How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes set design meeting

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Photography by Matt Banderas '04

Yes or no? You currently live near where you grew up. You regularly have experiences outside the neighborhood where you live. You identify as a person of color. You have held a minimum wage job.

These are just a few of the questions posed to audience members during How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (With 99 People You May or May Not Know). The production, conceived by Michael Rohd of the nationally operating Sojourn Theatre and first performed at Northwestern University in 2013, is an experiment in collective dialogue and decision-making, a spirited medley of spectacle and showmanship. And each night, the play gives $1,000 in ticket sales to a local organization that fights poverty. 

Although it provides some answers to its weighty title, the production asks many more questions—of the audience and of itself. For a week in mid-April, Whitman College and the greater Walla Walla community became both.

How to End Poverty dress rehearsal 1“We can agree that everybody has an interest in ending poverty, but that they disagree on how to do it,” said the play’s director Jessica Cerullo, assistant professor of theatre and the driving force behind Harper Joy Theatre’s adaptation of the show. “We’re not trying to deliver any particular message or get people to vote any particular way at the end of it. We’re socially engaged with the community.” 

How to End Poverty hinges on that community engagement. Without it, there is no show, as Cerullo told prospective partner organizations at a kickoff event as far back as October 2015. At that time, the recently released documentary Paper Tigers—which charts the evolution of the town’s only alternative high school from last resort to first line of defense in reaching high-risk teens—had garnered a lot of interest. With its intersecting themes of outreach, empathy and empowerment, a project like How to End Poverty resonated with the grassroots groups involved in the world of Walla Walla charitable work.

Danielle Garbe ’97, a member of Whitman’s Board of Overseers, is the CEO of Sherwood Trust, a private foundation established by former trustee Donald Sherwood ’22 that invests in community and economic development initiatives to promote sustainable growth. Garbe was intrigued when she heard about How to End Poverty from Cerullo and Associate Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt, who described the level of community involvement needed to make it a success—from bringing in local activists to work with the students to recruiting nonprofit leaders, social workers and scholars for cameo appearances in the show.  

How to End Poverty dress rehearsal 2“Many of us can live in our own bubbles here, whether on campus or on Main Street, and not realize that a few blocks away, our neighbors are experiencing significant economic hardship,” she said.

According to 2014 census data, 38 percent of Walla Walla County is classified as low-income, a rate higher than the state average.

“I enjoyed seeing the thoughtful conversations the show provoked among audience members, and found the play to be a great exercise in democracy and a wonderful example of a liberal arts take on civic engagement,” said Garbe.  

While the actors do rattle off facts about poverty during the show, it is anything but a passive experience, from the students’ creative energy in the lively, carnivalesque pre-show to the rapid-fire yes-or-no question round mentioned above, in which participants answer using color-coded paddles, auction-style.

Beyond these interactive segments, however, the truly innovative idea powering the production is this: Let the audience decide at the end of each night how best to spend the $1,000 to benefit the local community. Early in the show, the cash is hoisted into the air in a translucent orb, which remains physically present on stage throughout the performance, never far from anyone’s mind. When the cast lists five different approaches to fighting poverty (daily needs, system change, education, making opportunities and direct aid), they emphasize that many of them overlap. And while each category is linked to specific local nonprofits, the audience doesn’t know which ones until after they make their selection.

“Because the plot of the show is that the audience has to determine where they’re going to invest this money—what approach we’re going to use—the show is creating a frame for that decision to be made,” Cerullo explained.

Perhaps that’s why How to End Poverty is billed as “not a play, not a lecture, not an interactive workshop, not a physical theatre piece, not a public conversation” but rather all of those things rolled into one. The show has no curtain call, no intermission, no box seats. It has a script, sort of, but it changes slightly with each production. 

"With this play, the script is more like a map, or a musical score," said Cerullo. 

