New piece explores diversity in theater – onstage

Above: Cast in rehearsal at East Side Freedom Library, St. Paul. Photo Credit: LKBachman.

The prevailing stereotype of the average American theater patron is someone of advanced years, considerable means and Caucasian heritage. Obviously that’s not an entirely accurate portrayal, but connecting with both younger audiences and audiences of color remains an evergreen challenge in most local theater scenes. Full Circle Theater Company is taking the lead in Saint Paul with “Theater: A Sacred Passage.”

According to Full Circle co-founder Rick Shiomi, the Knight-funded performance piece, which will be onstage again April 22-24 at St. Paul’s Dreamland Arts, draws on voices that reflect their city’s ever-evolving community. “There is a growing diversity in Saint Paul,” said Shiomi. “Sometimes that has created tensions, misunderstandings and social boundaries between different groups in the city. We definitely want to be a part of the solution, meaning our work in a way is modeling the process of a diverse group of people working together creatively and organizationally to share their stories and artistry for all of us to understand each other and the challenges we face, better.”

Originally mounted at Dreamland Arts in late 2015, the show features a collection of short pieces involving race, gender, economics, family and other issues impacting artists, written by Shiomi and fellow Full Circle members James Williams, Martha Johnson, Lara Trujillo and Stephanie Lein Walseth. The stories are performed by ten Twin Cities actors from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. It’s a conscious attempt to reflect both the disparate experiences of the play’s creators and the expansive range of cultures within the city.

Cast with Youth Leadership Initiative audience members at the Wilder Center for Communities, St. Paul. Photo: LKBachman.

Of course, putting diverse voices on the stage is only part of the battle. Getting those voices heard by equally diverse audiences is a bigger challenge. That’s why Full Circle held performances of “A Sacred Passage” earlier this month at a variety of venues around Saint Paul, most of them in neighborhoods such as Frogtown and East Side that don’t get regular access to theater.

“We wanted to reach out to underserved youth in Saint Paul,” said Shiomi. “Three of these organizations, Wilder Foundation Center’s Youth Leadership Initiative, the Teen Resource Center at Neighborhood House and the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, serve youth directly.  We wanted to perform at the East Side Freedom Library because it’s providing a service to a very underserved neighborhood in Saint Paul and we rehearse there. And finally we wanted to do another weekend of performances at Dreamland Arts to give the general public another chance to see the play.”  

The wide-reaching, flexible format of the production makes “Theater: A Sacred Passage” a remarkably versatile piece. Shiomi said Full Circle has drawn some inspiration from playwright Ping Chong’s celebrated “Undesirable Elements,” an immigration-oriented storytelling experiment that has been evolving across communities since 1992. Chong’s production is adaptable to virtually any place and time, with the content changing to reflect each new community. Shiomi said Full Circle is open to the idea of producing updated editions of “A Sacred Passage” featuring new stories and artists in the near future.

Above all, the group’s mission is to broaden viewers’ perspectives of both theater creators and consumers. To that end, Full Circle is heading up youth storytelling workshops in May at several of the performance venues. “We hope to engage the youth in ways that they can share and express their own stories,” said Shiomi.

“We hope that audiences walk away with a greater understanding of how theater artists come from a diverse range of backgrounds,” said Shiomi. “That it is not the domain of artists from European backgrounds as has so often been the attitude in American society in general.  And that this diverse world of stories and cultural influences is the future of 21st Century America.”

See “Theater: A Sacred Passage” April 22-24 at Dreamland Arts. Purchase tickets.

Marcos Lopez and Lara Trujillo in Theater: A Sacred Passage at Dreamland Arts. Photo:  LKBachman.