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Changemakers: 10 Theatres Under 30 With World-Changing Missions

SOUTHERN THEATRE   |   VOLUME LVIII NUMBER 2   |   SPRING 2017

by Stefanie Maiya Lehmann

Southern Theatre magazine reached out to 10 theatre companies with missions designed to bring positive change in some area of society to learn more about the work they do. Founded in the last 30 years, these 10 companies have dedicated themselves, in very different ways, to changing the world around them through the power of theatre.

Five share information in profiles, followed by quick views of five additional theatres.

5 Profiles:

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Serenbe Playhouse

Impact Area: Community Connectedness and Environmental Sustainability

Founder and Executive/Artistic Director: Brian Clowdus
Location: Chattahoochee Hills, GA
Founded: 2009
Website: www.serenbeplayhouse.com

WORLD-CHANGING MISSION:

Serenbe Playhouse aims to actively break down the walls between audience and actor by producing bold new works and reinvented classics that connect art, nature and community. We try to create unique experiences that no one else is doing. We look for titles that are unusual choices for outdoor site-specific activity, while allowing the opportunity to stage a show as it is really meant to be. For example, last year, when Serenbe Playhouse decided to stage the musical Carousel, we set the production within a fully functioning carnival, complete with fair games, Ferris wheel, and, yes, a carousel. By producing these kinds of immersive pre-show and intermission experiences, our large, diverse audiences are launched into conversation, and we believe that conversation is the first step of creating community. Additionally, in partnership with the Serenbe community plan, we are pioneering green theatre practices, aiming to set precedents on how to successfully stage plays while committing to social responsibility and environmental stewardship.

HOW WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE THROUGH THEATRE:

We do not try to be too political. For us, now is not a time to divide our communities; we need to get them in the same room together to talk. For Serenbe Playhouse, this partly hinges on the production’s unconventional experience, an experience accessible to all, especially new audiences or non-theatregoers. Because Serenbe is a proud green community and all of Serenbe Playhouse’s productions are performed outdoors, part of the theatre’s environmental embrace was born out of necessity.

However, we quickly discovered that it is actually not difficult to be a green theatre. Far too many theatres build huge sets that ultimately end up in a dumpster. We consciously select shows that can be designed responsibly, minimizing production waste. From there, we design sets for disassembly and reassembly, repurposing existing structures, utilizing reclaimed and recycled construction materials, and utilizing natural light whenever possible.

GREATEST SUCCESS TO DATE:

When we chose to produce Miss Saigon in 2016, I knew we had to find a way to get a real helicopter to land for the final scenes of the musical. It was so important to feel what it felt like to be one of the Vietnamese left behind by the helicopter. Watching audiences experience that every night was incredible. Additionally, the company reached out to local Vietnam veterans to fly the aircraft, which was a huge success, as seen by the national press coverage we received.

Strindberg Laboratory

Impact Area: Prisoner Rehabilitation

Artistic Director: Meri Pakarinen
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Founded: 2013
Website: http://www.strindberglaboratory.com

WORLD-CHANGING MISSION:

We believe that art is the great equalizer, so our mission is to create high-quality and original theatre with communities that have been marginalized to help give power to voices that are often unheard.

HOW WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE THROUGH THEATRE:

Theatre is one of the most effective and important ways to bring people together. We live in a divided world, so this building of communities and sharing stories and experiences is a powerful tool to help build bridges to heal the divides that exist. One example of this happening with our work was when we brought our first production, Hustlin – which was done in connection with the rehabilitation program Volunteers of America, located in Skid Row – to Burbank, which is predominantly upper-middle class. The show impacted not only the people that performed it – who perhaps never had the opportunity to have their voices truly heard – but also the audiences that entered into the play’s realities, which were foreign and, for some, controversial. But through the power of theatre, both the performers and the audiences had a shared experience that created empathy, love and unity.

GREATEST SUCCESS TO DATE:

Doing good theatre under very difficult circumstances is sort of a small miracle every time we do it. We work primarily with prisoners in the Los Angles County Jail and California state prisons through our Jails to Jobs program, helping them recover emotionally and make a successful transition to life after prison through workshops that include relaxation, group improvisations and scene development, and the development of original productions that are performed inside jails and prisons for other inmates and outside audiences. We now pay some of the ex-offenders from our program to teach theatre classes to local community organizations. Probably the most exciting thing has been being a part of the program Break It to Make It, which is a collaborative partnership between us, Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles Mission that gives free higher education, housing and rehabilitation programming to the people that we work with inside corrections facilities. We hope this collaborative model – nonprofits working together in an integrated way to address big societal issues – will be replicated by others.

