Framing Things A Different Way At Philly’s InterAct

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

Paul S Flores in YOURE GONNA CRY, part of InterAct Theatre Company's OUTSIDE THE FRAME Festival. (Photo credit: Ramsey El-Quare)

Founded in 1988, Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company set out with a mission to educate, as well as entertain. They want to use theatre to foster positive change in their community. They want to start the conversation. And they have done that repeatedly during their almost 25 years. I can’t tell you how many really lively and stimulating conversations I’ve had on my way home from InterAct productions.

Another part of their mission is helping to develop new plays and artists. They have produced several original works over the years that reflect the climate of the moment. They’re not afraid to tackle those thorny political, social or racial questions; to make their audiences think, possible opening up new perspectives on an issue through the power of theatre.

That is a very brave position in which to place yourself and your company. What if you go too far? What if you alienate your audiences? I have sat on several Production committees discussing potential seasons for a theatre company. It is not easy. You want to grow artistically and challenge yourselves, but you need audiences to do that. And sometimes people are afraid to take the ride with you. Kudos to InterAct and their audiences for being willing to “get on board.”

So, how does a theatre company that has spent its life pushing the envelope challenge themselves and their audiences even more? Well, I asked Artistic Director Seth Rozin that very question in the lobby of the theatre. He told me they really wanted to step outside their comfort zone, yet still be true to their goals of diversity and giving new artists a place to develop and grow. The result is a one-time festival entitled OUTSIDE THE FRAME—VOICES FROM THE OTHER AMERICA.

Rozin spent the past year attending solo performances around the country and speaking to several national counterparts. He viewed countless videos and read mountains of treatments in an effort to discover the most unique and dynamic compilation of contemporary stories. Stories of people who are generally on the fringes of mainstream America—OUTSIDE THE FRAME.

The result is a festival of performance pieces from all across the country that will run from now until April 22nd. There are a total of seven works included in the festival. “Valiant,” written and performed by Lanna Joffrey, chronicles the stories of women in war and exile. Using two supporting actresses, Ms. Joffrey recreates verbatim interviews to take us inside the minds of 13 extraordinary women from Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, Italy, Japan, Northern Ireland, Latvia, El Salvador, the Philippines and the United States.

“unFRAMED,” written and performed by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo, tells the story of this native Antiguan’s adjustment to life in America. Sharing a deeply personal and politically charge memoir, Mr. Mandingo also paints a self-portrait before the audience’s eyes as he speaks.

In “Draw The Circle,” Indian-America Deen details the story of a daughter becoming a son. He shares the intimate details of his journey from female to male entirely through the words of his family, close friends and partner.

“Palestine,” by Najla SaÏd, paints a very intimate, honest and humorous portrait of the author’s decidedly Upper West Side upbringing and her surprising experiences traveling to the Occupied Territories as she explored her ancestry.

“Travels With Whitey And Other Stories,” by Robert Karima, is a lively and humorous piece about the personal experiences of this half-Iranian/half-Guatemalan musician and actor. Infused with music, Karima’s piece shares the nearly unbelievable story of his failed trip to Iran scheduled for September 13, 2001.

“Lay Of The Land,” written and performed by Tim Miller, is a sassy and smart satire wherein the author (an internationally acclaimed solo performer) shares the current “State of the Queer Union.” In conjunction with his appearance, Martin will be conducting a week-long performance workshop, open to all. The goal is to share a variety of strategies to create original performances from the stories that are present in the participants’ lives.

And, finally, the piece I saw: “You’re Gonna Cry” by Paul S. Flores. Flores’ hip-hop influenced/spoken word presentation is the only performance in the festival in which one actor plays multiple roles. Flores is trying to capture the abrupt changes seen throughout San Francisco’s Mission District that were brought on by the dot-com boom and bust, the real estate bubble, constant immigration and forced evictions—all of which led to the gentrification of the area. This is a story that long-time Philadelphians can relate to, as it has happened in several parts of our city as artists have been forced out of places once the Yuppies discovered them.

Between musical interludes and dance bits, Flores presents a neighborhood of colorful characters of varying ages, genders and ethnicities. There were six of us in our group, and, unfortunately, no one felt he really got his message across to us. We were all impressed with his ear for the quirky dialogue of the neighborhood around him, yet we felt the story was too scattered; that he was trying to cover too much territory in such a short time. It might have been a more powerful piece if he had focused on one story of struggle and change, instead of the six or so he seemed to be trying to weave together. It did engender a lively conversation about changing neighborhoods and wanting to hang on to the familiar amongst our group though—so that’s something.

Flores is a very engaging performer however—and a gifted poet. There were many passages alive with beautiful language that created wonderfully vivid imagery. He is also a fairly decent dancer, showing us some hip-hop moves along with some Latin rhythms. The piece has several passages in Spanish, which were difficult to follow—I kept wishing for subtitles. One of my companions is a native of Puerto Rico, but he was unable to translate all of the sections for us. Having done a couple of monologue works myself, I know what a scary proposition it is to be onstage alone. It’s just you and the words—no safety net of another actor to share the journey with. I have the utmost respect for Mr. Flores—and all of the performers in the festival. And I applaud InterAct for giving us these “Voices from the other America.” Go listen to what they have to say…

A Festival of 7 Solo Performances
March 27—April 22, 2012
Schedule Varies Daily
Various Artist and Directors
InterAct Theatre Company
@ The Adrienne
2030 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

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