Just over a year had passed since the death of Michael Brown when the yellow school bus made its 20-minute journey from St. Louis to Ferguson, Mo. The passengers, a collection of theatremakers from around the country, were entering a community whose wounds were still fresh. The curriculum was simple: They were in Ferguson to learn what they could, help whomever possible, and, most directly, to create a series of short plays based on what they saw. That they traveled in a school bus was fitting, as it was to be a school day of a very particular kind.
It had been earlier in the summer of 2015 that Claudia Alick, community producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Dominic D’Andrea, producing artistic director of the One-Minute Play Festival (1MPF), came up with the idea for The Every 28 Hours Plays. Initially the project was to be a small-scale collaboration between the two companies: D’Andrea wanted to see if the 1MPF methodology, in which up to dozens of short plays are generated in a community in a short period of time, could be applied to Ferguson. As D’Andrea describes it, a collection of short plays is “a container for ideas and responses that exist in a given community,” creating what he describes as a “social barometer.”
Alick, having spent some time in Ferguson in the weeks after Brown’s shooting the year before, wanted to apply the methodology to the issues facing that city. She began reaching out to playwrights around the U.S. to see if they would write new short plays to add into the mix, and received dozens, including works from Neil LaBute, Dominique Morisseau, and Lynn Nottage.
When Alick and D’Andrea decided to put the idea on its feet in Missouri, they found that theatremakers from across the nation were interested in joining in. With the help of an array of theatres and an Indiegogo campaign, they gathered together a group of about 70 artists for a week in Missouri last August, traveling between St. Louis and Ferguson to have conversations with community members, art makers, and academics, with the goal of developing short plays.
“It all happened quickly, very quickly,” says playwright Jerome Parker, who was not only part of the initial Missouri chapter but remains heavily involved in the current phases of the project. Upon hearing about it, Parker immediately called Alick to see how he could get involved. “I was tired of sitting on my couch, looking at news on the web and feeling like I couldn’t do anything,” recalls Parker.
Rebecca Struch, of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, concurs: “We’re used to the Facebook posts and short news blasts online. [Social media] offers a lot of support and is helpful, but we’re often creating that sense of togetherness while also being alone.” The opportunity to travel to Missouri wouldn’t just benefit the communities; it would also provide a necessary sense of empowerment and healing for the artists themselves.
Upon arriving in Missouri, the artists felt not only a deep sense of responsibility but also wariness about taking advantage of those they were there to help. They wanted the process to be healing, and to embody the values of the project itself.
“We walked into the community and had to be very aware and sensitive of how we collected the stories and began the conversations,” says actor Joe Wilson Jr., a company member at Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company, who also wrote about his experience on HowlRound. Concerned about being viewed as “vampires coming into the community,” the artists avoided using notepads or conducting traditional interviews. “We didn’t want people to feel that they were ‘subjects’ of any kind,” explains Wilson. “It gave people the power and safe space to talk about what happened in Ferguson.”
That safe space would be extended to all members of the community. “We’re trying to work the radical middle with this project,” says Alick. “We’ve reached out to law enforcement, community groups, activists, and theatres.” By hearing from multiple perspectives, the project hopes to build bridges. “It’s a complicated space to be in, because in the middle, you definitely don’t all agree,” Alick adds. “But that’s where we live.”
Evidence of the multi-perspective approach is present in the plays themselves, including LaBute’s You Try It, which explores the challenges police officers deal with when faced with split-second life-or-death decisions, including whether or not to use lethal force.
Using theatre as a primer for community conversation has always been the project’s end goal. After a week of conversations and development in which the artists rented a school bus and traveled around to learn what they could (“People kept joining the bus; we’d go into a room to ask questions and talk and people would ask if they could join the group,” says Alick), the artists began developing staged readings of the plays in St. Louis and Ferguson.
“There were 70-something plays, and almost 70 actors, if not more,” recalls Parker. “We went to a community center to perform Nikkole Salter’s piece, and as we were performing it, someone started to audibly cry. They had to run out of the room,” he says. “It was at that moment that I knew we were not only dealing with powerful plays, but that we were dealing with plays that needed to be handled in a very sensitive manner. We have a responsibility as artists to think about the health of the audience.”
That responsibility, bred in Missouri, carried into the first two productions of the plays outside the state. “Ferguson is the heartbeat of the movement,” St. Louis theatremaker and producer Jacqueline Thompson says. “This project is a brilliant creative conduit to share its pulse with the world.” And so, only days after the readings in Missouri, Trinity Rep hosted an event in which all of the plays were read in a single evening, with talkbacks to facilitate community discussion immediately following. Despite the challenges of putting up an event in such a short time, the theatre found the production to be instantly rewarding. Their first indication: the audience that showed up.
