Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Engaged Theatre Creating Transformation and Community" by Tikka Sears

When I attend Freehold’s Engaged Theater performance at the women’s correctional facility in Gig Harbor, I end up thinking about my own life choices and near misses. How easily bad luck or bad timing could have landed me right where these women sit. I wonder how I would survive this, and I respect and admire these survivors for what they have endured both in their old life on the outside and what they must become on the inside.

When I first see their bodies walk onstage I can't help but imagine the crimes they may have committed and my mind travels far filling in the stories, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Yet when I watch them push their bodies through the choreography, help one another up between scene changes, gently pick up a fallen mask, and hold the edges of one another's shirts down as they peel off their top shirts to reveal a beautiful new shirt, I am brought to tears by their focused effort, by the care and grace they exhibit. I am reminded of how true stage concentration is like a state of walking meditation where we may be our best selves, where we can remind the world of the vast potential of humanity. One woman spoke of not recognizing the monster she had become. One woman held a small child to her breast and wailed upon learning that the child was not born healthy. Her face contorted so violently it tore out my heart. Her commitment to that moment was so powerful I expected her to still be crying as she exited the stage. Yet when I saw her stand up and quickly walk off stage for her next part I saw the focused attention of a performer, not a broken soul. I respected and recognized this steady gaze and professional way of moving to the next moment, moving on.

Another powerful metaphor was the exploration of the masks we wear on a daily basis and how they both protect us and separate us from others. There were also fun moments where we got to experience the humor these women are filled with. One character was named beaver and there were a series of beaver jokes that were fun and kept the mood light as well as the audience laughing, even when we still had tears on our cheeks. Another powerful moment was a monologue written and performed by one of the women who uses a wheelchair. It spoke about the mask that the world sees of her as someone disabled and yet she spoke of all the courageous and life changing things she had helped others to accomplish. She spoke of her best self, her superhero self.

I particularly enjoyed a movement sequence that showed the women experiencing a psychological death of their old selves and falling to the floor. Individual performers moved through the graveyard of fallen bodies and slowly began to lift the women up one by one with care. To me it symbolized a new beginning, the fresh start the women were hoping for, dreaming for everyday. At the end of the play the women each walked up a ramp and threw their metaphorical old masks into the flaming inferno. It was a powerful moment when reality and performance blended into one another. The line between the performance and their personal lives blurred, and I could tell that by the time they peeled off that first T-shirt they had begun to transform.

Through the performance, through the act of publicly sharing their private suffering, they had transformed not only themselves but us as an audience. I am reminded of the reasons that I love being a theater artist: transformation and community. Theater has the power to transform and affect both the performers and the audience with the public sharing of stories. Theater does not always reach this goal but it always has the potential. The courageous work of the Freehold volunteers and the women at the correctional facility reaches this potential in the linoleum and neon clad gymnasium surrounded by high security doors, alarms and barbed wire.

Tikka Sears is a director, actor and educator. She is co-founder and artistic director of Memory War Theater Her work has been selected for the 2007 Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards and the Bumbershoot 2008 TPS stage. She has directed pieces for the 2009 & 2010 Studio Series and attended classes at Freehold.

Collaborators Manuel Castro and Tikka Sears, Artistic Directors of Memory War Theater, join creative forces again to bring their newest multimedia play, Below U.S., to the Ethnic Cultural Theatre on June 3 and 4 at 8:00 pm. Below U.S. combines physical theater, video animation, digital projection, comedy and shadow imagery intertwined with reflections of community members on the slippery nature of hybrid identity. Manuel and Tikka encourage you to visit their website at, where you can learn more, join the discussion, and win a free ticket to the show. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for Seniors/TPS members and $5 for students and can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.

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