Seesaw Theatre

Impact Area: Autism Spectrum

Executive Director: Maddie Napel
Location: Evanston, IL / Chicago Area
Founded: 2012
Website: www.seesawtheatre.org

WORLD-CHANGING MISSION:

Seesaw Theatre strives to enrich the lives of individuals living with autism spectrum condition and other developmental differences by increasing their access to theatre and fostering the use of performance as a channel for expression. We work toward this mission by producing high-quality, individualized and multisensory theatre experiences for young people with physical and cognitive disabilities and their families and caretakers. Attending a play – like going to a museum or attending a concert – comes with a set of socially inscribed behavioral expectations. Members of an audience will sit quietly in the dark for two hours or longer, laugh at appropriate times, clap at appropriate times, and leave the theatre after the curtain falls. For most, these expectations are easy to meet, but there are many would-be theatre-goers, both young and old, for whom they are anything but. The institution of theatre, in refusing to bend these conventions to suit the needs of all audiences, excludes many, chief among them young people with physical and cognitive disabilities. These are the young people that Seesaw Theatre serves.

HOW WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE THROUGH THEATRE:

We do not view our work as therapy. It is art, plain and simple. We’re addressing an inequality using theatre, a medium we love, that by chance happens to be uniquely suited to multisensory presentation. Unlike visual art or music, which live in a single sensory realm, theatre by default lives in at least two, making it a clear choice for audiences with disabilities. Everyone has multiple points of access to a show: If they cannot hear it, they can see it, and vice versa. In a Seesaw Theatre show, we strive to incorporate all six senses (the usual five and the kinesthetic sense, or the sense of one’s body in space).

GREATEST SUCCESS TO DATE:

When I’m watching a Seesaw Theatre show, I observe parents and teachers watching their children encounter art that speaks to them, often for the first time. Those are magical moments. I’m also particularly proud any time I get to share my work with my brother, a 26-year-old with cerebral palsy.

Feast of Crispian

Impact Area: Military Veterans with PTSD

Project Director: Nancy Smith-Watson
Location: Milwaukee, WI
Founded: 2013
Website: www.feastofcrispian.org

WORLD-CHANGING MISSION:

Feast of Crispian, Inc. (Shakespeare with Veterans) is a therapeutic intervention for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the range of challenges that brings – depression, substance abuse, disassociation and difficulty reconnecting with family and community. Using simple acting exercises and scenes from Shakespeare, we give these men and women a way to express their emotions, experiment with feelings, and, once again, be part of a “band of brothers.” Using Shakespeare gives them a “mask” of character and words that both elicit and hold the biggest anger, grief and pain, without having to tell their own personal stories.

HOW WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE THROUGH THEATRE:

For traumatized veterans who may have shut down their own feelings to stop the pain, theatre is a safe way to begin to let feelings in again and to explore what to do with those feelings once they are there. Theatre asks them to bring all of themselves – body, voice, mind and feelings – and it is an ensemble art that surrounds them with both camaraderie and support. For our mission, we see theatre as a way for veterans to find their way back to reconnection: with family, community, work and self. We also hope to inspire and educate the civilian population to reconnect with our veterans who have, in our names, been asked to do our dirtiest work. Theatre, in our bias, is our greatest hope in helping us understand those that we see as separate from ourselves.

GREATEST SUCCESS TO DATE:

Our full productions for civilian outreach have been enormously successful, helping hundreds of civilians begin an open dialogue with our veterans. Our most recent one, and our first original piece, And Comes Safe Home…, was moving, engaging, shocking, funny and heartfelt, as it tracked the challenges of returning warriors from Shakespeare to present day. But I must say that we are most proud of the individual veteran participants that we have watched transform their lives. To hear them tell us that they are working again, they are finally making their therapy work or going back to school or talking to estranged family is the greatest joy. We are proud and grateful when family members tell us how different their veteran loved one is. It is a great pleasure and honor to serve those who served us so faithfully. They served their country and now they are finally home.

Only Make Believe

Impact Area: Chronically Ill/Disabled Children

Executive Director: Maricha Miles
Location: New York City and Washington, DC
Founded: 1999
Website: www.onlymakebelieve.org

WORLD-CHANGING MISSION:

Only Make Believe creates and performs interactive theatre for kids, taking our shows into hospitals and care facilities in the New York metro and Washington, DC, areas. Our program is a six-week series of performances that introduces children living with chronic illnesses and disabilities to live theatre. The children become the stars of the show, as every one of our performances is designed to include the audience in the storytelling process. The shows, with the power of “make believe,” fill the hospital playrooms with song, dance, movement and laughter, inspiring joy and happiness.

HOW WE MAKE A DIFFERENCE THROUGH THEATRE:

At Only Make Believe, we take theatre to those who ordinarily can’t make it to the theatre. Only Make Believe performs with children living with chronic physical and psychological illnesses and disabilities. These kids and their families experience a great deal of stress in their daily lives, and what our program aims to do is bring high-quality, interactive theatre as entertainment to these children. While participating in our show, a sick child can take an active role in creating a world of fantasy and fun that transcends the boundaries of hospital walls. The combination of theatre with the power of the child’s imagination enables them to see a world of possibilities rather than disabilities. Our shows also offer respite and social support for the patients, their families and hospital staff by allowing them to gather together for a purpose unrelated to medical issues. The parents enjoy seeing their children in a different light, often joining them in the fun.

