In a country where race, religion, and equality are consistently represented in our arts, laws, and overall community conscience, “class” represents one of the last least talked about topics of our culture.
Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts is looking to change that through their participation in “the Class Divide,” a three–year program designed to examine social and economic class divisions through the performing arts.
“It is clearly one of the last discussions,” said Margaret Lawrence, the Hopkins Center’s director. “I think it is one of the most important conversations nationally that we can have.”
So important in fact, that the Class Divide initiative is the Hopkins Center’s first attempt at presenting a project that directly involves the community in a sustained examination of a particular theme.
In conjunction with this initiative, several New England arts organizations and venues are taking part by conducting unique “story circles” for community members of all classes and ages.
“This is also the first time we’ve committed to doing something over multiple years,” Lawrence added. “It’s a learning experience for us as an institute.”
The circles, led by playwright and actress Anne Galjour, will be her fodder for a play about class difference in New England. The play is expected to debut in 2008.
Along with story circles in the Upper Valley region, similar community collaborations are taking place this month in Brattleboro and Burlington, sponsored by the Brattleboro Arts Initiative and the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts respectively.
Those story circles have already taken place in Brattleboro.
Gail Nunziata, managing director of the Brattleboro Arts Initiative at the Latchis Theatre, selected a dozen people across generations, with whom Louisiana–born playwright and actor Galjour spoke. Galjour grew up in the bayou town of Cut Off, and now resides in San Francisco, teaching playwriting at San Francisco State University.
“We live in a time where 30 percent of the people own 70 percent of the wealth,” Galjour said. “Margaret Lawrence and the Hopkins Center staff are exploring the issues of Class Divide in New England through various exercises.”
Galjour’s award–winning play Hurricane was inspired by people she had known growing up in Cut Off, and portrays a life at the edge of a marsh in Louisiana before, during, and after a powerful hurricane sweeps through the landscape.
Written in 1992, it’s world premiere a year later would garner Galjour numerous awards, including an American Critics Association Award for Emerging Playwright. In the years since, Galjour has written three solo performance pieces, as well as four full-length plays.
In Hurricane, the natural disaster affects the lives of six unforgettable Cajun French characters as portrayed in Galjour’s tour-de-force solo performance that, ironically, was written in 1994, long before the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.
Galjour will perform Hurricane at the Hopkins Center on Feb. 6 and 7, at the Flynn Center on Feb. 8 and 9, and at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro on Feb. 11.
“When The Latchis was approached to participate in Anne’s New England tour of Hurricane, I felt this was an important project to take on, even though we don’t do much presenting at the Latchis,” Nunziata said.
“A tour including the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth, the Flynn in Burlington, and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams sounded like an event I really wanted the Latchis to be part of.”
Galjour is also currently interviewing Upper Valley residents for a play that the Hopkins Center has commissioned her to write about class and culture concentrating in the Twin States area.
Still, the story circles represent a way to bring together people to talk openly about the differences between each other.
“These story circles and interviews are all part of the research that will culminate in the theatrical work that explores issues class and culture in New England,” Galjour said.
The Latches performance is in fact also a benefit for both the nonprofit Brattleboro Arts Initiative and Southern Repertory of New Orleans, which was Galjour’s specific request as she has been doing much fundraising through performances of Hurricane for arts organizations in New Orleans.
“Presenting Hurricane in the post-Katrina era and even since the upheaval in people’s lives caused by the flooding in Alstead, NH, it feels relevant to give voice to the struggle,” Nunziata added.
At the Flynn Center, Creative Director Arnie Malina plans to have Galjour speak to three different groups, including individuals from the Living Wage Community in Burlington, a group of immigrants from Africa, and an open story circle in which the general public is invited.
“The story circles are an opportunity for folks from different neighborhoods to come together and talk about their experiences, history, and feel respect for cultural differences,” Galjour said. “I know there is an issue in New England of the ‘old timers’ and the ‘newcomers.’ We get to dispel some of the assumptions we make about people, such as the way someone dresses or talks. In reality, we all have common ground and we all have cultural differences. Everybody gets their chance to speak, and I’m encouraging people to also bring photographs.”
For more information about the upcoming performances of Hurricane or to take part in selected story circles, call the Flynn Theatre in Burlington at 863-5966, the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro at 254-1109, or the Hopkins Center for Performing Arts in Lebanon, NH, at (603) 646-3991.