Work the Work, Daily: Community-Building, Music-Making, and Conference Culture with Tenderloin Opera Company
If we in the new music community truly want to open our field and welcome more voices, we will have to come out of our comfort zones. Jacob Richman draws on his experiences working with the Tenderloin Opera Company, a homeless advocacy music and theater group, to present this powerful look into the impact of community art and what it takes to make deep and effective connections.
It is a dreary, late-fall afternoon when I knock on the door to Diamond’s apartment, a nice duplex in a tidy neighborhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She opens the door and quickly says, “Jacob, you’re not going to believe this, come look.” I walk through her living room, which is usually cozy but is now filled with twenty over-stuffed garbage bags full of clothes. They were given to her to donate to the homeless and at-risk people that are her clients at the shelter and service center where she works. As winter comes in Rhode Island, these clothes, shoes, and blankets are desperately needed. We get to her bedroom where she lifts a blanket sitting on a crate to reveal a small dog. The little black terrier with wiry hair is jumping and squeaking with excitement. “I’m watching her for a few days until she can get to her new home.”
Three years ago when I met Diamond, I do not think anyone could have imagined that she would be in this situation: housed in a good apartment doing two things she loves—fostering dogs and helping the homeless. Three years ago she was herself homeless and mourning the death of her good friend Wendy Tallo. That was when she first came to a meeting of the Tenderloin Opera Company.
Tenderloin Opera Company is a homeless advocacy music and theater group based in Providence, Rhode Island. It was founded by playwright Erik Ehn and composers Lisa Bielawa and Joshua Raoul Brody in San Francisco. When Erik transplanted to Providence, he recruited local students and homeless advocates to start a new version of the group locally. I was one of them. We kept the name, Tenderloin, to honor the neighborhood in which it was founded. Now in our ninth season, TOC comprises about a dozen core members, including folks who are currently homeless, formerly homeless, homeless advocates, students, artists, and other friends. The members of TOC compose and perform one opera each year based on stories of homelessness, abuse, addiction, hope, love, and redemption. We also perform at social and political events, protests, and marches about issues related to homelessness.
Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years.
Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.”
Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.
Jacob Richman, multimedia artist, scholar, and educator
We meet weekly at Mathewson Street Methodist Church in downtown Providence. The church is a hub for homeless outreach non-profits and volunteer groups and hosts a number of free community meals every week. We meet right before the meal on Friday afternoons.
“Put your bodies in the space of someone else…It’s already a whole lot.”
-Helga Davis, New Music Gathering 2018 Keynote Address
Our meetings start with a group check-in, which is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. Members share their names and how they have been doing this week. During check-in, which sometimes lasts up to half an hour, we learn who among the group has gotten housing, who is back on the street, who is sick, who in the community has passed away, who is excited about a new boyfriend (usually it’s Linda), who is doing well, who is recovering, and what is going on down the street at City Hall or the State House that affects the homeless, tenuously housed, and visibly poor populations in Rhode Island.
The rest of the session is spent working on the opera. It starts with generative writing exercises. These exercises are the genius method of Erik Ehn, and we have tried our best to keep the process since he moved away two years ago. They start very simply, with everyone getting index cards and responding to prompts, such as: “List three people you saw on your way to TOC today,” “Five signs of autumn you see on the streets,” “Who has been on your mind this week?” We then read our responses and mix them up: “Take one person you are thinking about this week, and one person someone next to you mentioned, and come up with two things they talk about together,” “Take one sign of autumn you saw, and one you heard from a friend, and make two lines that rhyme.”
Out of this simple writing process characters emerge, those characters interact in a story, that story becomes a script, we make some songs out of the script, and come out with our “opera”—one a year for the past nine years. The operas are technically more like musicals: songs mixed with spoken dialogue. The music for the songs is composed primarily by co-music director Kirsten Volness, some by me, and some with the group all together at the piano.
We have fun in Tenderloin and get to know people.
A place to meet and talk and sing.
A safe space.
My one hour of sanity!
A place to let people know what’s going on in the streets.
