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Posts Tagged ‘catharsis’

nottage-sweat6-otu

Photo: Roger Mastroianni
Audiences in depressed regions nationwide identify with characters who lose their jobs in Lynn Nottage’s award-winning play
Sweat.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, has done a service to struggling communities around the country where his Mobile Unit has performed a play about factory closings.

Although I myself usually like a little something upbeat at the end of a play, I totally get the relief and catharsis of a bleak story that replicates an audience member’s bleak situation. Being heard, being recognized, can be the beginning of moving forward.

Elizabeth Pochoda explains how the show that did one tour of the country and hopes to get funding for more is helping people move beyond the devastation of communitywide job loss.

“Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, may be best known for commissioning Angels in America,” Pochoda writes, “but his most radical move is a recent one: sending the theater’s Mobile Unit on its recent five-state, 18-city tour through the heartland to perform Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Sweat, a traditional theater piece about race and class in Reading, Pennsylvania, as a metal-tubing plant closes and lives are fractured. Most of the action takes place in a local bar as friends experience the loss of every certainty that work bestows, including that of friendship. …

“The Mobile Unit has done far more than drop in for an evening of theater. Along with community organizations, public libraries, Rotary clubs, humanities councils, and whoever else is interested, it has encouraged lectures, discussion groups, story circles, and art pieces in the weeks before and after staging a free performance of Sweat. …

“I met [Chiara Klein, the Mobile Unit’s national project leader,] in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Sweat played at the local headquarters of the United Auto Workers, the once-powerful union that ruled the city until American Motors and Daimler-Chrysler closed all but one of their plants in 1988, putting 5,300 people out of work and blighting the cityscape for years to come.

“The union-hall venue might seem too obvious for a play about a city where labor is flat on its back, but Sweat has also played to receptive crowds in Minnesota towns with no history of manufacturing and in places as tiny as Hayward, Wisconsin, a town in the rural north where 150 people, both tribal and non-tribal, were as receptive as the audience in Erie, Pennsylvania. That doesn’t surprise Lynn Nottage, who has visited five of the tour cities; people who feel invisible and unheard, she tells me, whether they are black, white, old, young, rural or urban recognize themselves in her play….

“By performing in high-school gyms, a Masonic temple, a cafeteria, and a food pantry — places that don’t announce the evening as an exclusionary arts event, the Public’s Mobile unit has attracted the people it wants to reach.

“Some 200 of them entered the union hall on October 16 and not all of them were white and over 50. A number of older African Americans and some young people of both races were there as well. The Mobile Unit frames the evening to create an atmosphere of mutual regard and goodwill deliberately at odds with that in the play. …

“There is a stage here, but the players will not use it. Instead, they will perform in a small space hemmed in by our chairs. It works well for the barroom scenes where friendships are frayed and no one has anywhere to turn. We are in on the action. …

“At the play’s end, its uneasy note of hope fades away and the audience is given time to reflect by filling out a questionnaire asking them their ZIP Code, ethnicity, gender, emotional response to the play, its relevance to their community, and even what media outlets they turn to for news. … This interlude may be responsible for the candor of the ensuing conversation led by Klein. …

“An African-American woman described it this way: ‘It’s a feeling of being overpowered. A job goes away, a family has to find its way in a new place; then the drugs.’ A 21-year-old white man said he saw himself in the characters and cried that he too had no future. Several people responded to the decibel level of anger in the play and saw it as emblematic of how quickly everything now turns to shouting.”

Read the article at the Nation, here. The play itself is grim, but with the release of emotions some in the audience may feel strengthened in their efforts to build a future on top of the ruins.

 

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I wrote before about a program using the arts to help people in prisons get beyond the prisoner mindset. Here’s a similar story.

Michelle “Bankston, who has short, blond hair and a muscular build, has spent almost 20 years behind bars. She was incarcerated first at a medium-security facility here in Alabama, and then at a private prison in Louisiana (to relieve overcrowding, Alabama sends some inmates out of state), and finally here, at the Montgomery Women’s Facility, a sun-soused cluster of buildings on the outskirts of the capital city.

” ‘A while back I decided that I could either spend decades in the bunks, watching TV or playing cards,’ Bankston says, ‘or I could get out here and take the opportunity to write poetry and draw.’

“That she’s been given this opportunity to do her art is testament to the work of Kyes Stevens, an avuncular and outspoken educator, poet, and Alabama native. Since 2002, Ms. Stevens has headed The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP), which offers literature and art classes in a range of prisons across the state. The program is funded by Auburn University and an array of grants. The teaching staff consists of five Auburn-based instructors and a rotating cast of teaching fellows from the graduate creative-writing program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Classes run for 14 weeks and are rigorously structured, like college courses, demanding a full commitment from students.”

Read the article in the Christian Science Monitor.

On a related note, I met a woman in my playwriting class who founded a nonprofit called On With Living and Learning, Inc. Mary Driscoll lives in the Fort Point Channel area of Boston and works with people who have been through the prison system. She uses theater to generate the catharsis that can result from their telling their stories and also to help them develop “job skills for the 21st century.” Read about her here. A script that Mary was working on in my playwriting class is now going to be made into an opera, with all sorts of helpers, like the Harvard-trained opera composer, the cabaret singer, and the reggae performer.

I can’t help thinking that when these creative people use their talents to help others, they are getting something special in return.

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