shotgun players

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Hey Neighbor!
Community-based theatre and a return to the basics

-- by Aaron Davidman

When I was beginning research for the international collaboration that became Blood Relative, a play about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I met Bill Rauch, founder of Cornerstone Theatre, and asked him if he had any advise about interviewing people concerning sensitive issues. I was leaving for a research trip to Israel and hadn’t done many interviews. He said, “Just listen with an open heart. But you know that.”

I had recently become artistic director of Traveling Jewish Theatre and had convinced my colleagues that making a play about the conflict in Israel and Palestine was important for our company. Once in Israel, I quickly realized that in order to do justice to the work we would need to collaborate with Israelis and Palestinians. I could see that lived experience would be central to the authenticity of the piece. As I dug into the tangled political history of the region it became evident—as in any power-struggle—that who tells what story reflects and even determines political power, shapes history and influences the future. Which stories told and retold become the dominant narrative of a region? of a people? Whose voice will rise above the cacophony of voices fighting to be heard? And why? And who will be there to listen?

We did bring Israeli and Palestinian artists to our theatre in San Francisco and the piece took its shape largely informed by their lives. And the who that came to listen was, among others, a cross-section of the Jewish-American community, local Israelis, and a good number of Palestinian-Americans. We were telling their story.

The collaborative process of Blood Relative only whet my appetite. The question of the relationship between story-teller and story-hearer is a question that I have grown more and more concerned with. As an artistic director it’s my job to understand this relationship. I would argue that the gap between story-teller and story-hearer is often wide in the American theatre. Entertainment and aesthetics are most often the highest priority concerns in planning a season. While I think both are elements vital to the art form, I’m grateful that some ensemble theatres and companies dedicated to community-based work have had terrific success over the last 30 years by not placing aesthetics over community. Liz Lerman, a choreographer I’ve gotten to know a little in recent years who is known for making unconventional dances with dancers of all shapes and ages, calls it hiking the horizontal. She argues that the vertical hierarchy of “concert” work over “community” centered work profoundly limits the scope of artistic exploration. She holds that there is equal value for an audience if they can see themselves in the work as there is if they can appreciate its aesthetic merit. Theatres across the country have held to this perspective for years and to great effect. Jan Cohen-Cruz’s recent and terrific book Local Acts chronicling the history of community-based theatre in America over the past forty years documents it.

It was with these questions and considerations that I suggested to Shotgun Theatre’s artistic director Patrick Dooley (an old friend and colleague) that we make a community-based play about the South Berkeley neighborhood his theatre company recently began to call home (and a neighborhood I briefly lived in some ten years ago). With his usual fearlessness, though not fully knowing what he was in for, he went for it. We began to do research in the community that used to be a district called Lorin before it was annexed by Berkeley in the late 1800’s. A year and a half later, the result was Love Is A Dream House In Lorin by Oakland native, playwright-poet Marcus Gardley. Gardley’s unique gift as a dramatist and sensitivity as a human being (not to mention his outrageous sense of humor) lead to an epic play that covers a sweeping panorama of local history from the story of the native Ohlone Indians to the Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during WWII to current issues of race, drugs and gentrification.

The play consumed the talents of 30 actors and a design team and support staff of 20. It was the biggest project in Shotgun’s history and one that dug deep into its immediate community. A group of core artists lead story-circles in the neighborhood over a 16 month period as Marcus spun and wove his magic. As the play developed, the community had an opportunity to weigh-in, and weigh-in they did. The project became a topic of much concern on the neighborhood association Yahoo Group. There were public readings—one a Play Reading and Pie Eating! with baked goods from the historic neighborhood pie shop. Rauch’s advise about listening with an open heart came back to me. We heard from some about their discomfort with the use of the “n” word. We heard from others that the “n” word made the characters seem real cause young people talk like that. When Shotgun first moved into the former church, they held an open house for the neighborhood and no one came. When we invited the community to attend this reading of the play-in-progress, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Half the attendees had never set foot in that theatre before. (Want to talk about “audience development?!”) This time, the story was about them.

While Berkeley’s history of free speech and the 60’s counter-culture is known world-wide, the voices of this once thriving neighborhood with its complex cultural detail and prismatic Americana were all but silenced. Theatre has often been a place to give voice to the voiceless. Certainly that was an aspect of the work on Blood Relative. With Lorin we built a framework to solicit, embody and broadcast a largely unknown narrative. People who I grew up with in Berkeley had no idea about the important history of this particular neighborhood. Blood Relative was about land 10,000 miles away. Lorin revealed a new narrative of place beneath our feet. And we needed people of this place to carry it. We held open auditions for anyone and everyone. We cast a mix of pros, non-pros, neighbors, kids, teens, grown-ups, blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos. And with an open heart, I set out to direct this beast.

Five nights a week for two months we gathered in a former Radio Shack building to rehearse. I told Marcus at one point that directing this play was like strapping a fire-breathing dragon to a moving train. How do you get a room full of thirty actors with a wide range of experience to perform fifty roles in an epic story spanning a hundred years and all act like they’re in the same play? With an open heart, yes, but also with a firm hand! I tried to set the bar high. We all work better when we are challenged to go beyond self-imposed limits. Yes, community. And, yes, aesthetics. The group stepped up. They pushed themselves. They sang (a stunning and difficult a cappella score by Molly Holm of Voicestra), they acted, they moved and they were beautiful.

We put Lorin on stage. We put America on stage.

Throughout the process of researching and rehearsing and running Lorin I learned about artistic relevance. If aesthetics on one side and community on the other form an ideal continuum, perhaps relevance is the connective tissue. I used to think that the high crown of relevance was bestowed upon art deemed thematically in tune with our times. Lorin was not merely in tune, it was the song, the singer and the listener. Lorin redefined relevance to me as the walls of the theatre became porous: The people on stage looked like the people in our community. In the theatre that had been a church for a hundred years, a pastor (a character in the play) gave a sermon about the problems in the ‘hood as the rest of the cast and the audience became the congregation; On the street out front someone called the police one night because an actor was seen making a crossover entrance with a prop gun. That night, theatrical shots were fired on stage and real police with real shotguns showed up outside the theatre. The central metaphor in the play is a plum tree planted by a Japanese-American man upon his return from the camps--the plum trees all around the neighborhood took on new meaning. The story of the home purchase in the play echoed the current gentrification that is changing the make-up of the neighborhood—once the only place African Americans were allowed to buy land in Berkeley. Because the characters are named after the streets outside—Ellis, Harper, King, Woolsey—the street signs became personified as we walked to the theatre each day; And every night during the opening moment of the play we were aware of the earth beneath the floorboards of the stage where the Ohlone lived a life close to the sacred for a thousand years.

Lorin brought us back to the basics of theatre. Back to the basics of sacred storytelling; to building community; to the sense of belonging to a tribe. I was so moved by the fact that community-based actors are not concerned with their next gig or how the project will advance their career. They are concerned only with the communal goal of telling the stories that must be told. They remind me why I’ve spent so much of my life in darkened rooms doing this work. They step into the rehearsal room eager to put aside the tasks of daily life and participate in something greater than themselves. They are connecting to the most basic elements of tribal ritual practice and the origins of theatre. They stand, hands clenched in the opening night circle and turn to their fellow artists and say “sister,” say “brother.” They look out to the audience every night with an open heart and say “neighbor!”

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