—Collective TOC members’ answers to the question, “What is TOC to me?”
We perform the operas each spring, and songs from all the operas (“greatest hits”) at least monthly all around Rhode Island. We all create the characters and drama together, learn the songs together, and perform together. We are always on book, and our motto is “Wrong and Strong.” However, Tenderloin Opera Company performances are some of the most expressive and challenging that I have even been a part of. The music is pop-y, but odd, complex, not what you imagine songs for untrained musicians to be. Within each song are fragments of many people’s stories strung along a main narrative. There are sometimes dance routines, sometimes live sign language translation (also courtesy of Linda), and often extended rhythm vamps, opened up for members to approach a mic and tell a story.
TOC works are truly “operatic” in subject matter and deal with stories derived from our members’ experiences with homelessness: loss, neglect, exploitation from landlords and politicians, and police harassment, but also love, recovery, magic, and spirituality. Homelessness is deadly, and almost all of our plays involve memorial songs we write about members and friends who have passed. Their ghosts and angels inhabit our operas, as do robots, talking dogs, half-baked superheroes, and villains who curiously resemble the local politicians, authorities, and land developers whose actions threaten the lives of our members and the character of our city.
An example of how a TOC member’s personal experiences transformed into a song is the case of founding member David Eisenberger and the song “Article 134.” The story derived from Dave’s experience as a veteran and having to deal with the unfair and dehumanizing aspects of the code of military justice and veteran neglect. Its lyrics include his stories and experiences, but also a smattering of those from other group members, including dealing with a pregnant teenage daughter, relationship drama, and a collapsing marriage.
“Work the work, daily”
—from the TOC song “Ranger Juan”
For almost ten years, Tenderloin Opera Company has been effective in helping our members express themselves, find friendship and fellowship, but also find resources, services, donated goods, whatever is needed in a given week. It connects our members to a broader homeless services network, 134 Collaborative, headquartered at Mathewson Street United Methodist Church. We look out for each other, make art, and perform together.
What has allowed for this success is consistency and situating our activity within the homeless and homeless advocacy community. We meet, rehearse, and perform our operas in the place where people come to serve, eat meals, and get vital services.
TOC On Tour: Community Art and Conference Culture
In 2016, TOC was invited to present at the New Music Gathering hosted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. The theme for that year’s gathering was “Community,” and we performed some songs and took part in a panel discussion that included other community arts groups from around the country.
I knew it was important to bring some TOC members who were currently experiencing homelessness or were closer to it than I and the other more privileged members were. When I asked the group, Diamond insisted that she was going.
At the time, Ruth “Diamond” Madsen was at a low point. She had been in and out of homelessness and was currently staying at Crossroads, the largest shelter and transitional housing complex in Rhode Island. Among other things, she was struggling with the loss of a good friend, Wendy Tallo, who had been found hanging from a tree in a cemetery off Broad Street, one of the most hard-up blocks in Providence. The official cause of death was suicide, though word on the street was that she was murdered. Diamond wrote a poem about it that we had set to music earlier that season. This horrific event came during a dark couple of years in which there were numerous attacks on homeless and visibly poor individuals in Rhode Island, including some TOC members.
It wasn’t easy making sure Diamond could get away. I had to talk to her case manager at Crossroads to convince them that the conference and her role as speaker and performer was legitimate, and to make sure her spot at the shelter wouldn’t be given up while she was gone. The lack of trust and leeway given to Diamond was very demoralizing.
Once that was settled, we piled four TOC members and luggage in my car and sped off south on I-95. As soon as we hit the road, there was a change in Diamond’s demeanor. She was excited, singing and dancing around in her seat. Then she quieted down and started furiously thumbing at her phone. By the time we crossed the Delaware River, Diamond had used social media to contact a number of homeless outreach organizations in Baltimore. She had scheduled time for us to visit the Franciscan Center of Baltimore, to work at the kitchen there giving out meals, sort donated coats, and perform with TOC at breakfast. She did all this in a couple of hours on her phone in the car.
