October 25, 2017; MinnPost
Theater is meant to engage audiences and keep them engaged long after the curtain falls. Increasingly, it seems, theater artists are engaging with their audiences—and with community members who perhaps don’t have much experience attending plays—long before the curtain ever rises on a new theatrical piece. Three recent articles highlight the efforts of nonprofit theater companies to catalyze change around thorny urban issues like immigration, homelessness, and the opioid crisis in places like the Twin Cities, Portland (Maine), and Philadelphia.
In the Twin Cities, a nonprofit organization that celebrates South Asian arts and culture, Bollywood Dance Scene, serves an immigrant population eager to stay connected to its music and dance traditions. That population has grown to the point where Minnesota is currently in the midst of its first Bollywood performing arts festival, MinneUtsav. A highlight of the festival is a “Bollywood-style dance drama” intended to help South Asians acknowledge and seek help for mental health issues, including those associated with feeling isolated in a new country. Titled “Love You Zindagi,” the work traces the story of a young Indian woman trying to settle into her life in the U.S. after an arranged marriage, and struggling with depression.
As noted in the MinnPost report, the “story mirrors the experience of many of Bollywood Dance Scene’s dancers and board members.” In addition to adjusting to a different country—and, at least in Minnesota, a very different climate—mental illness is a taboo for many South Asians, and seeking medical help for emotional stress is frowned upon. Not only does “Zindagi” address depression, “lifting the veil of secrecy around mental illness” as part of the storyline, at some of the performances, a panel of mental health experts will address audiences, underscoring the importance of seeking help as needed.
In Portland, Maine, the Snowlion Repertory Company recently tackled the topic of homelessness—and the “discomfort” it causes to those with homes—through the docudrama “Anything Helps, God Bless.” The play’s jumping-off point was the real-life city council vote in 2013 that banned anyone from sitting or standing on median strips in Portland. As noted in the Next City article, “There had been a spike in visible poverty and homelessness in the city, and panhandlers—or “signers”—could be found flying signs in the medians of nearly every major street leading into Portland.”
The ordinance passed based on an argument that people on medians were “basically standing in traffic, an accident waiting to happen.” The ACLU sued the city and won, so the ordinance was overturned. But the vulnerabilities of the homeless population—and the mixed emotions of those who encountered them—lingered, and led to the creation of the play. Written by MK Wolfe and Al D’Andrea, the piece is presented as a reenactment of actual city council meetings.
To create the docudrama, “Anything Helps, God Bless,” the co-authors enlisted a cast to comb through council meeting recordings and court documents, and sent them out to interview dozens of people involved. The actors spoke to politicians, lawyers, prominent supporters and opponents, and around 15 signers in order to recreate them as characters. Besides narration, the entire show is told using the language of the people closest to the issue. The actors were also asked to keep diaries throughout the production’s creation. They read some excerpts aloud as part of the show, giving voice to both their higher intentions and some of their less charitable reactions.
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The play did not, of course, solve the problem of homelessness in Portland. But it did get audiences (and cast members) thinking and talking about the issue in different ways.
During intermission at one performance, Wolfe overheard a man say that during one of the city council meeting reenactments, he had been swayed by each subsequent person’s testimony: that the ban infringed on free speech, that a drunk person standing in the median was putting their life in danger, that the ban didn’t go far enough, that no one had been killed panhandling at a median, but 30 people a year died just from living on the streets, and no one seemed to care about that.
“He literally, over the course of that scene, felt and understood every person’s argument,” says Wolfe.
The Opioid Crisis
In Philadelphia, the Renegade Company is tackling one of the city’s most pressing (and depressing) problems, the opioid crisis, which is having a particularly devastating impact on the Kensington neighborhood. As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The Olde Man and the Delaware River” replaces Ernest Hemingway’s exhausted old man with the people of Kensington and the fish he battles with the opioid crisis.
Described as “a social practice performance project” and as “a theatrical walking tour in Kensington and the River Wards,” the work is being developed by Mike Durkin, and is expected to make its debut next September at the 2018 Philly Fringe Festival. Durkin is collecting stories of local residents, gaining their trust, showing up at block meetings and other gatherings, and will be holding workshop sessions with local residents to finalize the script. About 50 locals have volunteered their stories to Durkin so far. As reported by Mike Newall:
This isn’t some drama-school exercise, but a small front in the bigger fight against the stigma that blankets Kensington, Durkin said. It gives people struggling there the opportunity to tell—even craft—their stories. And it invites the neighbors who have lived here through decades of neglect and abandonment—and who again bear the brunt of a citywide crisis—to stand up and against a narrative that reduces them to players in a Hellscape.
The Snowlion website page describing its mission includes the following passage, which seems like a fine parting thought for this newswire: “The arts encourage us to question, explore, and try to make sense of the world we live in. We want to contribute to that joyful exploration. As theater teaches us, the examined life is so worth living.”—Eileen Cunniffe