JENNIFER JACKSON'S PORT TOWNSEND NEIGHBOR COLUMN: Theater production like real life
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Poetic Justice actors use words and motions to form a fluid sculpture reflecting audience response to the “Hard Times” skit. From top clockwise are Kai Addae, Ashnie Butler, Gary Lilley and Emily Neumann.

NO FOOD IN the cupboard. No milk in the fridge. Bills coming in faster than paychecks.

That was the opening scene of “Making It in Hard Times,” a theater presentation at the Tri-Area Community Center showing what it is like to live on the edge.

But for Nancy Stratton, it was real life.

“It was scary,” Stratton said. “How I was going to pay the bills — it was a mystery every month.”

Stratton, who lives in Port Hadlock, was one of the audience members who related to the interactive skit put on by the Poetic Justice Theatre Ensemble last week.

The premise: The actors go through the skit, then do a “playback,” e.g., repeat it, with the audience invited to stop the action at any point and jump in.

The idea: to take the part of one of the characters and turn the action in a different, and possibly better, way.

The exercise, director Marc Weinblatt explained, is a rehearsal for life, whether you are the main character who is going through hard times or a supporting player — a friend, relative, store clerk or waitress.

“To be an actor, you have to take action,” Weinblatt said.”We are all actors in our lives.”

Weinblatt is the founding director of the Mandala Center for Change, whose “Theatre of the Oppressed” facilitator training sessions draw people from all over the world — a woman is coming from Egypt for the June training (see related event, below).

9th season

The Poetic Justice Theatre Ensemble, which is completing its ninth season, is the local community service arm of Mandala and is made up of local volunteer actors.

This year, they range in age from 17 to 63 and include Copper Canyon Press poet Gary Lilley, small-business and social media consultant Leif Hansen, event planner Emily Neumann and arts therapist Alana Karsch.

During the year, the ensemble's schedule included an interactive presentation on aging at an assisted living center and ended with “It Doesn't Happen Here” for a multiracial family support group.

“Our style is not realistic,” Weinblatt said, referring to the scene set-ups and improvised props, “but we hope we're touching on real themes.”

The characters also occasionally burst into song, as they did during “Hard Times.”

After getting the mail — bills, a notice from the IRS and a request for a donation to help feral cats — the main character, played by Lilley, discovers there is nothing to eat in the house.

Biking to the store, he hands his Quest card to the cashier (Hansen), who stands on a stool and loudly intones “insufficient funds” in front of the other customers (Neumann and Karsch) when the card is refused.

As he leaves without his groceries, the man meets two friends (Kai Addae and Ashnie Butler) who invite him to join them for dinner at a restaurant, an invitation he has to refuse.

Back home, the man feels lonely, hopeless and depressed.

“It's not going to get any better,” he says.

That's what Stratton said she went through a year ago when she became disabled. The doctors took awhile to figure out what was wrong with her, she said, and in the meantime, she lost her job and had to use a wheelchair.

No way to leave house

Living alone in a house with no ramp, she had no way to go out, but the bills, including the mortgage, kept coming in.

“I didn't know if I'd be homeless,” she said.

Stratton did take part in the playback, accepting the invitation to go with the friends to the restaurant, where they asked her how things were going.

On further questioning, she responded, “I don't want to talk about it,” reflecting the difficulty people have in sharing problems in a social setting.

That doesn't mean people shouldn't invite friends who are going through hard times to parties or dinner.

“I think people who are struggling still want to be a part of other people's lives and share their joys,” Stratton said.

For Jeri Williams, another audience member, the skit was a reminder of the four years she and her husband fished to support their family.

The PJT's presentation on aging also evoked a lot of stories, Weinblatt said.

Last week, when the players performed “It Doesn't Happen Here” for the multiracial family support group, it brought tears to the eyes of audience members who had children, grandchildren and cousins from different ethnic backgrounds.

The skit opens with a girl (Addae) whose friend (Karsch) asks why her hair and skin are different, then expresses surprise that the girl doesn't look like her father.

Later, the father (Richard Sloane) and daughter meet the mother (Butler) at a restaurant, where the waitress (Zhaleh Almaee) addresses the father but treats the mother as if she is invisible.

As they wait for their meal, the girl announces, “It don't like my hair.”

“Race is never talked about in Port Townsend,” Weinblatt said. “We are trying to create a context where it is safe for people to do that.”

Jim Jenkins, the Tri-Area Community Center manager and past PTJ ensemble member, said he felt he was the only person experiencing “a whole lot of hard times” until he got help from Olympic Community Action Programs and realized a lot of people were in the same boat.

Jenkins said the skit accurately portrayed the rejection you feel, but the closing line, “It's not going to get any better,” was wrong.

“I've been through those experiences,” he said. “It always got some kind of better or resolved itself.”

Stratton's story also had a positive ending. Friends helped hold a garage sale, she said, and with the help of her church, friends and OlyCAP, she was able to hold on until her disability claim came through.

Living in gratitude

Now, she said, she is living in gratitude.

“I'm very grateful for the people and organizations that were there for me,” Stratton said. “I'm still wondering what happens to people who don't get help.”

A brochure, “Help for Hard Times: A Jefferson County Guide for Unemployment,” is available from OlyCAP. For more information, phone 360-385-2571.

For more information on the support group for multiracial family members, email manzanita1644@gmailcom.

On Friday, July 1, an international cast of 40 participants at a weeklong Theatre of the Oppressed facilitator training will present an interactive performance and community dialogue on “Waging Peace, Designing Justice” at the Port Townsend Masonic Hall, 1338 Jefferson St., Port Townsend.

Admission to the event, which starts at 7 p.m., is free, with donations accepted for the Boiler Room youth coffee house.

The Masonic Hall is on the corner of Van Buren and Jefferson streets, across Jefferson from the back of the Port Townsend Post Office.

For more information, visit www.mandalaforchange.com.

________

Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or email jjackson@olypen.com.

Last modified: June 07. 2011 10:24PM
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