How One D.C. Theatre Is Creating an Intersection of Art and Advocacy
By Annette Mooney Wasno, Connectivity Director of Convergence Theatre
In June 2017, I said “yes” to creating and filling the position of Connectivity Director for Convergence Theatre, a Washington, D.C., area company that uses its projects to encourage discourse and dialogue over issues of social conscience.
The very first thing on my to-do list after accepting the position was to call Jennifer Pelton, Development Director at the Public Justice Center (PJC), a legal advocacy organization in Baltimore, Maryland. I remembered Jennifer from a donor event she had planned years earlier, where actors from the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presented scenes from The Merchant of Venice in a conference room at the University of Maryland School of Law. What followed was a discussion of the legal inequities and social prejudices suffered by the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is usually seen as the villain of the piece. Shylock’s victimization was then related to modern day situations for minorities. It was mind-blowing!
During our phone call, Jennifer told me about other ways the PJC had created intersections of advocacy and the arts: a dance concert tied to social justice themes; discussions of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson’s book prior to his keynote speech at a PJC gala; themed movie screenings with facilitated discussions afterwards. She shared the elements of the audience experience that were created to accompany these events as well as suggestions and advice for getting Convergence’s connectivity efforts off the ground.
For me, doing research and setting up procedures is the easy part of any task I take on. The next part—actually contacting people out of the blue and convincing them they should partner with a new-ish theatre company they had never heard of before—well, that was the scary part.
Fortunately, I had the help of playwright Olivia Haller to get me started. In January 2018, Convergence Theatre will be premiering Haller’s play This is All Just Temporary, which is based on her family’s tumultuous experience caring for her adult brother with severe autism. In keeping with our connectivity mission, Olivia made contact with organizations her family had worked with and came up with other related organizations. I added to that list and we got to work emailing, calling, and meeting folks.
Provide a speaker for our “Converging Minds” post-show social action events and promote our show to the organization’s membership. In return, we would provide comp tickets to the speaker and promote the organization and its big events on our website, through social media, in our program, and in the lobby.
Of those who responded to our initial contact, more than half said “yes” and a quarter said “maybe.” It was surprising to me how quickly many people agreed once they understood what we were attempting to do. I was shocked by how excited they were about the prospect of partnering with a theatre company. Two months before opening night, there were enough people confirmed to participate in Converging Minds that we could have an event after almost every one of our performances.
The goals of Converging Minds events are to engage audiences in the social issues raised by the play, provide them with resources to walk out the door with an advocacy action plan and/or, at the very least, leave the theatre viewing people around them in a kinder, more understanding way than when they walked in. While we are well on the way to providing that opportunity for all of our audience members, these new relationships are also reciprocal. An unexpected benefit of the partnerships we are building is that some have become resources for the theatre, providing elements of our scenic design, dramaturgy material, and general marketing support as well.
It’s wonderful how quickly “scary” turned into “exciting” and “energizing” once we started talking with people and imagining the possibilities of partnership. But the true impact of what we’re doing at Convergence hit home for me during a coffee date with my friend Mary. Her adult son has severe autism and her family’s saga is very similar to that of Olivia’s family.
As I started to describe the plot of the play, Mary became very excited and said, “I have to see this! This will definitely be a date night for me and my husband!” In that moment, I came to realize how powerful and affirming it can be to have your story authentically told in public. Told by someone who has lived that story. And brought to the world by people who said, “yes.”
Annette Mooney Wasno is a Washington, D.C.-based actor and Connectivity Director/Company Member of Convergence Theatre. See Convergence’s newest production, This is All Just Temporary, now until February 10. Tickets are available here.