Repast, Present, Future

How 4 theatre projects are using food (or its absence) to make lasting community connections

By Mark Blankenship


From left, ; Steve and Allison Gipson in Grandaddy's Watch (courtesy of Buttonwillow Church Civil War Dinner Theater); a set piece from Who's Hungry? (Dan Hurlin); Grace Booth in Double Edge's garden (courtesy of Double Edge Theatre); Hannah Treuhaft, chicken, Liam Kaas-Lentz in On the Table (courtesy of Sojourn Theatre).

Consider yourself lucky: You've just seen a piece of theatre that sprang from your own community—a show that had to be created here, where you live, because it says something authentic and essential about the place.

The show you saw was especially powerful because it reframed the setting of your everyday life—it turned your neighbors, your neighborhood and (you began to feel) even aspects of you into art, opening your eyes to new possibilities, new connections.

If you lived in Manhattan in 2003, that show might have been The Angel Project, in which British director Deborah Warner led you and your fellow New Yorkers from building to building, through offices and alleys that have been altered just enough to seem new. If you live in Colquitt, Ga., the show had to be Swamp Gravy, a sweet-natured musical based on the lives of local residents that has run annually for well over a decade.

And with every season that passes, you are more and more likely to see artists—whether they're urban, rural or in-between—using food as a community connection, letting everything from farming to five-course meals create a theatrical link to the local population.

Of course, there's really no escaping food at the theatre. How many times have you chuckled at the "please unwrap your candies" announcement, bought a brownie at intermission or covertly chugged a Poland Spring during Willy Loman's suicide? But whatever we consume at our seats or in the lobby, it's traditionally been tangential to what's happening on stage.

The four theatre companies considered here, though, are making it their business to push food and theatre closer together—they thread cooking, eating and even hunger into the fabric of their work, so that an audience's experience of food becomes inseparable from their experience of art.

These food-wielding shows have the capacity to ask provocative and profound questions, to alter our perceptions as they satisfy our physical and cerebral appetites. They turn bread or wine or breakfast into a tangible metaphor for the life that's being lived just outside the auditorium. They suggest a mini-movement of intellectual depth, geographic breadth and artistic diversity.

Each project was created for a different reason and engages its local community in a different way, but they all dive stomach-first into a vital conversation.


Won't You Be My Neighbor? Food and Geography

Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., is always up for a debate.

The company's shows have explored public education, the consequences of Portland's urban planning, what it means to be a good person in modern society. Along with this civic-mindedness, Sojourn's productions have also developed a reputation for flouting conventional structure; 2007's Good, for instance, was an adaptation of Brecht's The Good Person of Szechuan staged in a working car dealership, while 2006's The War Project: 9 Acts of Determination blended elements of video, singing, spoken word and dance to create a collage-like reflection on combat.

Ultimately, though, Sojourn's work is less about formal invention or current events than about getting audience members to have a real conversation. "We've taken on lots of projects that have some kind of bridge impulse in them," says artistic director Michael Rohd. "We want to bring people into contact who aren't generally connected with each other."

That's one reason Rohd and company want strangers to share a meal. Sojourn's On the Table, a multi-location opus slated to open this summer, aims to unite residents from Portland and Molalla, a nearby Oregon town with a population of less than 7,500. The centerpiece of the production will be a shared dinner in a location between the two communities.

This encounter will be both an actual meal and a metaphor for how the two areas overlap. "Politically, we're engaging people around the notion that action in Place A impacts action in Place B, and vice versa," explains Rohd. "Actions that happen far apart from each other are not necessarily distinct in their impact and meaning. You can use the journey of food and the activity of food as a way into those complicated issues."

On the Table has involved 18 months of research and interviews in Portland and Molalla, and the final product will literally juxtapose their respective populations. Act 1 will take place simultaneously in Portland and Molalla, where each audience will meet a group of fictional characters based on the company's research. Each group of audience members will be immersed in some kind of communal event—Rohd says he's leaning toward a wedding reception—that will conclude with everyone, actors and patrons alike, getting on a bus.

Act 2 will unfold in transit. As the audience rides, they'll learn about the characters from the section of Act 1 that they didn't see, and about the real-world connections between Portland and Molalla as well. (There are plans to create billboards along the route that will be connected to the show.) When the buses pull up for the Act 3 meal, the two sets of fictional characters will merge, and so will the audience. The company plans to seat a mix of Portlanders and Molallans at every table.

That last bit is crucial: Rohd wants the two communities to be forced to interact over dinner. "We have this idea that 'breaking bread' is automatically a communal activity, but I would suggest that most people break bread with people who are like them," he says. "I don't think the action of food necessarily brings people together—you might see people unlike you in a serving line, but you don't connect with them. You don't sit down with them."

