Late afternoon sunlight falls in beams through the windows of the wooden-floored auditorium in the Athenaeum. Jessica Weiner, founder, playwright and artistic director of the Act Out Theatre Ensamble, is talking about her work — which is making theater that people can talk back to. “I sometimes wish,” she says, “that our political leaders could be at our shows and hear what their people are saying and thinking… we’re hearing the needs and ideas of our city perhaps in a way that others aren’t.”
Weiner started Act Out in 1995. She had just graduated from Penn State and she was in search of a theater that dealt with social issues. She had experienced this kind of theater in school, had written two plays — on eating disorders and date rape — and seen how it could affect audiences. It was not a didactic theater she was interested in — propaganda wasn’t her game. But Weiner had seen the power of creating a kind of theater that was accessible to young audiences, a theater that didn’t have to be deconstructed to be understood.
She was also fascinated by a theater that allowed for audience interaction. “I knew that I wanted audience feedback. I had had an experience of doing that kind of work in college and really fell in love with the idea of having an audience be able to talk to an actor after a performance — either in character or out — continuing the dialogue. It wasn’t one-sided event… there is a magical exchange that happens when questions can be raised about what was just seen so that the performance doesn’t end in the moment. It’s carried on.”
Weiner looked for her kind of theater all over Indianapolis — and couldn’t find it anywhere. She did, however, find Claude McNeal, director of the American Cabaret Theatre in the Athenaeum. McNeal Told her that he couldn’t hire her, but that he liked self-starters. He offered Weiner space to develop her material and an office. This was enough to get Act Out underway.
In its first year of performing in schools and on campuses, Act Out worked with the two scripts Weiner brought with her from Pennsylvania. The company consisted of 11 college volunteers. They managed to perform 11 shows in colleges and high schools for a combined audience of 200.
Act Out’s past two years have been nothing short of meteoric. In its third season the company has performed for 37,000 people in a variety of venues across the United States. It draws on nine working scripts and consists of 12 paid actors divided among tow groups, a touring company and an Indianapolis company focusing on local outreach. Sponsoring relationships have been established with both McNeal’s American Cabaret Theatre (which continues to serve as the company’s base) and IUPUI.
Act Out’s scripts deal with a variety of issues, including body image, rape, violence, drinking and drug abuse. “These are difficult and complex issues and people are often sick of hearing lectures on them and reading pamphlets,” says Weiner. “What we’re doing is taking a creative approach to discussion.”
Weiner is sensitive to hear the audience’s ability to detect message medicine wrapped in some other guise. “I look at what we do as art first, message second. I want to create an interesting piece of art, but I want to foster discussion and I want to use art as a catalyst. What we’ve done is filled a niche by putting together a creative, dramatic, sometimes musical piece layered in these important topics that people want to discuss.”
Act Out will use anything that comes to hand — artwork, slides music, movement — to create an absorbing theatrical experience. “What we try to do is bust the myths and stereotypes around a topic, provide some information, but make it fun and interesting and in a language that we speak in our lives.”
Audiences, finds Weiner, want a direct approach — and they want to be heard. “We give to them in the beginning and then they’re asked to give to us in the end… It’s a great experience when audience members speak out and realize that they are not alone — it builds community. People realize there are others who feel the same way, but perhaps without this unifying performance they wouldn’t have known that they shared ideas.”
Now that Act Out is touring, Weiner is discovering that it wasn’t just Indianapolis that lacked the sort of theater she was looking for. While there are any number of companies that specialize in one type of issue or another, Act Out is unique in its willingness to explore a range of topics with general audiences. “We’re booked into a community for two hours to wrk this sort of magic and it’s a tough thing to take on but when it works and when you see some young person or family member or some business person has received something they may not have had when they walked in the door, that’s amazing. It reminds me we’re on the right path.”
Act Out now seeks to build on its success by including more people in its mission, strengthening its base in Indianapolis and caving out a reputation as the national leader for social issue theater. How to do this? “You keep dreaming,” says Weiner, “and I think you keep fighting and asking for change and producing change — and doing your job.”