Plays often make you think, but seldom do their themes and messages stick with you after leaving the theater. I had a slightly uncomfortable, yet immensely profound experience last Saturday when I saw a performance by the Albany Park Theater Project (APTP). As part of Wooster’s 2013 Forum, the production included different excerpts from their past plays, addressing often ignored or cast aside racial and social issues. The plays dealt with topics such as illegal immigrants, foreclosure and poverty in creative ways such as the format of a game show and dance.
Even before the show started, I sensed that this was not a typical night out at the theater. The normal divide between the actors and the audience was broken. Actors spread out throughout the rows and introduced themselves to audience members, inviting them to ask questions. I often feel fairly passive or removed from the action of a play, shielded as a member of a group in a darkened theater. Removing that boundary before the play even started made the intimate tone of the stories on stage even more poignant.
The personal nature of APTP’s work goes beyond the circulation of actors before the show to the process itself. From the beginning of its creation, the youth performers are involved. The entire group helps conduct interviews, conceive a central theme, write material and stage the final product. APTP’s exploration of difficult topics is so successful because their strong emphasis on collaboration lends their message more value. Everyone, the actors, director and audience are involved together in exploring these issues.
I have gone to many satisfying plays, but none required me to sit up in my seat and pay attention the way APTP’s did. A great example of this was in their first piece, “We Got the LINK.” The plot revolved around three girls and the impact the LINK card, similar to food stamps, had on their lives.
One of them broke out of her story and asked whether we, the audience, ever had to go to a public aid office. Demanding that the audience think about how the issues presented on stage affected them is a crucial way that APTP elevated theater beyond simple entertainment. This was not a chance to escape and delve into a fictional and harmless world. Instead, the audience had to confront issues that they may not have personal experience with, but nonetheless impact them as members of American society.
Students often complain about living in the “Wooster bubble” and this was apparent even to some of the cast members who spent only a few days on our campus. They shared in a post-play Q&A session that they had never seen so many white people before. It is important for us to step outside of our Wooster perspective and see how others view us.
How do we deal with issues of race, social inequality and poverty? Experiences like this play rattle the audience by asking difficult questions to challenge their perspectives. On this campus we are lucky to have lectures, plays, readings and concerts that provide the opportunity for us to engage with uncomfortable topics and emerge more informed.
Although APTP’s performance was a one-night-only event, there are many other chances to have a similarly important cultural experience during this year’s forum. The next event is a talk by Valarie Kaur, a filmmaker and storyteller, on Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. in McGaw Chapel. I hope to see you there.