The Appleton North High School theater program will present a staged reading entitled “Homeless, Not Hopeless,” featuring 12 true, first-hand stories of people experiencing homelessness on Friday, April 12 at 7:30 pm. The performance is free and open to the public. A soup and bread dinner will precede the performance at 6:30 will cost $15, which will benefit PILLARS, a homeless outreach program in the Fox Cities. Soup will be served in ceramic bowls created by Einstein Middle School students, and patrons will be able to keep the bowls as a memento of the experience.
“I feel like just hearing the stories, it’s going to put a face to homelessness and it’s just going to draw us closer to the people that are homeless,” said Allen Arndt, one of the students in the theater class putting on the performance.
Fellow student Jordan Rohloff said learning the stories and performing them will “make us feel like this is real. I feel like a lot of people try to ignore the issue and putting a face to it, you have to recognize that it’s actually there.”
“There’s definitely a stigma surrounding it and I think that through this show, we’re going to be able to break a few barriers and open people’s hearts and minds to it,” said student Carly Kapocious.
Theater teacher Ron Parker said the project grew out of a meeting with author Matt Desmond, who wrote the bestselling book “Evicted” about people living on the edge of homelessness in Milwaukee, who will be in the area next week for the Fox Cities Book Festival.
“One of the things that I do here in the theater program is we do social issue theater,” Parker said. “Every year we do a social issue play with my theater class at the end of the year dealing with an issue that the students feel was relevant for their peers and for the community that year.”
He said he ran the idea by the 30 students in the class with the caveat that given their class schedule, they’d only have about two weeks to rehearse and prepare the production.
“They were all 100 percent, yes, let’s do that,” Parker said.
Parker assembled the stories from a variety of sources with the intention of representing diversity in gender, race, ethnicity and reason for homelessness.
“Some old, some young. Different genders. Different ethnicities,” he said. “Trying to find different reasons. There are as many different reasons why people are homeless as there are with anything. People could become homeless because they lose their job or they become injured, or they are thrown out of the house or they move someplace for a better life and that ultimately falls through and they are somewhere where they don’t have any resources or anyone that they know. There suffering from addictions. They are fleeing from an abusive relationships. Every possible reason, so I tried to find an example of each of those so that we are telling the whole story of homelessness.”
As each account is read by a student performer, a photo of the actual person who wrote it will be projected on the stage.
Twelve of the 30 students will each read one story and another 12 will be what Parker calls “character actors,” doing more or less improv performances among the audience before the reading.
“Those kids will each be portraying a homeless individual without lines, basically improvisational,” Parker said. “We’ve talked about what are the causes of homelessness. Why do people end up homeless and what leads them to this particular moment in their lives when they find themselves isolated and alone and without a roof over their heads without ways to get help. Each of them are going to choose one of those individuals, one of those reasons, and they are going to then portray that individual kind of in the moment. So as people are coming into the auditorium, into the theater, they will be there with signs. They will be asking for a hand out. They will be maybe trying to tell their story or answer questions if people want to ask them about it. They’ll be in the commons, maybe the parking lot. Maybe trying to get some money by working on windshields. They’ll be in the aisles as people are coming to their seats and maybe sitting along the aisles, forcing people to be direct with them or step over them the way that you often times do when you see a homeless person in the community. And then there will also be kind a background on the stage and so they’ll be kind of existing as these characters throughout the entire performance.”
The rest of the students in the class will perform technical duties.
Parker expects the performance to last about 45 minutes. It will be followed by a brief talkback with members of Appleton North DECA and representatives from PILLAR about the issue of homelessness in the Fox Cities.
Project RUSH coordinator Betsy Borns says the emergency shelter in Appleton often houses 60 or more people each night, and a family shelter serves another 150. Project RUSH (Research to Understand and Solve Homelessness) was a research project in 2016 that produced eight initiatives to address homelessness, which Borns now coordinates. Borns came to speak to the theater class this week.
“I think it’s great, it’s really great,” she said of the theater project. “They were listening, they were engaged. …Honestly I don’t know if I would have been like that when I was a kid. I think kids today are more socially aware of accepting others and things like that. It’s really exciting to see them when they come together to help. Kids can do a lot.”
The one-night-only performance of “Homeless, Not Hopeless” will take place at 7:30 pm on Friday, April 12 at the Appleton North High School auditorium.