“We spend a lot of money trying to develop audiences like we had on that night,” says Wilson. In an era in which diversifying audiences, both ethnically and economically, is at the forefront of many theatres’ missions and concerns, Trinity learned that, simply by producing work so immediately relevant to so many people, they were seeing faces in the theatre they’d never seen before. It was a lasting lesson.
“It has inspired my institution,” adds Wilson, who says that the event became a key reference point for the theatre when planning their subsequent 2016-17 season.
Following that initial showing, San Francisco’s ACT became the first theatre to stage full off-book productions of the plays. It wasn’t easy. “ACT is a large theatre, we plan a year or two in advance,” explains Struch. At the time, though, the project was new and relevant, and so the theatre jumped through hoops to make it happen quickly. For Struch, the ability to engage in such a rapid-response project became a gift. “You get to deeply engage impulse, which is important for artists,” she says. “When there are people in an organization that can get behind an idea and readily manifest it and have the need to tell that story—that’s what theatre is all about. It’s about a story that needs to be told now.”
At ACT, the talkback sessions were almost as, if not more, important than the productions themselves. “To do the plays and not have a dialogue after would be a missed opportunity,” Struch says. “They bring up sadness, anger, and confusion. To be able to process that together is important.”
Indeed, Struch found that the plays created a common ground on which community members with different backgrounds could communicate effectively. “The plays become a shared vocabulary that we all have in the room,” she says. “Even if people are talking about personal things, they often are referring to what they’ve just experienced. It levels the playing field.”
Alick and D’Andrea have big plans for the third phase, which takes place throughout October. The idea is to get as many theatres as possible from around the U.S. to engage with the plays sometime this month. By setting a rolling, month-long period of engagement, Alick and D’Andrea hope to accommodate as many different theatres as possible.
As for what “engagement” means—the term is flexible. Company One Theatre in Boston is fully producing the plays, while OSF has adopted a staged-reading-and-talkback model. Traditional performances like these are not necessary, though; Alick has heard from one theatre that plans to tweet out a play 140 characters at a time. Any form of engagement will be encouraged. Among the more than 100 theatres and institutions nationwide engaging in some way are Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth, Center Stage in Baltimore, Penn State, Portland Center Stage, the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, the TEAM in Brooklyn, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Young Playwrights’ Theater in D.C., L.A.’s Watts Village Theatre Company, and the University of Louisville.
And that’s just a taste, says Alick. “We’re interested in the impact that the collective can make. We’re all really hungry for all of our organizations to find ways to lift this conversation up.”
To that end, the project has community coordinators for different areas and cities to help produce and oversee the October engagements. The coordinators will also help facilitate discussions and collaborations between different theatres. “What this has taught me is that theatres in cities can put all of their identity politics aside and band together for a cause,” says Parker, who is also the area coordinator for Washington, D.C.
The project isn’t alone in finding a theatrical response to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The New Black Fest’s Hands Up, which premiered in Portland, Ore., this summer, collects seven monologues from playwrights of color that explore the well-being of black Americans. Center Stage’s My America Too gathered 50 playwrights’ responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, and was released via online video to maximize the viewership and scope of the conversation. On Aug. 5 and 6, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis staged Carlyle Brown’s Acting Black, a solo show looking at the roots of American racism, in direct response to recent racially charged violence, including the shooting of the Twin Cities’ own Philando Castile. Those performances were followed by talkbacks.
The Guthrie also followed Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center in presenting Black Lives, Black Words, an international project depicting the experiences of American and British communities of color. That work had its U.K. premiere at London’s Bush Theatre in October 2015.
And for the future of The Every 28 Hours Plays?
“Maybe we reach the person who sparks the next big movement that changes the world,” says D’Andrea. “We hope to transcend theatre into community action.” If community action is what they’re after, then bringing the discussion to as many communities as possible certainly seems like an apt approach. “It’s going to look different in every community,” adds D’Andrea. “But we have a feeling that it will be what it needs to be for each one.”
Of course, spreading the idea among so many communities means addressing the needs of a wide variety of theatres, too. Alick and D’Andrea are keeping a record of what works, and how theatres of various sizes are finding creative ways to engage that work for them, whether they’re in a big, diverse city or a smaller, more homogenous community.
The attention to the needs of theatres extends to the project’s long-term aims. Alick explains that the goal of maintaining a non-prescriptive model that can respond to what each theatre needs has always come before setting plans in stone.
“Being highly consultative with the community means that we try to be cautious with long-term visioning,” she says. Still, there are plans in the works to get the plays formally published. Ultimately, Alick says, the idea is to get the project to a point where it doesn’t need to be actively managed, and all the materials necessary for theatres of any size to engage in the plays live online, where anybody can access them.
Asked whether she considers the project successful so far, Alick seems cautious. “I keep trying to stay away from the word ‘success,’” she says. “Because we’re not done yet.”
More information on The Every 28 Hours Plays, including a list of participating theatres, can be found at Every28HoursPlays.org.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.