In this essay, the members of the Remember2019 Collective, Arielle Julia Brown, Ashley Teague, Carlos Sirah, Mauricio Tafur Salgado and Yazmany Arboleda, talk about their eight-year durational, grassroots engagement with the Black community of the Arkansas Delta.
As a storyteller, I’m always drawn to telling stories about those living on the fringes of society. Journeying into unknown territories appeals to the explorer in me, while coming face to face with the complicated, flawed, and the emotional feels right. My mentor, legendary teacher and actor Luis Oropeza, always told me: “Write things that make you cry.” I’ve tried to take his advice and added to it by sometimes written things that make me laugh. Laughing, crying, and being emotionally moved is why I see plays watch movies, and television. Is there any other reason?
As a director and creator of interactive theater performances that engage audience members directly, making them active participants in the plays, there is always a question of tact: how do you create theater about the marginalized, make it interactive, and yet still have respect for the subject matter?
One of the challenges with interactive, especially the interactive Live In Theater (LIT), the Drama Desk nominated and Gold Sabre Award winning interactive ensemble excels at, is that the interactive is almost always inherently entertaining. With LIT, all walls are completely obliterated and the audience actually becomes characters in the performances. This is inherently funny because in our interactive theater I (as an audience member) am the show! I laugh at my little brother as he interrogates a suspect, I may take center stage (after a couple of drinks, to fortify myself) and relish the “playing” the role prosecutor in front of my friends, or Norm from accounting can, and very often does, become the office hero because he was hilarious as he solved the murder mystery “The Ryan Case 1873.” So yes, even murder, the most taboo of all subjects, in interactive is and can be very funny!
Well, what about drug addiction? Or specifically what about junkies? What about doing a show where fourteen audience members will become a variety of different characters—friends, family, and foes—as they travel through Needle Park circa 1965? In LIT’s newest and most controversial piece, this is exactly what will happen. But what happens if the audience laughs? What happens if they think it’s funny? Undoubtedly they will, and therein lies a most wonderful opportunity.
Alcohol and drug use is as American as apple pie. Historically America was called “A nation of drunkards.” Maybe it’s the curse of an affluent and powerful nation, having lots of everything. But how much do we really know about drugs and addiction? How much do we really know about the unfortunates who fall victim? Drugs have been a part of my life since my early adolescence. Crack came to my high school my sophomore year; it was 1985 and I saw it personally destroy some of my closest friends. As an adult I have had my fair share of recreational drugs use, that is until the drugs took center stage. I found first hand that addiction is a disease. And as any disease, it deserves attention, compassion, and the sense of understanding that a shared experience can bring.
With this production, I’m venturing into new, fertile territory. Immersive & its close cousin Interactive theater has tremendous potential. In the case of “J & K 1965” it has the potential to give audiences an up-close look at drug addiction. It has the potential to make people have a greater sense of understanding, and give them an experience that will enlighten them about drug addiction as a disease. And all of this will happens because we will laugh. Because we as the audience will bond with each other and with John & Karen. We will like them so that when things don’t go so well for them we will feel more for them. We will be invested, we will have experienced a part of their life with them. The trick lies in being honest. In opening up the torso and exposing the two lives at the core of the experience. Baring it all, the good the bad and the ugly. This is why I go to the theater. To live, to laugh, to cry. I look forward to providing audiences a deep, multi-layered, visceral, and yes, funny look into a world most of us know very little about. In the words of the real Karen: “We are animals in a world no one knows.” We think it’s time you came to know.