Graphic by Danielle Szabo
By Danielle Szabo, Editor-in-Chief
If you’ve ever talked to BFA3 Playwriting student Ben Claus about me, he’ll probably refer to me as “Flint” — he might even forget my real name. As much as I love the nickname, carrying the weight of an entire city can be taxing, especially if that city is Flint, Michigan.
If you’ve been living under a rock, let me catch you up. Flint ranks very high in crime, murder, unemployment, and poverty. I like to say that General Motors gutted my city but that argument is for another article. Flint hasn’t even had a real mayor for the last few years, it’s been under the oversight of a state-assigned (Rick Snyder-approved) emergency manager. Most recently, Flint made international news because the city’s water supply is currently rife with lead. The National Guard and American Red Cross can be seen at many different community locations (like Fire Station 8, across from the first house I ever lived in) passing out bottled water to lines of agitated citizens.
Flint’s motto is “Strong, Proud.” That’s an understatement. The community is brimming with people who tirelessly care about its wellbeing and wish to see it prosper once again. Downtown is hopping with bars, restaurants, art walks, and even zombie walks. We also have a weatherball (ask me to recite the poem sometime).
These areas of the city don’t necessarily make up for the bad, but they are giving many people, especially young people, a place to have creative and intellectual outlets.
Flint Youth Theatre (FYT) was that outlet for me. This place is the reason I’m a student at The Theatre School today. They value community engagement above all else, arguably more so as the city of Flint faces greater and greater challenges. The idea of always connecting to the community is now an essential part of anything I do as an artist.
Recently, FYT mounted a production called The Most (Blank) City in America written by resident playwright Andrew Morton and directed by artistic director Jeremy Winchester. The production featured many Flint natives, including a fiery youth ensemble.
The production tackles the issues facing Flint, not limited to the water crisis, and how many citizens feel in the face of the city’s problems. It fully embraces the greatness of the city as well as its many weaknesses. While most of the play contains direct address, abstract interludes, and meta-theatricality, there are a few scenes that follow a straightforward storyline. A young woman who grew up in Flint must decide whether or not to attend a great college in California. She feels guilty for wanting to leave. Her grandfather explains that Flint needs more representatives out there in the world — more success stories.
Yeah, that part hit home pretty hard. The guilt of getting out is something I’m familiar with.
While Morton wrote most of the actual words that appeared in the play, it felt like found text, or text pulled directly from other people or other sources and meshed together in a cohesive narrative. This might be because the production team, almost a year before opening, engaged in storytelling sessions with the community. One member of the creative team, local Flint author Connor Coyne, explained to me that the storytelling circles provided the skeleton — the atmosphere even — of the final product, which was written almost entirely by Morton.
While the voices of the Flint community are infused into the writing of the play, the youth ensemble provided an enlightening vehicle for those voices. One particular meta-theatrical part of the play allowed the young actors to vent their frustrations as themselves about living in this city. One actor even explained, that after multiple moments of silence in her school due to classmates dying from the crime in the city, she didn’t want to be silent anymore; she wanted to scream. The youth ensemble then screamed for what felt like thirty seconds. It was real. It had feeling. It was something I needed to hear. It was something that everyone everywhere needs to hear.
FYT just integrated Andrew Morton into their staff as a resident playwright and the company has recently committed to doing new work involving the community’s voices, and they plan to continue with at least one new play a year. However, using a youth ensemble and reaching out to the community has been a part of FYT’s mission for as long as I can remember. Each show has a community partner — the company works with this partner to share the themes and messages of the performance with a wider audience. FYT is a family theatre and all of its shows are catered towards their youth ensemble — whether it’s allowing them to have a voice on a topic relevant to them or giving them practical and professional theatre training they can’t get elsewhere in the area.
Maybe it’s because I was trained in this environment but I find it surprising, even troubling, when a theatre company doesn’t make community-building a part of their mission. Sometimes while in the walls of an academic institution, theatre students might dream of making art for art’s sake. A lot of learning about theatre may consist of doing what we personally want to do. It’s not necessarily selfish, but it might be hard to shake when we get out into the real world. At school, there aren’t always tangible questions of “who is this for?” and “who will this help?” Theatre in an academic institution is for learning and training.
When we graduate, we need to look at the bigger picture, the broader community outside of us. The only way to pull a more diverse audience into the seats is to reach out to them first. What stories is the community already telling? What narratives do they need to hear in order to feel validated in their struggles? What voices have yet to be heard? Theatre is an otherworldly place where all of this can be addressed. However, theaters also exist in one specific location. They do not usually reach mass audiences. We need to relate to those in our specific community if we want to be not only artists, but activists, advocates, and leaders.
Flint Youth Theatre stepped up for their community in a time of great crisis with The Most (Blank) City in America; this is just one of many shows and programs that have illuminated Flint’s voices and stories. Theatres like this should be our inspiration when we start to make careers at established theatres, or even when we make our own companies.