GREATEST SUCCESS TO DATE:

Every show we do is a success, because every Only Make Believe show puts a smile on a child’s face and that is quite simply the most rewarding part. Although the true purpose of our shows is to provide entertainment for the children, we’ve also been fortunate to witness wonderful medical breakthroughs, such as seeing a selectively mute child speak for the first time during an Only Make Believe show. What am I most proud of? Without a doubt, our actors. They are a talented group of people who are equally compassionate, empathetic and imaginative. They know how to engage with the children and allow them to shine and let them become the real stars of the show.

5 Quick Views:

These short profiles were developed from information on the organizations’ websites, in their Guidestar profiles and, in the case of Deaf West, an email interview.

About Face Theatre

Impact Area: LGBTQ Adults and Youth

Artistic Director: Andrew Volkoff
Location: Chicago, IL
Founded: 1995
Website: aboutfacetheatre.com

About Face Theatre creates exceptional, innovative and adventurous plays to advance the national dialogue on gender and sexual identity and to challenge and entertain audiences in Chicago, across the country and around the world. Working within and beyond the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities, About Face Theatre is committed to innovation, artistic excellence and community transformation. Through our projects, we strive to challenge our artists’ and audience’s intellects, imaginations, self-conceptions, moral expectations, and ideas about gender and sexuality in contemporary and historical contexts. About Face has two programming arms: its award-winning Mainstage productions and its nationally recognized education programs, including the About Face Youth Theatre and educational outreach tours that collectively reach approximately 5,000 Illinois students and teachers each year.

The Apothetae

Impact Area: Disabilities

Founder and Artistic Director: Gregg Mozgala
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Founded: 2012
Website: www.theapothetae.org

The Apothetae’s goal is to serve as an incubator for new works about disability in the hope that an entirely new canon of plays will be created. Disabled people have existed since the dawn of time, yet that history is largely unknown. Through the collaborative experience of the artistic process, the “disabled experience” can be more sincerely and accurately reflected on stage, new communities can be forged, perceptions changed and barriers to understanding and empathy can be shattered. The Apothetae commissions playwrights, provides fellowships, has had residency at the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Society, co-produces new productions and workshops, and in 2015, collaborated with The Lark to host the first-ever national convention to discuss the issues at the nexus of disability and theatre.

Girl Be Heard

Impact Area: Young Women and Girls

Founder and Artistic Director: Jessica Greer Morris
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Founded: 2008
Website: girlbeheard.org

Girl Be Heard develops, amplifies and celebrates the voices of young women through socially conscious theatre-making. If a girl can change her own life, she can change the lives of girls everywhere. We envision a world in which every girl is valued and encouraged to be a leader and changemaker. Building self-esteem, growing individual talents (step dancing, singing, rapping and acting), and empowering girls to become leaders in and advocates for their communities is Girl Be Heard’s unique model and why Girl Be Heard has been so successful. What began in 2008 with 12 girls is now a theatre company of 170 girls and a global movement that has engaged audiences at the White House, United Nations, State Department, TED conferences, and in underserved communities locally and globally. The company provides after-school programs, school assembly performances, international cross-cultural exchange programs and teacher training, and has created six original shows.

Deaf West Theatre

Impact Area: Deaf and Hearing

Artistic Director: DJ Kurs
Location: North Hollywood, CA
Founded: 1991
Website: www.deafwest.org

Deaf West Theatre bridges the deaf and hearing worlds through theatre. The mainstage productions consist of adaptations and original works produced by experienced and professional deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors, directors, designers and technicians. Deaf West Theatre was the first resident theatre company in the U.S. to be founded by and under the direction of a deaf artistic director, Ed Waterstreet, who stepped down in 2012. Now under the artistic direction of DJ Kurs, who also is deaf, Deaf West has produced and co produced shows at various theatres that have won more than 80 theatre awards and continue to serve as a model for deaf theatre worldwide. Our successful Broadway productions of Big River (2003) and Spring Awakening (2015) created a large footprint that brought our community and language to new audiences, so much so that, in 2015, Deaf West Theatre reached 100,000 people.

Golden Thread Productions

Impact Area: Middle Eastern Understanding

Executive Artistic Director: Torange Yeghiazarian
Location: San Francisco, CA
Founded: 1996
Website: www.goldenthread.org

Golden Thread Productions, founded in 1996, is the first American theatre company focused on the Middle East. We produce passionate and provocative plays from and about the Middle East that celebrate the multiplicity of its perspectives and identities. We believe that immersing yourself in someone else’s experience is the best way to appreciate their point of view. Therefore, every play serves as an invitation to discover unexpected connections and engage in deeply moving conversations that last well beyond the life of the play. Our programs expose non-Middle Eastern audiences to the authentic voices and alternative perspectives of the region, while serving Middle Eastern audiences who rarely encounter meaningful reflections of their own culture in the performing arts. In our vast imagination, the Middle East is defined not by geographical boundaries and political separations, but as the shared experience of the people who throughout history have been touched by its stories and culture.

AUTHOR PROFILE

Stefanie Maiya Lehmann is assistant business manager for production at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. She is a member of the Southern Theatre Editorial Board.

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