The Community’s the Thing
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“Most plays you see were written by one person based on a what or a why,” says Leah Cooper, Co-Artistic Director at Wonderlust Productions. “We start with who.”
Leah, along with her Co-Artistic Director, Alan Berks, founded Wonderlust to tell stories with and about communities—specifically those that are hidden, marginalized, or plagued by a single media narrative. In the spirit of theater companies like Cornerstone in Los Angeles, Wonderlust incorporates community members (the who) in the research, design, and production of stories based on their complex and universal experiences within that community.
“In a way, it’s the original way people made theater,” says Leah. “They sat around and shared stories with each other and made a play out of it.”
So, how does it work?
After identifying a community with an untold story, the Wonderlust team works with organizations already serving that community to gather direct input from their constituents.
“We actively target diversity, both vertically and horizontally,” says Leah. “Horizontally is what people usually mean—demographics, gender, class, all that sort of thing. Vertically is across the power hierarchy that is in the community.”
Within these diverse story circles, the Wonderlust team listens for both the commonalities and contradictions in what people believe is the truth about the community. After what can be years participating in this process, the writers look for a classic storyline that can be adapted to encompass the complexity of experience entrusted to them.
“[At this point] we invite community members back to the table, so to speak, or the rehearsal room and we mix them together with professionals from our ensemble,” says Leah.
After many public readings, workshops, and rewrites, the final production includes both trained performers and community members sharing the same stage.
“It gives [community members] an opportunity to bear witness to somebody else’s experience which is kind of, weirdly, a sacred experience,” says Leah. “By entering into that it creates a reverence that they bring to it that ends up conveying a really similar quality to that created by professional artists.”
Though they did not originate this methodology for storytelling, the Wonderlust team has certainly made it their own. They are even beginning to experiment with new mediums for community stories—virtual reality, graphic novels, ritual, and sound installation. But what really sets Leah and the Wonderlust team apart as original thinkers is their willingness to deeply listen to people no matter who they are.
“This is a thing we’ve learned,” says Leah. “It doesn’t matter how important people are, how extroverted or introverted—nobody feels heard. This is a human thing.”
To learn more about Wonderlust Productions, view past projects, and catch upcoming performances visit their website wonderlustproductions.org.
Written by Christopher Christenson, Program & Event Coordinator, at the James J. Hill Center. Have an idea of a person or organization to feature in this series? Send your recommendations to [email protected].