The Four C’s: How Creative Action Went from Little-Engine-That-Could to Social Tour de Force

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Writing by Amy Lynch
Photography by Lauren Ussery and Adrienne Dever


On a sweltering summer afternoon in East Austin, a dozen or so members of a short film’s cast and crew are gathered around a large monitor, observing quietly as its footage is edited. Transfixed, a few mutter to one another under their breath about the project in progress as the editor, Marcelo Teson, goes about his business.

The scene he’s editing involves a young woman sitting in a movie theater, eating a Red Vine. As he works to correct the color, a lively discussion ignites around whether or not the red is too saturated. A livelier one follows on its heels about Red Vines’ superiority over Twizzlers and vice-versa. To bring the group’s focus back to the task at hand, Marcelo leads them swiftly into a conversation about actors’ personal tics and how they carry over onscreen – how it’s important to be fully in a scene and leave oneself behind.

“See all the hair twirling?” he asks, looking up at the lead actress onscreen. The group nods.

Although they’re each taking part in the making of a film, the concept of what it means to “really be in character” probably isn’t something they’ve thought about much before this afternoon.

They are, after all, a bunch of middle schoolers.

Down the hall, a younger group is working on a separate film. They’re a bit further behind in the process; while the other group’s footage is already in the can, this team still has plenty of work to do. They’re rehearsing scenes for their mini-movie, The Wizard of Odd. It’s a tale of laundry and loss, told in ten minutes through characters with names like Hanes and Levi – played by a group of 4th and 5th graders dressed up in giant cardboard and cotton costumes – who embark together on an epic adventure through Tee Shirt Town, Pants Palace and Undies Utopia, looking for the Sock Wizard. A lost sock hangs in the balance as the cast sings and dances its way through the plot, trying to memorize lines and follow direction as best they can.

“Quiet on set,” a small girl says almost inaudibly, and then calls softly for the crew to roll sound and camera. The slate clamps down and a run-through begins.

Several minutes in, one boy turns to another and delivers his line with gusto.

“You’re killin’ me, Spanx! You’re killin’ me!”

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For all its robust programming, productive output and general popularity, the summer camp hosted each year by the nonprofit organization Creative Action is just a small piece of the metaphorical pie it serves to Austinites of all ages in need of an artistic outlet.

“[Creative Action was] founded in the late ‘90s by a handful of UT grad students who’d been tasked with creating an interactive theater program to take into local schools as part of an assignment.”

Founded in the late ‘90s by a handful of UT grad students who’d been tasked with creating an interactive theater program to take into local schools as part of an assignment, Creative Action wouldn’t be known by its current name until at least a decade later. Back then, the student project was focused purely on working with the city’s youth to create a simple program about school violence. Bolstered over time by a small amount of grant funding from the Travis County Violence Prevention Fund, the project eventually evolved into a full-fledged, albeit small, nonprofit organization in the early aughts. It called itself Theater Action.

In 2003, an Austin native named Karen LaShelle was about to earn a graduate degree from NYU, where she’d been building on her theater background with an independent studies program that focused on community-based art and the philosophical underpinnings of art’s role in social change. Preparing to move back after graduating, she sent letters of introduction to every museum and theater program in town; Theater Action was the only one to write back. She began volunteering that summer, and by January was hired full-time as a program manager. Today, she serves as the executive director, and she says one of her most pivotal accomplishments to date has been the organization’s name change in 2012.

The team, which had been holed up in a tiny, dilapidated office on the Eastside, was working its way through a capital campaign to raise funds for a building that could double as both an office and a community art center, and it was becoming clear that its programming had reached far beyond the scope of theater. That year, it officially changed its name to Creative Action in an effort to better reflect everything it offers: art, music, movement, theater, and more.

“It was very, very, very freeing to finally change the name,” LaShelle says. “I think it gave us all a sense of possibility that we could try different things, and it’s been a really big part of our growth over the past couple of years.” That growth, in part, includes the more than 20,000 students now served per year through its community, in-school and after-school programming — the most expansive of Creative Action’s offerings.

