and her partners in the project saw the power of the Museum as an advocacy tool. They wanted to share it with the public—and they decided the form had to evolve. They raised money and got tablecloths. They recruited a photographer to work with them on beautiful portraits of the youth. They started treating the objects like a museum’s permanent collection—a powerful idea for foster youth whose lives are marked by constant instability and frequent upheaval. They worked with a curator to elevate the display to “museum quality”—adopting the forms of more traditional exhibition design.
In 2015, they had their first big public opening, a two-week run at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Over 8,000 people visited the Foster Youth Museum those two weeks: foster care families, former foster youth, social workers, people of faith, civic leaders, people wandering in off the street. The exhibition was beautiful, arresting, and powerful. For foster youth and families, it was an affirmation of their lives and their value as human beings. For members of the general public, it was a wakeup call about the crises facing foster youth in California today.
Did the professionalization of the Foster Youth Museum’s form make it stronger or weaken its message? Some of its early fans found the upgraded Grace Cathedral exhibition format distancing. They missed the funkiness on tabletops. But the youth involved said that elevation gave them dignity. They felt that the professional format emboldened them, protected them, and made them feel safer.
When foster youth opened up their room to the public, they needed protection. Just as the Ten Thousand Things audiences needed the distance of ancient fairy tales, foster youth needed the distance afforded by lights and professional exhibit design. Yes, that distance may have softened the rawness of some of the stories on display. But it also protected the hearts pumping at the center of the experience. The door needed a screen so there could be a door at all.