USF Engages Arts, Humor To Bridge Differences Among People

In a true blend of arts and culture, Tampa’s Art2Action and the University of South Florida are bringing in a stream of performance artists from across the national stage and the world to enhance understanding of Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures and identities -- with an emphasis on women. 

The two-year project, “THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern & Muslim Artists,” is funded by a prestigious grant of nearly $200,000 from the DC-based Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, one of only six awarded nationwide. 

Spearheading the project is Andrea Assaf, Tisch-educated performance artist and writer, who is also the founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc. The only Arab-American artistic director to receive this grant, the project resonates with her personally and she is eager to get the conversation started.

“Artistic experience has a way of opening your heart. It opens a space for real life experience and understanding someone else’s story through an empathetic lens,” says Assaf. “That shifts the tone and nature of a policy conversation.”  

The project focuses on three areas: identity, culture and religion; gender; and U.S. public policies. Assaf says Tampa is particularly well suited for this type of project given the large number of local Muslims, Arabs and military veterans who have spent time in the Middle East. According to CAIR and Emerge USA, there are an estimated 50,000-60,000 Muslims currently residing in the Greater Tampa Bay region. Veterans Affairs says there are well over 250,000 veterans in the area with about 20 percent having deployed to the Middle East. And, of course, U.S. Central Command, a big influencer on U.S.-Middle Eastern policy, is based here.  

Assaf has established ties to local veterans and is weaving her THIS Bridge artists into several events particularly during her week of September 11th lineup. 

Inspired By Humor

Recognized by the Huffington Post as one of America’s 50 funniest women, Negin Farsad kicks off the fall season of the THIS Bridge program on Thursday (August 28) at 8:30 p.m. at USF’s Marshall Center Oval Theater with her nationally acclaimed Comedy Show.
The Iranian-American comedian and TED fellow is also co-producer of the film "The Muslims are Coming! ,'' which will have a screening and discussion Friday (August 29) at 7:30 p.m. at the university’s lecture hall.

Her show and presentations, followed by an audience participatory “talk back,” are an exercise in breaking down stereotypes through the art of laughter. 

Farsad, a social activist herself, says her shows don’t produce stark changes of the “I-used-to-hate-Muslims-now-I-love-them” variety but that these types of programs offer an important counterpoint to the media coverage that perpetuates negative misperceptions of Muslims in American society. 

At a minimum, the audience will walk away with a sense of what a “culturally Muslim” woman might be: Farsad is unmistakably mainstream-modern and edgy, albeit a bit funnier than most.

Impact of the Arts

Data on the impact of the arts is a hot commodity, but woefully short-of-supply for arts advocates. Beyond cultural understanding, THIS Bridge may bring about a whole other layer of understanding — of just how powerful the arts can be.

The project has an enviable and ambitious research component. A team of 10 researchers headed by fourth-year USF psychology doctoral candidate Renee Brown and the buy-in of well over a dozen university departments, many unrelated to the arts, which will ensure a solid control group.

“Anecdotal doesn’t get funding,” says Brown who has put together a “psychometrically sound” 56-item survey to benchmark and measure potential change in attitudes from THIS Bridge attendees as well as the possible secondary effect on the campus at large.  With creative incentives from department heads - some offering extra credit or free tickets to future performances for completing the 30-40 minute survey - she aims to survey a full 10 percent of the USF student body. 

The survey will be conducted throughout the two-year period. Further, the other APAP grantees will be conducting their own research so THIS Bridge will be a cohort in the national research initiative of these projects.  Clearly, the scale and results of this research could have meaningful implications for arts funding as well as research funding for the arts. 

Already Changing Attitudes

THIS Bridge’s preliminary presentations, which took place this spring, have already succeeded in raising awareness of the complexity and range of identities and issues among Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners.   

Theater major Larissa Kleisshauer had the opportunity to work with Lebanese American playwright Leila Buck in a staged reading of her play “In the Crossing,’’ a portrayal of her experience visiting Lebanon with her Jewish American husband when Israel bombed the country in 2006. 

Going into it, Kleisshauer admits she and the others participating simply had no awareness of these issues. The experience and the subsequent “talk back” with the audience moved her deeply. “You would listen to other people’s stories. I’ve never experienced something like that. It made me want to be more aware of what’s going on in the world. We still talk about it even today.” 

Mazin Ibrahim, president of the USF Arab Cultural Association is enthusiastic about the project too. 

“It’s these kinds of initiatives that we need all over the place to eliminate ignorance little by little, and increase dialogue,’’ says Ibrahim. “There needs to be force and effort working on mutual understanding, cultural awareness and international relations. That is why this program is so important.” 

Visit the THIS Bridge website for ticket information for Negin Farsad’s Comedy Show or movie screening as well as the most updated calendar of events.

Kendra Langlie is a Tampa-based freelance writer, communications consultant and lover of arts and culture. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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