Civic Ensemble is offering a space for our community to imagine itself differently, to listen and hear the stories rooted deeply beneath us, to see one another and know that we all belong. We are a company rooted in our community, in racial justice, love, dialogue, and positive change.

Here in our feature “Grateful Changemakers,” we celebrate programs and projects that serve as beacons of gratefulness. These efforts elevate the values of grateful living and illuminate their potential to transform both individuals and communities. Join us in appreciating the inspiring and catalyzing contribution these Changemakers offer to shaping a more grateful world.

Civic Ensemble

Civic Ensemble creates theatre that explores and explodes the social, political, and cultural issues of our time. Through its community-based plays and programming, Civic Ensemble brings audiences of different races, classes, and experiences together in a public forum on the American experiment. Executive Director Julia Taylor, along with input from Civic Ensemble participants, shares more about how the community theatre group creates spaces of belonging, healing, and transformation through storytelling.

What sparked the founding/creation of Civic Ensemble?

In 2013, Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., Sarah K. Chalmers, and Jennifer Herzog founded Civic Ensemble as Ithaca, New York’s “public theatre,” a theatre for the people, one that created and produced work that explored the questions the community needed to explore. Civic Ensemble was, and is, committed to making theatre accessible to all walks of life in our community. At Civic, we know that theatre is everyone’s birthright. It is an art form found in all corners of our community, and our work helps amplify the stories not otherwise being heard on the professional stage. 

Since 2013, we have been creating theatre with, by, and for our community that highlights the real stories of people, and works to bring us closer to the Beloved Community. The Beloved Community refers to a global vision that all people should share in the wealth of the earth. Poverty and homelessness, racism and all forms of discrimination will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency won’t allow it. 

Civic Ensemble works toward the Beloved Community in all our work. We have engaged with a wide range of community groups and individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences through all of this work over the past seven years in Tompkins County, New York.

How does Civic Ensemble fill a need for the communities that it serves? What is the importance of your work at this time in particular?

Civic Ensemble is offering a space for our community to imagine itself differently, to listen and hear the stories rooted deeply beneath us, to see one another and know that we all belong. We are a company rooted in our community, in racial justice, love, dialogue, and positive change.

Civic Ensemble’s programs serve many people in our community who might not otherwise participate in a professional arts or theatre program, or be witness to theatre as an audience member. Our work directly addresses social issues in our community, such as mass incarceration, racism, the climate crisis, and poverty. We bring these issues into nuanced dialogue with our community through aesthetically rich theatre that challenges stereotypes and builds bridges and connections across real and perceived differences. 

Our ReEntry Theatre Program invites people who are formerly incarcerated or court-involved to join together, building theatrical skills, to create original plays alongside professional theatre makers. These productions bring to life stories about substance abuse, recovery, barriers to navigating social services, mental health, and also family, love, hopes and dreams, and community. 

A scene from “Streets Like This”

In our recent production of Streets Like This, which was followed by a discussion with the audience, one audience member shared that his own son was experiencing addiction, and the challenges he was having as a father in facing this experience. One of the ReEntry Council members reflected on this moment, “We give these people, who we wouldn’t normally come into contact with, support. We’re that group of people that they feel comfortable enough asking questions about addiction and family and what they can do to support their loved ones. That’s a big deal that they come to us for that.”

One of our other key programs is our Community-Based Play, a production created with, by, and for our local community. Through an 18-month to two-year process, community members come together in story circles and facilitated community workshops to create a new play around a topic that is meaningful to them. The process culminates with public performances and community dialogue – bringing the conversations back out to the community where they began. Topics of community-based plays have included the climate crisis, education, safety, and parenting.

How can storytelling and theater bring people together in unique and transformative ways?

We sit in a circle in a high school classroom, on student chairs, desks pushed to the sides of the room. Ten people from across Tompkins County, mostly strangers, sit anxiously, awkwardly, awaiting the Story Circle prompt. “Tell a story of a time when you felt like you belonged, or didn’t,” I ask of the group. There is a pause, a hesitation, a discomfort in the possibility of sharing something vulnerable. But then an inhale, a risk, and someone begins. 

Story after story is told around the room. As each one ends, I hear the whole group take a breath, holding the story in, breathing the story out. We have listened deeply to one another, witnessed each other. We have built community. 

In one of our core programs, Community Soup, we invite community members to join together for a meal and then in small groups to share stories and listen to each others’ stories. And in each story we see the transformative power of bearing witness to another person’s story, another person’s humanity. 