Rohd expands that idea to the theatre. "One thing that gets said a lot about theatre is that a bunch of people come into a room and they laugh and they cry together in the dark, and that builds community. But I'm starting to think that's bullshit: People crave something that involves more than sitting and watching."

Ideally, then, On the Table will be a meal, a theatrical show and an honest-to-god community-building exercise. It will get real people talking about how their lives intersect and how they can be more accountable to each other.

But there are hurdles ahead. Laying aside the logistics of pulling off such an ambitious production, there's the question of finding people in Portland and Molalla who actually want to have this kind of experience. Rohd asks, "How do you fill the tables with people who are different from each other? That's as complicated as making the work. You can't just assume the right people are going to show up."


Farm Fresh: Food and Agriculture

When it moved to Ashfield, Mass., from Boston in 1994, Double Edge Theatre had questions about its relationship to the locals. In part to avoid the expenses of a city and in part to create a sustainable artistic community, the company set up shop at a 100-acre dairy farm, but it didn't exactly get flooded with welcome baskets. "People at first were very suspicious," says Stacy Klein, the company's founder and artistic director. She notes that initially people were wary because Double Edge wasn't producing work in its new hometown, but instead was prepping pieces to tour.

And then food built a bridge. Double Edge is a year-round company, and many members actually live on the farm. Soon after arriving, they created a large vegetable garden and set about leading active rural lives. "Most of us are from the city, so we didn't really know how to do this," says Klein. "Once people saw that we actually worked, and we weren't just moving out there to do nothing, they really started helping us."

The community's involvement with Double Edge's farming efforts led to gatherings with wine and conversation. Those evolved into song-and-performance evenings and eventually into full-fledged productions on the farm.

Now, food is integrated into the company's art as well as its daily operations. The garden, for instance, continues to thrive, producing enough vegetables to feed more than two dozen Double Edge company members, interns and collaborators. A local storyteller has developed a full-fledged farm plan that will include keeping animals and creating a staff farming position.

Meanwhile, performances on the farm are generally followed by food and wine, with many items donated by local farms and bakeries. Last year, the company's slate included a complete staging of its Garden of Intimacy and Desire, a three-part cycle based on the works of Cervantes, the Polish-Jewish artist Bruno Schulz and the Mexican-American author Ilan Stavans. Food was served after each section of the four-hour event.

According to company lead actor Carlos Uriona, the meals are not simply snack breaks, but an essential element of the performance. "I think this is bringing us back to Dionysians, where theatre and food and wine were all together," he believes. "This is celebration, in the sense that the Greeks meant it."

Food helps Double Edge create what its mission statement calls "total culture," or, to elaborate, "original theatre performance, based on the long-term imaginative work of the actor and his/her interaction with the communities in which the work takes place." Food gives Double Edge's artists myriad ways to interact with, rely on and welcome the people around them—and it allows the community to engage with the company as everything from audience members to hands-in-the-dirt farmers. "When we moved here, we didn't realize the importance of the connection between food and our theatre, or even our community and our theatre," says Klein. "Now I think that for us, food and theatre are virtually the same, because both of them revolve around hospitality and generosity. You're giving something to your guests, and you're receiving something from them."


Just Like Great-Great-Great Grandma Used to Make: Food and History

A dinner theatre might seem like the antithesis of a food-and-community show. Just ask any actor who's tried to emote over the sound of a blender or get in character moments after serving breadsticks, and they'll tell you that the meal at a dinner theatre can be a serious distraction from the art.

Steve Gipson, however, has made it a crucial part of his show. He owns and operates the Buttonwillow Church Civil War Dinner Theater in Whitwell, Tenn., about 24 miles north of Chattanooga, and he has molded the entire environment into a cohesive experience.

When patrons arrive, Gipson greets them at the door of the church, which he and his wife, Allison, renovated after purchasing it in 2006. Dressed in a Civil War military uniform, he chats casually with patrons about Tennessee life in the 19th century—and since he's a self-taught expert on Civil War and Southern American history, he's always got a new tidbit to share. Once the audience enters, they walk through a gift shop that features Civil War-style dolls created by Allison; and then they reach the theatre, which is filled with long wooden dining tables made from the church's old pews. Soon enough, servers in period costume deliver a meal that includes baked chicken, green beans, biscuits, fruit cobbler and a tasty dish called "South Carolina sweet carrots."

But this is more than just a menu: All of Buttonwillow's recipes were used by Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and First Lady of the Confederate States of America. To Gipson, who helps prepare the food for every performance, the repast is a tool that prepares audiences for his play, Granddaddy's Watch. The two-character piece is about a Union soldier from Tennessee (Steve Gipson) who meets his sister (Allison Gipson), a Confederate sympathizer, on a battlefield; it develops into a series of arguments that challenge perceptions of both the North and the South.

