On a recent Sunday evening in Durham, people grabbed drinks and cozied up to the ad hoc stage that local musicians Skylar Gudasz and Chessa Rich were performing on.
The concrete floors in the space weren’t yet done and the weathered wood lining the bottom of the bar in the back room still needed another coat of finish. But any final touches the room still required didn’t interrupt the flow of the evening’s programming, as the two performers guided Night School Bar’s room of Kickstarter supporters through an intimate exploration of music and the creative process.
The session keenly represented what the team behind Night School Bar hopes to provide at 719 North Mangum Street.
Night School Bar, per its website, is a collective of instructors “offering evening classes in the arts and humanities to curious adults” on a sliding scale. After hosting remote classes for the last three years, the school finally opened its permanent location, which also includes a neighborhood bar, to the public, early this October.
Night School Bar founder Lindsey Andrews is a veteran of downtown Durham, most recently as the co-owner of Arcana. During the early days of downtown’s renaissance, she worked as a bartender at a handful of Durham bars, including the Federal and Motorco, while attending graduate school at Duke University. After receiving a PhD in English and a certificate in feminist studies, Andrews left Durham for a brief teaching stint at Vanderbilt University, before returning a year later and cofounding Arcana alongside Erin Karcher.
When community arts space The Carrack closed in 2019, Andrews told the INDY last year, she saw a need to create more space to help fill the void where similar programming could live on.
The COVID-19 pandemic thwarted plans to open Night School Bar in 2020, so Andrews had to adapt. She offered her first class—Art and Illness, which Gudasz attended—as a free seminar. She hoped to try and form community during a time when many folks were confined to their homes.
“The pandemic was tough,” Andrews says. “I wondered if other people would want to learn together.”
The class became an official Night School Bar course in November, as Andrews started recruiting other instructors to teach adult education classes remotely. This proved fortuitous, as remote learning became more commonplace.
That first term, Andrews and her team offered five classes. Since then, the tally has grown to 180 total classes, with about 12 offered per two-month term.
The diversity of class topics and accessibility of the pay-what-you-can fee structure attracts students from all walks of life. It’s gained a broad reach, too, outside Durham: 3,000 students have enrolled from over 10 different countries. Only about 25 percent of students have actually been based in the Triangle.
“It’s the most diverse group of students I’ve ever taught,” Andrews says. “It is age-diverse. It is gender diverse. It is racially diverse.”
Nevertheless, the team sees a lot of potential in establishing a home base at Old Five Points. Nicole Berland, an assistant teaching professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, is currently teaching her first course with Night School Bar, called Speculative Futures: Fiction, Theory, and Social Justice. She is also gearing up to lead Night School Bar’s first film class, on the films of Bong Joon-ho, who is famous for directing Parasite and Snowpiercer.
“It’s gonna be really fun to have that energy of people in a room,” Berland says. “The conversations that happen in the space before and after class are always so fun.”
Other instructors are excited to embrace the potential of hybrid and in-person learning.
Durham psychotherapist Phillip Stillman met Andrews while in grad school at Duke and has taught a number of Night School Bar classes on subjects like queer theory and ecology. Stillman says they recognize that although some folks are ready to put remote learning in the rearview, different class options help keep things equitable.
“The loss, of course, of doing it in person is twofold,” Stillman says. “On the one hand, you can’t have people from across the country or across the world like we have in our virtual classes. And additionally, of course, I think it’s true that we still are in COVID, and there are people who are immunocompromised and do not feel comfortable coming to an in-person class. But I believe that our continuing commitment will be to offer a combination of in-person and virtual classes so that we’re basically meeting everybody where they are.”
Night School Bar courses are rooted in the humanities, but instructors have the autonomy to blend topics and create curriculums that would seem too niche for a traditional university classroom. There’s a class on reimagining intimacy, for instance, and a poetry workshop on spells, incantations, and rituals.
“We’re able to really create classes that speak to people’s deep curiosities and interests and desires that don’t have to be regulated by a governing body or degree-granting body,” Andrews says.
Across the country, the humanities have been under fire for years, as universities strive to cut costs by eliminating liberal arts programs and right-wing groups throw themselves into book-banning campaigns.
“Night School Bar is doing something absolutely urgent, which is bringing a critical education to people affordably, accessibly,” Stillman says. “This is more urgent now than ever when a lot of these ideas are becoming illegal. Even before they were criminalized, they were already being gatekept inside the ivory tower.”
D. M. Spratley, chief strategy officer at the school, says that students seek out their courses to explore the types of subjects and ideas that are being suppressed elsewhere in academia.
“I think the opportunity for folks to have a space to consider things that are critical of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, and not just compartmentalizing one or the other, seems to be something that students who are coming to Night School Bar are interested in,” Spratley says.
Sarah Rose Nordgren, cofounder of her own Durham adult education program, the School for Living Futures, attended the Sunday Kickstarter event.
“The show felt really cozy,” Nordgren says. “You got the sense there is a very strong community vibe, and the people who came out were really invested in the success of this space and excited about the physical location coming to fruition.”
Nordgren’s School for Living Futures is an interdisciplinary, experimental school that focuses on educating students and building community to actively fight climate change. Nordgren says she is inspired by how Andrews and her team have created an equitable, sustainable business model.
“I think their organization is trying to hold both of those things simultaneously,” Nordgren says. “Offer classes that are justice forward, but also make them affordable, make them a sliding scale for the community members who want to take the classes and also make sure that the instructors are being paid fairly.”
Night School Bar joins budding neighborhood development at Old Five Points; Little Bull, a new Oscar Diaz restaurant, has quickly become a popular fixture on the block. After a couple of soft openings—and sleepless nights for staff—the Night School Bar space is now furnished and ready for the public, with hours running Wednesday through Sunday, five p.m. to midnight.
The walls, a blend of exposed brick and intricate wallpaper, are lined with golden, bowl-shaped lighting. Large doors separate the classroom from the bar and, when needed, folks can enter the space through a patio in the rear of the building.
Meanwhile, open enrollment for in-person and remote classes has already started for the next term.
“What’s really cool is you are intentionally in a space with other people who you haven’t met before but have the same interests as you,” Andrews says of the space. “It facilitates the introduction, in some ways, and gives you a reason to interact with people that’s not just pickup culture.”
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