There’s a tongue-in-cheek—though never insincere—style of self-awareness to the performance as well, a nod to the audience that seems to suggest, we know it’s a crazy concept. Bear with us.

That’s where the 90-minute timeframe comes in. For a production so many months in the making, How to End Poverty maintains a frenetic pace during the actual performance, sparking dialogue but speeding up discussion time, rushing headlong into the next scene or musical sequence (fittingly, an acoustic rendition of David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure”), and sometimes asking the audience to make snap judgements. In a way, the relentless activity on stage, which cuts in and out as spectators break up into sections and small discussion groups, slyly mimics the frenzied day-to-day struggle of those living on the margins of society.

Whitman is one of the first colleges in the country to take on this project, which, for the record, encompasses far more than 90 minutes and 99 people.

How to End Poverty dress rehearsal 3 - transparent ball full of cash“The theatre is always a place of collaboration and integration, but it’s especially potent on a college campus,” Cerullo said. “This show is a testament to why we have theatre. We have theatre to help us feel through and think through and compel us to action outside the theatre. The actors act inside the theatre so that the audience can act when they leave the theatre.” 

Sara Sawicki, a Chicago-based project coordinator for How to End Poverty, is affiliated with both the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and Sojourn Theatre. In March, she visited campus to help student performers learn to facilitate moments of audience interaction with sensitivity and warmth. She said the show is all about helping people find a way in, whether through humor, spoken language or otherwise.

“It’s a big conversation to ask folks to engage in—we’re certainly aware of that, and that conversation within this show gets tackled in a lot of ways. If you’re not a words person, there’s a movement piece that might be a way in, or if you are a words person but you prefer scene work over direct address, there are options there, too. It’s looking to give a bit of a pastiche of offerings from different perspectives.”

In one particularly memorable scene, the actors lift their shoes above their heads for the “dance of the bootstraps,” deconstructing one of America’s most inflammatory metaphors in a way that manages to be equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking.

"I think a common misconception around this work is that we’re coming in with an agenda, like ‘oh, sure, we’re saying that we want you to talk about what you want to talk about, but really at the end of the day we want you to think this.’ That’s actually not true," said Sawicki. “The piece won’t break if someone has a viewpoint that is contrary to any one of the folks working on this, and quite frankly, all of the folks working on this production have very different opinions about what the right approach is, as well.”

How to End Poverty dress rehearsal 4For Gabriella Luther ’16, a psychology major and one of the 14 actors in the show, getting involved gave her an outlet to share her personal experiences as a low-income student.

“When I heard about this show, it just seemed so important,” she said. “Especially done in this environment, where there isn’t a ton of economic diversity within Whitman, it felt important to really start talking about poverty and inequality in the area. I’m coming from a lower socioeconomic background, so I think that shapes my view about how to end poverty [in a way] that might be different from someone else in the group, as well as the fact that I’m mixed race. There’s a diversity in our cast that just naturally shapes it.”

Economics major Maya Kozarsky ’16, her fellow cast member, also found that attacking the issue of poverty via the five approaches tended to result in more productive, less political conversations.

“One of the approaches is system change—so maybe lobbying the government to raise the minimum wage or something like that—and then there are other ones like daily needs, which is stuff like food,” she said. “So through these approaches we see who might prioritize system change over daily needs, and why do they think that way? That’s where the diversity of opinion comes into play, and I think it’s a lot less polarizing that way.”

The person sitting in front of you or across from you might never have struggled to pay their bills, Luther says in one of the show’s monologues. On the other hand, they may have. Someone in here might be struggling to pay their bills right now. Or maybe they’re okay this month, but not last month… We don’t know what stories sit in this room as we have this conversation.

Seeking out those stories was an integral part of the production process. Community partnership interns Maricela Sanchez-Garcia ’16 and Lauren Wilson ’19 spent about seven months conducting outreach on behalf of the show, trained by the Center for Performance and Civic Practice’s Danielle Littman. They were charged with what Cerullo called the most important aspect of the entire project: bringing in a balanced audience.