We spent our week in Baltimore traveling between the marble palace of Peabody Conservatory to perform and talk about homelessness and arts outreach, and the Franciscan Center on West 23rd Street to play for homeless people, hand out coats, and share stories.
Diamond was a star at both locations. After our talk and performance at NMG, she was swarmed by new fans who listened to her share her experiences and asked nervous questions about building community through new music and art.
“What’s all this about community?…You know where I am. I’m homeless. Just come be with me and you’ll be my community.”
—Ruth “Diamond” Madsen, New Music Gathering 2016
There is a disconnection between the ease with which Diamond approaches community and the way we approach it as community arts groups at conferences—just like there is often a disconnection between our rhetoric on diversity and inclusivity in the new music community and how we actually practice our art.
I was disheartened to see that many of the same discussions (“conversations,” as we often say) we had at the 2016 New Music Gathering were repeated at the 2018 NMG in Boston, without much having changed in the intervening two years. To understand this, it is worth watching Keynote Speaker Helga Davis’s brilliant, Socratic indictment of the difference between the stated aspirations and realities of the new music community.
“If you want to know what you want, look at what you have.”
—Helga Davis quoting August Gold, NMG 2018 Keynote Address
A number of times I have been invited to speak about TOC at conferences focused on the arts and community building, yet have been asked to leave my fellow TOC community members at home—to give my “notes from the field,” I suppose. Based on my own experiences at these conferences, they seem to achieve little in terms of the broad concerns they presume to address.
However, the effect that visiting the New Music Gathering had on Diamond was profound. Since the conference almost three years ago, Diamond has been continuously housed, has been awarded internships and paid trainings, and is now working at a homeless outreach center and women’s shelter in Pawtucket, RI. She attends TOC meetings almost every week and helps fellow bandmate Wendy organize clothing donations at Mathewson Street Church where we meet. She still talks about the crabs and spiked milkshakes we had at our splurge dinner in Baltimore.
Things were rough for Diamond when we left. But at the New Music Gathering she saw how much people valued her and her knowledge about the homeless community, and how people from different backgrounds can come together in a group like TOC to share stories and make music. The fact that she was asked to share this information and help people at both places of high privilege and extreme need made the process even more meaningful.
“EVERYBODY NEEDS A LITTLE TOC IN THEIR LIVES”
What my experience with TOC at the New Music Gathering taught me was that these types of meetings can make change, but only if you let people in. What if we invited more people from different backgrounds to a conference like NMG? What if we did outreach? Volunteered as part of the conference program? Held a student instrument exchange? What if we let performers of all kinds perform their own new music in the well-heeled institutions where these things are held, and also had the conference take place in community centers, schools, churches, clubs, and homeless shelters? I believe we spend way too much time locking ourselves in our privileged spaces, looking around at the people who look just like us, and asking each other why nothing changes.
“Make something with a group of people that includes people that don’t look like you…Just the invitation will begin to open a door…We’re interested in opening the door.”
—Helga Davis, NMG 2018 Keynote Address
We need to create community art that lets people in and lets everyone grow. I think we can do this by being more mobile, flexible, and accessible. Flexible in terms of where, when, and with whom we perform. Accessible not in the terms of the art we make—some TOC performances are as complex as anything I’ve seen or performed—but in terms of cost, location, and transportation options to the venue. We in the new music community will have to give up control and come out of our comfort zones.
Here’s my advice based on my experience with the Tenderloin Opera Company for almost ten years: Show up. Be consistent. Make friends. Meet in a space that is accessible to your community (geographically, economically, handicap accessible). Keep the performing group together for more than one show. Raise money to go on trips and small tours. Diamond demonstrated to me how important and impactful these excursions can be.
Prepare for it to be hard: the structures that separate us are old, powerful, and ingrained. There will almost always be something that trips us up and reveals the privilege, difference, otherness, and walls between people that your group is working to dismantle. But that’s okay. It’s necessary. Expect to be challenged. As Davis said, “Be willing to let go of your rightness of what you think you know.” If we are not able to do that, we should stop lying to ourselves about wanting to change.