Traveling theatre company provides thrills, skills, and adventure
courtesy of Jesse Baxter
|Jesse Baxter leads a drama workshop for a group of school age children in Ecuador.
Years of networking in the theatre business paid off as Baxter started talking up the project. Mary Kay Reddington, a fellow actor who had recently graduated from college, jumped in wholeheartedly. She had a background in communications and brought skills in organization, without which, Baxter says, “this would have been a one-time project.” The projects still needed a director— enter Kathleen Amshoff whom Reddington and Baxter had met during the Run of the Mill Theatre project in Baltimore. A sometimes discouraging process of selecting a cast finally ended with actor Lisa Pettersson joining the group. The original plan was that they would collect the scripts from the Zimbabweans, rehearse the plays here in the States, and then go to Africa to perform them for the children. But, it was hard to imagine how the all-white cast—three women and one man— would be able to perform the stories that they needed to tell. On top of that, conditions in Zimbabwe were dire. People were focused solely on survival. Perhaps it was time to re-think the plan. The team made a decision: “Instead of performing for the communities, we would collaborate with them,” Baxter says.
The four actors got on a plane to Zimbabwe not fully knowing what was ahead of them. But, they did what they do best. They led acting and playwriting workshops in schools and churches, and worked collaboratively with established drama groups in the community. About 90 percent of the play that was developed during their time abroad was written by the children of Zimbabwe and about 10 percent was based on experiences that the actors had there, experiences that often revealed the difficulties of opening our lives to people of other countries and other cultures.
Baxter's notes on the benefits experienced both by the people of Zimbabwe and the team members:
“In Zimbabwe, free speech is not really free. The media are under the control of the government. People look to theatre as a place to find opinions and thoughts outside of what the government wants people to think. You can sensor words, but you can’t sensor subtext—the thoughts underneath the words…
The theatres were always full of people. People were hungry for it. We always had way more people show up than we could possibly work with. There was a need for this. Especially for the young ladies—we watched them working through their shyness. Everyone who participated learned to speak before a group which helps to build self-esteem and confidence. The learned to speaking and share their voice. We’ve heard that since we left, drama clubs are being started, original plays are being written and performances are happening.
The artists who go are also changed. By nature, being an actor is a very selfish profession… you have to be thinking of marketing yourself, looking for a job. You have to think, ‘What do I need do to for me?’ Theatre, at its heart, is an act of giving, but you lose sight of that, lose sight of the community.”
Baxter, Reddington, Amshoff, and Pettersson brought the plays back to New York, performing for numerous audiences and “giving a voice,” says Baxter, “to the Zimbabwean children’s lives in the U.S.” Audience members often came expecting to see African dancing and drumming, but “most of what the Zimbabwean kids wrote were the same kinds of things that American kids would have told—my first crush, the day my dad died. It was the same story with the very different backdrop” of poverty, strife, famine, and an AIDS epidemic. Baxter remembers a particular performance at a church in Rochester where the audience was surprised to see “reflections of themselves. … The audience keyed into the work because they could resonate… It became about ‘although we are different we are the same.’”
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