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Exploring the Intersection of Theatre and Civic Engagement

Ending poverty in 90 minutes with 199 people you may or may not know

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November 26, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

Northwestern theatre professor Michael Rohd and Sojourn Theatre, the Portland-based group he founded, have earned an international reputation for participatory theatre — for collaboratively written shows that ask their audiences to talk with one another and wrestle with important civic issues. 

In May 2013, Rohd will direct “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (with 199 people you may or may not know).” The outgrowth of a theatre class he is teaching, “How to End Poverty” is the final Main Stage production of Northwestern’s theatre season. 

It is not your typical play.

In “How to End Poverty,” $1,000 in cash from ticket sales will be placed on the stage, and the audience will be asked to decide, over 90 minutes, how to spend it. Acting as performers and facilitators, Rohd’s students will open a dialogue about poverty with the audience and, depending how the audience chooses to use its money, also do some good in the community.

But “How to End Poverty” will be neither dry nor preachy, said Rohd, assistant professor of theatre in the School of Communication. “Like any theatre piece, it’s got to be very entertaining. It isn’t an eat-your-vegetables exercise. The show will include moments of fiction, spectacle and physical theatre as well as discussion and audience involvement.”

It also will reflect the knowledge that Rohd and his students gain from an academic quarter of readings, conversations, personal reflection and presentations by experts on poverty-related issues, including a Northwestern sociologist, the city of Evanston’s director of affordable housing initiatives, leaders from Chicago’s Heartland Alliance and a representative of Catholic Charities. 

“Poverty is the kind of topic where the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know,” says senior theatre major Danielle Littman. 

“The students are fantastic by any gauge,” Rohd said. “But it’d be a mistake to think that they’re spending as much time as the class and play demand solely because they’re activists.” Instead, like Rohd, they are interested in meaningful art-making and exploring the intersection of theatre and community conversation. 

Though Rohd loves watching a good traditional play, it is not enough for him to bring people together in a theatre to laugh and cry in the dark. As a director, he sees theatre, above all, as an opportunity to produce encounters that allow strangers to connect with one another, and preferably on civic issues that are difficult to discuss and often ignored.

But if the topic of “How to End Poverty” is challenging, the show is never deliberately confrontational. “I can’t think of anything worse than inviting people to come into a theatre and make them feel guilty or some such thing,” Rohd says. “That’s the worst idea both for art and having a productive conversation. My first goal and the goal of my collaborators is to figure out how to have a creative and imaginative conversation about complicated topics."