Theater presents stories from our community

May 3, 2008
Athens Banner-Herald
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Theater presents stories from our community
By April Moore Skelton

“If you take everything away: family, friends, your job … The only thing you have left is your stories,” says Lisa Cesnik, the producing artistic director of Rose of Athens Theatre. From that basic currency, the theater company has crafted the first installment of The Athens Heritage Project, a play based on the stories of area residents.

The idea for the plays came from the company’s mission statement, which seeks a diversity of voices and stories, says Cesnik.

Georgians seem especially adept at turning stories from members in the community into dramatic productions: “Swamp Gravy,” a play about rural life in south Georgia, has gained national attention since it was originally staged 15 years ago, and the Sautee Nacoochee Community Center made its own foray into the genre with a production titled “Headwaters” last year.

Productions based on stories from the community engage audiences in completely different ways from traditional plays, because citizens can see their histories come to life on stage.

“Theater can be so boring if it’s all about ‘Hey, we’re the performers and you are the audience,'” Cesnik says.

These kinds of productions have proven especially popular because they inherently involve so many members of the community. Cesnik says company members assembled a list of potential people to talk to, and then started making phone calls and knocking on doors, meeting people and doing interviews. From the material they collected, the script for the first staged reading came, though Cesnik says the group’s collecting is far from over.

“Our hope is this particular stage reading will spark interest,” she says.

Beginning with tonight’s performance, “The Heritage Project” is an effort Rose of Athens plans to continue for years to come. While collecting the oral histories for this first performance, it was clear Athens’ citizens have an abundance of stories to share.

“The crux of (collecting oral histories) is that we’re continuing to find them,” says Cesnik.

For this production, writers Lisa Mende and Shannon Rood, along with the rest of the company, went through the transcriptions of interviews and pulled out themes.

Since this performance will be part of this weekend’s annual Hot Corner Celebration, stories of downtown figure prominently, as does the “magic of living in Athens,” says Cesnik.

The play moves from “one exciting subject to a completely different subject,” she says, giving it a “slightly vaudevillian shape.” Media and dance lead viewers from one story to the next.

To be shown at the Morton Theatre, the play will share the histories of community members in a location that is itself full of history. Cesnik hopes the “hilarious, poignant, sweet” show will inspire viewers to open up with their own tales.

The saga of Athens involves so many interesting people, “it would be a shame not to share it,” she says.