Frankly, the play's lack of pro-Dixie bias is one of its biggest surprises, at least for this (left-leaning) Chattanooga native. Gipson throws in more than a few "God bless the South" and "it wasn't just about slavery" remarks, but he also takes aim at conventional Red State wisdom about everything from the Confederate flag to the political allegiances of 19th-century Tennesseans. The characters in Granddaddy's Watch may wear old-fashioned clothes, but they're ultimately speaking to us, trying to shake loose the history of the Civil War from the reductive interpretations that suit partisan politics but often cloud the truth.

"As a historian, it's important for me to try to get a balance, because history is a social study more than a timeline or a list of facts," Gipson points out. "You have to get inside the heads of the people who were there and understand where they were coming from."

Eating authentically historical food goes a long way toward making a 19th-century mindset seem accessible. Buttonwillow's fully immersive environment encourages patrons to let loose and leave their preconceptions at the hand-painted door, giving Gipson space to make his arguments.

He is especially cognizant of what his type of dinner theatre can accomplish, since he spent almost 15 years touring a Civil War show to various shopping malls throughout the South. He says, "I can't tell you how much I love having my own environment. Can you imagine trying to accomplish something like this in a mall, with rock music blaring out of every store? With this, you start psyching people into the process. You get them thinking before you start talking to them."


Tastes Like Nothing: Food and Economics

It's good to remember, of course, that the theatre can also address the absence of food.

Originally performed in West Hollywood in 2008, Who's Hungry? is a project that uses toy theatre—puppet drama produced on a tiny, fully designed stage—to tell three true stories of homeless people. Stylistically, the three short plays are radically different—one features a marionette on a series of rotating sets; another uses nothing but two-dimensional cut-outs—but they all address the same intensely human and politically volatile issue.

"A big part of this project is to investigate and understand the forces that conspire to make somebody food-insecure, because they're different for every person," says playwright Dan Froot. His collaborator, puppeteer Dan Hurlin, adds, "It's also about the forces that try to abate the problem."

To create the show, Froot drew upon several years he spent developing relationships with the "food-insecure" community in West Hollywood, both pitching in with relief efforts and recording extensive oral histories. He and Hurlin, in conjunction with the people they interviewed, then shaped those oral histories into plays.

Froot stresses that their show is specifically designed for the West Hollywood community and that it can only succeed if it's seen by the local homeless population as well as by traditional theatregoers. When Who's Hungry? played there, the audience did indeed represent a broad economic spectrum, which led to interesting conversations in the post-performance talkbacks. "You couldn't always tell who came from which group," Hurlin recalls. "In the question-and-answer period, there was a clear misunderstanding on the part of the people who had no hunger problems about just who in the group was actually hungry and homeless."

The performances may have been just as eye-opening for the homeless audience members. According to Froot, Robert Coughlin—whose life as a porn star-turned-businessman-turned-meth-addict inspired the marionette piece—said he was surprised to see himself portrayed as something other than a victim. His reaction underscores the show's delicate relationship to the issue of hunger.

"In a way, calling the show Who's Hungry? is the only clue to what the connection between these people is, and that's a point of pride," Froot reasons. "We wanted to create art about people, not poster children."

Froot and Hurlin want to oversee iterations of Who's Hungry? throughout the country, with each version rooted in the actualities of homelessness and hunger in its particular community. To that end, Froot is currently collecting oral histories for a production in Santa Monica, and the "West Hollywood plays" are being produced throughout the country, with a run scheduled this June at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. The hope is that the touring dates will serve as calling cards, inspiring artists to contact Froot and Hurlin about creating Who's Hungry? installments of their own. The pair would make themselves available to assist new companies with interviewing techniques and adaptation strategies.

Perhaps more important, they would encourage artists to stay engaged with the homeless after Who's Hungry? has closed. "I'm still very much in the lives of the people we worked with in West Hollywood, and I feel that's important," Froot avows. "No matter where the show goes, we want to create consistency in the lives of the people being portrayed—it's not about just swooping in and making stories."

Froot's quest for sustained relationships points to the fundamental paradox in these projects. The artists behind these works all trying to affect lasting change in an audience's relationship to its environment, yet they're all relying on the ephemeral media of live performance and food. You can only get a taste of either, and then they're gone for good.

But maybe that transience is important. Maybe it strengthens the message. Maybe connecting our sense of community with the here-and-gone nature of theatre and food reminds us that if we're going to alter the way we live, then we need to do it now.

New York City-based arts reporter Mark Blankenship writes frequently for this magazine.

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