Last weekend DePauw Theatre challenged students and Greencastle residents to rethink their expectations of theatrical performance and their role within the community.
“Street Scenes” was a collaborative play created by DePauw students, Greencastle residents and DePauw alumni. It was created by and for the community to grapple with issues that both DePauw and Greencastle residents face everyday. It was the tail-end of a larger project involving lectures like “The Nazi's Attack on Modern Art and Music & ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition” and the Opera’s “Street Scene” performance in February.
Communications & Theatre Professor Tim Good has been studying and practicing forms of experimental theatre for years, which inspired the structure of “Street Scenes.” The group began meeting in February to brainstorm ideas on the content of the play.
“Street Scenes” grapples with various political, social, and cultural issues in literal and abstract ways throughout the performance. The scenes vary from recreating real-life scenarios, to satirical pieces, to exquisite corpse poems, and forum theater.
The material was about the local Greencastle community and the larger global world. In the brainstorming process, the complex relationship between DePauw and Greencastle became a main drive for content.
DePauw alumna, faculty member, and community member Taylor Zartman ‘15 was one of the ten actors who contributed to the project. “We had a team of people, with a huge generational difference and different life experiences, that had to talk about what it means to live here,” Zartman said.
One idea for a scene was about Greencastle’s Linda Ford when her house caught fire. “A lot of times we would discuss an issue, like when Linda’s house was burning down and DePauw students walked over and brought her flowers,” Zartman said. “Linda would tell us the context and then figure out how we would integrate it into the show.”
As time went on, the group ended up with ten performers but still kept the original ideas from the beginning. “There’s probably around 20 people who contributed to the content...and I, as the leader, only provide techniques,” Good said. “The people in the room create the content.”
Alongside current students and community members were DePauw alumni that contributed to “Street Scenes.” Good brought back DePauw alumni Adalky Capellan ‘13 and Nikaury Roman ‘13, among other guests, to assist the performers in creating the content for the play.
When Roman, Capellan and Zartman were students at DePauw, they engaged in classes and performances together, so they reunited in preparation for “Street Scenes.” “ I was excited to learn from them, because I’m used to learning from them, but it was a chance to, outside of rehearsals, talk about what it means to be an alumni,” Zartman said.
The visiting alumni and guests offered the students and community members techniques on constructing the play and performing it. “They [alumni] asked very troubling questions to make the play better...but that was their job.” Good said.
After six weeks of preparation and rehearsals every week, the play ran Thursday through Sunday each night in Kerr Theatre.
“Street Scenes” began with Zartman and Parks leading the audience through exercises on stage. Then, the original ten actors performed their first scene, “The Wall,” which was written based off of a Greencastle community problem of yard sign stealing.
“In Greencastle, people started reporting that their ‘Jesus was a refugee’ signs had been stolen, and then that started a conversation about how other people are stealing confederate flags--both sides were doing it,” Zartman said.
Zartman’s character in “The Wall” holds a pro-refugee sign up against Park’s character who holds up a “Make America Great Again” sign and the performance gets heated as the characters on each side continuously yell over each other.
The message of “The Wall” was to question how one sign becomes our own identity marker and if signs are productive pieces of political conversation.
“It’s a hard conversation because there are lives on the line, and it's hard to not get emotional when someone is not allowing that kind of welcome,” Zartman said. “But, my character is also not letting the other side talk.”
Two popular scenes were titled “Empathy Hour” and “Starbucks.” “Empathy Hour” was a satirical skit commenting on giving and receiving care. Junior Madison Prather found the scene comical and challenging to think about.
“Instead of giving out drinks they’re giving out empathy...but you have to be able to afford empathy,” Prather said. “I play a character coming from somewhere poor, and you see a dilemma with the bartender when empathy hour is closing, where the bartender is asking at what point is he or she giving too much empathy.”
Zartman also loves “Empathy Hour” because it raises more questions than answers. “Empathy becomes a transaction, where we ask ‘where is the line we draw on empathy?’ and is there a time limit, is there a monetary value?” Zartman asked. “It questions where our motives of empathy come from and whether or not we live empathy or perform it.”
“Street Scenes” challenges audiences’ ideas of what a play should be because of its engagement aspect. The play had three interactive pieces where audiences became performers, rather than observers, and changed the performance.
