Undesirable Elements: Real People, Real Lives, Real Theater

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Leigh Fondakowski: My story starts with Anna Deavere Smith , seeing her perform, then coming to understand that she was trying to find characters and patterns of how people present themselves. I was so taken by that and with her as a performer that I set off on my little journey to make my first piece, I Think I Like Girls , with a bunch of queer women from different generations.

That question reoriented whether we as theatre artists had a responsibility.

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That was when I began to formulate this process as a playwriting technique. I want to make a play that people care about. Sanchez: Can I take a moment to ask you guys how you cope with different kinds of sadness that we traffic in? When it comes to sadness or suffering, I ask myself if that suffering is connected to some kind of forward momentum as part of a larger story. You have to be able to provide an avenue for a new conversation about the issue. Cosson: One thing I think we do differently is we put the audience in the reality in an important and meaningful way.

A documentary film can be deeply impactful, but I think a play can be impactful in a different way. Chong: I got better through doing it.

In my first interview, people were all in a room together, that original cast, and I began by jotting down notes with people there. It took me a while to realize that sometimes people had very traumatic experiences, and I had to be sensitive. Fondakowski: When somebody agrees to do an interview, I believe that there is a reason they agreed to do it.

It reminds you to truly live in the moment. Fondakowski: When we were working on Jonestown , it took us three years to get interviews because people were very hesitant. The question is what is the story you want to tell. With a story like Jonestown , I felt incredible responsibility. Cosson: Would it be interesting to talk about the appetite for difficult subject matter that is often connected to a documentary-like play?

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The U. One presenter in particular, we had about 11 people in the house, and it broke my heart. I guess the real question is, how can we cultivate more interest in it? I feel like audiences are going to come and feel bad about it, feel bad that they have to care, feel bad that all these terrible things happen. Each of our works is more extensive in terms of theatrical language. I try to say that my plays are plays, based on interviews and based on real events.

Sanchez: For me, it depends on the show. There needs to be some sort of transparency with the audience about where you are taking them.

Cosson: For those of us who do it, we have to be out there speaking about the value of what we do and connecting to the public. Content is not necessarily sexy in the American theatre. Fondakowski: I do think that there are artistic directors out there who are able to recognize new narratives. But I have that expertise, so I could manage it.

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Chong: Undesirable Elements is not always performed in a traditional theatre setting. Since the Undesirable Elements subject matter varies greatly, each one seems to have an audience that is interested in that subject. Sanchez: First, exactly what Leigh said: A project is successful if it stands on its own as a play.

But I also define success if I was able to hang onto my own value system and if I was honest in representing what I saw, emotionally, spiritually, and intentionally. And if someone can say that was a good piece of theatre, as cheesy as it sounds. Hopefully we leave behind a chronicle of our communities right now.

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Chong: The nature of an Undesirable Elements project is creating understanding, since participants are learning about each other. Ever since I started learning about political theatre and theatre for social change, I was immediately drawn into the practice and had more questions than answers about how an artist begins to produce work in that medium. More info and tickets HERE. I was helping them with different aspects of the development workshop, from outreach to making sure that the theater space was accessible and secure for disabled community members.

I remember going through different emotions as the participants were telling their stories. Some lines have stayed with me after all these years. It occurred to me then that when you work with real people and with their real life stories, you can create something so honest and powerful that it really makes an impact.

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Their risk-taking influences me in my artistic life. Amir describes himself as an Arab Rican, born and raised in Jackson Heights. At first I was hesitant to participate in the show because of my hectic school and work schedule. I soon realized that it was important for me to be part of this show, because I feel that as a Muslim, I am obligated to be a part of something that can help destroy the barriers that many Muslims face every day. Many of the barriers are not overt; they are barriers that many non-Muslims already have in their heads.

The prejudice and misinformation that people harbor can really make it a challenge for Muslims trying to make this country a home. Working with such a talented and diverse cast in Beyond Sacred has helped me gain an even wider understanding of how rich and complex humanity as a whole is. In this country we try to fit everything into one category or another.


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Muslims make up an incredibly abundant mix of people and cultures. I have learned so much about the world from my cast-mates that is so different from my experience.

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I have truly fallen in love with the whole process of creating something powerful from scratch. I would one day like to somehow incorporate theater in the fight for social justice. Theater can be a tool that can engage communities of color on all sorts of issues that affect their lives.

I am working with 8 th graders from diverse backgrounds and communities. For all of them, this will be their first time sharing stories in performance with each other and with their school, families and communities.