Monday, April 9, 2012

Whitworth theatre students collaborate with Spokane residents on May 6 community-based production at Bing Crosby Theatre

On May 6, Whitworth Assistant Professor of Theatre Brooke Kiener, her students, and Spokane residents will present a community-based theatre project, "Wizdom: Making Dollars and Sense," at 7 p.m. at the Bing Crosby Theatre in downtown Spokane. The hour-long performance will be followed by a discussion with the actors and director. Admission is free. For more information, please call (509) 777-3707.

"'Wizdom' tells the stories of real people who live and work in Spokane, and who experience discrimination and stereotyping based on perceived socio-economic distinctions," Kiener says. "It also highlights some of the economic injustices faced especially by Spokane's poor and working class citizens."

Kiener describes "Wizdom" as a parody of The Wizard of Oz. In the show, a Whitworth student named Dorothea experiences some interactions on the university's campus that cause her to begin to notice socio-economic labeling and assumptions. She falls asleep on a bench in the Loop, located at the center of campus, and wakes up in downtown Spokane, where she meets a Native American woman on the banks of the Spokane River. The woman tells Dorothea to go on a journey for wisdom. But Dorothea thinks the woman told her to search for "the Wizard" and sets off on a journey to find him. Along the way she meets Mr. Scarecrow (an unemployed man in a soup kitchen line), Mr. Tinman (the CEO of a corporation), and Ms. Lion (a working-class mom on a picket line outside of a mega-store). Together they search for the Wizard, but instead discover "the wonderful wisdom of us."

Kiener says the production is unique in that it features Whitworth students acting alongside community members who have had direct experience as low-income earners. "Wizdom" is a collaborative project with an organization called VOICES, a group of low-income citizens who do advocacy work about issues that affect low-income earners. The characters of Mr. Scarecrow, Mr. Tinman, the Good Witch, Ms. Lion and three others will be performed by VOICES members. The remaining 30 roles will be played by eight Whitworth students.

The script for "Wizdom" was written in January 2004 during a week-long institute on theatre for social justice held at Whitworth. As part of the program, two professional theatre artists from Fringe Benefits Theatre in Los Angeles facilitated a series of workshops, which were attended by more than 50 Whitworth students, faculty, and staff, as well as members from all socio-economic strata in the Spokane community. The script is made up of true stories from the institute participants about discrimination and economic injustices.

Despite completing the script eight years ago, a lack of time, money, and space prevented Whitworth from producing the show. Last August, Lynn Noland, Whitworth's director of sponsored programs and IRB administrator of academic affairs, informed Kiener that the Inland Northwest Community Foundation was offering a community strategies grant. With the Occupy protests beginning to spread across the country, Kiener says it seemed very timely to be doing a show about economic injustices.

Kiener secured the grant, which paid for the sets, costumes, and the rental of the rehearsal and performance space. The grant further allowed Kiener to reimburse the show's community participants for gas money and child care expenses. It's also allowing the cast and crew to share a meal together at the start of each rehearsal.

The production will also feature an original musical score written collaboratively by a community member with Whitworth junior Nick Kmet. The set designs were collaboratively created by the students and community members, under the direction of Whitworth's new assistant professor of theatre, Aaron Dyszelski, who specializes in set and costume design.

Community engagement through theatre is one of Kiener's areas of expertise. In 2010, she and her students created "What's in a Meal?", about local and national food sustainability. The script for "What's in a Meal?" is currently being considered for an edited anthology on food sustainability.

In 2008, Kiener and 12 Whitworth students in her community-based theatre class researched law-enforcement issues in partnership with Spokane's Center for Justice. The result was an original show, "Crossing the Line: An Investigation of the Police, Power and People," which they performed at CenterStage theatre. Kiener later published an article about "Crossing the Line" in The Journal of Religion and Theatre.

This summer, an article on the scriptwriting process for "Wizdom" will be included in a book, Setting the Stage for Social Justice (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012).

"I hope that people hear these stories with open minds and hearts, and that hearing them expands our understanding of economic realities and our compassion for people who are in need," Kiener says. "I also hope that ultimately this changes the way we interact with each other and advocate for change in our community."

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 3,000 students, offers 60 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Contacts:

Jennifer Toulouse-Lee, program assistant, theatre department, Whitworth University, (509) 777-3707 or jtoulouse-lee@whitworth.edu.

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or eproffitt@whitworth.edu.