What does community outreach mean to you?
|Photo courtesy of Mu Performing Arts|
How about accessibility?
For a lot of people I imagine the definition would be pretty literal - have you invited people to attend your show? Do you have ramps and elevators for those who can't climb stairs? That's usually where those answers end.
I'd like to open a dialogue about a deeper kind of accessibility and outreach: Who gets to make art to begin with? Where do they perform it? How do they expand their group to organically include more and more types of people?
Theater Mu (Mu), one of my favorite local companies, really excels at this mission, and their latest show The Last Firefly takes it a step further. The Last Firefly is a zippy 70-ish minute script that tells a fable about how a girl (Boom) discovers who her father (Thunder) is; finds a long-lost sister (Lightning); makes friends with woodland creatures (Monkey and Spider); and rescues her mother (Kuroko) from her evil stepfather (Ax). Its a simple, animistic tale that I find a spare beauty in and really enjoyed at the Children's Theatre Company (CTC) a couple of years ago (click here for my review). Mu's staging is decidedly less lavish than CTC's, but it includes a lot more participation from untrained actors in the local community, and the contrast was really interesting to me.
The core actors are formed of Mu cast members and are surrounded with participation from local schools. Shina Xiong makes for a plucky Boom, and what she lacks in finesse she makes up for in great energy and spirit on stage. Gregory Yang clearly relishes playing the dangerous Ax, and I loved the clean lines and physicality Kajsiab "Jade" Yang brought to her role as the zesty Lightning. I think this is Daisuke Kawachi's first time directing Mu, and he incorporates many new faces we haven't normally seen in this crew. The results have mixed success, but I think that's okay - this is a very young crew overall, with many students in their first time ever on a professional stage, and they bring so much heart and energy to their parts.
And this last point is what I really wanted to get at with the conversation about outreach and accessibility. What better way to build a theater community - both in audiences and on-stage - than to take a risk and include students in your shows? It might not give a production a highly polished sheen like you'd see on a CTC or Guthrie stage, but it will inspire a passion in the hearts of those kids and pay it forward many times over as they grow older, learn more about theater, and one day decide how they want to remain engaged with that world. I think that's an honorable cause, and one I don't see a lot of local companies take.
The Last Firefly marks a new era and a fresh start for Mu in many ways; for that reason, this is going to feel decidedly different than their other work has over the last few years. Like any new beginning there are sidesteps and stumbles; this wasn't my favorite Mu show I've seen in recent memory. But all of that said, there are so many risky, new ideas here (like that troupe of excited young actors or an abstract set design that moves around the actors - instead of the actors around the set), and I appreciate that Mu is willing to take a chance on trying something different and moving forward in an innovative new way. Watching the students on stage brought back fond memories of my first experiences in theater - scared to death, intimidated by all those blinking eyes in the darkness, and the confidence it brought when I finally found my voice there. I have always liked the sweet script of The Last Firefly and the study in contrasts between this production and CTC's gives me lots of food for thought. I think there are important places for both approaches to this story, and I'd encourage curious readers to give this show a chance to see what you think. Click here for more information and to get tickets before the show closes at Steppingstone (such a cool local venue!) on April 7.