Friday I got to listen to the this year’s College Collaboration Playwright Judith Leora speak with Shenandoah University students about the topic of hate speech vs. free speech for the beginning of the process of writing her play. Prior to Judith joining the conversation we had a few minutes for the students to ask questions about The Farm Theater. The third and final question was “What was your most profound moment working with The Farm Theater?”
My response was “Working with (faculty member) Scott Hudson.” It got the expected laugh. However, it is also true. It is profound to be able to work with friends, peers, and collaborators who are passionate about the development of new work, development of early career artists, and facilitating conversation on difficult topics through the theater. I then said that the profound part is watching the influence the students have on the development of the plays and the conversation that this process generates. It is true. Like most Q&A sessions the answer is geared toward the audience and the purpose you are addressing. We ran out of time and Judith was ready for conversation with the students.
While answering that questions I thought about many moments that were profound. The first college collaboration, where a student suggested that one of the characters in the play was queer. At the time the character was underdeveloped. The play was about the suicide of someone who was not out to his friends and family. That choice helped shape the character and influence the story.
Also, the student that suggested that talked about how empowering it was for her, a queer undergrad, to be able to play a character that reflected her experience in the world for the first time in her acting experience. During our second collaboration a student directly said to the playwright “I don’t like the main character.” The play was about sexual assault on a college campus and that comment helped shape not only the main character but the story line of the play. The influence student artists have on the stories are profound but what’s more profound to me is seeing the personal and artistic growth of the students when they recognize the value they contribute to the process.
Then I think about the dialogue that the productions inspire. When Birmingham Southern College first produced Jan Rosenberg’s play about body image and addiction there was a post show conversation facilitated by a local professional therapist/counselor. At the conversation a high school student in the audience said, “I’m worried about my friend. How can I help her?” – the production and respect of all involved created an experience and environment that allowed this young person ask for help for the first time.
Our current production of Erin Mallon’s play is about how our thoughts and emotional life effect our physical life. It’s primarily a comedy. I wasn’t sure what type of dialogue it would generate. At the end of our first post show conversation a woman, faculty member, stood up and said, “Thank you for this play. I have an autistic child and this production gave me a greater appreciation for her daily experience.”
I don’t want to limit my response to only the college collaboration project. One of the single most profound events in my theater career is writing and performing my solo show about suicide awareness. Since the original production, produced by The Farm Theater, I have been invited to present that show multiple times.
Each time after presenting the show people courageously share with me their experience with the issue of suicide. Most recently I performed the play at a high school in Kentucky and four students stayed afterward to talk with me. Each of them were clearly having a struggle with the issue. And they each asked me, separately, “Do you really think it helps to talk to someone?”
They were each told, for different reasons, not to talk about it.
Their pain. Their struggle. Their lives.
The most profound moment working with The Farm Theater has been watching artists courageously share themselves in order to be seen, heard, and generate stories that allow the audiences to feel seen, heard, and valued in a way that they know they matter and are encouraged to share their stories.