I believe Dar Williams debuted in Iowa on CSPS's stage in Cedar Rapids when she opened for Ani DiFranco. Twenty years later she returned to The Englert to play her album "The Honesty Room" in its entirety. With a long-lived solo career, Williams also forms one-third of the supergroup, Cry Cry Cry.
Williams returns to Iowa on a combined book and concert tour. On November 9th at The Mill in Iowa City, she will both perform and read from her book, "What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities -- One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time."
If you just like to read books and go to concerts, then you have enough information. I would like to encourage you, however, to make this event more than the standard book reading or concert. I'd like to offer you some discussion on how you can go to this concert and truly experience the power of the arts, by engaging the experience more robustly and cultivating a lasting impact from the experience. If that intrigues you, please read on.
The Project for Public Spaces says “Start with the petunias.” Begin small, even with a flowerbed, to start or reclaim a common space. Dar Williams suggests starting with a sledding hill. She writes about the power of positive proximity in building community.
“Someone starts something. Others join in. And then everything starts to shift into more clarity, more resilience, more goodwill, and more pride . . . People actually sit and eat ice cream on the benches eerily empty for years.”
Over decades as a touring musician, Williams has noticed patterns that encourage positive proximity. She enumerates “...three essential categories for building and growing it.” Positive proximity will certainly be on many minds when Williams performs November 9th and reads from her book. One might think I would launch into a book review here. I’m not interested in that. There are far better practitioners of that form.
I’d like to remind us of deliberate and conscious audience-work or audience-learning that is so often anemic or missing in the presentation of cultural events. Audience-work can happen in the form of pre-work (before the event), co-work (during the event), and post-work (after the event.) And art without any offering for learning or insight is only entertainment or decoration. What audience-work can we do in collaboration with this Williams event?
After all, as Williams sings, “. . . Where does magic come from? I think magic’s in the learning.”
Since I don’t know the format to the concert/reading, namely how many opportunities for dialogue and audience interaction there will be, nor do I know if Williams will offer any templates for post-concert work-- I’ll suggest some pre-work. These will be suggestions that can continue as co-work or post-work.
First, get the book from your bookstore or library. Read it. You might find a review online or visit the Project for Public Spaces website. You might read Jeff Speck, Robert Putnam, or Richard Florida to get some other perspectives.
Acquaint yourself with her music. This is easy to do in the age of YouTube. Williams has performed at CSPS, the old Clapp Recital Hall, and The Englert, among other places. I would suggest you don’t know Dar Williams if you’re not familiar with her songs, “The Babysitter’s Here” and “The Christians and the Pagans.” And her early classic “Iowa (Traveling III)" is beloved no matter in what state she performs.
Then think of a community or neighborhood where you have lived. What made it special? What brought people together? What gave people ownership and made them feel invested/included in their community? Was it a park, a farmer’s market, a festival, a watering hole, a history, a coffee shop, a museum, a store?
When these special places or qualities appear and a community starts to thrive again, the town becomes a place that can, according to Williams, “...incorporate every willing citizen’s contributions, welcome the outside world, and provide stability for those who need support.” People begin to say, Williams continues, “I love it here. I belong here. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. . . I’m from here.”
Now think about where you live. What “petunias” need to be planted? What “sledding hill” could be made? And what could you bring to this new community feature?
Answering those questions would constitute some pretty serious pre-work on your part. It may not seem like much, but it will be more pre-work than 90% of the people who engage a cultural event. Maybe you will find occasion to share your ideas with other concert goers.
In community building, and in participating with art, we, as Williams writes, look “..for loose ties, new connections, and as many bridges as we (can) build.” Williams continues, “The strongest towns I have encountered have welcomed the contributions of their citizens . . . I want to continue trying to harness the energies of diverse demographics and help add new points of access.”
“I’ve watched the citizens in a thousand towns find ways to bridge to each other and the world . . . These towns have accumulated a wealth of human capital because they found ways to value the input of their introverts, senior citizens, purple-haired teenagers, and green-thumbed gourmets. Spiky tempers and salty language are welcome.”
It’s worth joining this conversation because as Williams says, “When we have built something extraordinary, a place where we have both hometown pride and a worldly welcome, our kids come back to tell us how well we did by them. Doesn’t everyone want that?”
Who knew so much could come from a music concert, a little pre-work and post-work, a sledding hill, and a bucket of petunias?
So, yes, please consider doing some pre-work, co-work and post-work. And don’t forget to enjoy the experience. Soak it all in. Enjoy the concert. Enjoy the book. Enjoy the reading. Enjoy The Mill. It’s a good place to try a fried egg sandwich or the Iowa Waltz pizza. Enjoy supporting living musicians. Enjoy your fellow supporters of the arts.
Enjoy your part in making your community a more vibrant, thriving place.
(Photograph by Patrick Muller.)