Participants in Civic Ensemble’s program, Community Soup, gather to share and listen to each other’s stories

When we bring stories to life onstage, the stories are real, from real individuals. Much of our work is original productions, created from the real stories of our community members. Tony, a ReEntry Council member reflects, “Our plays humanize our characters and make them more relatable. Ordinarily the audience wouldn’t be able to relate because they think, ‘I don’t do drugs.’ Our stories are not only entertaining but humanize to the point that it makes people look at it in a different angle. Makes people want to act.” Brian, another member of the ReEntry Council, adds, [the plays] “make people a lot more willing, comfortable, to talk about questions. Ask questions about things they might not have been comfortable about, or had preconceived notions about. They’re willing to see things in a different way.”

How does Civic Ensemble cultivate and inspire gratefulness and related values (love, reciprocity, compassion, etc.)?

We have values rooted into all of the work we do, the ways we show up as actor-teachers, as directors, as actors, or stage managers. We meet people where they’re at and invite them to join a process. Many people have never been in a play before and this is a scary, risky, vulnerable experience. So it’s imperative that we show up, listen well, be present with people, and have some fun together along the way. We play a lot of games! We laugh and move our bodies and connect with each other. And we take time to appreciate each other. At the beginning and end of workshops or rehearsals we check in with each other.

This last year we launched a new Artistic Ensemble, the artistic leadership body of the organization. The group is comprised of seven local artists who are steering the artistic vision of the company. This group recognized, early in our work together, that in order to launch Civic Ensemble into the next phase of its professional life, we had to move slowly, carefully, listening deeply to one another and to the urgent questions of our communities. We are deeply interrogating the work of anti-racism, the practice of generously loving ourself as a company and as a community, of being in hard critical dialogue with one another. We know that to build theatre in the public that stands for equity, justice, belonging, and love, we must root ourselves in those values.

A scene from “Safety”

How do you think people who participate in Civic Ensemble are impacted? What do you think moves your audiences?

When people see a Civic Ensemble production, they no longer are able to think about the questions and issues raised by the play in narrow or stereotypical ways. They now have heard complex and nuanced human stories. They are moved to operate in their communities differently, to face their neighbors differently, to build community differently. 

ReEntry Council members speak about the impact of the program in their lives: 

Casandra: It’s different when there is something made for you, when you are part of the process and when you are telling your story. We’re listening …We’re going to help them try to change things and we’re going to make other people aware of what is going on in this small town.

Edwin: When I was in Streets Like This, I didn’t want to play the role of the police officer and parole officer because I had been locked up for so many years. I could do any of the other stories, but with the cop, it was very hard. I was ready to give up. I went through too much with police and parole. It was really hard, really hurting me. The Ensemble talked with me about it.  I said, I’m going to work with it. I ended up doing it, and it benefited me more because it changed my perspective of law enforcement. I was hating, I despised them. It was something I needed to get out of my system. If I didn’t get it out of my system, I wouldn’t be able to approach them in my daily life. 

Brian played the role of “Narcan Man” in our recent production of Streets Like This, saving people’s lives from overdose with Narcan. He reflects, “I have a lot of gratitude for…I know we have affected the way people see things. I don’t think there’s another community in the U.S. where people can yell “Narcan Man” on the street and everyone is ok with it! It’s a cool thing. I have a lot of fun in rehearsals. It reinforces some positive feelings in myself and I think that’s a good thing for the community – for everyone. For society. For people who want to have gratitude – you can get through anything in life if you have gratitude.” 

In our current Theatre-in-Education program supporting school stakeholders in building capacity for anti-racism, teachers and school administrators are presented with a narrative and then invited to actually step into the role of the protagonist to attempt to change the harm being done in the story. In this work, participants are practicing language for how they might communicate differently with their students and colleagues, and build their own strength and resources to intervene in racism in their classrooms. Once they have embodied and given voice to this protagonist, they have the experience and know that they are capable of speaking and acting in this way in real life.

A scene from “Fast Blood”

What is the lasting impact of Civic Ensemble’s work in communities as a whole? What are the ripple effects?

Civic Ensemble is standing as a model for how communities can use the arts to bridge differences, to be in dialogue about difficult issues facing the community, and demonstrating creative problem-solving. We are showing that theatre can be anti-racist, that it can be rooted in community, that the stories of the community matter and belong onstage.

What do you see as some of the barriers and obstacles faced by your project in working toward its vision? How do you navigate them?

Our current systems don’t support the arts as meaningful tools for dealing with community challenges. And what we’ve seen made even more apparent this year is the way that communities need the arts to survive and thrive. We need connection and stories and experiences that help us transcend our own lives to connect with others and ideas bigger than ourselves. We stand proudly as a theatre company, but ask that you consider theatre in a broad stroke – as an experience, a place, a possibility of connecting and imagining something radically new, something that supports us all.

How does gratefulness inspire you and others involved with Civic Ensemble to make change in the world?

