Several Northeast Ohio theater artists are using their stages to tackle issues such as racial discrimination, mental health and the opioid crisis
By Bob Abelman
Throughout history, artists have created work that does more than entertain. Art can call attention to causes, give voice to sociopolitical injustices, provide a catalyst for protest and serve as an agent for change.
Playwright Aristophanes may well have been the first theater activist. Weary of the Peloponnesian War that had been raging for years, his “Lysistrata,” first performed in 411 BCE, encouraged a sex-strike by all of the women of Greece as a demonstration of their dissent and solidarity.
This past summer, New York’s Public Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, the Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company, and other troupes across the country staged provocative productions of “Julius Caesar” intended to stimulate discussion about modern-day populist leaders with a fondness for executive power.
Feminist street theater performers in New York publically called out art galleries and museums for their lack of female artists.
In Spain, performance artist flash mobs staged unannounced Flamenco dances in bank lobbies and the Andalusian parliament to passionately denounce the banking crisis and the austerity measures resulting from European bailouts.
Here in Northeast Ohio, activism by theater artists ranges from overt to incidental and from political to very personal.
Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan
Nonprofit theaters perform a balancing act when reacting to politics. They can’t hold rallies and they can’t make endorsements without endangering their tax-exempt status. But they most certainly can tell stories.
Raymond Bobgan – who is celebrating his 11th season as executive artistic director of the Cleveland Public Theatre – is all about the storytelling.
Bobgan received the 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio for his “sustained, impactful and visionary leadership” while championing the diverse voices of local playwrights and the minority communities they represent.
In CPT’s multi-theater complex in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, Bobgan launched Teatro Publico de Cleveland, a 35-member ensemble of Cleveland’s Latinx theater artists, and is laying the groundwork for a similar initiative with Cleveland’s Middle-Eastern and Arabic communities.
He brought “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays” to the CPT stage to open hearts and minds to marriage equality when the issue was before the Supreme Court. And CPT’s Station Hope – an annual one-night performing arts event in April or May that celebrates the Underground Railroad and explores contemporary issues of social justice – is perhaps the best example of this theater company’s brand of activism.
“Social justice is about empowering marginalized and minority groups to tell their own stories,” Bobgan says.
Interplay Jewish Theatre’s Faye Sholiton
Founded in 2011 by Beachwood playwright Faye Sholiton, Interplay Jewish Theatre offers free staged readings of plays that view the contemporary world through a Jewish lens.
Interplay’s first performance was a reading of Deborah Margolin’s drama “Imagining Madoff,” which examined the human capacity for greed. Since then, Sholiton has produced a series of works by a range of living Jewish artists who explore the Middle East conflict, racism and Holocaust denial, among other hot-button topics.
“We don’t choose scripts specifically meant to spark action,” Sholiton says. “It’s more to spark a connection. We want to touch people, provide new insights into the human condition. As playwright/director Aaron Posner told a group of theatermakers a few years ago, ‘The days of sit back, relax and enjoy a show are over. It’s now sit up, lean in and engage.’”
Early on, the company was itinerant. But since 2013, Interplay’s primary partners are Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Beachwood’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
“Whether audiences are moved to social, political or religious action, I don’t know,” Sholiton says. “But they certainly become more aware of their own fragility, and we make these discoveries together in a safe and welcoming space.”
Reflecting the good intentions of many other local theater artists, Sholiton adds, “I like to think the work makes us more thoughtful citizens and more compassionate neighbors. Turning those values into action is icing on the cake.”
improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz
If academic credit could be earned through real-life experience with suicidal depression and electro-convulsive therapy, then comedian/improv artist Deena Nyer Mendlowitz has a master’s in mental illness – and her thesis is the one-woman show “Funnel Cakes Not Included.”
The comedy is a deeply personal excavation of how depression colors a person’s day-to-day existence and serves to distinguish between sadness and depression in the hope of putting a dent in mental health stigma and discrimination.
It was first performed to sold-out houses in 2014 at the Cleveland Public Theatre and has since been staged at the Dobama Theatre’s Playwrights’ Gym, Miami University in Oxford, Arcade Comedy Theater in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
The positive response to this production launched a live show called “Mental Illness and Friends,” which takes place every month at Bar Louie on West Sixth Street in downtown Cleveland. Mendlowitz, who was trained at The Second City and Annoyance Theater in Chicago, begins each performance with a new opening monologue, seamlessly weaving together mental illness, real life and laughter. Guest comedians, improv artists, actors and the occasional musical guest perform and share a bit of their own mental health history.
The evening ends with an improv session based on topics from that evening’s discussion, resulting in hilarious, healing and – hopefully – attitude-changing entertainment.
“When life is rough,” says Mendlowitz, “create new stuff.”
none too fragile’s Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky
Co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky are performing a very personal form of activism by initiating “relaxed” performances at their Akron-based none too fragile theater.
“Seá’s Night,” named after their 18-year-old daughter with Rett Syndrome, caters one performance per production to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time.
“Our other children enjoy attending shows as well as helping backstage or on stage,” says Derry, “but Seá has not been able to do so. Until now.”
By opening the door to special needs attendees and making their theater more inclusive, Derry and Romansky are spreading awareness of Rett Syndrome – a rare non-inherited neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls and leads to their inability to speak, walk, eat and breathe easily – and other debilitating diseases to their patrons. And all profits from “Seá’s Night” performances are donated to the Rett Syndrome Research Trust.
Confronting the devil:
playwrights on the front line of opioid addiction
Following in the footsteps of activist-minded theatermakers who penned heartbreaking plays about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” several local playwrights have been tackling the state’s surging opioid crisis.
Emily Sherin and Zach Manthey are students at Kent State University who co-wrote “(In)dependent: The Heroin Project” in response to the much-publicized news photo of an East Liverpool woman and her boyfriend slumped in the front seat of an SUV after overdosing on heroin. The woman’s 4-year-old grandson was in the backseat.
The drama – based on some 50 interviews with heroin users and family members, counselors and paramedics, and written in the powerful first-person style of Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” – recently premiered at the Akron Civic Theater. On stage, “when you have someone in front of you showing you the effect this epidemic has, it opens your eyes,” said Sherin in a recent article in The New York Times (nyti.ms/2hgXcB8). “Confrontation is key to communication.”
Premiering at Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus in Parma, Greg Vovos’ one-man, 90-minute play “How to be a Respectable Junkie” follows a similar path. It is based on extensive interviews with a recovering white-collar heroin user.
“I was blown away by his sense of humor, intelligence and how engaging he was,” says Vovos. “It made me realize that our communities were losing so many great people, and I needed to write about that.”
The play unfolds as stream of consciousness commentary by 30-something Brian. According to a Plain Dealer review (bit.ly/2hagp3S) of its recent Dobama Theatre production, “How to be a Respectable Junkie” prescribes empathy as an antidote and “speaks to addicts, their parents and loved ones numbed by disappointment … and those lucky enough to have watched the numbers of (overdoses) rise and rise without ever having to attend a funeral.”
“A person approached me after one show,” recalls Vovos, “and said I’ll never write a more important play in my life.”
As a grassroots initiative, theater can bring communities together, give voice to the marginalized, articulate issues and push to the forefront problems we otherwise choose to ignore. Every time theater artists like these challenge the powers that be and established ways of thinking, they prove that art and activism are more powerful together than apart. CV
Anne McEvoy contributed to this story.
Lead image: Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo by Steve Wagner