The first scene immediately breaks expectations when Zartman and Parks invited the audience on stage for interactive exercises. “The specific actions we do are really important, they are meant to break up expectations,” Zartman said. “You start to have to question what you assume and that preps the audience for something that is more abstract and experimental.”
Parks described the interactive scenes as an opportunity for the audience to become creators of the play. “It was an invitation to be expressive,” Parks said. “Whether that was to laugh, to comment, to come on stage, it [“Street Scenes”] is all of our stories.”
“It’s a lot easier to think of yourself as an observer in a show where you’re never called on stage, but if we call you on stage immediately you don’t get to just be an observer,” Zartman said. “You’re also a part of the community.”
One of Parks’s and Zartman’s favorite scenes was “Starbucks”, where the performers invited the audience to join in on a re-created a real-life scenario of discrimination that happened to a DePauw student.
“We invited the audience to solve the problem with us,” Good said. “We don’t direct them; they literally come in and change the scene.”
Sophomore Barbara Castellini was one of the three audience members to intervene in the Starbucks scene on the Saturday night showing.
“It felt really strange because I actually got mad. I imagined myself actually confronting him [actor Chris Wurster]...it felt uncomfortable, but also empowering,” Castellini said.
The original performers of “Street Scenes” also had to improvise their performance as they reacted to the audience intervention. “Trying to respond to what he [Wurster] was saying was difficult, but I actually was trying to fix the situation and have him admit to his prejudice,” Castellini said.
The “Starbucks” scene gave audiences the invitation to engage not only with the actors, but also in the risks of forum theatre. In forum theatre, performers are learning how to change their world; however, similar to life, mistakes can be made on-stage.
“The audience could intervene and take a risk on stage,” Parks said. “It's not some virtual test where you can hide behind the screen and choose any way, and be relaxed. You had to physically get up and be involved and risk making a mistake for the intention of a greater good.”
Zartman agrees with Park that the scene, along with the entire play, fostered a safe space for both actors and audience to take risks and be okay with failure as a learning process. “If you can fail and feel safe, it means you’re gonna try something again and won’t be afraid,” Zartman said. “When you can be silly during those introductions where we’re all messing up and acting silly, it's also failing, and learning to accept it, and knowing you can try again.”
The play ends with the audience being invited on stage for one last time to dance and sing to the song “This Land is Our Land,” alongside the actors. However, even at the very last moments of “Street Scenes,” the audience is challenged to think about the meaning behind what they are listening to.
“This Land is Our Land” originally was a controversial song, but has been revised in history to omit the lines such as “is this land our land?” Like many pieces of “Street Scenes,”the ending raises more questions than answers as the audience ends the show on-stage with the actors.
Many actors from the play argue “Street Scenes” provides a unique opportunity to engage in a creative process while grappling with complicated issues of the communities. “It’s an opportunity to see a collaboration of DePauw and Greencastle which I don’t feel happens enough,” Prather said.
Zartman believes “Street Scenes” allows the audience to reflect on the complex relationship that DePauw students and Greencastle residents have with each other. “We are in an interesting community where there are certain groups that have certain assumptions about each other. As the entire play proves, it's far more complicated than that,” Zartman said. “Sometimes the students are throwing trash in your yard and sometimes they are giving you flowers, and vice versa in interactions.”
Parks joined “Street Scenes” to be able to engage in the Greencastle community before he graduated. “I wanted to interact with community members. I never have had this opportunity, ever,” Parks said. “And I owe the place that has hosted my collegiate experience at least that much.”
Good believes the brainstorming process is an opportunity to have students voices be heard. “Its one of the few places where your voice is actually equal to other voices in the room,” Good said.
The environment challenges usual power structures in a university setting and makes each person involved listen. “You’re forced to listen to others, but at the same time, everything you say is valued by the group. The equality of the voice and the power structures actually even out and we can find what connects us and what divides us in a deeper more meaningful way,” Good said.
Good hopes to continue fostering plays like “Street Scenes” on DePauw’s campus. “Soon is relative, but yes, of course,” Good said. “I’ll keep finding opportunities to do things like this.”
Until another forum theatre play is created, opportunities to engage in conversations at the core of “Street Scenes” can be in daily life. “You don’t have to create a experimental play,” Zartman said, “just have a conversation that is worthwhile and it might surprise you.”