Keene strives to understand the art of human expression within the world of local politics. 

On Oct. 12, a public talk was held at Heberton Hall, part of the Keene Public Library. The talk titled, “The Connection between Creativity and Civic Engagement,” explored the vision of Aaron Landsman and Mallory Catlett. Their experimental play, “City Council Meeting,” sets a stage for insightful interactions among community members.

The project took scripts and roles from actual city council meetings that the producers have attended and gave these scripts and roles to anyone who wished to engage in the performance.

Landsman explained that the idea came to him while attending a particularly interesting city council meeting in Portland, Ore. He explained how he saw the city hall “set up like a theater,” and continued to say, “It looks like a lot of experimental theatre we grew up with.”

Catlett explained that all kinds of people are present at a city council meeting. Catlett said there are people speaking who have never spoken publicly before, people reading off note cards and people bringing supporters who will stand in solidarity with them.

Catlett shared her belief that a city council meeting is a place for expression and participatory democracy in its truest sense. By making the city council meet a piece of art, those participating and observing come to gain a heightened consciousness of what is really at play.

Landsman expressed that, “At a city council meeting there is a sense of disembodiment,” which the play works to capture. Those who participate are given someone else’s words to read, words that are not fictional, but often passionate truths. He explained how participants must put themselves in the place of that person, become that character and therefore develop an empathy for them.

Landsman and Catlett discussed some of their inspirations for the piece, noting among them 20th century conceptual artist and politician, Joseph Beuys. They referenced his idea of social sculpture, which illustrates the concept of the power for art to impact politics and society at large.

Landsman and Catlett asked the audience to think about what politicians would be like if they were also artists.

Landsman and Catlett also discussed some of Plato’s ideologies and rules for governing. Catlett explained, “Democracy is supposed to bring antagonistic sides into the arena.”

She made the argument that the increased polarization that people are seeing in the political sphere is coming from this idea that people must all be in “consensus” and in order to belong to the “consensus,” one must compromise what they believe in. Those who don’t are excluded.

Catlett expressed that, “The people we think are in control, are not.” She continued, “You’re either in, or you’re out.”

To illustrate this idea and find a focus for the version of the play that will be appearing in Keene, the group discussed the skate park in Keene’s Wheelock Park.

The existing skate park was built in the 1990s and has fallen into disrepair.

For approximately the last eight months, a group of community members have been pushing for the development of a new park.

Among those community members is Director of the Counseling Center at Keene State College Brian Quigley, who submitted a statement to the council citing that, “There are approximately 1,028 skateboard park users in the City of Keene, most of who avoid the current park.”

Chairs set in a circle, Landsman and Catlett led an open group discussion which probed questions about how people categorize different kinds of people within their communities and how college students and townspeople interact and perceive one another.

The discussion was based around issues and tensions between different generations, socioeconomic classes, etc.

One KSC student voiced her feeling that, “There is a perception that college kids are spoiled.”

Another student talked about the idea and classification of “townies” and expressed his personal feeling that students venturing downtown often tend to experience lower socioeconomic classes, as the upper classes tend to frequent different localities.

When talking about residential areas with families that are disrupted by college parties, another student said she understood the angst and the energy of her peers, but added, “I’m appalled at what students do and how they act sometimes. They’re not thinking about those other people. They’re just thinking about themselves and having fun.”

One woman explained how her apartment building would flat-out not rent to students due to the stereotypes.

Connecting back to skateboarding, Landsman noted how, “Some people think of it as a deviant subculture.”

The group discussed how certain projects are prioritized on an agenda by executors and how that connected to cultural differences and stereotypes.

Questions for further thought, brought to light by Landsman and Catlett, included, “Why do some projects sit there without much movement, while others are put into action? How do different individuals engage in civic space?”

Catlett explained how the skate park project can become a metaphor for the beauty of  community-based democracy. The city council meeting is a space for the outlier.

It is a space for all individuals to be included, to become actors in their own form, creating active democratic participation within their communities.

Empathy comes from being both a speaker and a listener.

Catlett communicated that, “A lot can happen in the arena, if you choose to enter it.”

“City Council Meeting: Performed Participatory Democracy Project” will be presented on Oct. 29 at Heberton Hall, Keene Public Library. The group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-9 p.m. and Saturdays 12-3 p.m. in the Harry Davis Room of the Redfern Arts Center.


Rose Lovett can be contacted at

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