“Lauren and Maricela worked very hard to curate a diverse audience. It became clear early on, when we met with community leaders, that we would have to present the show in both English and Spanish. Walla Walla has a very large Latino population, and we wanted to address people who came to the show who might prefer to speak Spanish, or might only speak Spanish. We wanted them to have a voice.”

Sanchez-Garcia, a politics major whose family lives “right above the poverty line on good months” wrote her senior thesis on first generation college students and social mobility. A “huge advocate for a bilingual show,” her primary focus was on making the performance accessible to the town’s Latino population.
  
With two native Spanish speakers in the cast and three cast members who were semi-fluent, the wheels were soon set in motion; the result was a richly layered work of raucous linguistic integration—one that did its best not to privilege one language over the other. 

“We played around with the order that it’s in, because if you’re thinking of it just in terms of a translation, then you think English first, Spanish second,” said Kozarsky. But that’s not the way it’s always going to be.”

Aside from creating an English/Spanish show from scratch, adapting the script to apply specifically to Walla Walla was another major concern.

“Certainly, it’s a show that has a skeleton—there are certain things that remain consistent throughout,” said Sawicki. “But we’re in constant communication with the writer [Michael Rohd] in figuring out what the priorities are in term of making sure this feels current, and close to what the conversations in Walla Walla should be when thinking about poverty here.”

Cerullo, who is herself relatively new to Walla Walla, was fascinated with how different groups of people tend to define the town in starkly different terms, and hoped the show would grapple with some of those disparities.

Archives discussion with the director

“For a lot of students and people who move here to work at the college, you’re told ‘oh, we’re a wine town’ or you’re told about the Blue Mountains… But if you talk to someone else, they would say, ‘we’re a prison town’ or they would say ‘it’s all about agriculture’ or ‘oh, no, we have three colleges here. It’s a college town.’ And so one of the things we’re trying to do with the show is to represent the whole town.”

Take, for example, the following exchange, written by student performers in response to their research on Walla Walla’s relationship with the Washington State Penitentiary:

Person A: I am all about giving second chances. I just don’t want that second chance moving in next door to my home.
Person B: People are released from prison here in Walla Walla every day with a white t-shirt, khakis and $40. We have to make opportunities for them to find a home, too.
Person A: That’s not my problem. I don’t want my kids growing up next door to a criminal.
Person B: If you don’t make it possible for people to obtain housing, you are forcing them onto the streets and into the lifestyles that landed them in jail in the first place.

Cerullo explained that “one of our community guests who met with the cast early on in our research stage referred to the ‘two Wallas’—to the economic separation that exists within our own community. Other guests spoke about the town and gown dynamic that Whitman is a part of.”

This was taken into consideration when planning the production. “Who would the 700 people be who would see the show and talk with one another? How might we bring the voices of both Wallas into the room?”

About a week after the show ended, Cerullo said cast member Sabina Rogers ’19 ran into an audience member who had been seated in her facilitation group. This woman had lived in Walla Walla for 60 years, but that night at the theatre she didn’t recognize a single person. She told Sabina that she was still thinking about the show and about the conversations she’d had.

Every show exceeded the $1,000 pledged donation amount by at least $25 in additional audience contributions. The money went to the YWCA, the Christian Aid Center and the Children’s Home Society of Washington (direct aid); the Walla Walla Early Learning Coalition (education); Planned Parenthood (daily needs); and Ink Out (making opportunities), a program that offers free tattoo removal for young adults with visible gang tattoos.

“We all know that there isn't any one solution to ending poverty," said Cerullo. "By asking audiences to vote for one, we don't assume that the end of the show draws our discussion to a conclusion. If, through the medium of the theatre, we host a conversation about poverty that enables strangers to speak with one another and gives them the tools to imagine meaningful change in our community, then, I believe, the production will have succeeded."