The nonprofit’s efforts span three key programs. First, there’s a series of in-school programming: grant-funded residencies through which trained actor/teachers go into classrooms during the school day and help students bring historical and storybook narratives to life through role playing, with the intent of setting and reaching age-appropriate social and emotional goals. Then there’s a broad series of community programs, through which the general public can take advantage of pre-K, senior citizen and family arts programming in the form of classes held at Creative Action’s new building in the Chestnut community, just off East 17th Street, as well as offsite in some cases with the help of community partners.

“We purposefully serve all different kinds of people from all different parts of the city…because we feel like social change is something the entire community needs to engage in, and personal growth is something everybody needs access to.”
-Karen LaShelle
Executive Director, Creative Action

But the lion’s share of work goes into the massive after-school program that’s been picking up steam over the years and now includes more than 50 schools in the Austin area, serving thousands upon thousands of area kids each week during the school year. Every Monday through Friday from 2:30 until 6:00 pm, part-time teaching artists host art-based lessons in classrooms all over the city, collaborating on projects that not only build upon kids’ artistic aptitude, but that also teach them to consider the world around them, express their viewpoints and work together to find solutions. Out of the 50 or so after-school programs Creative Action hosts around town, about a dozen are fee-based, meaning parents pay $2200 per year for 540 hours’ worth of programming. The rest of the programs are free for kids to attend.

“In all of these programs, we purposefully serve all different kinds of people from all different parts of the city,” LaShelle says. “We serve underserved communities in Del Valle, we go to private schools in West Austin. And that’s because we feel like social change is something the entire community needs to engage in, and personal growth is something everybody needs access to. That’s one of my favorite things about what we do – the same show that can happen in Del Valle, with no adjustment, can happen at a school in Eanes and everybody is getting something really great out of it.”

“We’re about connecting people,” LaShelle explains. “That’s definitely one of our values. We’re about belonging. I think it’s really apparent when you come and watch one of the teen programs. I almost wanted to paint on the back of the building: ‘Everyone belongs.’ It’s so cool when you go to a teen program and there are kids that would never (otherwise) know each other. Not only are they from different parts of the city, but you have kids who identify as queer, you have kids who identify as straight, maybe they’re from an upper middle class West Austin family (while others aren’t)… they’re all from very different backgrounds, and they’re totally a family. They really respect each other.”

Respect seems to flow from the parents as well. One in particular named Amy Exah says, “The people behind the programs are what make CA so special. They aren’t just interested and committed to the arts in general; they’re truly dedicated to encouraging social change through the arts. That activism is what makes CA different, and it works.”

Exah’s son, Seli, has spent two school years and two summers engaged in its programming. Both he and his mom say it’s made him more confident.

“They are literally shaping and empowering our future leaders to use the arts as a tool,” Exah continues. “An important and powerful tool that can be used to speak their minds, stand up for important social issues and address them in creative ways. I’m a huge fan.”


Q&A WITH SELI

(One of Creative Action’s All-Star Kiddos)

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What’s the best thing about going to Creative Action in general?

You get to meet a lot of new friends and good people. You learn new things that you didn’t know before.

What’s your favorite memory or proudest moment out of all the time you’ve spent there?

When we successfully made the play in the afterschool program at Maplewood and the movie during the summer camp at Maplewood. My parents’ face when they saw them, was what made me proud.

Do you think going to Creative Action can make kids’ lives better? Please explain why or why not.

Yes, because before Creative Action I was more shy and now I have confidence. It boosted my humor, my acting skills and my filming skills.

What grade are you in, and what’s the name of your school?

Mathews Elementary, grade 5.

What’s your favorite subject in school?

Science.


“So, our mission is about sparking the academic, social and emotional development of young people,” LaShelle says. “We do that through this platform of the “Four C’s”: the Creative Artist, the Courageous Ally, the Critical Thinker and the Confident Leader. And what’s cool about having those four C’s is that they give us this connective tissue for all of the different programs.”

Indeed, throughout Creative Action’s programs, the four C’s are always present, and it doesn’t take long to see them in action as kids filter through classes and workshops, interacting with one another as they embark on creative endeavors together. One impressive offshoot of the after-school programs is a theater ensemble called Changing Lives, which brings high school kids together two nights a week at the center to create original theater projects addressing issues like teen dating, violence and homophobia. Each year, after developing their finished product with guidance from SafePlace representatives who step in to educate them on the topics at hand, they tour it to middle school audiences around town and reach 3,500 kids in the process.

