Make It Worth It

by Sara Farrington

in National Conference

Post image for Make It Worth It

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

I’ve tried to break down the barrier between theater and the community of the forgotten borough of Staten Island.

For the past 3 years, I taught English and Playwriting as an adjunct at The College of Staten Island. None of my students, even the few majoring in theater, ever saw any theater. Most had never seen a play before. One of my students, Hamzeh, said to me this semester, “Why would I see a play?

True. Why would Hamzeh see a play?

The College of Staten Island is a massive CUNY school right off the Verrazano Bridge known for its Nursing Department. These students have full-time jobs, kids of their own, bills, sick parents, sick grandparents, crazy girlfriends, rageful boyfriends, cheating spouses and addicted friends. Every class of mine had a handful of pregnant girls, one who missed a few classes after being assaulted by her unborn baby’s dad’s ex-girlfriend in the street. Every class of mine had a handful of students who had literally just moved to the U.S. from places like Ivory Coast, Montenegro, Italy or India. Every class of mine had kids who got in a car crash right before class. Every class of mine had kids just home from a tour of Iraq. Every class of mine had kids who dropped out because they couldn’t afford school. Every class of mine had kids who came the first day and then, as far as I was concerned, simply disappeared.

So there needs to be a really, really good reason for them to take a bus to the Staten Island Ferry then take the R train uptown, see a play, and then do that commute all over again at 11PM.

This past semester I told them– all 70 of them– that I’d forgive them each 2 absences if they saw a play I wrote, directed and self-produced, Near Vicksburg, running in Manhattan at the Incubator Arts Project.

The incentive was there, so they all came.

During the performance, they were very vocal and Groundling-esque. I could tell they were into it. In class the next week, they told me,

“It wasn’t boring!”

“I always thought plays were just people talking.”

“The first scene reminded me of when my boyfriend left for Iraq.”

“The line at the end I almost cried after.”

“That girl who played the young daughter was me.”

And my favorite from Josh Moskowitz who said, “I might actually go see another play now.”

Yes, I bribed the students into going. No, they wouldn’t have gone otherwise. But I didn’t care. For 75 minutes, I gave some kids from Staten Island a peek into that private corner of themselves that they don’t have access to because they don’t see plays. This private corner is the intangible soul of us. It is beautiful and fragile, it is escape and freedom. But my Staten Island kids never get access to it because they never consider going to the theater because at some point the theater proved itself not worth their time.

That private corner gets violated by plays that are all talking. It gets violated by plays about the struggles of wealthy white people. It gets violated by plays that are nothing more than a playwright’s attempt at writing for TV. It gets violated by plays that depict women in uncomplicated and ignorant ways. It gets violated by plays that depict men in uncomplicated and ignorant ways. It gets violated by plays that read like USA Today captions. It gets violated by plays that are merely an academic exercise. Violate that private corner once with these kids from Staten Island and they will write you off and go back to concentrating, as they should, on the entanglements of their everyday lives.

So the only proven way I know to break the barriers between theater artists and communities is for theater artists to make theater that is rigorous enough to merit a babysitter, a bus, a ferry and the subway—twice.

This kind of theater doesn’t take money, it takes know-how.

Communities can stay home and watch TV, which is so awesome now and depicts “realism” in a way theater isn’t obliged to do anymore. How liberating for us theater artists. We must do our part by offering true theater– naked, Dionysian, writhing, un-killable, cheap theater. Communities outside our own artistic circle will come, but there has to be something in it for them.

Playwright Sara Farrington has her MFA in Playwriting from Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman. Sara is a 2014 HARP Artist at HERE Arts Center to create CasablancaBox, a hybrid new media/old media piece in collaboration with her husband Reid Farrington. CasablancaBox will have workshop showings at HERE’s CultureMart 2015 and 2016, with a premiere in 2017. Recent work includes: Near Vicksburg (Incubator Arts Project, workshops at Walkerspace, Foxy Films, upcoming: First Stories Festival @ The Wild Project) Requiem For Black Marie (Incubator Arts Project, Foxy Films, Stella Adler Studios) Mickey & Sage (Incubator Arts Project, Foxy Films, Great Plains Theater Conference, National Theater Institute @ O’Neill Center, upcoming: ShelterBelt Theater in Omaha, NE and a production in the works in Sao Paolo, Brazil). Other work includes: The Vultures (Weasel Festival) That Stays There (Great Plains Theater Conference, Bushwick Starr Reading Series, Little Theater @ Dixon Place), The Death of Evie Avery (FringeNYC), The Rise & Fall of Miles & Milo (FringeNYC, winner: Outstanding Playwriting).  MacDowell Colony Fellow and Bay Area Playwrights Festival Finalist, Dragon’s Egg Residency recipient and has participated in Erik Ehn’s silent playwriting retreats. Upcoming: a workshop production of her new play at JACK in Brooklyn in July/August 2014, directed by Marina McClure. Sara produces workshop versions of her own work at Foxy Films, live/work space in Downtown Brooklyn where she lives with husband Reid Farrington and son, Jack.