Allentown Public Theatre Comes Clean

According to a statistic from the National Institute of Health, over 100 people die from opioid overdoses each day in the United States. Opioids — a category of drugs which includes varieties of both prescription and street drugs  — pose a grave concern due to ease of access. Substance abuse narratives often focus on working-class communities, but even affluent neighborhoods can sustain the effects of such a pervasive problem. In response to this issue, Allentown Public Theatre (APT) devised programming that draws on the didactic possibilities afforded by the performing arts. On June 15th, I sat down with Anna Russell and Zinnia Santiago to discuss their work with Coming Clean, a theatrical program about the opioid crisis. Russell, the current Managing Artistic Director of APT, is a South Bethlehem resident. Santiago, the incoming Managing Artistic Director, also performs with Lehigh Valley’s Basement Poetry. Coming Clean marks APT’s first event in the 2018 Voices of Conscience series, described by APT as “a program designed to foster critical discussion around topics affecting our community.” However, community outreach often begins closer to home than one might expect.

Logo for the Voices of Conscience series. Photo courtesy of:

The Crisis Hits Home

“There was a[n APT] board member who lost a loved one to opioid abuse in the beginning of 2016. So, I think this piece came in reaction to that. All of us who have been involved in this project have had some kind of personal connection to the crisis,” Russell explained.

Santiago echoed this sentiment, noting that the issue “hits home for [her], too,” making the project all the more compelling. Both women also spoke to the various forms this program took on prior to its current iteration.

“We initially thought we were going to make a touring play. We had written probably half of it before we decided that it didn’t quite feel right to us to come into a school and just spout our version of the truth, as if [kids] didn’t have their own version of the truth. So, we threw that out and started over again. We came to be really interested in Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. These techniques were developed by Augusto Boal in Brazil, under dictatorship, as a form of resistance. There’s a lot of different kinds of Theatre of the Oppressed that are geared towards figuring out how to utilize theatre to make democratic spaces and to grapple with political issues in a way that, maybe, couldn’t be done anywhere else,” Russell said.

Far-Reaching Lessons

The form’s versatility enables Coming Clean to reach diverse audiences, though APT focuses primarily on schoolchildren. Santiago said that she already sees the impact of this work in the community. With a handful of successful visits to Allentown schools under its belt, the program promises to grow in the near future. The highly interactive format of Coming Clean necessitates audience participation and collective problem-solving. Rather than posing substance abuse-related issues and solutions, the show presents open-ended scenarios. Audience members are then invited to help solve the scenarios at hand. Russell explained that the participatory nature of the show ensures accessibility. In turn, important information about the opioid crisis reaches all viewers.“I think the accessibility [of Coming Clean] is just in the selection of the scenes and which types of issues hit home for which types of people. But, no matter what age you are, it’s accessible. I think there’s some ways in which adults actually have a harder time participating. Kids don’t have quite as many inhibitions and they’re ready to step into it, whereas adults are more intellectual and want to talk it through before doing it,” Russell noted.

Looking Forward

The sheer accessibility of Coming Clean establishes its many possibilities for the future. APT hopes to bring the show to a variety of other venues, including more schools and, possibly, local rehabilitation and correctional facilities. Coming Clean and subsequent Voices of Conscience programs stand out as catalysts for positive change in the Lehigh Valley.

“We hope to continue to develop this series in a way that we can continue to impact all parts of our community,” Santiago said.

For more information about booking the program, visit Allentown Public Theatre online.

*Article feature photo courtesy of the APT Facebook page*

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