Artistic literacy programs encourage audiences to participate in creating art. Photo by David Bellard.

Berkeley has started a number of movements over the years, and Sabrina Klein — the director of artistic literacy at Cal Performances — believes the time has come for the next one: teaching people how to engage with the performing arts, and especially with pieces that might be challenging. 

Klein believes that “if you want to change the world, you are either attracted to science or art” — both disciplines focus on invention or asking questions, she said. Yet while science education is plentiful, “artistic literacy” —especially as it relates to the performing arts — is rarely taught. 

“Artistic literacy is a human right,” Klein said. “It is an absolutely essential human right, along with linguistic and numerical literacy.” This is not a new idea, it turns out. Article 27 of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is now interpreted to mean that cultural literacy is a human right. “Cultural rights are … inseparable from human rights,” a 2001 UNESCO document states. “At a time when artists, cultural minorities, cultural heritage and cultural expressions are increasingly under attack, defending the cultural rights of individuals and communities has never been more important.”

“Art is the deepest contemplation of the human experience,” Klein said. “We have a right as human beings to engage in that contemplation.”

Right now Klein is the only person in the country holding the “artistic literacy director” title, but she would like to change that. In order to start building a movement, Cal Performances recently hosted a group of about 75 artists and educators for a three-day conference on teaching artistic literacy at Cal’s Zellerbach Hall. The group participated in hands-on workshops, engaged with performers and performances, and went on a field trip to see Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at A.C.T.

Artistic literacy is all about “meaning-making,” Klein said. Just as an art history class can help people appreciate works of art, artistic literacy can help people engage with challenging pieces of performance art. “We use performances to create meaning, and we want to cultivate the audience as a creative member — not just a consumer of entertainment,” Klein said.

Sabrina Klein, Cal Performances director of artistic literacy, speaking at the Artistic Literacy Institute. Photo by David David McCauley. Credit: Photo by David McCauley

Much of Klein’s work focuses on Cal students, but her team also offers artistic literacy sessions to the general public and children from kindergarten through high school. Her team of four full-time staff members offer programs for approximately 20,000 people a year, according to Louisa Spier, public relations manager at Cal Performances. 

There are no remaining events for this season, but you can check here in August for the 2019-2020 events. Most require a ticket to the actual performance under discussion, but there are also some free public forums and community workshops that focus on the artists’ creative process.

“We offer academic panels, pre- and post-show conversations — even something we call Catharsis Cafes — where people can stay afterward and talk about what the piece meant to them, or what confused them,” Klein said. Liking a performance isn’t the point, she added — understanding the deeper meaning of a piece is what counts.

Carol Ponder, master teaching artist and musician, and Serena Le, artistic literacy research associate, at the Artistic Literacy Institute. Photo by David McCauley.

Curiosity before judgment

“We don’t have to teach anyone to enjoy the Peking Acrobats,” Klein said. But when it comes to a brand-new oratorio or something like atonal music, “we want to help audiences cultivate curiosity before judgment.”

Klein does not call her outreach efforts “talk-backs” — she prefers to say that her team “facilitates” people’s interaction with the performance art. “We are seeking to have conversations about something essential in the work of art or the artistic process,” she said. “We are interested in works that have a universal human resonance, but can be experienced from multiple perspectives. We know that every audience is slightly different, and every work of art is different, so each of our approaches is customized.” Teaching artistic literacy is “a pretty labor-intensive process,” she said.

Klein works with Cal professors in many different departments — theater, dance, music, history, French, German, psychology, gender studies, even the business school — to create relevant artistic literacy experiences for their students. “We once sponsored a class on synchronicity, and the business students came to a variety of performances,” Klein said. “Another class we supported focused on bodies, gender, and sexuality, which included attending performances from an all-male ballerina company.”

“We aren’t looking for someone who is teaching drumming and wants their students to see African drummers,” she said. “But if someone is teaching a class on African American folklore, we could bring their students to see a performance of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha.”

While she works to find performances that are relevant to different academic classes, Klein is also frustrated to see that art is often used to further other goals. “The arts have been called upon to help make education better, to reduce crime, to reduce isolation in elderly people, to help folks with Alzheimer’s, or to help with conflict resolution,” she said. “I don’t begrudge the arts going into all these other fields. But at the same time, it’s a potential dilution of the voice of the arts as a core expression of our humanity.”

Klein believes not in art for art’s sake — but “art for humanity’s sake.”

A lived experience

While students and community members can learn about other cultures and perspectives from literature and lectures, “there is nothing else in the whole human experience” like gathering together with other people to experience a work of art being performed live. The performing arts offer an experiential experience, not just an intellectual one: “you feel it with your whole body,” Klein said. 

In teaching artistic literacy, the audience is sometimes wary of being told too much about what they are going to experience. That was a concern among the workshop trainees when they were asked to do some research about Rhinoceros before going to the performance. “We have found that if you are given something to look for and watch for, you can still be very much surprised,” Klein told the arts educators. “You will have a deeper appreciation of the work. If you are just waiting to be surprised, that may or may not happen. You may shut down before you are surprised.”

When walking into a performance that might challenge an audience, “it’s important to ask questions that will keep the dialogue open,” Klein said. 

The goal, Klein said, is not for audiences to behave as consumers —as people who simply come to be entertained. The idea is for audiences to engage as “creators, and curious seekers of meaning.” In these challenging times, “this work is some of the most important work we can do. It gives us a way to hope, and to connect.”

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...