The Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane Company performs “What Problem?” at the Vets this Friday. In a preview video, you can see the performers on a mostly bare stage, with occasional pools of light to define the space. They move and dance, sometimes with each other and sometimes against each other. They stop to speak, and to react to the sounds and motions around them. I talked with Kathleen Pletcher, executive artistic director of First Works, about the themes of the production.

Kathleen Pletcher: I think we see how the tension between community and isolation and the desire to define the “we” to forge the “we” is present in a few different ways. One is just structurally. The piece starts with a single performer. Part two is 10 performers. And part three is the whole company which is the Bill T. Jones, Arnie Zane company. And the over 20 community participants who have been really carefully selected to represent a breadth of our community from age 16 to over 70.

Baumgartner: The inclusion of community members in this performance is something that really struck me about it when reading about it. What will the community members be doing?

Pletcher: Really what Bill calls body based movement, so they're showing up with their bodies. Bill T. Jones, likes to say, “There's wisdom in the body.” And they are also speaking and so in what these community participants felt they had to say, representing their community and what they will say on stage is just really important. And the defining the “we”, the using texts from Melville and the character of Pip in Moby Dick. Using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech and saying “we the people.” Who, who what is we? Especially now, especially, you know, several years after the genesis, the inspiration for Bill to create this piece, that question is more burning than ever. So, in the live performance, you feel it so viscerally because there is is movement, there is music, there is interaction.

Baumgartner: FirstWorks and Brown Arts Institute are hosting a town hall discussion on Saturday, the morning after the performance.

Pletcher: Which is something we've done a number of times with some beautiful success. It's its success being that people are talking to each other. They aren't simply asking the artist a question, but they are bringing what the work brought up to them about their lives and sharing. you know, there's reading, they're seeing they're experiencing, there's hanging out with your friends, I think all of those things, staying for an after conversation, the questions you ask on the ride home, think all of those things are part of what this project means to means to do.

Baumgartner: Yeah, those conversations that happen on the ride home, those conversations that happen three days later, are always – that's how you know, you saw something really great. Have you heard from the community members who are participating, what they are enjoying the most about this?

Pletcher: You know, I think the questions I've been most interested in is, how this – how and why. How this touches your work. What do you hope to, to get from being a member of this ensemble? But in thinking about the project is also FirstWorks has an arts education program. So Bill T Jones, Arnie Zane company are working with young people across the community, and they're in schools. Students are coming to them. And that is just a really important part of both producing the project. But that idea of students and their families being – experiencing the work being able to talk to the Bill T Jones, Arnie Zane company, in person being able to move with them in their schools and then be at the performance is, is the live performance is like the tip of the iceberg.

[music from “What Problem?”]

Baumgartner: You can see the Bill T Jones / Arnie Zane company performing “What Problem?” at The Vets Friday night at 7:30 and there will be a town hall conversation on Saturday at 11:00 AM at the Granoff Center at Brown.

Baumgartner: With the election next week, we asked artists how the arts can help us understand the political moment we’re in right now. Josh Short, artistic director of the Wilbury Theatre Group emphasized how the arts can be a framework and a lens for understanding today.

Josh Short: The stories that we tell can create empathy, understanding and opportunities for compassion in ways that, quote unquote politics often forgets. And while the stories we choose to tell and lift up may reflect the anxieties of society as a whole, they also provide us with an incredible opportunity to challenge and inspire our audiences to imagine new ways forward.

Baumgartner: Allison Newsome makes sculptures that capture rainwater and stormwater runoff and help to clean it. She creates her works as a place to offer peace, solitude and solace. She said the feeling of being overwhelmed by the events of the world reminded her of an old Saturday Night Live sketch.

Allison Newsome: It’s like if you owe your bookie $1,000, you’re like ‘okay, I’ve got to pay this.’ But if you owe your bookie $1 million, you’re like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m just gonna die.’ And I think a lot of people just feel it’s futile. But where the arts can come in is through creative messaging through actual examples.

Baumgartner: Tony Estrella, artistic director at the Gamm Theatre sees freedom of speech and expression as under threat.

Tony Estrella: Book banners, language police and ideologues of all stripes have significant political capital right now. An engaged electorate should vote them into the dustbin. And that, of course, requires candidates who don't succumb to fashionable orthodoxies in search of short term political gain. Because beyond First Amendment legal protections, we need a thriving free speech culture. Without it, the arts are impotent, science endangered and our whole culture impoverished. And the rest is silence.

Baumgartner: Tina Cane is the poet laureate of Rhode Island. She tells us about voting in the primary election earlier this year. 

Tina Cane: In my opinion, voting is the least each of us can do. It's literally the bare minimum when it comes to maintaining and protecting our representative democracy. And as a woman, I won't ever take for granted my hard won right to cast a ballot. And the sweep of global history, and even very recent developments in our country should tell us that none of us should take any of our rights for granted.