During one of the closing week performances of The Gospel of Lovingkindness, the following letter was left by a patron who walked out of the theater about midway through the performance; she will remain anonymous:
“Dearest cast and team,
The performance, set, and well, everything was just spectacular. I live in the chaos you have portrayed, and have experienced two murders due to gun violence in the last 36 days.
Sorry I walked out… but it was just too much. Continue being brilliant. This story is vital. Black and brown bodies need this hope. Our stories will not vanish.”
From a Town Hall on gun violence to a spoken word performance by youth in the South Side, our audiences responded to this play with personal stories of loss, anger, resilience, and hope at a time where gun violence has been nothing short of a day-to-day experience for many residents in the city.
Many have burst into tears asking “why” and “how” – questions without easy answers. But as a theater committed to bridging the gap between our audiences and the larger themes presented in our productions, we offer the opportunity to talk about these issues as a collective, and find ways to move forward as a community.
After each performance, we held Afterwords (post-show) conversations where an average of forty patrons would stick around and openly share their experiences with violence, and the helplessness that is often paired with a problem too complex for short-term solutions.
Each night, there was at least one patron who had lost someone to gun violence, and it was common to hear shouting, cursing, and rambles of confusion as we tried to sort these thoughts as a group in a way that made sense, and in identifying ways of moving forward:
“How can I make a difference in these kids when I’m experiencing the same kind of systemic discrimination as an educator for being a fucking lesbian?!” shouted one patron.
“But what is the community going to do about …those boys with their pants below their waist?” asked another.
“And when the story of my son’s murder hit the news, and I read the comments that said ‘thank goodness’, ‘good riddance’, ‘another thug off the street’, and ‘where is his mother’, I thought to myself – she is sitting right here and she raised him to be better than that.” shared another.
Usually, I would follow up on these statements by asking:
“You just bore witness to this piece of theatre. And as you leave this building – what are you going to do? What are you going to take away with you from this moment? What small change can you make tonight or tomorrow to start the uphill climb towards the fight against gun violence?”
Some audience members couldn’t think of anything. Others said they would talk to their kids because it’s important to know the history of their city before attempting to write a new one. Regardless of their responses, our audiences left the theater thinking deeper about this issue and continuing the dialogue on the train, in their cars, and on the way home. This is civic dramaturgy – a community’s response to the work as it relates to their everyday lives.
When practicing theatre for social change, post-show conversations have to function a little differently than they do for other shows. The conversation becomes less about the work as an artistic entity, and acts more as a call-to-action. This was definitely an adjustment for patrons who anticipated hearing artistic choices from the director, playwright, and designers, and we have additional programs for those opportunities.
But for our audiences who choose to stay for our Afterwords conversations, we strive to provide a safe space to have an open dialogue about these complicated issues in hopes that our audiences leave with a sense of responsibility to make greater change in ways they never anticipated – theatre acting as a motor for social change.
So in moving forward with Death and the Maiden, a play stemming from political torture in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship and an issue still present among many communities today, we will look to our audiences for solution building.
Through Public Programs events such as our Afterwords discussions, our main goal has always been to engage our audiences to think a little deeper about themselves and the world around them when they come to see a show at the historic Biograph Theater. Because now is the time. And we are the change.
– Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager