Brooke Kiener, assistant professor of theater at Whitworth University, has worked off and on for eight years to stage an original play titled “Wizdom: Making Dollars and Sense.”
It will finally happen this weekend.
Kiener’s experience with the play about socio-economic differences provides guidelines for others working across class lines in creative endeavors. She discovered:
• You can’t panic
The script for “Wizdom” was written in a winter 2004 social justice theater institute hosted by Whitworth. It was designed to encourage collaboration between students and people living in poverty. Kiener found community members through VOICES, a Spokane nonprofit where low-income earners advocate for their issues.
“I really thought I would call all these people and they would say, of course, we’ll be there,” she said.
They didn’t call back. The week before the workshop, she panicked and considered canceling the institute. Instead, she called community members one more time.
The first night, 50 people showed up. Community members and students told each other their stories and then collaborated to create the play, a parody of “The Wizard of Oz.” A Whitworth student falls asleep on campus but wakes up in downtown Spokane. She meets a Native American woman who sends her on a journey where she meets characters living lives much different than those on campus, such as an unemployed man in a soup kitchen line.
• Patience pays
In 2004, when the play was completed, Spokane leaders were focusing on poverty issues. But within a year, the economy was bubbling with easy credit and excess consumption. It was easier to ignore poverty. Also, Kiener got busy with other projects.
Then the recession hit. The topic was timely once more, but Kiener knew she would need financial backing to help community members participate in the play.
An Inland Northwest Community Foundation grant helped pay for gas money and child care expenses for some of the seven community members in the play.
• Sharing meals works magic
The grant money also allowed students and community members to share meals before rehearsals, further breaking down stereotypes. One night Agnes Broncheau, who plays the Native American guide, offered a blessing.
“She brought her eagle feather and demonstrated a traditional Native blessing,” Kiener said. “It was very moving, and the students had a lot to say about it the next day.”
Jeffrey Carrol of VOICES plays Mr. Scarecrow. He said students felt comfortable asking questions at rehearsals, and community members eagerly shared stories.
“They had no idea of a single parent with one kid who rides a bus downtown and then catches another bus to the day care center, turns around and rides another bus downtown and then a bus out to her job and then does that backwards everyday,” Carrol said. “We got a chance to expose them to the other side of the world they don’t see.”
Carrol and Kiener hope for a good turnout Sunday. The play is free.
“We tend to cling pretty tightly to our ideas about the world and what we think we know,” Kiener said. “We can’t change all that in an hour, but we can plant a seed.”