The stage is a dinner table. As audience members enter the theatre they are encouraged to sit in the first few rows and be guests at the table. Then, as the performers guide the audience through five stories, the table transforms into a highway, a parking lot and even an ocean.
The show is called Who’s Hungry and it was performed at the Yard last Friday and Saturday night. It is a collage of puppetry, movement, audio recording, visual arts and live discussion all coming together to reveal the isolation and hopelessness of not having enough to eat.
“We want to de-stigmatize food insecurity and poverty,” said Dan Froot, the writer, producer and co-creator with Dan Hurlin, in an interview before the show. “We want to raise awareness about local food insecurity. But we also want people to feel moved, to feel like their creative juices are inspired and that they’re brought to a new level of creative thinking.”
He chose puppetry as a means of relaying the often difficult material — the show is recommended for adults, not children — because the inanimate figures enable an audience to experience a fuller range of emotions.
“We wanted to use puppetry specifically because there’s an empathic response we have to puppets,” Mr. Froot said. “We as audience members have to pitch ourselves into these objects in order to understand it or to feel something. So it’s an empathic action on the audience’s part.”
To create the show Mr. Froot began by interviewing five individuals in the Los Angeles area where he lives who are dealing with food insecurity. Then, designer and director Dan Hurlin, composer Amy Denio and Mr. Froot chose pieces of these transcribed interviews to bring alive on stage. Mr. Hurlin created a distinct visual landscape for each story, Mr. Froot worked with the interviews to develop the script and Ms. Denio completed each world with sound.
“The performance itself doesn’t talk about food insecurity, you never hear that term and there’s no preaching about policy,” Mr. Froot said. “It’s really about the people themselves, not as poster children for the issue but to say, hey, if you look beyond the label of food insecurity here is this person.”
It is the condition of people’s lives that the audience is invited to witness. The dramatic shift from wealth to living in a cardboard box, the minutes after being sentenced to rehab or getting kicked out of a section eight apartment.
When Who’s Hungry travels, Mr. Froot, Mr. Hurlin and the cast spend days before the show with the community learning about food insecurity in the area where they will perform. During their stay on Martha’s Vineyard they met with representatives from Island Food Pantry, Island Grown Initiative and the Vineyard Committee on Hunger. They even participated in a gleaning at Morning Glory Farm.
“The year-round population owns what we do,” said David White, artistic and executive director at the Yard. He feels a responsibility to show and create work that is relevant to the people who live on the Island. The collaboration and community engagement inspired by Who’s Hungry is something Mr. White plans to continue. “I want to find artists who can serve the community through their art,” he said.
During the discussion following the performance cast member Zach Tolchinsky described the importance of one story which involved a near-death encounter while surfing alone at night.
“It is a metaphor for the whole piece,” Mr. Tolchinksy said. “It is happening in the dark.”
In fact, it was this idea that hunger in this country so often happens out of sight that compelled Mr. Froot to create the show and bring some light to this darkness.
At the very end of the show the table becomes a table again and portraits of the real people depicted in the show are projected above the stage. Cindy, Chris, Mike, Chanel and Angel, not puppets at all but men and women not much different than ourselves.
With support from a New England Foundation for the Arts grant, Who’s Hungry will be performed in six New England cities over the next eight months. Performances will be held at Wesleyan University, Charlestown Working Theater, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Silvermine Arts Center and Portland Ovations.