As a program facilitator (actor-teacher), I often end my workshops by asking participants to name something that they are grateful for about themselves in their workshop session, about someone else in that session, or about the group as a whole. A middle schooler responds, “When I listened to other people’s stories, you feel like you’re experiencing it, even if you haven’t.” We build gratitude into our work and the expression of it fuels us toward the next interaction. When I bear witness to another’s story, I can no longer sit back and pretend I don’t know of that experience. When I hear of someone’s joy, I am moved to celebrate with them. When I hear of someone’s challenge, I am moved to collaborate with them to face it. In doing so, we co-create solutions to the challenges we face in the world. 

Again, members of the ReEntry Council also reflect on their gratitude. When they refer to Day Reporting, that is the Department of Probation, where we [prior to COVID] held our weekly sessions. People who are sentenced to show up at Day Reporting are invited to participate in our theatre session.

Edwin: The people that go to Day Reporting, we’re there playing all the games, and when they joined us, most of them didn’t want to join, but when they get into it, they see that it’s not just a game, it’s about a change within yourself. They’re going to Day Reporting but had to be there. We were there because we want to. I felt comfortable going in there. The individuals there are going through what we went through. A win-win both ways. I could listen to the individuals, and when we talked with individuals, they saw that we went through it. I saw a lot of change in people. There is unity, power, and love among us. 

Leroy: When I was first in ReEntry, in the beginning I was newly sober. I was grateful to be there – I didn’t have to be. I got a chance to see a lot of people that we knew come through Day Reporting. They saw we were there just to be there. We were having fun with it. Games and plays. They saw me being sober, saw me acting. I saw family members come to Day Reporting. They got to look up to me. Doing something I didn’t have to do. 

Casandra: When I first started with ReEntry, I had to be there as part of Day Reporting. The fact that I was at that point where I had to be there, had to show up, I chose to participate. To see where I am now – and that I’m still involved, still happy about what we have! I want that for other people. I want that – I want there to be another me in the group! 

Tony: Grateful for a lot of people that approached me after seeing [Streets Like This], told me that they appreciated what we did because they saw themselves or their kid or their loved one…And the opportunities that came along after that. The respect that we got from the law enforcement community. I have been able to accomplish so much by being involved in ReEntry. I’m grateful that I’m using my lifestyle now to spread a message of experience, strength, hope, and change.

Brian: People get so locked into living a certain lifestyle – survival, you have to live a certain way if you’re going to jail, if you’re on the street. A lot of people can lose their sense of who they really are. When we’re doing ReEntry, getting people to play those games – people are like ‘no way’ – and then they start playing. It was the first time for a lot of people that they had fun! Maybe people remember how to enjoy life, how to have fun, and not be stuck in the lifestyle they were used to living. A magical thing. For 2 hours a week. That 2 hours lasts longer. People grow from it, even if they don’t join. People still talk to me all the time – oh yeah you came to Day Reporting that was cool! I’m grateful to have that opportunity to just have fun with people.

A scene from “The Next Storm”

How does gratefulness inspire everyone working for the project/program?

We are deeply humbled by the stories we get to hear, and grateful for all the people who share them, who may not have shared their stories publicly before. We acknowledge the privilege we have in hearing these stories, and the responsibility in co-creating their theatrical manifestations. 

We also know that gratefulness is limited unless it is rooted in anti-racism, in love for all, in building a world where all have access to the tools and resources needed, and our communities are sustainable. 

How does Civic Ensemble plan to grow?

This year we launched our Artistic Ensemble and we are thrilled for the ways that this group will help steer us forward. We are building new plays, making new connections throughout our communities, and stretch and grow ourselves towards powerful community-based justice. We are building interdependent relationships and practices as theatre makers, centering our art form as a means to see our community anew. We are eager to add more staff positions and grow in financial abundance so we do not need to limit our imaginations.

If you could offer just one message to the world, what would that be?

Theatre is everyone’s birthright. What matters to you in your community? What stories do you have that need to be heard? We all have them. Theatre is in us, it offers our communities a mirror to reflect and a microphone to speak. Let’s co-create the story that needs to be shared.

If you could share one message about living gratefully – in the context of your work – what would it be?

Be present with your collaborators, your community members, your neighbors. And not just the ones who are easy to talk with, who you immediately connect to. But seek an opportunity to listen, and discover what kinds of connections might unfold.

What are some meaningful ways people can engage in and support Civic Ensemble?

Now that the majority of our work is being presented online (at least this year), join us from wherever you reside as an audience member or participant! Join our mailing list to hear about upcoming opportunities. 

We are also grateful for folks who are interested in sponsoring our work, or helping us make connections. Please connect with us if you want to talk further about your ideas.

To read more about this inspiring project, visit the website:

To learn about other Grateful Changemakers, visit: Grateful Changemakers

Do you know of a project/program that elevates the values of grateful living? If so, we invite you to nominate them for our Grateful Changemaker article series.


Grateful Changemakers