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By Any Play Necessary 

Theater group eases path for arts' role in social change

Last Wednesday, July 14, The Evening Muse on North Davidson Street bustled with teenagers, their parents, folks from NODA and curious visitors to experience the sixth in a series of theatrical readings presented by Theatre for Change.

The main event, Kill Your TV, was written by teenagers Chelsea Brendle, Maddie Howard and Kelsey Rullmoss and performed by The Exiled Artists Association.

Allison Modafferi began the yearlong Theatre for Change after being inspired by the Lysistrata Project. On March 3, 2003, 59 countries hosted 1,029 readings of Aristophanes' anti-war comedy Lysistrata as a massive theatrical protest of the War in Iraq. Modafferi organized the Charlotte reading at The Evening Muse.

Lysistrata tells the story of women achieving a diplomatic solution to the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their husbands, but it was simply a starting point for Theatre for Change.

"My goal is to get people together who want to create social change," says Modafferi. So she contacted independent producers Anne Lambert and Matt Olin for direction on producing and publicity.

"Sometimes, when you hear an idea, you say to yourself, "Oh, that's nice,' and nothing ever comes of it," said Lambert, "but with this project, both Matt and I were immediately enthusiastic and wanted to support Allison in whatever way we could." So they became involved as producers who facilitated contacts and helped choose scripts and actors.

The trio launched in January with Dario Fo's We Won't Pay! We Won't Pay, about socio-economic policies in Europe. That was followed by Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, a work about racism among African-Americans. Tony Kushner's Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy was read in March. It tackles the subject of US military actions in Iraq. Gay marriage is highlighted in Christi Stewart-Brown's play Sweet Land of Liberty, read in April. May's reading focused on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Misha Shulman's The Fist. All parts were read by local actors.

"It is a very organic project, and often we try to select plays that address timely issues," said Olin.

Modafferi adds, "Not all the plays have been about politics in the States. Now that we are in the second half of the year, we're trying to do plays that are political and focus on the issues of the upcoming election."

In June, Theatre for Change organized a community meeting in place of a reading. "Early on we decided one way we could positively impact our community was a consistent theme of encouraging people to vote," says Olin. "We formalized the idea at the halfway mark, and one of the more important things that came out of that meeting was coming up with more effective ways of getting the word out so we can grow the audience and impact more people."

The community meeting also led Theatre for Change to host an outside group in July. The Exiled Artists Association was founded by 14-year-old Maddie Howard, who gained local fame when her attempt to stage Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit at Piedmont Open/IB Middle School was thwarted. Also presented was a 10-minute play by Jennifer Barker, a volunteer for Democracy North Carolina, highlighting arguments for campaign finance reform.

What the teens' Kill Your TV lacked in polish it made up for in pith. Read with various levels of proficiency by seven teens splayed on the stage floor and stools, it provided a tongue-in-cheek mockery of television, from talk shows to reality shows to the news. Snippets of commercials urged more caffeine consumption, derided people from all political parties, and emceed an "ugly contest." A reality show rewarded cash in return for severed body parts. "If you weren't on network TV I'd never be friends with you," snapped one teen.

Modafferi ushered the performers back to the audience and then took part in the second skit, The Problem, with Barker and Gino Brown, both interns for Democracy North Carolina in Carrboro. Each portrayed characters who had been impacted by big money and special interest politics.

While the performers supplied the fodder, after the show the audience talked up a storm, offering insights with finely tuned segues and polite turns of subject. Mark Ortiz, a Democratic candidate for the 8th US Congressional District, opened with a commentary on politicians who let themselves be bought, and expressed fear about the accuracy of electronically counted votes. Performer Jamila Reddy replied that counting votes by hand isn't more secure than counting them by computer. A lively series of comments about a potential October election surprise was countered by an audience member accusing the media of manipulating the consuming public. Howard replied that the media uses the tool of pleasure: "Everybody is afraid to be different. They are trying to create cookie cutter children." A woman who lived in Florida during the 2000 election declared she doesn't put voting fraud past the Bush administration, and a man up front observed that the 2000 election taught us we have time to get it right, as a President wasn't declared by 9pm EST and the world didn't end.

Patrick McLean asserted, "We are all much better people than the media makes us out to be." His explanation of the Rational Ignorance Effect brought a flurry of comments about voting. "People don't vote "cause they can't find someone to represent them. What we actually need to do is find common ground," said performer Ian McClerin. There were claims of a divided people, accusations that political parties thrive on voter nonparticipation, and charges that the 2000 election totals changed after George Bush whispered into his brother Jeb's ear on television.

Modafferi patiently let audience members air their thoughts, occasionally asking for a response to avoid a conversational dead end. At 8:45 she asked the audience to think about all the issues raised and use the ideas to create change.

The crowd dispersed, some through the door, others to the bar to await the 9 o'clock band. Next month's show, on August 11, also at the Evening Muse at 7pm, will be Arthur Miller's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People.

Has the project inspired change? "I've seen people come together and talk and become motivated by each others energies," says Modafferi. "That's where change begins."

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