This peer-based learning model, LaShelle says, has been so successful that it ultimately led to last year’s launch of Color Squad, a collective of teenage artists who transform public spaces by researching, designing and installing murals, sculptures and public art.

Led by teaching artist Lindsay Palmer, Color Squad’s most recent project is also its most prominent so far. It worked with CapMetro to design and install a mural that covers the expanse of the back wall of the Center for Creative Action itself. Completed in July, the bold, bright mural is visible from the rail that runs just behind the building and stops at the MLK Light Rail Station next door. Both its visual design and its revision process were valuable lessons in collaboration: while the installation next to the tracks posed too many dangers for the kids to install it themselves, they were in charge of every step of the design, and they worked closely with CapMetro and key members of the surrounding Chestnut neighborhood to deliver a finished product that reflects the community’s history and heritage in a visually compelling way.

The new creative action building, opened in 2015.

The new creative action building, opened in 2015.

The backside houses a mural depicting the community’s history, designed and implemented by C.A.’s Color Squad and Capmetro.

The backside houses a mural depicting the community’s history, designed and implemented by C.A.’s Color Squad and Capmetro.

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Opened in early 2015, the new center’s proximity to the Sustainable Food Center and nearby community garden are two big perks of the location itself. Natural partnerships have already started to form, with the SFC sponsoring one of Creative Action’s Community Arts Sunday events, during which local families can roam around the center on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying free snacks, live music and interactive experiences involving all sorts of art forms.

The African-American Cultural Heritage District is another important community partner, and in researching ideas for the center’s mural design, the Color Squad kids met with countless members of the community to learn about the stories that comprise the cultural fabric of the area. As a result of those conversations, the mural chronologically depicts the history of the neighborhood, from its agricultural era in the late 1800s through the days of the much-hated cement factory whose toxicity drove locals to rally for its removal in the 1980s. That rallying cry is echoed on the mural through the faces of three key community members who led the charge.

“This is a place where anyone around here who wants to come is encouraged and welcome.”
-Karen LaShelle
Executive Director, Creative Action

Responding to the needs of the neighborhood today is a top priority for the center, too. “We have a really nice partnership with the FreeMinds project, which is part of Foundation Communities, and it takes place at M Station a couple of nights a week,” LaShelle says. Through that program, parents without a college education are given the opportunity to go through a humanities curriculum with UT and ACC faculty while Creative Action simultaneously runs a curriculum for their kids that mirrors an age-appropriate version of what their parents are learning. In other words, at the end of each evening, families can come back together and talk about their own impressions of what they’ve learned about that night, whether it’s Greek mythology or the Declaration of Independence.

“We’re really striving to make sure people know that we’re a partner and a resource to the community, and we want to be here as a way to sustain and inspire,” LaShelle says. “This is a place where anyone around here who wants to come is encouraged and welcome.”


Back at the miniature movie set, things are momentarily unraveling. A pair of cardboard underpants has gone missing, which means one of the young actors will be without a costume if it doesn’t turn up. The teaching artist, Colin Hyer, leaves a center volunteer to watch the room while he launches a quick search outside for the missing prop.

As one might expect in a room full of nine-year-olds given a moment of downtime during camp, the volume level rises a bit. The volunteer leans into the director – the small, quiet girl whose commands are difficult to hear – and says gently, “Remember, you’re the director here, so you’re in charge. It’s OK to be assertive.”

With ten minutes left until the final snack break of the day, the group settles as Colin rejoins the room. It’s time to reset and do another run-through.

“Quiet on set!” our young director yells, and again a few minutes later. I can’t help but notice that her voice gets a little stronger each time.


To Get Involved With Creative Action

If You’re An Artist
Get in touch about teaching and volunteering opportunities.

If You’re A Parent
Check out Creative Action’s host of programs and events.

If You’re An Enthusiast
Reach out about volunteering or making a donation.

If You’re A Business Owner
Connect with the staff about in-kind goods and services.


Writing: Amy Lynch
Photography: Lauren Ussery and Adrienne Dever


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