The big idea: City Club’s archives inspire one artist to create a video series on important moments

Theater artist Chris Szajbert found herself without a gig in 2020. She turned to an unlikely source for inspiration—the City Club of Cleveland archives, which feature racial justice activist Rosa Parks reflecting on why she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955; Cesar Chavez explaining how he united Latinx farm workers in a strike and 300-mile march against poor working conditions in California in 1965; Then-Senator Joseph R. Biden discussing campaign finance reform; and transgender activist Paula Stone Williams advancing transgender rights in the 2019.

Racial justice activist Rosa Parks reflecting on why she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger at the City Club of Cleveland in 1985 inspired artist Chris Szajbert in her latest project.These are just a few of the “mic drop moments” from 70 years of remarks delivered at the lectern of the City Club that inspired artist Chris Szajbert to create a video series that celebrates the City Club as a forum for big ideas.

Szajbert, a theater artist with 15 years of experience as head of the education program at Cleveland Public Theatre, was introduced to the idea of producing a series of one-minute videos about the important moments from from the City Club archives at a 2019 workshop of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP) and the Cuyahoga Arts & Culture-funded Learning Lab—a project that pairs artists and nonprofit organizations rooted in civic, social, public and placemaking practices to build partnerships and receive funding to explore and implement co-designed, arts-based projects. 

Currently about halfway through the video project, Szajbert says the ideas that were explored by figures like Parks, Chavez, Biden, and Williams and many more are a gold mine for the current generation of social and racial justice leaders to compare with today.

“We wanted to show the range of folks and faces,” says Szajbert. “All of the speakers are talking about social and economic issues or public policy. You spend a little time with them and you're going to find inspiration.”

The idea for this time consuming task originated with former City Club staffer Stephanie Jansky who started to plumb the depths of a massive (and accessible online) archive when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted in-person programming. Working from home, Jansky says that she was looking for new ways to see the City Club’s content.

Chris Szajbert in her film Love’s Lost Raree Box.“[The City Club] is not solving or taking action, it is bringing perspectives and voices that are underrepresented to inspire government or companies to think differently,” Jansky explains. “We’re in a unique position to take all of this knowledge and see if that could (highlight how) tough problems like health care and racial justice” were discussed in a public setting. 

The pandemic shifted Szajbert’s perspective (and media) as an artist. Previously, she had written and performed for stage and street festivals and supplemented her work with still images to convey themes of trauma and recovery. For example, her performance, “Love’s Lost Raree Box” she created for Parade the Circle in 2018 and then adapted for video with filmmaker Jumar Newell (with support from the Andy Warhol Foundation and SPACES Gallery). The film screened at the 2019 BorderLight Festival, an international performance festival based in Cleveland. 

In the film, Szajbert assumes the role of a Vaudevillian master of ceremony, inviting the audience to gaze into her Love’s Lost Raree Box—a contraption that she built and, she explains in a soliloquy, represents the rare gift of a body acting as a receiver of information, feeling and sensation (that the brain tries to fool into believing it controls). 

During the pandemic, Szajbert was moved to do what a lot of other performance artists did: Without gigs to pursue, she entered the studio to make new work, and she sought training. 

In Szajbert’s case, she studied film production at Cuyahoga Community College, which was offering three semesters of tuition reimbursement for artists. Through that experience, she produced a new work, “The Frances Films,” which debuts this week at the 2021 virtual BorderLight Festival

CAC awarded the festival a $4,000 2021 project support grant for this year’s work. “CAC is pleased to invest in BorderLight through our project support grant program to support their festival and the creativity of local artists like Chris and so many others,” says Paulsen.

The Frances Films by Chris Szajbert“The Frances Films” deals with issues of sexual trauma, where so much of [it is that] you don’t feel like you’re in your body,” she says. “I’m talking to myself, which is what you do in recovery. Having a dialogue is a bit of a metaphor for that journey.”

BorderLight Festival communications director Cathleen O’Malley shared in a statement that Szajbert is following the path a lot of artists found themselves on during the shutdown of arts venues. 

“It has been devastating to our field—there is no way around that—but for some artists there was a silver lining,” says O’Malley. “[They had] time at home, away from the hustle and grind, to nurture their craft and explore new forms. We are proud to offer a platform to share Chris' new work alongside other veteran and emerging artists from Northeast Ohio, across the country, and internationally.” 

Szajbert says she is grateful to the Learning Lab for the chance to work on this project. She also received $5,000 through a Civic Practice Project grant, awarded to The City Club of Cleveland as part of CPCP’s Learning Lab program, supported by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC)..

For CAC, it was an ideal pairing.

“Chris’ work with The City Club through the CPCP program uses creativity to bring new life to important civic dialogues,” says CAC executive director Jill Paulsen. “It shows how the power of the arts can help promote conversations between organizations and across topics.”

Szajbert credits the experience with allowing her to open a dialogue between her work—the courage it takes to speak out about sexual trauma—and the courage of social justice champions.

“I try to be someone who doesn’t hold back,” she concludes. “With the City Club project, Stephanie [Jansky] and I both felt drawn to iconic social leaders. Absolutely, I’ve been inspired." 

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.
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